Craft apprenticeship in ancient Greece: Reaching beyond the masters

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In the study of ancient Greek culture, the figure of the accomplished master artisan- in vase painting, wall painting, sculpture, gem cutting, or architecture- has been the protagonist. When ancient sources or signatures do not single out any masters in a par tic u lar period or craft, modern scholars designate "masters," "paint ers," or "architects." Indeed, the "Rampin Master" (530 BCE; Boardman 1978) in sculpture, the "Berlin Paint er" (470 BCE; Beazley 1911) in vase painting, and the "Theseion Architect" (440 BCE; Dinsmoor 1940) in architecture, all of whom are called by fi ctional names in the absence of signed works, must have been style- setting fi gures in Late Archaic and Classical Athens. This focus on accomplished and innovative master craftsmen, however, has meant that the role of apprenticeship- whether that of the master as apprentice himself in his early career or that of the master as a teacher to others in his later years- is rarely considered. The tendency of ancient sources to place the spotlight on the fi rst inventor (Greek protos euretes) of a specifi c artistic technique, also obscures the gradual pro cess of acquiring craft knowledge that lays the foundation for the innovation to occur (Kleingünther 1933). Accomplished architects, sculptors, paint ers, and military engineers secured their legacy in posterity by writing technical treatises after the completion of major projects, proudly offering lavish dedications in major sanctuaries or displaying the tools of their crafts on their gravestones. As for their treatises, they are now lost, except for lists of titles and authors' names of a select few. Their number in antiquity must have been considerable, however, since the Athenian Euthydemos in the fourth century BCE could actually boast of his collection of technical treatises (Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.2.8- 10). Euthydemos's collection may have included the treatises "On Painting" and "On Symmetry and Colors" by his contemporaries Melanthius and Euphranor, respectively. The popularity of treatises, primarily on mathematics, astronomy, military engineering, and medicine, increased in the Hellenistic period (Gutzwiller 2007; Meissner 1996). In Roman times, the architect Vitruvius mentions in his treatise at least thirty- seven architects and engineers who had previously authored treatises (On Architecture, Intro. 11- 14, 1st cent. BCE). These treatises were intended mostly for self- promotion and for the attraction of potential new customers (civic entities or individuals) rather than for didactic uses. Despite the plethora of now lost treatises, no craft- related beginner's handbook is mentioned or has survived from Greek antiquity. Ancient cultural priorities and the limitations of our current analytical models make our search for the ancient apprentice even more diffi - cult. The works of ancient apprentices may lie hidden in cata logued objects described as "unfi nished," "poorly executed," or "primitive." We look around the workshop for an apprentice only when the work is too shabby to have been executed by the master of the culture and the period under study. Anabel Thomas (1995, 76), in her work of Re nais sance painters, notes poignantly: "Unidentifi ed members of the workshop force are on occasion plucked from an ill- defi ned background, to take responsibility for apparently 'mediocre' or 'uncharacteristic' work that would otherwise have to be attributed to the master." Most important, the work of apprentices is rarely detectable; it is usually destroyed before it enters the archaeological record: clay is reshaped, metal recast, glass recycled, wood reshaped, textile rewoven, marble reshaped or burnt into lime. This study is the fi rst attempt to document, extensively but certainly not exhaustively, both tangible remains of and the ancient references to craft apprenticeship in the Greco- Roman world (with an emphasis on Greek antiquity) and to lay the foundations for more extensive and intensive studies of craft apprenticeship in Greek and Roman antiquity. I discuss fi rst the evidence that originates within the world of craftsmen (apprentice pieces, iconography of apprentices at work, signatures, curse tablets, apprenticeship contracts) and then the evidence for craft apprenticeship originating outside the world of craftsmen, usually in the writings of phi los o phers and encyclopedists (table 9.1). Table 9.1. Primary and secondary sources for craft apprenticeship in ancient Greece Primary sources for craft apprenticeship in ancient Greece Archaeological remains of apprenticeship (e.g., apprentice pieces) Repre sen ta tions of assistants/apprentices at work Artists' signatures Papyrological and epigraphical evidence (e.g., apprenticeship contracts, curse tablets) Written sources (e.g., philosophical works, scientifi c treatises, encyclopedias of ancient art) Secondary sources for craft apprenticeship in ancient Greece Apprenticeship methods in other areas in Greek antiquity (e.g., formal education, athletic or rhetorical training) Connoisseurship of craft apprenticeship Ethnoarchaeological and ethnographic accounts of modern- day traditional practitioners Comparative material from other cultures [Re nais sance artists' biographies, craft handbooks, and apprenticeship contracts (ricordanze; e.g., Vasari, Lives of the Artists; Hinds 1963)]. Apprenticeship was central to the successful transformation of a novice into a master craftsman; its importance seems even to override natural inclination or talent, as Aristotle in the fourth century BCE boldly states: "Crafts are teachable; otherwise, good craftsmen would be born, not made" (Nicomachean Ethics 2.1). Moreover, the goal of an apprenticeship for a leading artist is not the mastery and collage of different styles but the creative development of a distinct, personal style. In the following passage from a handbook on rhetoric, the (unknown) author warns his readers about uncritically combining styles of rhetoric by presenting an example from the world of sculpture apprenticeship. The master sculptors mentioned were active in the fourth century BCE: Chares did not learn from Lysippus how to make statues, by Lysippus showing him a head by Myron, arms by Praxiteles, a torso by Polykleitus but observed the master making all right in front of him; he would study the works of others, if he wished, on his own initiative. (Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.6.9; fi rst century BCE). Ancient descriptions of the (predominantly) male artist in ancient Greece tended to include three main components: his name and birth- place, his apprenticeship credentials (but not the apprenticeship pro cess itself), and a selection of his most important works. This tripartite formula changed little over the centuries. Pausanias's second- century CE pre sen ta tion of the credentials of the artists whose works were set up at Olympia or at Delphi and Vasari's account of Re nais sance artists and their portfolios (sixteenth century CE; see Hinds 1963) are indeed quite similar, despite their chronological distance. Our two main textual sources for apprenticeship in ancient Greece- Pliny the Elder (23- 79 CE), whose encyclopedia (Natural History [Rackham 1969- 1989]) covered many topics including arts, and Pausanias, with his guidebook to the sites of Greece (Description of Greece [Levi 1979])- provide numerous but painfully brief references to apprentices in bronze and stone sculpture and in mural painting. Neither of them was a craftsman. The compendiary character of their works explains the brevity of their notices on apprenticeship, which often state simply that "X" was the pupil of "Y." The types of evidence are varied but brief. Even more important, questions on craft apprenticeship in ancient Greece have not been framed within larger theoretical considerations of cultural transmission of knowledge. The notion of "communities of practice" (Wenger 1998) will fi nd fertile ground for application in the noisy and malodorous artisanal quarters of Greek and Roman cities. While scholars tend to study ancient artefacts according to medium, period, or famous artist, this survey of ancient references to ancient craft apprenticeship, albeit not exhaustive, aims to underline the commonalities among the crafts and to detect some general trends that hold true regardless of the specifi c craft involved.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationArchaeology and Apprenticeship
Number of pages32
StatePublished - 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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