The Dominance of Athens

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The Dominance of Athens

Early Black-figure Pottery.

In the last quarter of the seventh century b.c.e. the Athenian pottery industry adopted the black-figure technique from Corinth, and perfected it. It would be a mistake to think of Corinth and Athens as the only centers of vase painting, for Sparta produced vases of considerable merit at this time, as did Chalcis on the island of Euboea, the cities of East Greece in Asia Minor, and the Dodecanese Islands. Nonetheless, by 550 b.c.e. Athens overtook its Corinthian rival, and its vases became the dominant imports in the western Mediterranean pottery market. Many of the vase painters who produced the masterpieces of Athenian black-figure ware can be recognized by their individual styles as well as their signatures on their work. The first black-figure artist to have a recognizable style to modern scholars is the "Nessos Painter," an anonymous artist so named because his best-known vase depicts on its neck Heracles fighting the centaur Nessos. On the belly of the vase he used a stock scene: the three dread sisters with black wings called the Gorgons, galloping in pursuit of Perseus who had just lopped off the head of one of them, Medusa. Any Greek would recognize the myth; the fact that the Gorgons' quarry, Perseus, is omitted from the scene did not matter. After the "Nessos Painter" the next group of painters with recognizable styles all still betray an artistic debt to the Corinthian pottery industry. Then about 580 b.c.e. an artist signed his name: Sophilos. It appears on four vases, three as the vase painter and one as the potter.

The Development of Vase Decoration.

Unlike the early painters who scattered ornaments over the whole surface of the vase, painters in sixth century b.c.e. confined them to definite areas, such as the neck, shoulder, and handles, or they served as frames for figured scenes. Moreover, ornaments were reduced to a limited number of standard motifs, such as the meander pattern, the lotus, palmette, ivy and laurel wreaths, scrolls, tongues, and horizontal bands. The figured scenes showed illustrations from mythology, but as time went on the scenes from everyday life became more popular. Youths are shown exercising, riding, arming for battle, or reclining at banquets and listening to music. Women are shown at household tasks. The figures were at first two-dimensional silhouettes, but after 550 b.c.e. artists experimented with three-quarter views. By 500 b.c.e. three-quarter views were completely mastered; drapery is shown with flowing lines and artists were trying linear perspective. One of the treasures of the Florence Archaeological Museum in Italy is a black-figure masterpiece, called the François Vase after its finder, Alessandro François, who discovered it in 1845 in an Etruscan tomb at Vulci in Italy. It is a volute krater—a new shape—signed by the potter Ergotimos and the painter Kleitias. It shows scenes from mythology. In a horizontal band under the rim, Peleus and Meleager face an enormous boar. They are identified by their names, so that the viewer is left in no doubt that this is the Calydonian Boar Hunt. Beneath it are friezes showing other scenes from Greek myth, with the figures carefully labelled. This krater, which was used to mix wine, evidently served as a conversation piece whenever its Etruscan owner gave a banquet. With vases such as these, by about the mid-sixth century b.c.e. Athenian potters were driving their Corinthian rivals out of the markets in the western Mediterranean.

Important Artists.

Among those artists working in the mid-sixth century b.c.e. was one who called himself "the Lydian," evidently an immigrant from the kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor. There was another who signed "Amasis," a Greek form of the Egyptian name "Ahmose," whose signature appears on eight surviving vases. His black-figure vases are particularly fine, but even greater than he was Exekias. His great masterpiece is in the Vatican Museum. He signed it "Exekias decorated and made me," indicating he was both a potter and a painter. On one side he showed Castor and Polydeuces welcomed home, on the other Achilles and Ajax playing a board game. Both heroes wear splendidly embroidered cloaks which Exekias drew with exquisite detail. Achilles wears a helmet; Ajax's helmet rests on his shield behind him. Both bend intently over the board, but Ajax bends lower. His shoulders are slumped, whereas Achilles has shoulders squared and back comparatively straight. Through the body language of the figures, Exekias subtly conveys the message that Ajax is losing the game. Another Exekias vase, a kylix, or drinking-cup, shows the god Dionysus reclining on a ship, its mast sprouting vines while dolphins surround the boat. The painting illustrates one of Dionysus' adventures in which he was captured by pirates, who failed to reverence the god; because of their impiety a grapevine sprouted from the mast and the sailors leaped overboard in terror, becoming dolphins as they did so.

The Selling of Athenian Vases.

