Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Michael Turner, Alexander Cambitoglou, Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, The Nicholson Museum, The University of Sydney. Red Figure and Over-Painted Pottery of South Italy, Australia fascicule 2. Sydney: The Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney, and The Australian Archaeological Institute of Athens, 2014. Pp. 111; 12 p. figures; 134 color plates. ISBN 9781742103297. A$199.95.

Reviewed by Tyler Jo Smith, University of Virginia (

Version at BMCR home site

The second Australian CVA is dedicated to the Nicholson Museum's collection of South Italian vases identified as products of the regions of Lucania, Campania, Paestum, and Sicily. Over-painted Gnathia pottery, Teano ware, and a single St. Valentin kantharos have also been included in the volume. Like the first fascicule devoted to Apulian vases in the same university museum and published in 2008 by the same pair of scholars, the current one presents each object in color photographs, with multiple views and some details, and also provides profile drawings for both whole vessels and fragments. In fact, the two fascicules are best viewed as a set, and together their coverage and quality make a handy introduction to the vase-painting of South Italy 1 The book is dedicated to the memories of both A.D. Trendall and T.B.L. Webster, who contributed a great deal to the combined topic of vases and dramas, and much else besides, as well as to Noël Oakeshott, a "pioneer of the study of South Italian pottery" (9), who studied and purchased several of the Nicholson vases. A valuable and somewhat rare addition to this CVA is an introductory chapter: "A.D. Trendall and the Nicholson Museum." Written by Turner, the museum's Senior Curator since 2005, it recounts not only many details about Dale Trendall's involvement with the collection in the form of curation, acquisitions, attributions, and publications, but also biographical and anecdotal information about his life and career, and a photograph of Trendall (holding a red-figure krater), Cambitoglou, and David M. Robinson at the University of Mississippi in 1954. The extract from a letter of recommendation written by Trendall's mentor, Sir John Beazley, is particularly relevant, as both scholars are today remembered as the greatest connoisseurs of the 20th century in their respective fields of South Italian and Attic vase-painting. Trendall's imprint is evident throughout the volume. Many of the vases were previously studied by him and assigned to new artistic hands. Indeed, his "final legacy to the Nicholson" was the naming of four painters based on the collection: The Nicholson Painter (Campanian), the Painter of Sydney 46.54 (Campanian), the Sydney Bottle Group (Sicilian), and the Sydney Painter (Lucanian, Paestan).

The shapes covered by the fascicule are wide-ranging and reflect a combination of what is typical in the various fabrics and the desire to build a study collection for purposes of teaching and research in a university setting. Not surprisingly, bell-kraters far outnumber other forms and the examples represented, all red-figure, are Lucanian, Campanian, Paestan, and Sicilian. Such coverage enables quick comparison of fabrics and forms and the profile drawings are especially welcome for this purpose. Other shapes occurring in multiple examples include the oinochoe, skyphos, hydria, and bottle (bombylios), and two each of the lekanis lid (both Sicilian), and Pagenstecher lekythos (both Sicilian). Additonal shapes are found in single examples, including two askoi of entirely different types and decoration, one a Gnathian with strap handle and ring base and the other an elegant Teano bird. Also worth mentioning is the Lucanian nestoris featuring Herakles and Nike; the Gnathian epichysis, a shape likely derived from metal; and the Campanian lidded kemai decorated around the shoulder with a series of outlined human heads, and whose modern name Beazley created on the basis of an inscription "on one such pot from Nola" (59). The date range for the South Italian and Sicilian wares is late 3rd – mid 2nd century BC. The earliest examples are Lucanian (i.e., Pisticci Painter, c. 430-410), while at the later end are the Gnathian skyphoid krater, the three Teano vases (all c. 300-275), and the lidded kemai (c. 320-270).

Where applicable, the entries provide an impressive amount of space to the imagery and decoration of individual pieces. There is a convenient index of "religious and mythological figures" (109), which however gives only a cursory idea of the complex iconography of the vases. What becomes immediately apparent is the large percentage of Dionysian and related subjects, as well as a noticeable array of divine, tragic, and mortal female figures (e.g. ,Aphrodite, Electra, "Aura"). Like the fabrics themselves, some details of South Italian iconography elude us, and a standard descriptive vocabulary is not always applied. Such is the case on the Paestan red-figure bell-krater attributed to the Sydney Painter, where a semi-draped, beardless "young seated man" offers a phiale to a draped woman who stands holding a mirror. The rounded objects dotted along the top of the phiale and on the nearby altar are called here "eggs", while in reference to another scene on another vase the phrase "egg-like objects" is used (35). If any of these are depictions of actual eggs, there might be important cultic or chthonic meaning embedded in the scenes.2 To be sure, some appear more egg-like in their rendering than others (e.g., Campanian oinochoe, pl. 56). At the same time, the implement in the same scene described as a "thyrsus" with its "small myrtle-like leaves" resembles more the attribute of Apollo (who does sometimes hold a phiale in Attic vase-painting) than the staff of Dionysos and his followers found on a variety of other examples within this assemblage (cf. pls. 11, 91 95).

