Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Eleni Hatzivassiliou, Athenian Black Figure Iconography between 510 and 475 B.C. Rahden: VML Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2010. Pp. xviii, 182. ISBN 9783896469861. €57.80.

Reviewed by Tyler Jo Smith, University of Virginia (

Version at BMCR home site

The untimely death of a young scholar is difficult to grasp. Eleni Hatzivassiliou completed her D.Phil. at Oxford in 2006, and was immediately awarded a post-doctoral fellowship at the Universit√© Libre de Bruxelles. Other accolades were to follow—a three year research appointment in Brussels and an academic position in Greece—but sadly they were never realized. This memorial volume edited by her doctoral advisor, Donna Kurtz, Essays in Classical Archaeology for Eleni Hatzivassiliou 1977-2007 (BAR International Series 1796, 2008), is a testament to the many lives she touched, among them teachers and mentors, peers and colleagues. The posthumous publication under review here, derived from her doctoral thesis, ensures that her scholarly mark has been made and that her name will long be remembered among those working in this branch of classical archaeology.

The subject of the book, Athenian black-figure painting after the invention of red-figure, has not been as well treated in scholarship as it might have been. The black-figure vases of these years have too often been overlooked, ignored, or dismissed as inferior to their red-figure contemporaries. Sir John Beazley's, Development of Attic Black-Figure (1951/1986) does include a chapter on 'later black-figure', and incorporates a lengthy discussion of the Leagros Group, designating it as "the last great group of Attic black-figures vases" (80). But Beazley himself actively omitted the 'small' black-figure vases of the first quarter of the fifth century explaining that "Miss Haspels has given an admirable account of them in her Attic Black-figured Lekythoi", a magisterial work published in 1936. Beazley's neglect of lekythoi and other well-known shapes (most notably skyphoi and cups), made in abundance during the final phase of black-figure in Athens, may have done more harm than good for their artistic reputation in the long term.

Hatzivassiliou attempts to correct the record by "looking at Athenian black-figure iconography between 510 and 475 BC" (2). Bracketed by a brief introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into three main parts: Ceramic Production, Iconography, and Painters. These are followed by tables, an appendix, and a selective catalogue. Although the book lacks a clear narrative, it is an exceedingly useful reference work that covers a good deal of uncharted territory, and brings together a new corpus organized by iconographic theme, rather than by shapes or painters. While the author is primarily interested in the images, and to some extent their interpretation and meaning, a lot of attention in the book is given to other matters; thus the choice of the word 'iconography' in the title is not self-evident and even a bit misleading. Her approach to the evidence (some 838 catalogued objects) is at once old- fashioned and novel. There is admirable attention to detail, as demonstrated by the chunky footnotes.

The first part of the book devoted to ceramic production is divided into 'techniques and shapes' and 'distribution'. An explanation of the red-figure technique and its possible origins is followed by a description of various experimental techniques, among them Six's technique, coral (or intentional) red, white-ground, and bilinguals. Surprisingly, no particular background discussion is provided for the black-figure technique itself. Instead, the author views the newer techniques as alternatives to black-figure, or as additions to the repertoire of black-figure painters. The succeeding paragraphs, concerned with shapes, again present these years as ones of experiment and innovation, marked by "the introduction of new shapes and the modification of old ones" (5). Her summary of forms and techniques in the years between 510 and 475, offers a more vivid artistic backdrop for late black-figure than many would normally assume. This is a moment where old and new techniques and forms coexist. The distribution of the catalogued vases is and equally valuable starting point, in part because of the "major point of departure between black- and red-figure" (7). Hatzivassiliou quite rightly voices caution in approaching the distribution of these objects from these years, because such a small percentage of the total number produced is extant, and many excavations have been poorly documented or not published. At the same time, it is important for readers to be aware that, despite the large number of black-figure finds from Athens itself, the vases of this period travelled far and wide, from the Greek mainland to Asia Minor, Cyprus, Sicily, Italy, France, Spain, and elsewhere. Missing from her discussion (which is based on her selective catalogue) is an in-depth portrayal of the imports to the Black Sea, which have been published extensively in excavation reports and journals. The author's emphasis on Mediterranean-wide distribution is an important corrective to the assumption that most Athenian painted pottery was deposited in Etruscan tombs. For black-figure this is simply not the case: "shape, size and function were crucial trade factors" (9), arguably far more important than the iconography itself. Furthermore, the author notes certain distribution patterns by shape and painter: e.g. oinochoai by the Gela Painter and the Edinburgh Painter are mostly found in Etruria and northern Italy; lekythoi by these same two painters are known from Sicily, mainland Greece, south Italy, and Campania; loutrophoroi by the Theseus Painter come from Attica, as do his skyphoi and lekythoi.

