Greeks abroad: (as)signing artistic identity in early modern Europe



The language and wording used in the signatures of paintings by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (‘El Greco’) reveal a self-conscious construction of cultural identity in the early modern era. This paper argues that El Greco, an artist born in Crete who later worked in Venice and Rome for nearly ten years, and then for the rest of his career in Toledo, Spain, used his signature as a means to broadcast his artistic brand as a Greek other during his decades-long estrangement from his homeland. Regardless of where he worked or of the style that his paintings adopted, he always and without exception drafted his signatures in Greek, while at key moments of his career, especially during his frequent transitions from one city to the next, he appended his name with a declarative ‘Cretan’ in order to make it unmistakable that the viewer is looking at the work of a foreigner. In so doing, El Greco's use of language – a topic never taken into consideration with regards to the meaning of its deployment in his signatures – reveals much about the politics of cultural identity in the multicultural societies in which he worked.