The majority of Athenian vases in modern museums outside Greece itself come from Etruscan tombs in Italy. For the Etruscans, fine Athenian vases were the equivalent of Wedgewood and Royal Doulton china in modern times. Excavations of Etruscan tombs still yield Athenian vases, but the great age of their collection was the eighteenth century. During that century Etruscan tombs were looted for their antiquities, and the Athenian vases that were found were called "Etruscan urns" because it was thought that they were made in Etruria. One pottery workshop in Athens, belonging to an inventive potter named Nikosthenes, made a distinctive type of amphora (an ancient Greek vase with a large oval body, narrow cylindrical neck, and two handles that rise almost to the mouth of the vase) with an angular body and broad, flat handles which was made to appeal to Etruscan taste, for the shape mimics Etruscan bucchero-ware: black glaze pottery without decoration which was manufactured in Etruria. Various vase painters worked for Nikosthenes, including "the Lydian." There is a curious pattern to the find-spots of his vases. The Etruscans at Caere (modern Cerveteri) apparently liked his amphora-type since almost every surviving example is from there. His other types of pottery come mostly from Vulci. It looks as if Nikosthenes targeted these two particular Etruscan markets.

Potters' Art

Greek vases were an important export of Greece, and they are found all over the Mediterranean world, but particularly in Italy and Sicily, where Corinthian pottery dominated the markets until about 550 b.c.e. when exports from Athens came into vogue. Most of the Greek vases on museums outside Greece itself were discovered in Italy, particularly in Etruscan tombs. Ancient Etruria, which comprised the region of modern Tuscany in Italy, was the homeland of the Etruscans, a mysterious people who spoke a language unrelated to Latin or any Italic dialect, were probably immigrants from Asia Minor who developed a unique civilization that influenced early Rome, and they carried on a lively trade with Greece. Many of our best examples of Athenian black-figure and red-figure pottery were found in Etruscan tombs. Greek vases were the equivalent of Royal Doulton and Meissen china nowadays. On some of them, both the potters who made them and the artists who decorated them signed their names. They took pride in their work.

The Technique of Making a Vase

Both Corinth and Athens had clay deposits of high quality. The clay of Corinth was buff-colored, whereas the Athenian clay was a burnt siena. The first step in making a vase, after the clay was dug from its bed, was to levi-gate it. Levigation is the process of removing natural impurities from the clay, and it was done by mixing the clay with water and letting the impurities sink to the bottom. The process was repeated until the clay was pure enough for pottery-making. Then the clay was kneaded like dough to remove air bubbles and make it flexible. This process is called "wedging" the clay. Then the clay was placed on the potter's wheel, a rotating horizontal disk which the potter's apprentice turned by hand while the potter pulled the clay into the desired shape with his fingers. The body of the pot, the foot and the spout, if there was one, were all made separately, and the handles were shaped by a different method and attached to the pot. A slip made of liquefied clay was applied to the joints to hold them together.

The Role of the Vase Painter

Sometimes the potter was also the vase painter, but frequently the painter was a specialist employed by a potter. They might sign their names on the vases that they decorated, which is how we know them, but who they were, and whether they were slave or free we cannot say. Students of Greek vase paintings still use terms such as "black glaze" and "paint," but in fact, the Greek vase painters used neither glaze nor paints. Instead they drew their designs using slips of finely-sifted clay, some of which might contain pigments from metal. Then followed a three-stage firing process. In the first stage, which was the oxydizing phase, the kiln was heated to about 800 degrees Celsius and air was allowed free access. Both the pot and the slip turned red. In the second, reducing phase, the supply of oxygen into the kiln was shut off, and both pot and slip turned black, and the areas covered by the slip became partly vitrified. In the final, reoxydizing phase, oxygen was allowed in again, and the kiln was allowed to cool. The result was that the surface areas of the pot that were covered by the smooth slip, now partly vitrified, remained black whereas the coarser surface areas not covered by the slip absorbed oxygen once again and turned red. If the slip was applied too thinly, there might be a red spot in a black area, and this happened not infrequently. This was the technique used for both black-figure and the later red-figure vases which were produced in Athenian potteries. Corinthian potters were fond of a reddish-purple color, which they got by mixing a little red iron oxide into the slip. White could be produced by a slip of very fine white clay, which was not affected by the reducing process.

Red-figure Pottery.

A rival of Nikosthenes was a potter who signed his vases "Andokides," and apparently an anonymous employee in his workshop pioneered red-figure vase painting about 530 b.c.e. If not the first red-figure artist, the Andokides painter was the first to show the potential of the technique. The black-figure technique showed figures in silhouette with details incised in the black glaze with a sharp instrument, while the background was left the natural color of the reddish clay found in Attica (the territory under control of Athens). Red-figure reversed the method: the background was black glaze and the figures were the color of the red Attic clay, with details painted with a fine brush. Some of the early productions were "bilinguals"—red-figure on one side and black-figure on the other. One "bilingual" amphora was painted by the Andokides Painter in red-figure on one side, and by the Lysippides Painter in black-figure on the other. Other painters followed the lead on this new trend, including a painter named "Epiktetos," who worked in the potteries of both Andokides and Nikosthenes, and a group known to modern scholars as the "Pioneers" composed of Euphronios, Phintias, Euthymides, and a few others who seem to have belonged to a close-knit guild of painters. By the last years of the sixth century b.c.e., red-figure vases dominated the market, and red-figure ware continued to be made until near the end of the fourth century b.c.e. Black-figure production never disappeared, however. In the Panathenaic Games held each year in Athens, the first prize for the contestants was an amphora filled with olive oil, and the amphora was always decorated in black-figure technique, even long after black-figure had gone out of style.

