Monday, August 18, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Philip Perkins, Etruscan Bucchero in the British Museum. Research Publication no. 165. London: The British Museum, 2007. Pp. 136; maps 2, figs. 308. ISBN 978-0-86159-165-7. £60.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Richard De Puma, University of Iowa

Table of Contents

There are three kinds of people in the world: those who detest bucchero; those who adore bucchero; and, the largest group, those who have never heard of it. This most characteristic type of Etruscan pottery was produced continuously from perhaps as early as ca. 675 B.C. until the Etruscans were finally absorbed by the Romans in the early 1st century B.C. Enormous quantities of bucchero, ranging from the exquisite to the laughable, appear at every Etruscan site and in many trading centers spread over a large range of the Mediterranean Basin and Europe. Many museums, especially the Villa Giulia, the Vatican and the Museo Archeologico in Florence, the Louvre and the Hermitage, contain excellent collections of bucchero. It is not as well represented in North America, although there are good collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (unfortunately, not on display) and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. A surprising number of American museums have some bucchero, but most of it is rarely, if ever, exhibited or studied.

In recent decades, at least in that select group of people who adore bucchero, there has been a steady, concerted effort to demonstrate the importance of bucchero as a significant indicator of Etruscan cultural influence, trade, technical skill and taste. Numerous collections, especially in Europe, have been carefully studied or reassessed, a great deal of technical data has been collected and interpreted, and it is fair to say that we are in a much better position to appreciate the relevance of bucchero in the greater context of Etruscan civilization.

Philip Perkins has produced a much-needed catalogue of the excellent bucchero collection in the British Museum. More than 75 years ago, F. N. Pryce published 207 pieces of bucchero in a CVA.1 Although many still assume that this catalogue is comprehensive, it actually represents only about two-thirds of the museum's collection in 1932. Thus, P's book brings together all 314 pieces of bucchero in the museum and, more importantly, takes account of the vast progress made in our understanding of this kind of pottery over the intervening years.

The first chapter, "The Formation of the Collection," demonstrates that bucchero was among the earliest items acquired by the museum. The first nine pieces, all from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, came in 1756, only three years after the museum's foundation. One of these, the upper part of a caryatid figure (No. 67), is especially interesting because it demonstrates that even at this early date bucchero was being manipulated to create odd but appealing pastiches. As Perkins points out (24; see also No. 55), this casts some doubt on the authenticity of more complete examples of the caryatid type, all from the Durand Collection and acquired in 1836 (Nos. 56-66). At some point in the early 19th century these figures were added to two different (authentic) bucchero chalices (Nos. 75-76), no doubt to enhance their value by transforming a common shape into something unusual and far more decorative.

Other important additions of bucchero came from well-known collections such as that of Charles Townley (28 pieces in 1814), Samuel Butler (two pieces in 1840), James Millingen (six pieces in 1847), and John Ruskin (No. 16, illustrated on the cover). But the largest number, 83 pieces representing more than a quarter of the present holdings, was purchased from Domenico Campanari in 1838-39. He had mounted the first exhibition of Etruscan antiquities in England in 1837. This early blockbuster attracted huge crowds and inspired many people, including Lady Hamilton Gray,2 to travel to Italy in search of the Etruscans. Additions to the museum's bucchero collection in the 20th century were made sporadically by purchase or donation, often as part of a larger group of antiquities. Perkins provides an excellent set of concordances (77-82) that allow easy reference to sources and cross-references to Pryce's CVA and the earlier Walters catalogue.3 There are also lists of possible production sites, findspots, and graffiti.

The second chapter, "The Study of Bucchero and the British Museum Collection," summarizes progress made in the ongoing analysis of bucchero, really a vibrant sub-field of Etruscan studies. A major concern is the development of typologies, something that can be traced back to the 19th century but that was more systematically expanded in the late 1970s by Rasmussen4 and Gran-Aymerich.5 More recently, scientific analyses of bucchero fabrics from a wide variety of sites have effectively demonstrated that there were many local production centers.6 Perkins offers an expert summary of the complicated issue of influences on bucchero design and technique. In fact, this short chapter provides a useful, concise review of our current understanding of bucchero with ample bibliographic citations for those who wish to pursue any aspect of the topic.

The Catalogue (11-75) forms the core of this publication. Entries are arranged alphabetically by shape (i.e., alabastra, amphoras, aryballoi, etc.) and chronologically within each shape. One feature that sets these entries apart from the norm is the precision with which condition and production techniques are described. Perkins is attentive to fabric and provides a careful, systematic description of inclusions. The clay color is always noted, although there is an important caveat (10) explaining that many vases were "enhanced" with applied black paint or polish, probably in the 19th century. Perkins also takes care to cite the most relevant parallels for each example. All items (except 8 sherds) are either illustrated with photos or profile drawings, sometimes both. The drawings, skillfully executed by Kate Morton, are especially helpful in showing the impressed friezes on some pieces (e.g., Nos. 70, 90-94, 284).

Among the interesting insights: The British Museum collection has a large proportion of Campanian bucchero (more than 40 examples), due to the early archaeological exploitation of Campania by Sir William Hamilton. Oinochoai are the most common shape represented in the collection. In fact, some examples are unusual enough to merit three additions to the standard oinochoe typology proposed by earlier scholars. Perkins designates these Types BM1 (Nos. 258-61), BM2 (Nos. 262-66) and BM3 (Nos. 267-71). All are undecorated. Three vases have dedicatory inscriptions (Nos. 74, 179, 225) and 21 have graffiti. Many examples are decorated with impressed fan motifs and some with figural friezes. Unusual combinations of rouletted and stamped ornament appear on Nos. 74 and 78, the latter associated with parallels from the Calabresi Tomb. There are also a number of bucchero pesante vases with typically ornate relief decoration. Kantharoi, the most common bucchero shape, receive special attention and a scatter plot (46) showing the correlation between rim diameter and height. This enables Perkins to demonstrate that there are two basic types of Rasmussen's Type 3e kantharoi: smaller and larger ones. The sample size is relatively small (41 examples) suggesting that more examples might make this difference more pronounced.

It is always good to have a major collection published. This book will remain useful for many years not only as a comprehensive treatment of the British Museum's bucchero collection, but also for anyone who wishes to learn more about bucchero in general and to appreciate better its ramifications for our understanding of Etruscan culture.


1.   F. N. Pryce, Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum Great Britain 10, British Museum, fasc. 7 (London, 1932).
2.   E. C. J. Hamilton Gray, Tour to the Sepulchres of Etruria, in 1839 (2nd ed., London, 1841).
3.   H. B. Walters, Cypriote, Italian and Etruscan Pottery. Catalogue of the Greek and Etruscan Vases in the British Museum, vol. I, part II (London, 1912).
4.   T. Rasmussen, Bucchero Pottery from Southern Etruria (Cambridge, 1979 and 2006).
5.   J. Gran-Aymerich, "Le bucchero étrusque: aspects de methodologie et de practique archéologique" in Le Bucchero nero étrusque et sa diffusion en Gaule Méridionale, Actes de la Table-ronde d'Aix-en-Provence, 21-23 mai 1975 organisée par le Centre national de la recherché scientifique et L'Institut d'archéologie méditerranéenne (= Collection Latomus 160) (Brussels, 1979).
6.   K. Burkhardt, Petrographische und geochemisch Untersuchungen an etruskischen Bucchero-Keramik von Fundorten Chiusi, Orvieto,Vulci...(= Münchner Geologische Hefte 5) (Munich, 1991); A. Naso (ed.), Appunti sul bucchero. Atti delle giornate di studio (Blera, 2004).

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