Graffito - Encyclopedia

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GRAFFITO, plural graffiti, the Italian word meaning "scribbling" or "scratchings" (graffiare, to scribble, Gr. ^yp6ck v), adopted by archaeologists as a general term for the casual writings, rude drawings and markings on ancient buildings, in distinction from the more formal or deliberate writings known as "inscriptions." These "graffiti," either scratched on stone or plaster by a sharp instrument such as a nail, or, more rarely, written in red chalk or black charcoal, are found in great abundance, e.g. on the monuments of ancient Egypt. The best-known "graffiti" are those in Pompeii and in the catacombs and elsewhere in Rome. They have been collected by R. Garrucci (Graffiti di Pompei, Paris, 1856), and L. Correra ("Graffiti di Roma" in Bolletino della commissione municipale archaeologica, Rome, 1893; see also Corp. Ins. Lat. iv., Berlin, 1871). The subject matter of these scribblings is much the same as that of the similar scrawls made to-day by boys, street idlers and the casual "tripper." The schoolboy of Pompeii wrote out lists of nouns and verbs, alphabets and lines from Virgil for memorizing, lovers wrote the names of their beloved, "sportsmen" scribbled the names of horses they had been "tipped," and wrote those of their favourite gladiators. Personal abuse is frequent, and rude caricatures are found, such as that of one Peregrinus with an enormous nose, or of Naso or Nasso with hardly any. Aulus Vettius Firmus writes up his election address and appeals to the pilicrepi or ball-players for their votes for him as aedile. Lines of poetry, chiefly suited for lovers in dejection or triumph, are popular, and Ovid and Propertius appear to be favourites. Apparently private owners of property felt the nuisance of the defacement of their walls, and at Rome near the Porta Portuensis has been found an inscription begging people not to scribble (scariphare) on the walls.

Graffiti are of some importance to the palaeographer and to the philologist as illustrating the forms and corruptions of the various alphabets and languages used by the people, and occasionally guide the archaeologist to the date of the building on which they appear, but they are chiefly valuable for the light they throw on the everyday life of the "man in the street" of the period, and for the intimate details of customs and institutions which no literature or formal inscriptions can give. The graffiti dealing with the gladiatorial shows at Pompeii are in this respect particularly noteworthy; the rude drawings such as that of the secutor caught in the net of the retiarius and lying entirely at his mercy, give a more vivid picture of what the incidents of these shows were like than any account in words (see Garrucci, op. cit., Pls. x.-xiv.; A. Mau, Pompeii in Leben and Kunst, 2nd ed., 1908, ch. xxx.). In 1866 in the Trastevere quarter of Rome, near the church of S. Crisogono, was discovered the guard-house (excubitorium) of the seventh cohort of the city police (vigiles), the walls being covered by the scribblings of the guards, illustrating in detail the daily routine, the hardships and dangers, and the feelings of the men towards their officers (W. Henzen, "L' Escubitorio della Settima coorte dei Vigili" in Bull. Inst., 1867, and Annali Inst., 1874; see also R. Lanciani, Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries, 230, and Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome, 18 97, 54 8). The most famous graffito yet discovered is that generally accepted as representing a caricature of Christ upon the cross, found on the walls of the Domus Gelotiana on the Palatine in 1857, and now preserved in the Kircherian Museum of the Collegio Romano. Deeply scratched in the wall is a figure of a man clad in the short tunica with one hand upraised in salutation to another figure, with the head of an ass, or possibly a horse, hanging on a cross; beneath is written in rude Greek letters "Anaxamenos worships (his) god." It has been suggested that this represents an adherent of some Gnostic sect worshipping one of the animalheaded deities of Egypt (see Ferd. Becker, Das Spottcrucifix der romischen Kaiserpaldste, Breslau, 1866; F. X. Kraus, Das Spottcrucifix vom Palatin, Freiburg in Breisgau, 1872; and Visconti and Lanciani, Guida del Palatino). There is an interesting article, with many quotations of graffiti, in the Edinburgh Review, October 1859, vol. ex. (C. WE.)

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