BMCR 2012.03.17

The Pronomos Vase and its Context

, , The Pronomos Vase and its Context. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xiv, 299. ISBN 9780199582594. $150.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The Pronomos Vase is arguably the most celebrated artwork that is associated with the ancient Greek theatre. Made in Athens ca. 400 BCE, discovered in a tomb at Ruvo di Puglia in 1835, and taken off display after the Irpinia earthquake in 1980, this red-figure volute krater now resides in the storerooms of the Museo Nazionale in Naples. It continues to fascinate scholars owing to both its Athenian theatrical imagery and its South Italian provenance.

Indeed, the crowd of 31 labeled theatrical and Dionysian figures on the vase’s frieze is striking. Side A carries representations of the aulos-player Pronomos, Dionysos and his companion Ariadne, a female attendant, the playwright Demetrios, a costumed cast, a chorus of a satyr play, and, perhaps, a choregos named Charinos. Most of the costumed actors and chorus members hold their masks and bear names that can refer to real people. Side B, moreover, depicts a rural scene with Dionysos and Ariadne, satyrs, and maenads. Tripods mark the transitions between these scenes. Since its discovery, scholars have scrutinized the vase’s illustrations of Greek theatrical costumes and masks, and they have sought to understand what the two “sides” of the frieze represent and mean. The vase’s findspot in South Italy is noteworthy, too, and it prompts many questions: To what extent did South Italian viewers appreciate images of Greek theatre? Was the vase made for South Italian consumers? Or was it designed for Athenians and later brought to Italy as part of a second-hand trade? Because of its iconography and contexts, then, the vase serves as a useful focal point for a variety of theatrical, historical, and representational issues. And so it is fitting that, in this book, editors Oliver Taplin and Rosie Wyles assemble an interdisciplinary team of scholars who approach the vase from different perspectives. Their volume is the result of a conference sponsored by the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama at Oxford, and it is a valuable addition to the informative publications that APGRD has produced.

The book’s essays are organized thematically. The first group successfully presents the vase to the reader. Here, in the introduction, Taplin and Wyles establish the vase’s importance for the study of ancient Greek theatre, and they emphasize the collegial dialogue that develops among the volume’s contributors. In the next essay, Thomas Mannack provides a detailed description of both the vase and the Pronomos Painter, who was recognized by Sir John Beazley and named after the aulos-player who is depicted on this work. Lucilla Burn then discusses both the vase’s Athenian production and its South Italian reception, giving an informative overview of Ruvo and the Pronomos Tomb. She also notes the rarity of the volute-krater form among Greek pottery—and the suggestive Italian preference for it. She draws upon recent work concerning the reception of Greek pottery in Italy, and she reminds us that, while the vase provides extraordinary evidence for the visuality of the Athenian theatre, it also helps to reconstruct the reception of Greek culture in Italy.1 Finally, François Lissarrague offers a fascinating review of the two-dimensional representations of the vase that have informed scholarship over the past two centuries. He notes the difficulty of reproducing the vase in publications, and he urges us to consider it as a three-dimensional object with a continuous frieze. In this introductory portion of the book, a foldout key to the vase’s figures is a thoughtful insertion (perhaps it would be even more helpful, though, if it were printed on its other side, so that one could easily refer to it while reading the volume). Also useful are photographs of the vase that are shot from different angles. While these images are blurrier than one would like, they convey the vase’s three-dimensionality. Since relatively few 21 st -century readers have seen the vase in person, their inclusion is especially important.

The second group of essays deals with the vase’s Dionysiac significance. Taking its South Italian funerary context into account, Mark Griffith maintains that the vase carries a generalized representation of the moments before or after a tragic-satyric performance, and he reconstructs the viewer’s process of understanding the continuous frieze as the sum of its component parts. For Griffith, the vase deals with Dionysian celebration; the relationship between tragedy and satyr plays; the contrast between theatrical and wild satyrs; and, perhaps, immortality. Next, Claude Calame, too, considers the viewing of the vase, but he offers a different interpretation of what he labels its “ritual” and “mythical” scenes. Exploring the aetiological endings of performances, he suggests that the frieze’s tripods refer to an idealized ritual celebration of victory after the Great Dionysia. He proposes that the obverse recalls the ritual performance, the reverse represents the mythical realm that inspired it, and, overall, the vase honors Dionysos. Thus both Griffith and Calame admirably study the vase not as a mere reflection or “snapshot” of a real theatrical event (or, for that matter, of a previously-made artwork) but as an independent cultural product that prompts the viewer to think about theatrical issues. Lastly, Eric Csapo argues that the vase was made for export to South Italy, noting that choral victory had metaphorical significance in Ruvo’s tombs. He also proposes that the vase adapts imagery from Athenian choregic dedications for its own use. What is more, he boldly dissociates the famous historical musician Pronomos from the vase’s frieze, suggesting that naming the aulos-player “Pronomos” is similar to labeling the drummer in a generic rock band “Ringo”: both create the semblance of verisimilitude. Along the way, Csapo also gives an informative summary of choregic monuments, including a catalogue in an appendix. Overall, he provides a thoughtful and convincing explanation for the production and the export of the vase.