Another Paestan krater, formerly in Sir William Hamilton's second collection, was acquired for the Nicholson Museum at a London auction in 1948 for the sum of 13 pounds sterling (72). It too presents an iconographic puzzle that has stumped several generations of esteemed vase enthusiasts from Tischbein to Trendall. A female figure rests against a thyrsus while five round objects are stacked up in a vertical row above her outstretched hand. Turner and Cambitoglou described them as "coloured balls...thrown into the air," while previous identifications include: "small stones...for performing a magical operation" (Tischbein); "moon-stones" (Hamilton); a "skewer of fruit" (Tillyard); votive offerings associated with Dionysos (Schneider-Hermann). Although one can never be sure, it is indeed possible that the best clue is the most obvious one. The seated woman in the same scene who is identically bedecked and bejeweled, and who also clutches a thyrsus, also holds a similar, if larger, round object directly below and on axis with the row of "balls above". This larger version of arguably the same object, perhaps simply intended by the painter to appear closer to the viewer, resembles a fruit, such as a pomegranate. The way it is held between the finger tips looks like the gesture of offering fruits and flowers made by females in mainland Greek sculpture and vases. That being said, the authors see "three white balls" in the hand of Dionysos on a different vase, a Paestan bell-krater attributed by Trendall to Python. The rather human-looking satyr on the Hamilton vase, who steps away from the woman and glances back at them, confirms the ambiguous cultic-mythical setting, and makes a nice comparison with the so-called "horned satyr" (perhaps a man dressed as Pan? cf. pl. 106) on the Lucanian krater by the Dolon Painter (29-30).

Spectacle and theatricality are the mainstays of South Italian vase painting, both literally and figuratively, and both are in evidence here. Singled out for mention is a costumed aulete performing on the fragment of a Lucanian red-figure skyphos, and a satyr holding a barbiton lyre on another Lucanian fragment. Comic parody is the explanation for the unique scene on a Lucanian krater, showing two masked figures in female costume. According to J.R. Green, who attributes the vessel to the "Early" Creusa Painter, the scene portrays Phaedra, who appears to faint, having just heard the news of the death of Hippolytos. A vivid portrayal of the death of Niobe on a Campanian hydria, which may or may not be related to theater, receives a much deserved lengthy discussion complete with both literary references and artistic comparanda. The grieving mother stands in a naiskos, while her own father, Tantalus, kneels and gestures toward her already petrifying body; from above, Apollo and Leto look on to complete the multi-generational melodrama. Not surprisingly, several Paestan vases reveal signs of the stage, among them masks, boots, music, and props/sets. Also performative in their way are examples of nude male athletes strutting with strigils, satyrs overseeing drinking games, and mortal or mythical komoi.

Recent scholarship on South Italian vases has highlighted the importance of archaeological context and the problem of lost information caused by illegal excavations and the antiquities trade.3 Cambitoglou and Turner are no doubt cognizant of the problem and, as a result, have granted extra attention to the history of individual objects where known. Following the suggestion of one reviewer of fascicule 1 (BMCR 2010.09.38), this time the authors have inserted within the entries early drawings of a few vases and provided additional commentary (e.g., Paestan bell krater, 78-80, pls. 106-109). This beautifully produced and thoughtfully written CVA reaffirms that it is no longer acceptable to speak of vase painting of Magna Graecia as "the poor cousin to Attic" (8). Leaving aside subjective judgements about style, artistry, and taste, these vases—or "pots", as our authors would prefer to say—are extremely valuable in what they can teach us about the history of collecting in Italy and beyond.


1.   Alexander Cambitoglou, Michael Turner, Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. The Nicholson Museum, The University of Sydney. The Red Figure Pottery of Apulia. The Nicholson Museum 1, Australia fascicule 1 (Sydney: Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens; The Nicholson Museum, The University of Sydney 2008).
2.   As has been suggested for Etruscan art; see Lisa Pieraccini, "Food and Drink in the Etruscan World," in J. Turfa (ed.), The World of the Etruscans (New York: Routledge 2013), 816-17.
3.   See recently T.H. Carpenter, K.M. Lynch, E.G.D. Robinson (eds.), The Italic People of Ancient Apulia: New Evidence from Pottery for Workshops, Markets, and Customs (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press 2014).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.