The Red-Figure Vase Painters.

Like the black-figure artists, red-figure vase painters are mostly anonymous. Buyers seem to have been interested in the potter's workshop that manufactured the vase more than in the artist who painted it. Euphronios, who was active in the years 520–470 b.c.e. was both a potter and a painter; he signed twelve surviving vases as a potter and six as a painter. In his old age he seems to have concentrated on pottery production and employed other vase painters, some of them the finest artists of the period. One artist who worked in Euphronios' pottery was Douris, who signed his name on 39 vases that have survived, two of which he also potted. Douris worked in the first half of the fifth century b.c.e., and if the number of his surviving works is any indication, he must have been enormously productive. The survival rate for Greek vases is probably no more than an average 0.5 percent of an artist's work, and if that calculation holds true in the case of Douris, he must have produced some 78,000 vases during his productive life. His specialty was red-figure cups, but he worked in other media as well, including white-ground painting, which was a favorite decoration for lekythoi, oil flasks which were buried with the dead.

White-ground Vases.

In the fifth century b.c.e., the Athenian Empire reached the height of its prosperity, and Athenian artists made their mark on the art world. Great artists such as Polygnotus produced narrative paintings, and they influenced the vase painters. A new spirit can be detected in the years 475–450 b.c.e.; artists decorated large vases with ambitious combat scenes of, for instance, Greeks fighting Amazons, that are set in hilly landscapes where the artists tried to produce an illusion of depth by placing more distant figures at a higher level than those in the foreground. The great murals that inspired these painters have not survived, but descriptions of these works by ancient authors provide a record of them for modern scholars. Yet the skill of the painter's brushwork can be seen on white-ground vases of the fifth century b.c.e. On these, the artist covered the background with a wash of fine white clay, and then painted his figures on the white surface in the same way as he would paint on a wooden panel. The finish is not as durable as red-figure, and thus it was particularly popular for the oil-flasks that were buried with the dead. The paintings on them are often domestic scenes, but there is a cosmetics jar (a pyxis) in the Metropolitan Museum in New York that shows the "Judgment of Paris" in which Paris, the young Trojan prince, is visited by the god Hermes. Greeks, who knew their mythology very well, would have known what was taking place: Hermes was bringing Paris a message that he was to judge which of the three goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—was the most beautiful. Paris seems youthful and innocent, the picture of naivety, and yet he was about to start the Trojan War.

The End of the Red-Figure Period.

The workshops in the Kerameikos—the potters' quarter of Athens—continued to produce red-figure vases in the fourth century b.c.e., though the disintegration of the Athenian Empire meant that there were no more protected markets, and local potters in Italy and Sicily began to offer serious competition. One place where Athenian pottery still found eager customers, it seems, was in the Ukraine, and one fourth-century fashion in pottery is known as the "Kerch Style" after the city on the Black Sea where numerous fourth-century vases imported from Athens have been found. The vases discovered at Kerch improved on the basic red-figure technique by picking out details in color, especially white, yellow, and gold. Among those who were producing Kerch Style pottery was the last notable red-figure artist in Athens: the so-called Marsyas Painter, who is named for a vase of his in Berlin which depicts the flaying of Marsyas, the satyr who had lost a musical contest with Apollo. He embellished his vases with gilding, raised relief, and colors such as pink, blue, white, and green. Yet as the Athens-based workshops declined, production of red-figure vases in old Athenian markets in Italy increased. The customers were not only the Greeks who lived in the colonies planted during the great period of colonization from the mid-eight century to the end of the sixth century b.c.e. but also the native Samnite peoples who were now encroaching on the Greek cities, driven by a sharp increase in their population. They, too, liked Greek vases. About 400 b.c.e., the Greek colony of Poseidonia (now Paestum on the western shore of Italy south of Naples) had been taken over by the Samnites who denied the Greek inhabitants the right to use their own language except for one day a year, but nonetheless the pottery workshops of Poseidonia remained active. Two of their vase painters are known, Python and Assteas, who signed their names in Greek. They took the subjects for their paintings from the theater and Greek myth. Some of their scenes taken from the comic theater show performers wearing padded costumes and grotesque masks, acting on a wooden stage. These represent a type of comedy called phlyax-plays—the word phlyax means a comic parody of Greek tragedy invented by a comedian named Rhinthon. They were evidently very popular in southern Italy, and the vases give a hint of what the plays of the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes may have looked like when they were staged in Athens.


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