How artists used to leave their works unsigned and how they acquired the taste for autographs
Yet the ancient sculptors signed their works with pride. Well, not only sculptors: even the Greek ceramists (starting roughly from the mid-7th century BC) often supplemented their red and black figures with two signatures — those of the potter and the artist, turning any sold amphora into an advertisement.
In fact, we should — not only because good vases were highly appreciated in antiquity, but also because decorating altars was a trade; after all, neither painting, nor sculpture, nor jewelry were considered high art in the Middle Ages.
However, artists did not need any particularly wide advertisement — up to a point, almost all their works were commissioned, and the orders were distributed by guild leaders, who already knew the names of masters and journeymen and, thus, didn’t need any names written on the work itself. Of course, the artists' names were mentioned in the books and receipts, but very few of them have survived until today.
After all, what made the masters think about signatures ?
The expansion of the "client base" played a certain role here. Roads, mail and diplomacy in the 13th century were obviously better developed than in the 12th (and the 14th apparently had it better than the 13th). This means that a talented master of the 1100s would have been known only in the vicinity of his city, whereas in 1400 or 1500 he would have had good chances of becoming famous beyond his hometown and even could have worked for a customer he had never met face-to-face. Therefore, it made sense to design an identification mark for the piece of artwork, and make the customers associate a certain name with a certain quality. It also helped that the sacred subjects had come to feature more and more secular details — the stories expanded to include architecture and landscapes, the scarce and symbolic world became saturated with fine details, and the faces of donors appeared on the paintings. Donors were ordinary mortals — thus, consequently, weaving his own name into the ornament of a vase or immortalizing his face in the image of a servant in the retinue of the Magi would no longer be deemed sacrilegious for an artist.
Such self-portraits in paintings were one of the first authors' signatures that we know of. Even those masters who had never ventured to mark the altar board with their initials would leave them. It is a pity that such "signatures" are so difficult to decipher now.
Is it true that the man in the red hat, standing alone in the window of Memling’s The Donne Triptych is Hans Memling himself? Do we really see the face of Rogier van der Weyden on the four copies of St. Luke Drawing the Virgin? And this gloomy man, supporting the lifeless body of Christ — would he be Hugo van der Goes?
The Italians are thought to be the first to leave signatures on their works. This is a believable statement — after all, Italy was literally stuffed with fragments of antique sculpture and artists could certainly see more works of Greek or Roman masters, signed without any modesty. Northern artists soon followed the Italians in this fashion.
"…Michelangelo, having come to the place where Pieta was exhibited, saw there a large number of visitors from Lombardy, who praised the artwork very much; however, he overheard one of them asking another about the author, and the reply was ‘it was our Milanese man, il Gobbo.' Michelangelo did not say anything, but it seemed unfair, to say the least, that his works were attributed to a stranger. One night he broke into the church with a lamp and chisel and cut out his name on the sculpture."
Autograph by Vittore Carpaccio on one of the works within the cycle dedicated to Saint Ursula. Look for it at the bottom of the picture below.
Jacopo de Barbary. Still Life with a Partridge, Gauntlet and Crossbow Bolt.
The leaf under the still life has the name of the artist and the date of creation, as well as his personal sign: caduceus and snakes
Titian. Portrait of the Antiquarian Jacopo Strada.
The inscription on the letter: ‘Al Mag. со il Signor Titian (o) Vecellio… Venezia' (to the Magnificent Signor Titian Vecellio … Venice).
The artist decorated the hand of the duchess with two rings with the inscriptions ‘Alba' and ‘Goya'.
The twentieth century gave art critics many ways to determine the authorship even if there is no signature — and yet it is still important enough, its presence can raise the price of an artwork by several dozen times. The value of these few letters is perfectly illustrated in the anecdote about Picasso, who once paid for a dinner with a drawing on the restaurant check, but then declined to sign it, retorting to the owner, "My dear, I’m only buying dinner here, not the whole restaurant".
The head illustration: Francisco Goya. Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga, a boy. Fragment with the artist’s signature
Text by Oksana Sanzharova