Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.39

Shirley J. Schwarz, Greek Vases in the National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Bibliotheca Archaeologica 17. Rome: "L'Erma" di Bretschneider, 1996. Pp. 89, pls. 87. It. Lire 200,000. ISBN 88-7062-928-7.

Reviewed by Jenifer Neils, Case Western Reserve University,

On a recent visit to the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History I heard a group of school children exclaim as they passed a model of the Athenian Acropolis, "Ah! Washington!" An understandable error given the melange of classicizing architecture that makes up our nation's capitol. Other school groups were receiving a cursory tour of the Smithsonian's classical antiquities, the bulk of which is a not particularly distinguished collection of Greek vases. Ranging from Geometric to South Italian, they are installed unsympathetically in overcrowded cases with many of the smaller pieces propped atop tall stakes like so many impaled heads. These vases are mostly unknown to scholars beyond a brief mention in Beazley's lists of attributed works. Therefore, this volume devoted to the Attic vases is most welcome. Compiled by Shirley Schwarz, better known for her work on Etruscan art, the catalogue essentially follows the format of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, but is part of an Italian series Bibliotheca Archaeologica published in Rome. However, it lacks some of the useful apparatus that one looks for in a modern CVA, such as profile drawings and a provenience index.

Of a total of 70 vases, half are Attic red-figure; the other half consists of 27 black-figure vases, one black-glaze and four white-ground lekythoi, a female head oinochoe, and two extraneous kylixes (one Ionian, and one Laconian). As one might expect from a collection in the nation's capitol, some of the works have glittery provenances: Dwight D. Eisenhower, for instance, donated a red-figure pelike (with, appropriately, a fight scene) that had been a gift to him from the king and queen of Greece in 1959. Of greater archaeological interest are the vases that came from 19th-century collections, in particular that of Thomas R. Wilson who served as the United States Vice Consul in Nice during the 1880s. He purchased important vases from the on-going excavations at Orvieto, Vulci and Tarquinia, and subsequently became curator of archaeology at the Smithsonian which bought his collection in 1904.

Among Wilson's vases is a black-figure amphora from Orvieto by the Painter of Berlin 1686 that is distinctive both for its special shape as well as its unusual iconography. The scene shows five standing youths one of whom is being crowned by a seated older man. The youth singled out for attention is certainly an athletic victor not only because he is holding branches but also because he is followed by a youth bearing a splendid tripod, even the rivets of which are carefully detailed by this exceptional artist. The scene bears a problematic inscription that Furtwaengler, who took notice of the vase as early as 1905, and Beazley believed to be nonsense. Pickard-Cambridge, on the other hand, read it as the horse command "gee up", and hence believed the victor to be an equestrian. It should now be considered as a proclamation of the victor, a ceremony that we know took place at the Panathenaia.1 It is unfortunate that less than half of the other side of this vase is preserved since it could, like another of this painter's works, have pictured two Hermes, in a single scene (an interesting possibility not mentioned by S.)

Certainly the most tantalizing of the black-figure vases is a fragment of a dinos attributed to Exekias by Beazley but never listed by him in Attic Black-figure Vase-painters. Perhaps he couldn't explain the figural scene which appears inside the rim like the warships on other dinoi. Here, however, a bearded male lying on his back holds a grape leaf in his raised left hand and what looks like a phallus in his lowered right. Since the figure is wearing an ivy wreath and is floating amidst a grape vine, the author suggests that he is Dionysos. Such explicit sexual behavior is more typical of satyrs, and since there does not appears to be a human ear, one wonders whether we may be dealing here with one of the rowdy followers of Dionysos rather than the god himself. Or could the god be holding the steering oar of the pirate ship as he floats above the wine-dark sea? In either case the existence of such a monumental, horizontally posed figure on the interior of a dinos is unprecedented, but not entirely surprising given Exekias' reputation for innovation.

Of special interest to classicists will be a red-figure cup by the Akestorides Painter which shows a youth displaying a book roll with a four-line stoichedon text. Both Beazley and Immerwahr have suggested readings which S. conflates in her commentary by citing Beazley's Greek (Iliad 9.399 or 13.638) and Immerwahr's translation "he who heeds me, will prosper."2 The author has also mistaken a sponge cum aryballos hanging above the boy holding the book roll on side A for a writing case. Since these objects clearly signify the palaestra, and the youth in the tondo is holding jumping weights, one could see the central youth on each exterior side as the same person shown in three different guises: as athlete (weights), musician (lyre) and school boy (writing case).

One of the more challenging aspects of this collection is the fragmentary red-figure cups from the second half of the 5th century which were found at Orvieto. Joining fragments have been located as far away as Freiburg, Erlangen, Göttingen, Mainz, and Vienna, and as close at hand as the University of Chicago, a result of a sale of sherds to Prof. Frank B. Tarbell by the Smithsonian in 1896. Of great use to scholar are the composite photographs that visually reassemble these vases for the first time. A number of them show courting scenes, either men and boys or men and hetairai, although they are not identified as such in the catalogue. While some of these kylix scenes are not interpreted at all, a number of others are identified as "school scenes" for no obvious reason. For instance, a fragmentary cup by the Curtius Painter that shows a draped male seated beneath a wrapped shield and sword and flanked by two youths is identified by S. as a school scene (p. 54). Yet later (p. 55) the author tells us in relation to another cup: "the scene, illustrating youths and men, often with the shield and sword hanging in the field, is the palaestra..." A thorough editing might have provided greater consistency and eradicated such contradictions.

Since there are no entries published later than 1990 in the bibliography, one can assume that this volume was a long time in production. As such it lacks up-to-date references for some painters, shapes and iconography. Nonetheless it is important to vase-painting scholars around the world that these vases have been published at long last with clear and complete photographic documentation. It is to be hoped that the rest of the collection will also be published, and that someday its installation might do honor to our democratic ancestors.


1. See P. Valavanis , "La Proclamation des vainquers aux Panathenaes," BCH 114 (1990) 325-59, esp. 339-40, and J. Neils, Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens (Hanover 1992) 15-17.

2. Beazley in AJA 52 (1948) 339; Immerwahr in Classical, Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Honor of Berthold Louis Ullman, ed. C. Henderson (Rome 1964) 22.