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Things and Places Speaking of Themselves: From Rome to Byzantium

Sergey Ivanov, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Fellow 2005–2006, Spring

A characteristic feature of a label is that without the actual object it makes no sense. The line “This is Zeus” or simply “Zeus” has only one clear reference—this text refers to an object. The majority of ancient pieces of art (with the exception of ancient Greek vases before the fourth century BCE) had no explanatory inscriptions whatsoever. Nearly all frescoes, statues, mosaics, and reliefs lack explanations. Why? Because viewers must have immediately recognized a likeness, not from a label but from their background knowledge. It was assumed that anyone who might be considered as a possible audience must also know what Homer looks like, and those who don’t do not matter. True, depictions in Antiquity are often accompanied by benedictions or maledictions, with signatures of painters and sculptors, with poetical commentaries and ekphraseis. All the above-mentioned kinds of texts are not labels, however, because they can be easily detached from the actual works of art that they accompany and also because they are fully meaningful when read separately. Thousands of epigrams on different works of art have come down to us, but only in the smallest minority of cases can we ascertain that these particular lines were written (for explanation) on the base of an actual statue or on the edge of a relief. Streets of Roman cities abounded with inscriptions of different kinds. Yet, even in Rome there were no street signs or written signboards (with the understandable exception of the words “taberna” and “hospitium”). The reason was the same: a lot of things were taken for granted.

At some unspecified moment, perhaps in the second half of the first century BCE, there began to appear pictures with explications. The earliest occurrence is in Palestrina Nilotic mosaics. A little later, in various regions of the Roman Empire, mosaics emerge with the names of dogs, horses, and circus animals, such as tigers, as well as names of gladiators, charioteers, and athletes; that is, transient and accidental appellations. There is also a new development in mosaics with classical subject matter. In the second and third centuries, captioned images of great poets and philosophers of Antiquity begin to appear; in addition to real people, we can observe names of the months accompanied by their allegorical images, as well as captioned personifications of abstract concepts such as “creation,” “generosity,” etc. Moreover, captions were attached to personified images of rivers, mainly rivers of heaven, as well as elements such as winds, the ocean, etc. Thus, labels were appreciated not only by those with low-level artistic preferences, but also by cultured adherents of pagan philosophical systems. Paradoxically, what the identifying labels all shared was the sense of a certain deficiency of artistic expression and the need for a “verbal explanation.”

In the early Byzantine period, we witness both “silence” and “loquaciousness” with respect to identifying labels. If we look at the few remaining monuments of Constantinople, we see quite close to each other the mosaics of the imperial palace, which do not have a single inscription, and the hippodrome statues of Porphyrios the charioteer on which literally all surface areas are covered with inscriptions; besides poems and good wishes the name of every horse is depicted on the reliefs. The imperial portraits (ivory plaques, mosaics, statues) or the Byzantine emperors’ sarcophagi remain “silent” and anonymous, whereas Byzantine icons become more and more “talkative.”

During my stay at Dumbarton Oaks, I assembled evidence of the developing urge in Byzantium to explain and to “label.” Among my examples are labels such as “this stone is from the Calvary” or signboards such as “distillery of the holy monastery of Ataous,” or a street sign “phoros Theodosianos” from Ephesos. The vita of St. John the Almsgiver gives us an interesting example of house-labeling. The most striking example is the inscription found recently on the Constantinopolitan city wall: “The Gates of St. Romanos.” Does this mean that not only Byzantine icons and miniatures, but also Byzantine streets and squares were systematically “captioned” and “labeled”? If substantial evidence thereof will be found, it will provide a clearer picture of a huge shift in world outlook, of which the triumph of Christianity was but a small fragment.