BMCR 2013.10.48

La Collezione Astarita nel Museo gregoriano etrusco, Parte I, 1: ceramica greca a figure nere di produzione non attica

, La Collezione Astarita nel Museo gregoriano etrusco, Parte I, 1: ceramica greca a figure nere di produzione non attica. Città del Vaticano: Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2012. 101; xxxvi p. of plates. ISBN 9788882712556. €38.00 (pb).

Those with an interest in black-figure pottery produced outside of Athens will find the current volume a nice addition to their shelves. It is a much anticipated prequel to the same author’s catalogue of Attic black-figure from the Astarita Collection housed in the Vatican Museums.1 Further volumes on Etruscan ceramics and Attic red-figure remain in the pipeline. The history of the collection of the Naples-born collector, Mario Astarita, and its donation to the Vatican in the late 1960s, are mentioned only briefly in the introduction to the present volume. Instead, readers are directed to the 2002 Attic black-figure study (pp. 9-16) for the full account of Astarita’s antiquities and his interactions with such vase-painting luminaries as the late Sir John Beazley and the late Dietrich von Bothmer (the latter to whom the current publication is dedicated). Perhaps unexpectedly, this volume begins with ‘Addenda and Corrigenda’ to Ceramica attica a figure nere, the most significant being the photographic (partial) reconstruction of a proto type-A cup based on the discovery and publication of more fragments and ‘joins’.

The catalogue of non-Attic wares is elegantly produced and presents 53 pots, cups, and fragments made in various black-figure workshops and locations. Sections are divided into Corinthian, Euboean, East Greek, Boeotian, and unidentified fabrics. Illustrations are generous, many are in color, and details are given of some of the larger, better preserved, or more highly decorated pieces. The author’s interest in black-figure fabrics outside Athens hardly comes as a surprise, and his authoritative study of Chalcidian ceramics has become a staple in the field of ancient Greek pottery studies.2 The cataloguing begins on a high note with Corinthian vases, clearly the best of the bunch in terms of artistic quality and actual quantity (44 entries in total). The range of shapes is wide and includes familiar forms from the region and elsewhere: kraters, a hydria, oinochoai, an alabastron, aryballoi, an exaleiptron (or “kothon”), kotylai, and uncertain/unknown shapes. The pièce de résistance is without a doubt the “Astarita Krater”, a Late Corinthian red-ground column-krater dated to c. 560 BC — an object so well-known amongst specialists it has inspired its own Wikipedia entry. Iozzo devotes more than ten pages to its form, condition, technical details, past scholarship, composition, and its thus far unique iconography. It represents a little-known episode from the Trojan Cycle : the peaceful, if unsuccessful, request for the return of Helen (or apaitesis) by Menelaus, Odysseus, and Talthybius, attributed to the lost epic poem, the Cypria. The vase is exceptional not only for its complex imagery, but also for its “lavish use of inscriptions,” to quote Darrell Amyx.3 The details of the clothing and attributes, anatomy and posture of each figure are described in full, a luxury not always afforded in modern publications of Greek vases. Although some readers may find this approach excessive, even unnecessary, such particulars are extremely helpful to scholars who deal with excavation pottery or dabble in vase attribution. A second vase of similar style and date is given relatively extensive treatment. It is an inscribed hydria partially recomposed from fragments, showing another rare Trojan scene: the aristeia of Patroklos. As with the Astarita Krater, the author synthesizes past scholarly interpretations (from both visual and literary perspectives) using his own voice and, more importantly, the discerning eye of a seasoned pottery specialist.

