Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.20


T. Rasmussen and N. Spivey (edd.), Looking at Greek Vases. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Pp. xvii + 282. ISBN 0-521-37524-X (hb). ISBN 0-521-337679-3 (pb).


Reviewed by Aileen Ajootian, American School of Classical Studies.

Looking at Greek Vases, a collection of ten essays on various aspects of Greek vase painting, was designed, according to the editors, as a "toast of gratitude" for Robert Cook, to whom the volume is dedicated. The editors present this work as "a book which will serve not only scholars, but also students of art, connoisseurs of fine pottery, the museum-going public, and anyone who admits curiosity about the society and history of ancient Greece." In this object they have succeeded, though it is likely that students of Greek art history and archeology, along with their teachers, will benefit most of all.

In the field of classical archaeology, where the scrutiny of approach and method has lagged behind some other branches of the discipline, the two-part article by Martin Robertson and Mary Beard is important not only as an introduction to the methodology employed in the study of Greek painted vases, but also as an assessment of the current state of art historical and archaeological criticism in this field. Sir John Beazley's application of Morellian analysis to painted details on Greek vases still illuminates the work of his successors. However, one of Robertson's conclusions, that "undoubtedly the major significance of Beazley's work is for the history of fine art," points to a distinction still commonly maintained between Attic painted wares as objets d'art, and other categories of ancient artifacts.

The predilection, however, to treat Greek vases as objects whose aesthetic value can be distinguished from their significance as cultural artifacts is challenged at several points throughout these essays, and Robertson himself proposes other ways in which to view the evidence. Mary Beard demonstrates how scholars move beyond connoisseurship to investigate the meaning of the images depicted on Greek vases, both for ancient viewers, and to modern eyes as well. Interpreting these messages, as she points out, involves being aware of contemporary biases that may mislead us in our conclusions.

After this introduction, the essays are arranged as a chronological and regional survey. J. N. Coldstream examines Geometric painting and the development of narrative in painted representations. The problems of meaning in this early phase of Greek painting, he point out, are particularly challenging when the scenes are unaccompanied by inscriptions or by recognizable attributes. However, the painters, exploring the possibilities and limits of their medium, develop conventions for rendering spatial relationships and figural compositions that provide them for later generations of artists. Corinthian vase painting and the Orientalizing motifs which give iconographic and technical inspiration to later periods of Attic black-figure are explored by T. Rasmussen, one of the editors of this volume.

John Boardman, in his essay on Attic black-figure, reminds us of the connection between function and decoration, and suggests ways in which the scenes on Attic vases may be reflecting particular contemporary political and social issues in the city of Athens. Dyfri Williams and Lucilla Burns next review developments in Attic red-figure and white-ground wares. They attempt to isolate what vase painting of this period can tell us about one of the most elusive forms of Greek art, large scale "free" painting on a flat background.

Nigel Spivey considers the Attic evidence from Etrurian sites, primarily from graves, and speculates on the meaning these vessels and their painted scenes might have had for their foreign owners. The imported mythological vocabulary of the Trojan war, along with scenes from the gymnasium, Spivey suggests, might have and he proposes that some themes, along with certain shapes, might have been produced specifically for this flourishing market. A theme recurrent in these essays surfaces clearly in this one, that "we overvalue Greek vases," as Spivey attempts to set the well known black and red-figure vessels found in Etrurian tombs in a clearer archaeological perspective.

Later periods of vase painting and vase making also receive consideration here. From fourth century South Italian vase painting, much valuable information concerning Greek drama has been gleaned and A. D. Trendall, in his study of this material, provides a useful summary of lost plays, some of which we know solely through these illustrations. Hellenistic pottery is now beginning to receive serious and detailed treatment, and J. Hays provides a concise summary of wares, shapes, and techniques, and outlines some of the as yet unsolved problems of date and regional production.

A summary of what can be gleaned concerning ancient marketing and trade in Attic vases is assembled by Alan Johnston in Chapter 9. The evidence here must be put together from literary sources, findspots, and price and trade inscriptions, generally graffitti, on the vessels themselves. Johnston responds, as do several of the other writers in this group, to Michael Vickers' recent interpretation of the relative ancient value of ceramic and metal vessels. Finally, J. Hemelrijk presents an overview of the technical achievements that produced Attic wares, providing a concise discussion of potter and painter in Athens.

The text is plentifully illustrated, although a few figures, especially the images of white ground vessels, have not done justice to the discussions they accompany. However, the volume, with its up to date discussions, concise bibliographies for each chapter and an appendix on vessel shapes is a useful and accessible guide to looking at Greek vases.