The third group of essays explores the vase’s relationship with theatrical personnel. For Klaus Junker, the vase provides information about the roles of the polis and the individual in the changing institution of the Athenian theatre. In his wide-ranging essay, he explores the transition from vases that represent specific theatrical scenes to monuments that promote the status of theatrical participants. He also offers a helpful observation: modern viewers find the vase difficult to interpret because it combines a realistic vocabulary with a symbolic syntax. Robin Osborne then investigates the popularity of the names that are mentioned on the vase, determining that some were overly- common while others were rare. Such an unusual assemblage, he proposes, would have held different meanings for South Italian and Athenian viewers. In South Italy, a collection of names that appeared international would have achieved an effect of realism. Yet in Athens, it would have looked artificial and thus would have challenged viewers to think about representation and theatricality. Building upon the previously-published work of Junker, this essay is an especially valuable contribution to the book.2 Next, Edith Hall examines the significance of two figures on Side A of the vase: the playwright Demetrios and the woman by the side of Dionysos and Ariadne. According to Hall, Demetrios’s papyrus rolls highlight the importance of literacy in theatrical preparation, and they refer to the complete performance that the vase celebrates. Interestingly, she suggests that one roll is his tragic trilogy and the other—in his hand—is his satyr play that just finished. Moreover, she identifies the woman as a personification of Tragoidia, who sometimes is depicted as the attendant of Dionysos. Finally, Peter Wilson examines the vase’s representations of Pronomos and Charinos. He reviews what is known about the historical Pronomos, discussing his status as a Theban cultural icon, his reception in Athens, and the social status of aulos-playing. This exploration of ethnic and social identity is an important addition to scholarship about the vase. Furthermore, Wilson wonders whether the vase’s frieze is based on a painting that was commissioned by Charinos, a victorious choregos who is depicted on the vase. Since the vase shows Charinos, lyre in hand, listening to the aulos-playing of Pronomos, Wilson notes that the vase calls attention to his appreciation of the arts.

Lastly, the fourth group of essays deals with the theatrical events and costumes that appear on the vase. Bernd Seidensticker examines the textual and visual evidence for dancing in satyr plays, concluding that it was vigorous, mimetic, and sometimes obscene. Yet he does not neglect the satyrs on our vase: calculating the number of satyrs in both of its scenes, he finds (in a footnote) that they suggestively add up to the fifteen satyrs in a performance. Wyles then studies the costumes that appear on the vase and makes several contributions to the history of costume design. For example, she questions whether Herakles is wearing kothornoi (tragic boots), thus casting doubt on the presumed standard use of kothornoi in the classical period. She also discusses the semiotics of foreign clothing in Athenian theatre, associates the vase’s depiction of elaborate fabric with the theatrical display of wealth. In the book’s final essay, Taplin briefly summarizes the contributors’ main ideas about the vase before giving his own assessment. Exploring the framing of Greek plays, he proposes that the frieze represents a curtain call after a victorious performance, when actors removed their masks and the audience recognized the distinction between theatre and real life. Since the book’s contributions are so diverse, Taplin’s essay is more appropriate and effective than a traditional conclusion.

In this book, Taplin and Wyles foster a dynamic conversation among the contributors, who often refer to each other in both the text and the footnotes, revisit the same issues, and disagree with one another. Contributors work together to explain the vase’s production, export, and viewing, and Taplin and Wyles allow the reader to decide which explanations are most convincing. Thus the reader feels herself to be an active participant in the ongoing discussion, and a broad range of scholars will find the volume to be useful.

Table of Contents

1. Oliver Taplin and Rosie Wyles, “Introduction”
2. Thomas Mannack, “A Description”
3. Lucilla Burn, “The Contexts of the Production and Distribution of Athenian Painted Pottery around 400 BC”
4. François Lissarague, “From Flat Page to the Volume of the Pot”
5. Mark Griffith, “Satyr Play and Tragedy, Face to Face”
6. Claude Calame, “Aetiological Performance and Consecration in the Sanctuary of Dionysos”
7. Eric Csapo, “The Context of Choregic Dedications”
8. Klaus Junker, “The Transformation of Athenian Theatre Culture around 400 BC”
9. Robin Osborne, “Who’s Who on the Pronomos Vase?”
10. Edith Hall, “Tragic Theatre: Demetrios’ Rolls and Dionysos’ Other Women”
11. Peter Wilson, “The Man and the Music (and the Choregos?)”
12. Bernd Seidensticker, “Dance in Satyr Play”
13. Rosie Wyles, “The Tragic Costumes”
14. Oliver Taplin, “A Curtain Call?”


1. E.g., C. Reusser, Vasen für Etrurien (Zurich 2002); O. Taplin, Pots and Plays. (Los Angeles 2007), esp. 5-22; B.B. Rasmussen, “Special Vases in Etruria: First- or Secondhand,” in Papers on Special Techniques in Athenian Vases, edited by K. Lapatin (Los Angeles 2008), 215-224; A. Avramidou, The Codrus Painter (Madison 2011). For the relationship of Greek theatre and vase-painting in Italy, see also: L. Giuliani, Tragik, Trauer und Trost (Berlin 1995); L. Giuliani, “Sleeping Furies: Allegory, Narration, and the Impact of Texts in Apulian Vase- Painting,” Scripta Classica Israelica 20 (2001): 17-38; T.H. Carpenter, “Images of Satyr Plays in South Italy,” in Satyr Drama, edited by G.W.M. Harrison (Swansea 2005), 219-236.

2. K. Junker, “Namen auf dem Pronomoskrater,” AM 118 (2003): 317-335.