Other fabrics have fewer fans and a more limited number of specialists eager to confront them. Euboean decorated pottery, both figural and non-figural, was first studied seriously in the mid-20 th century by A.D. Ure, John Boardman, and Dietrich von Bothmer.4 Although not yet completely understood, over the years Euboean vases have received steady attention based on new discoveries, or studies of specific objects or collections. The single example from the Astarita corpus is a neck-amphora. It portrays boxers fighting over a tripod on both sides, an iconographic choice leading to abundant comparanda (both Attic and Euboean) of shape and decoration. A Euboean black-figure lekythos in the British School at Athens representing boxers with nose bleeds should be added to the parallels.5 The East Greek, Laconian, and Boeotian wares are represented by very few objects. Iozzo identifies three cups among his ‘Greco-Orientale’ category, among them a Chian chalice fragment of c. 600-590 BC depicting part of a volute on its exterior. The single Laconian cup fragment has figure decoration on the interior (as is typical) and shows a pair of heraldic water birds in the exergue. The piece, dated to the middle of the 6 th century, was studied previously by Shefton and Stibbe, who have attributed it to the Hunt Painter and the Manner of the Hunt Painter respectively. An isolated fragment thought to be of Boeotian manufacture belongs to an uncertain shape, perhaps an exaleiptron, itself one of the region’s most discussed and debated shapes. The full attention given by the author to this and other minor pieces in some sense reflects the interests of Astarita himself, the collector who acquired the magnificent Corinthian krater mentioned above alongside many interesting Athenian and non-Athenian fragments.

Among the items of uncertain fabric, one stands out as particularly compelling. The fragment preserves the top part of a small neck-amphora, including the rim, neck, handles, and part of the shoulder. On each side of the neck appear two isolated floral-palmettes. The fragmentary vase was published in Paralipomena, where it is listed as belonging to the Uprooter Class, a group of small neck-amphorae assembled by Beazley in ABV with the tag “These seem Attic”.6 The challenge of identifying this object with an ancient workshop, or even a region of pottery production, becomes immediately apparent, and additional suggestions made for the ‘class’ of vases range from Boeotian (perhaps Tanagra) to Etruscan. In the absence of either a complete profile to indicate the exact form, or indeed of an archaeological context, neither Beazley, von Bothmer nor Iozzo could be totally confident about the place of manufacture. Furthermore, the description in Paralipomena includes “two athletes” on both sides, but, according to Iozzo (p. 79), there is no record of these figure-decorated fragments ever arriving at the Vatican. The presence of such iconography might have aided our understanding of production origin and confirmed the initial attribution. Nevertheless, such a situation is a potent reminder of the need for ongoing scientific analysis of a greater number and range of ceramic vessels from various ancient Mediterranean regions. Sometimes the naked eye is simply not enough.

Iozzo’s catalogue of non-Attic vases in the Astarita Collection can be recommended for two purposes. Firstly, it should be used as a reference work, offering up some new examples of decorated vessels and fragments that may be cited as comparanda. The thorough treatment of individual examples saves us a great amount of effort searching for a particular fabric or a specifically interesting figure or theme. However, its use for that specialist audience – especially with regard to the sherds – will be limited to figures and decorative motifs, because profile drawings of the forms have not been included for most entries. Secondly, this study documents yet another segment of the antiquities assembled by a legendary collector, but now housed in one of the world’s foremost museums. Publications such as this one add to our essential knowledge of the history of collecting and provide insight about the interests and taste of the individual collector. These days, not every museum would fund or support such a lavish enterprise directed mostly at mere pot sherds, and even a dedicated volume of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum would never allow space for the niceties of iconographic analysis or extensive summarizing of past scholarship. Yet in a case like this one, even where most are not beautiful vases and many are merely the parts, such extensive treatment of the whole seems merited.


1. Vasi antichi dipinti del Vaticano. La Collezione Astarita nel Museo gregoriano etrusco, Parte II,1: ceramica attica a figure nere. Città del Vaticano: Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2002, reviewed by Elizabeth Moignard, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 125 (2005), 188-189.

2. Ceramica ‘calcidese’: nuovi documenti e problemi riproposti. Rome: Società Magna Grecia, 1994.

3. Corinthian Vase-Painting of the Archaic Period.Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988, 264.

4. See here 67, fn. 253 for a complete bibliography.

5. T.J. Smith, “Black-Figure Vases in the Collection of the British School at Athens,” Annual of the British School at Athens 98 (2003) 365, no. 54, pl. 68e-g.

6. J.D. Beazley, Paralipomena, 2 nd edn. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, 294, 3 quarter); and J.D. Beazley, Attic Black-Figure Vase-Painters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956, 589.