Thursday, October 17, 2019


Mariachiara Franceschini, Attische Mantelfiguren : Relevanz eines standardisierten Motivs der rotfigurigen Vasenmalerei. Zürcher archäologische Forschungen Band 5. Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2018. Pp. 354; 15 p. of plates. ISBN 9783867576659. $65.00.

Reviewed by Geralda Jurriaans-Helle, Allard Pierson Museum, University of Amsterdam (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents and abstracts

This voluminous study by Mariachiara Franceschini focuses on the 'mantle figure' depicted on Attic red-figure vases. Owing to its frequent appearance the mantle figure has often been dismissed as decorative filler of empty space. The author contends that the significance of the mantle figure has been seriously underestimated and that in fact it "serves as a pivot in the relationship between producer, observer, object and imagery" (p. 229). To prove this, she analyzes 8,817 mantle figures on 3,532 vases.

After an introduction to the topic, the first chapter (Forschungsstand, pp. 17–21) gives an overview of the different ways scholars have looked at mantle figures, both in specific contexts (funerary, sport, erotic) or, more often, in general. These views vary from seeing them as purely decorative or a way to avoid horror vacui, to identifying them as Athenian citizens by interpreting the action depicted on the vase like a theatrical chorus. Because scenes with multiple mantle figures are often described as 'conversation scenes', she also examines the history of this term and specifies the way she defines it in this study.

In the second chapter (Methodische und theoretische Grundlage, pp. 23–53) Franceschini defines mantle figures as male figures of various ages, characterized by their garment, the himation. She limits her corpus to scenes from daily life on Attic red-figure vases painted between 530/520 BCE and the beginning of the 4th century BCE. Since the himation is also worn as part of the standard iconography of gods, Franceschini includes mythological scenes only when the interpretation of a mantle figure as a god is not certain. In the second part of this chapter she describes the way she classified and analyzed the data using two different databases. In the third part of this chapter she explains the typology she made based on the figures' gestures. Here, too, an overview is given of earlier scholars' classifications of gestures and mantle figures. This section concludes, like many parts in the book, with a short and useful abstract.

As the author is interested in the reconstruction of the narrative and therefore in the interaction between the mantle figures, she treats the two-dimensional figures in her typology as if they were represented three- dimensionally; she focuses only on the poses, making no distinction whether figures are seen from the right or left or frontal. This is an interesting point of view, but one may wonder whether—at least in many cases—the painters were not simply choosing an easy-to-paint view of the figure. In spite of this way of simplifying the classification of the figures, the typology still consists of 39 types, each subdivided into variants. The long list with descriptions of the types (pp. 38–44) would have been easier to read if the table with small depictions of the gestures (now on pp. 336–340) had been printed next to it. I made photocopies of both the list and table and found them very useful during my reading. The many abbreviations used to describe the positions and gestures are explained in different places (in a note on p. 38, in the text on p. 45, and finally in a table on p. 342), which also makes the comprehension of the text less easy for the reader. One may wonder whether the division into so many types is necessary. While it certainly is solid methodology to notice as many details and varieties as possible when setting up a typology, it is often better to focus on the differences that matter most and to combine types that are very similar in detail and in use. Here, the many types vary greatly in frequency: type 11 consists of more than 1400 figures, while there are only six examples of type 34. Furthermore, in many cases the type of gesture is (at least for the untrained viewer) not irrefutably depicted as 'stretched' or 'hooked', for example. In these cases one has to trust the decision of the author; I am aware that after studying so many vases, one gets a sharp eye for small differences.

However, all the tables and statistics serve a higher purpose: the author is completely correct to oppose the negative characterization of 'standardization' as a mark of a low quality. The motif of the mantle figure with its standardized details made it possible for the painter to communicate with the contemporary public that was familiar with the figure types and recognized their meanings. For the modern viewer the only way to enter the world of red-figure vase-painting and understand the role of mantle figures is by analyzing a large corpus of paintings.1 Mantle figures—often represented as viewers of the action—form the connection between the world of the images and the world of the polis, between the viewer on the vase and the viewer of the vase. The way that Attic painters represented the first viewer—the mantle figure—makes it possible to study the individual and collective identity of the second viewer—the Athenian polites.

