Monday, November 28, 2016


Ian McPhee (ed.), Myth, Drama and Style in South Italian Vase-Painting: Selected Papers by A.D. Trendall. Studies in Mediterranean archaeology and literature, PB 182. Uppsala: Åströms Förlag, 2016. Pp. xl, 299. ISBN 9789170812057. €60.00.

Reviewed by Oliver Taplin, Oxford University (

Version at BMCR home site

Anyone who has worked on the Greeks in the West in the fourth century (BCE) will know how essential the works of A. D. (Dale) Trendall (1909-1995) remain. While generous and twinkle-eyed, almost impish, in person, he was a scholarly colossus. Almost single-handedly he imposed order on the more than 20.000 known red-figure vases from Sicily, South Italy, Campania and Paestum, allocating each one to an area of production and approximate date, and attributing them to individual painters or groups of painters. It is impossible to imagine that there will be any substantial improvements on his monumental publications in the foreseeable future.1 But, as well as all that, he supplied superbly acute and well- informed observations on the subject-matter and interpretation of the vases, whether mythological, cultic, funerary, social, theatrical or artistic.

In the 1970s and 1980s, after his major publications were already completed, there came a veritable flood of new pieces, mostly the spoils of illegal excavation and export from southern Italy. However objectionable this trade, the pots exist above ground and many of them are of great interest; Trendall kept track of virtually every item, and ensured that they did not go into collections without trace. Since his death we have lacked any such systematic documentation of finds and of the market, although fortunately theatre-related material has been assiduously recorded by J. R. Green.2 So Trendall's "omniscience" has been sorely missed in the last twenty years, and there has not yet been any systematic continuation of his labours. His huge archive was, however, bequeathed to La Trobe University, and the A. D. Trendall Research Centre for Ancient Mediterranean Studies has now been set up there.

Ian McPhee was Trendall's friend and colleague at La Trobe, and was responsible for his legacy up until 2012. In this volume he has brought together 21 of Trendall's opera minora, first published between 1965 and 1995, but mainly dating from the 1980s. It also includes a complete catalogue of Trendall's multitudinous publications (the first on philately in 1932!), and McPhee's excellent Memoir.3 Only one of the chapters is easily accessible elsewhere, namely "Farce and tragedy in South Italian vase-painting".4 But this merits inclusion as it pulls together the most important new finds in the twenty years since Trendall's collaboration with T. B. L. Webster in the (still far from obsolete) Illustrations of Greek Drama (1971), and shows how his ideas developed in response to them. Many of the other pieces appeared in out-of-the-way publications, and it is very good to have them collected here. The production and indexing of the volume is of high quality, and it is only a pity that the many pictures are all small—so small that it can be hard to make out the relevant detail. Since the Centre in La Trobe contains many excellent and otherwise unobtainable photographs, it might have been more useful if some of those had been reproduced with a more generous clarity.

All but two of the chapters start out from the first publication of a new vase or vases, and it is a tribute to Trendall's scholarship that they remain so authoritative and so little improved upon since. They are arranged in three sections, although there is inevitably much overlap between them. The first seven pieces are grouped by their concern with myth; they include in their scope Amymone, Callisto, Persephone, Niobe, Antiope and her sons, and the three daughters of Anios. The publication (1984) of the Medea at Eleusis vase in Princeton is especially interesting because, as Trendall already suggested, it has become clearer that it most likely shows a version of the story in which Medea protected her two sons instead of killing them. The publication (in 2006) of a new papyrus in the Louvre encourages the thesis that this is indeed connected with the Medea of Carcinus, a leading fourth-century tragedian.5

The second section consists of five chapters primarily concerned with theatrical subjects. Along with the synoptic essay mentioned before, there are two about comic vases (which Trendall persisted in calling "phlyax vases"), one on masks, both tragic and comic, and one on vases decorated simply with a comic mask.

Third, there is rather a miscellany under the heading of "Regional styles and painters". Three of the pieces concern Sicilian vases, two Campanian, and the other four are, not surprisingly in view of their preponderance, Apulian. "Three Apulian kraters in Berlin" (1970), all three attributed to or close to the great Darius Painter, stand out for their unusual and vivid iconography: the subjects include Laios' abduction of Chrysippos, and Herakles about to release Prometheus from his rather stagey rock after shooting the insatiable eagle.

There is one more feature of this volume that is both of great benefit and a source of some frustration. At the end of each chapter McPhee has added annotations indicating relevant developments and contributions since Trendall's original publication. He is uniquely equipped to supply this material, and also outstandingly qualified to pass opinions on many of the issues that arise. He has, however, restricted himself to the barest lapidary notes, hardly ever explaining or exploring the questions that they raise. Furthermore these annotations are not keyed to the main text, which often makes it difficult to align them with their point of reference. But, most disappointing of all, the copious references are minimally identified, usually by author and date alone, and are not gathered into any kind of consolidated bibliography. This often makes it quite difficult to work out what the actual reference is. This is a great shame since such a bibliography would have collected together a significant proportion of the most important work in this field in the last twenty to thirty years. As a result, while McPhee's piecemeal Addenda will be of great use to specialists, they are not nearly as informative or constructive as they might have been. Whether the explanation for this reticence is a reluctance to intervene too prominently in the works of the master, or modesty, or economy of paper, it makes this still valuable volume less valuable than it might have been.


1.   The most significant revisions to date are probably those in M. Denoyelle and M. Iozzo, La céramique grecque d'Italie méridionale et de Sicile (Paris 2009).
2.   In Lustrum 31 (1989) 7–95. 273–278, Lustrum 37 (1995) 7–202, 309–318, Lustrum 50 (2008) 7–302, 367–391, and numerous articles.
3.   Published in Proceedings of the British Academy 97 (1998) 501-17.
4.   From T. Rasmussen and N. Spivey (eds.) Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge 1991) 151-182.
5.   See L Giuliani and G. Most in C. Kraus, S. Goldhill, H. Foley, J. Elsner (eds.), Visualizing the Tragic....Essays in Honour of Froma Zeitlin (Oxford 2007) 197–217; M. L. West ZPE 161 (2007) 1–10; W. Burkert, Freiburger Universitätsblätter 181 (2008) 37–47; O. Taplin in E Csapo, H. R. Goette, J. R. Green and P. Wilson, (eds.) Greek Theatre in the Fourth Century B. C. (Berlin 2014) 149-53.

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