Texts have long been written, painted, drawn, and carved onto objects, buildings, and bodies. Though specialists in the material culture of certain traditions (particularly Islam) have long recognized the visual powers of inscribed text, scholars who focus on pre-modern European and Mediterranean cultures only recently have begun to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of such inscriptions. However, as these texts gain attention as images in their own right, the danger of privileging the decorative qualities of the text over the text itself also increases. By analyzing the visual and material properties of texts as well as their content, we may better understand some of the “original” modes and processes of textual reception and more clearly define the full range of readers that took meaning from inscriptions.

This symposium will consider inscribed texts from antiquity to the modern period with the aim of articulating shared problems or issues related to materiality, legibility, and literacy and forging connections between readership in different cultures and contexts. In three thematic sessions, papers will consider the problematic of the “speaking object,” from Greek vases to early modern dinnerware, visual and conceptual reactions to pages and books, and the material and visual properties of inscriptions in the ancient and medieval Mediterranean.


Jeffrey L. Collins (Bard Graduate Center)

Sean Leatherbury (Research Fellow, Bard Graduate Center)
Andrew Morrall (Bard Graduate Center)

Session 1: “The Speech of Objects”
Chair: Abigail Balbale (Bard Graduate Center)

Ioannis Mylonopoulos (Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University)
“Between Gibberish and ‘Speaking’ Tableaux Vivants: The Materiality and Aesthetics of Greek Vase Inscriptions”

Ittai Weinryb (Bard Graduate Center)
“When Medieval Objects Speak: Prosopopoeia from Virgil’s Tomb to the Rise of the Automatic”

Andrew Morrall (Bard Graduate Center)
“Table-Talk: Inscriptional Wisdom and the Domestic Arts in Early Modern Northern Europe”

Lunch Break

Session 2: “Reading Books, Reading Pages”
Chair: Andrew Morrall (Bard Graduate Center)

Sean Leatherbury (Research Fellow, Bard Graduate Center)
“Sidonius’ Silvery Pages: The Material Contexts of Roman Texts”

Susannah Fisher (Research Fellow, Bard Graduate Center)
“The Ottonians and the Word: Gospel Books as Objects, Images, and Texts”

Juliet Fleming (English, New York University)

Coffee Break

Session 3: “Texts to Read and to View”
Chair: Sean Leatherbury (Research Fellow, Bard Graduate Center)

Karen B. Stern Gabbay (History, Brooklyn College, City University of New York)
“Memorializing the Mundane: Jewish Graffiti in Mediterranean and Arabian Contexts”

Erik Thunø (Art History, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey)
“The Glitter of Relics: Inscriptions, Ekphrasis, and Mosaic”

Abigail Balbale (Bard Graduate Center)
“From Legible Text to Magical Pattern: Arabic Inscriptions in Muslim and Christian Spain”

Concluding Remarks


RSVP is required. Please click on the registration link at the bottom of this page or contact academicevents@bgc.bard.edu.

PLEASE NOTE that our Lecture Hall can only accommodate a limited number of people, so please come early if you would like to have a seat in the main room. Registrants who arrive late may be seated in an overflow viewing area.

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To join the discussion remotely via twitter, either with questions or comments, please use the twitter hashtag #bgctv. During the symposium, the faculty conveners will review this feed and ask the speakers questions drawn from twitter.