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Sara Chiarini

Sara Chiarini

Sara Chiarini

Email: chiarini[at]zedat.fu-berlin.de

Tel.: (030) 838-54 102



Postdoctoral Project

 "The Senseless Inscriptions of Ancient Greek Painting"



 A curious artistic phenomenon appears in the 7th century BC in Greek painting: together with the addition of captions, short sentences and artists’ signatures, senseless inscriptions are to be found. They consist of lines of Greek letters, which do not make sense in the ancient Greek language. This phenomenon involves hundreds of inscriptions, not only on vases, but also on other kinds of supports, and spans through a period going from the 7th to the 5th century BC, whit a particular concentration in the 6th century.

The until now very little scientific interest for the Nonsense-Inscriptions (NSI) restricts itself to only two aspects: they were explained either as simple ornament (for example by Margherita Guarducci), or as consequence of the painter’s illiteracy (see Rudolf Wachter, who considered the NSI as reproductions of Greek letters on part of illiterate painters).

If one examines more carefully this material, it becomes quickly clear, that both explanations do not fully justify such a multi-faceted phenomenon. As a matter of fact, plain contradictions suddenly emerge: there are in fact many NSI, which look ugly and inaccurate, as well as other NSI, which appear near normally readable inscriptions. Recently, Henry Immerwahr has devoted some more attention to the NSI, but unfortunately he was basically interested in the matter of the degree of literacy of Greek artists.

As already said, this material does not form a homogeneous set. The functions of NSI must be various. The basic argument of my project is that, besides ornamentation and illiteracy, some NSI might be due to a conscious choice and willingness of the painter. In order to show that, I have already collected some clear examples of NSI, from which a comprehensive overview of my research method can be drawn. I am trying to connect the NSI with the painted images, near which they appear, as well as with their spatial position on the support. Through this approach I was already able to detect some further functions of NSI: they might either recall a non-human language (of gods or dead people), or be a word pun, or reproduce onomatopoeia.

Furthermore, this approach allows me to establish connections between the various types of NSI with parallel phenomena in the Greek literature:

-with the epos, more precisely with those epic passages, where it is said, that gods speak a foreign language;

-with epigraphy, in the case of the defixiones, curses made through magic spells;

-with theatre, with reference not only to the frequent onomatopoeias and interjections, which occur there, but also to the invention of non-existent words, in order to convey a foreign language (see for example the senseless language of Triballos, the barbarian god of Aristophanes’ comedy Birds)

 My project takes a step forward in the way introduced by Henry Immerwahr and aims at realizing an as much as possible complete catalogue of NSI and at offering a comprehensive overview of this peculiar phenomenon of Greek art.

 My project is linked to the key-themes and the theoretical premises of the research-training group “Notational Iconicity” in manifold ways:

  1. it focuses on the material dimension of notations, as long as NSI are treated as pure visual ornament;
  2. it focuses on the perceptibility of notations, as long as NSI are examined within the broader question of literacy/illiteracy in the ancient world;
  3. it focuses on the practical function of notations, in those cases where NSI mean a divine or magical language. 


Curriculum Vitae

from 06/2011

Postdoctoral Fellow at the DFG Research-Training Group 1458 Notational Iconicity at the Freie University of Berlin



PhD in Greek Literature and Archaeology at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan (Italy).


from 12/2010

Instructor of Greek Literature and Greek Grammar at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan (Italy)



DAAD Scholarship at the Humboldt University of Berlin – Institute of Classical Philology


from 02/2008

Person in charge of the cataloguing of scientific journals at the Centro Italiano of Année Philologique



PhD Scholarship at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan (Italy)



2 years MA in Antiquities at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan (Italy)



BA in Classics at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan (Italy)





L’archeologia dello Scutum Herculis, Roma; Aracne Editrice (2012)


Eine Anmerkung zu μελάνδετος , in: Glotta 89 (2013)



Sulla localizzazione del Tifaonio, in: Journal of Ancient Topography XX (2010), 209-216.


The temenos of Apollon Pagasaios in the Scutum Herculis, in: Journal of Hellenic Religion 5 (2011-2012), 113-124



Scheda 14. Porzione di coppa di forma Dragendorff-Watzinger I a, in: M.P. Rossignani - M. Sannazzaro - S. Lusuardi Siena (edd.), Labitato, la necropoli, il monastero. Evoluzione di un comparto del suburbio milanese alla luce degli scavi nei cortili dellUniversità Cattolica, Milano, Vita e Pensiero, 2011, 55-57.



Contributi alla quaestio leonina, in: Aevum Antiquum n.s. 4 (2004), 377-413.



N. Dietrich, Figur ohne Raum? Bäume und Felsen in der attischen Vasenmalerei des 6. und 5. Jahrhunderts v.Chr., Berlin-New York, De Gruyter, 2010, in: Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.47 (http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2011/2011-06-47.html)


M.-A. Ataç, The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010, in: Aevum 85 (2011), 245.


M. DAcunto - R. Palmisciano (hrsg.), Lo Scudo di Achille nellIliade. Esperienze ermeneutiche a confronto. Atti della giornata di studi (Napoli, 12 maggio 2008), Pisa-Roma, Fabrizio Serra, 2010, in: Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.01.28 (http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2011/2011-01-28.html).


Y. Seidel, Künstliches Licht im individuellen, familiären und öffentlichen Lebensbereich, Wien, Phoibos Verlag, 2009, in: Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.19 (http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2010/2010-09-19.html).


E. Hofstetter, Die Vasensammlung Lichtenhahn: Glauben, Denken und Feiern im antiken Griechenland, Wiesbaden, Harrasowitz Verlag, 2009, in: Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.37 (http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2010/2010-05-37.html).


F. Zardini, The Myth of Herakles and Kyknos. A Study in Greek Vase-Painting and Literature, Verona, Edizioni Fiorini, 2009, in: Aevum 84 (2010), 317-319.


D. Walsh, Distorted Ideals in Greek Vase-Painting. The World of Mythological Burlesque, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, in: Aevum 84 (2010), 315-317.


S. Langdon, Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100-700 BC, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008, in: Aevum 84 (2010), 313-315.


C. Servadei, La figura di Theseus nella ceramica attica. Iconografia e iconologia del mito nell’Atene arcaica e classica, Bologna, Ante Quem, 2005, in: Poiesis 7 (2007), 481-505.


D.T. Steiner, Images in Mind. Statues in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature and Thought, Princeton-Oxford, Princeton University Press, 20033, in: Poiesis 7 (2007), 505-525.




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