BMCR 2007.11.16

Greeks on the Black Sea: Ancient Art from the Hermitage

, , Greeks on the Black Sea : ancient art from the Hermitage. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007. xiii, 307 pages : illustrations (chiefly color), color maps ; 30 cm. ISBN 9780892368839. $65.00.

Table of Contents

Greeks on the Black Sea is a magnificent addition to the few scholarly monographs and museum catalogues available in English about art from the Greek colonies in the Black Sea region in the sixth century B.C. This is the Getty Museum’s publication of an exhibition of the Hermitage’s permanent collection of Greek Art from the Black Sea held at the Getty from June 14 through September 3, 2007. Like most of the publications of the Getty Museum, it measures up to the high standards for photographic imagery, catalogue descriptions and scholarship of the particular region. The ten short chapters are authored by seven well-respected Russian scholars and cover different aspects of Greek art from the Black Sea. These chapters precede the catalogue, which is usefully organized by archaeological site. There is a short glossary of terms that precedes the bibliography. This catalogue is a remarkable aid to the study of material culture from this region and is especially welcome because the scholarship of the last three decades has been accessible only to Russian speakers. Although the majority of the articles are short and leave the reader wanting more, this is nevertheless a rich and beautiful addition that presents a coherent new assessment of a region long neglected in the field of classical art and archaeology.

The first three essays introduce the readers to the history of the archaeological excavation and display of the objects in the museum. The collection warranted the construction of a whole new wing of the museum. The following chapters address the stylistic and iconographic aspects of the material culture of the region. The last three chapters discuss the engraver Dexamenos, barbarian art, and the decoration of wooden sarcophagi in the Roman period; these chapters demonstrate clearly that the barbaric art of this region deserves its own place in art history of the Black Sea region, which flourished well into the 3rd century A.D. The chapter headings reflect a chronological and thematic approach to the study of the artifacts of this area but the material is frequently repetitive. The exhibition is replete with examples of red-figured vases, sculpture, sarcophagi, portrait busts and exquisite metalwork

Non-Russian scholarship in this region is scant, particularly in the area of material culture, because the objects were privately held in European collections and then donated to the Hermitage, and thus were published only in Russian. In the last two decades, Russian excavations have brought many new archaeological finds to the fore. This is the first major exhibition in the U.S. to showcase the great variety of material, both imported and produced in the cities of the Black Sea region by the Greeks. This exhibition presents the cross-cultural influences of western and eastern Greek culture and society. In Chapter 1 Kalashnik discusses “the historiography of the Hermitage collection of antiquities and notes that it was closely linked to the growth of interest in the newly settled territories.” (2) The first two objects, a silver cup and a pyxis found in 1818, are included in the exhibition. The Hermitage antiquities collection became prominent in the 1860s when some of the more important Bosporan objects were displayed. The Kerch room contains the majority of the Attic-style vessels imported to the Bosporus. In 1862, the collection expanded with a sizeable donation when there was a growing sense of pride in ancient art of the Russian Black Sea region.

Butyagin, in Chapter 2, discusses the history of the Black Sea region beginning with Greek colonization. This chapter surveys the archaeological remains for each site, from Chersonesos, Tyras, Olbia and others, chronologically up to the Roman period. In Chapter 3, Anna Trofimova’s discussion of the art of the Black Sea region overlaps with the preceding two chapters and her introductory comments seem suitable as prefatory matter. Nevertheless it forms a good transition to the next several chapters, which deal with specific categories of objects. Chapter 4 focuses on the particularities of Kerch vases, imitations of Attic fourth-century vases, named for the city on the eastern shore of the Crimean peninsula in which all examples have been excavated. In Chapter 5 Davydova analyzes the limited types of Bosporan kingdom sculpture and highlights examples of the head of the goddess, Cybele, discovered in Chersonesos in 1903. Anna Trofimova surveys the types of portraits that are patterned on the Praxitelean model. The latter style of portraiture was created by the court sculptors of Mithridates and is a dynamic style, “regal” in attitude and composition. Trofimova acknowledges that this later portrait style arose from the same roots as portraiture in the Greek mainland, but states that it arose from a need to record Mithridates’ role in society and to immortalize him. Despite the fact that portrait busts were among the most numerous objects, she fails to address the issue of portrait as propaganda, a role that was common throughout the late Roman world. In Chapter 7, Kalashnik surveys the gold objects from Kerch and discusses their technique and style. In Chapter 8, Neverov gives a short biography of the engraver Dexamenos of Chios who was the leading artist in the fifth century B.C. In Chapter 9, Butyagin discusses the subject of Barbarian art and the intermingling of cultures. In the final chapter the discussion concerns the elaborate decoration in the first and second centuries A.D. of Bosporan sarcophagi, which were manufactured well into the Roman Imperial period. The catalogue of objects displayed at the museum follows the essays and is divided regionally and by archaeological site, twelve in total. The objects excavated in the three major colonies of Berezan, Olbia and Tauric Chersonesos are the primary focus, while finds from the Bosporan kingdom and various kurgans command less attention.

This is the first exhibition in the U.S. to focus on the arts of the Black Sea region and the catalogue is a welcome and valuable study of the material culture of the region. Trofimova pays special attention to the objects decorated with exuberant and well-preserved polychromy, for example the light blue-green and white enamel on the rosettes of necklaces and bracelet fasteners. She notes that despite the large number of jewelled objects it is difficult to trace a local artisan, even considering the large quantity and single find-spot of the objects. The kurgans are also filled with interesting and important objects, including red-figured kylikes (no. 134) and pelikes (no. 670) as well as known regional objects including gold plaques (no. 166, no. 167, and no. 168) and a vessel with the relief of Scythians (no. 138). The illustrations are excellent and the catalogue entries are informative and well written, although the bibliographies are short.

There are only a few minor problems with the book. Although some coin hoards have been found in the region, they are absent from the exhibition, as are other finds such as mosaics and glass. A discussion of the architectural and religious context of the finds would also have been welcome. However, this book is a fine addition to the scholarship of the art of the Black Sea region. The catalogue addresses the needs of scholars and students alike, and the quality of the photographs and the clarity of the entries make the catalogue all the more special.