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.