The second and largest part of the book is concerned with iconography. The material is divided by deities, heroes, epic cycles, cult and life. The gods and goddesses are presented in order of quantity from Dionysos and Athena to other Olympians and lesser deities. Similarly, the heroes follow the expected order of Herakles, Theseus, and the rest. What seems particularly new here are the sections on the Trojan Cycle, packaged according to text (Kypria, Iliad, Aithiopis, Little Iliad and Ilioupersis, Odyssey, Nostoi), a choice made for "reasons of clarity" as opposed to the assumption that the painters "followed specific literary accounts" (27). Moving beyond mythology, the section on 'cult and life' is one of the best and most helpful in the book. The author assigns the vases to six categories that highlight the preoccupations of everyday men and women, both in the city and in the countryside, among them warfare, athletics, entertainment, agriculture, and religion. Within these sections, overt attempts are made to bring red-figure vases into the conversation, and to determine their similarities or differences with the assembled corpus of examples. There is also some interesting overlap, demonstrating the difficulty of imposing modern divisions: thus, warfare mixes with religion (extispicy and libation); hunting and symposion iconography are combined; dancing may be sympotic or religious; banausoi make an appearance in both agriculture and cult. The final iconographic category to receive attention is women. Again, the overlap with the previous sections of the book is unavoidable, because women were visible in scenes of cult, funerals, weddings, symposia, komos, departure, and agriculture. However, the author elaborates on some of the more gender-specific examples, such as fountain-house or gynaikon scenes. Perhaps more variety, and less repetition, is apparent in red-figure, but we are reminded that many of the late black- figure scenes focus on women exclusively. Based on the sample provided, however, it is difficult to compare the percentages of black-figure themes with those of red-figure.

The third and final part acquaints us with eight vase-painters: the Gela, Edinburgh, Theseus, Athena, Sappho, Diosphos, Emporion, and Beldham painters. These artists have been chosen not because they are the most prolific, but because their quality is among the highest and they generate the most interesting iconography. For each painter we are given a brief history of their identity and output, a descriptive summary of their favorite scenes and subjects and, where relevant, their use of inscriptions. By revisiting iconography according to painter, there is some inevitable repetition from the previous parts of the book and little, if any, cross-referencing. The inclusion of inscriptions, however, does offer an important dimension and one often avoided in iconographic studies. We are told that that 'mock inscriptions' are "frequent" in the case of the Athena Painter (71) and Diosphos Painter (79), while the Sappho Painter's generous use of legible inscriptions may "be taken as an indication of the painter's literacy" (75) (but how can we know if a painter was literate?). A final section in this chapter is devoted to 'painters and conventions', an important reminder that in the study of Athenian vase-painting it remains difficult to bypass the narrative styles and artistic conventions that define an individual hand or workshop. This is one of the most important points in the book. If anything, the comparison only serves to distance the two techniques even further and indicates that within each one, even if articulated by the same artist, there are inherent rules, limitations, and expectations.

In the end, readers are left with many important questions, and some dangling threads that might be taken up by other scholars in the future. What is the place of landscape in Greek vase-painting? Why is the killing of an animal for sacrifice never shown in late black-figure? Are the open-air banquets depicting Herakles representative of parasitein, a custom associated with his cult in Athens? Why are the Olympian deities so rarely portrayed in the works of the Gela Painter? What cultural shifts or historical circumstances might shed light on any or all of these issues? How do vases increase our knowledge of lost texts? Stimulating questions such as these are raised throughout the book, but remain outside the author's scope. Nonetheless, readers come away with a sense that the late black-figure vases presented here do merit such detailed treatment and should continue to find their place in the history of Greek art and archaeology. Despite the difficulty of studying and collecting these black-figure vases, they do indeed deserve our attention just as much as their red-figure contemporaries.

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