In the third chapter (Die Mantelfiguren in Attika: Genese eines ikonographischen Motivs, pp. 55–150) all of the mantle figure types and subtypes are systematically discussed, and each group of types is followed by an abstract. Tables chart the frequency of each type and its subtypes from early red-figure to the late 5th century. In the text and notes references are made to the catalogue of the vases on pp. 232–301, but there is no list by type with all of the vases on which each is found. Since the types are not mentioned in the descriptions of the vases in the catalogue, it is difficult to find out on which vases a certain gesture is found in order to examine the depictions. Here again we have to trust the sharp eye of the author. In the second part of this third chapter the development of the iconography of the mantle figures is discussed, starting with black-figure predecessors. Then the author describes how in the 5th century BCE the mantle figure was standardized, in what contexts it is found, and which types are frequently found together. The chapter closes with a description of the development of the mantle figure in the 4th century BCE and an analysis of the process of standardization. The fourth chapter (Das Himation in der schriftlichen Überlieferung, pp.151–155) then describes the literary tradition of the himation and how it developed into the polis-uniform.

The fifth chapter (Neue Vorschläge für eine Hermeneutik der Mantelfiguren, pp.157–220) gives the conclusions of this comprehensive study. In the first part the focus is on what active roles the mantle figure could play in specific, idealized moments of daily life, from the education of young boys to the farewell of the deceased. Discussing education, Franceschini notes that often both teacher and pupil are shown as mantle figures. Since teachers were often slaves, the himation was clearly not the characteristic garment of a free citizen of Athens but rather that of a polites, someone who is participating in the polis. It became a symbol of controlled behavior. In homoerotic scenes both erastes and eromenos often wear a himation, and the eromenos may hide himself in it or open the mantle to his lover. In komoi men often wear their himations loosely on the shoulder or over the arm: for the moment they take off that symbol of controlled behavior, but the presence of the mantle shows that it is only temporary. In funeral rites mantle figures walk quietly in the procession in contrast to the wailing and uncontrolled movements of the women. Mantle figures are also found in departure scenes of the army, representing the polis saying farewell to its warriors. In mythological scenes Greek heroes may wear a himation, but so too do Orpheus, who is a Thracian, and the wise centaur Cheiron. Mantle figures are also found as bystanders in mythological scenes, giving the context of the polis to the world of the gods and heroes. These bystanders are part of the action, even when they are standing aside or separated onto the other side of the vase. The first 'conversation scenes' appear in 490–480 BCE. After the third quarter of the 5th century the groups become simpler, and there is not always a clear connection to the scene on the other side of the vase. The mantle figure, seeing and being seen, belongs both to the world of the image and to that of the viewer. He invites the external viewer, who recognizes himself in the mantle figure, to think about the depiction, and involves him in a way comparable with the chorus in a tragedy.

Although mantle figures are depicted in many roles and functions, they do not represent a political or social reality, but rather an intentionally idealized self-representation of Greek society. In the 5th century BCE aristocratic attributes such as weapons and the richly decorated chiton were replaced by the stick and the undecorated himation. The himation-mantle was worn not only by citizens but also by all men participating in the life in the polis. It expressed the values of society—equality, homonoia and sophrosyne. Over the 200 years of its existence, representations of the mantle figure became more and more standardized; details became superfluous to the culturally conditioned eye. The mantle figure was part of a coherent iconographical system, connecting not only the representations on various parts of one vase, but also on different vases. Even in a rather formless isolated mantle figure, the contemporary viewer recognized the ideal of the polites.

In this last and most interesting chapter lies the importance of this study. The enormous effort of analyzing of the figures and their context makes it possible to understand the mantle figure as part of the pictorial language of the vases and to connect them with life in Athens in the 5th century BCE. This study shows that analyzing standard scenes or figures, which have often been treated by scholars with disdain or not treated at all, is worth the effort. It is precisely because there are so many examples to study and because they are standardized that they can provide us so much information about the society that made them.

At the end of the book there are abstracts in German, Italian and English; the catalogue of all vases used in the study, ordered by painter (on p. 278 Paersephone-M. should be Persephone-M.); the bibliography; registers; tables; and plates.


1.   In my dissertation "Composition in Athenian black-figure vase-painting: The 'Chariot in profile' type scene" (to be published in BABESCH Supplements), I examine the imagery of more than 1,200 Athenian black-figure vase-paintings of this type scene, focusing on mass-produced vases and applying semiotic methods for the study of literary texts to the imagery. The investigation reveals that the painters composed the paintings according to a commonly understood system of pictorial language; knowledge of this system will help the modern viewer to understand the deeper meanings of paintings.

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