South Italian pottery

South Italian pottery refers to Ancient Greek pottery manufactured in this area, which was also known as “Magna Graecia”, largely in the fourth century BC. Athenian painted pottery had continued to be exported from Attica to a wide variety of places, including Italy, since the sixth century BC, and was perceived as a mark of high status and considered exceptionally beautiful due to the distinctive colour of Attic clay which gave pottery from this region its striking red hue. Attic potters and painters choosing to settle in Southern Italy during the mid-fifth century established workshops there and, soon, local artists began to learn their methods and techniques, meaning that imports from Athens were no longer desirable.

Though the South Italian potters employed similar techniques and favoured similar subject-matters to their Attic counterparts, nevertheless they adapted certain features and developed new practices, so that the emergence of a distinctive South Italian style can be discerned. The five main South Italian vase-producing regions were Apulia, Lucania, Paestum, Campania and Sicily, which in turn owned their own workshops, featuring their own unique characteristics.

Museum replicsa of Ancient Greek red figure vases and pottery

calyx krater depicting a comic play

Perhaps most obvious in South Italian pottery is the development of existing and the creation of new vase shapes in keeping with local tradition. For example, Apulian potters, preferring elaborate and flamboyant designs, took the traditional forms of the volute krater and loutrophoros and rendered their appearance much fancier. Similarly, the conventional forms of the Attic Panathenaic amphora, oinochoe and lekythos were exaggerated, with volute handles and decorative gorgon heads added, creating elegant and even more intricately rendered new varieties.

As well as the elaboration of such existing types, new shapes were created through experimentation with and adaptation of local Italic designs. In contrast to the usual amphora featuring double handles on the neck or shoulder, the bail amphora was invented in Campania, which used only a single handle across the mouth of the vessel. So too, the local Italic Messapian trozzella provided inspiration for the nestoris, a distinctive looking piece with a deep belly, a large pair of curved handles from neck to shoulder, as well as a pair of lug handles for practicality, and decorative moulded rosettes.

Museum replicsa of Ancient Greek red figure vases and pottery

bell krater depicting a scene from phlyax play

In addition to these innovations in vase shapes, South Italian artists also employed their own preferences with regard to painting techniques and style, and subject-matter. Whilst subject matter was for the most part based on the Attic repertoire, namely, depictions of well known myths, scenes from daily life, and representations of divinities, particularly Dionysus, we also see in South Italian iconography the depiction of indigenous peoples, the Messapians and Oscans, wearing their native armour and clothing.

A feature of Campanian pottery was the incorporation of the natural environment in compositions; it is common to see figures depicted leaning against, seated upon or resting their legs upon rocks and boulders. Similarly popular in this region were fish plates, featuring detailed representations of a wide variety of different sea creatures, a reflection of the importance of fishing and trade in this region.

Museum replicsa of Ancient Greek red figure vases and pottery

detail showing actors in native Italic dress

A subject which seems to have been particularly popular is that of tragic and comic performance, the latter referred to as “phlyax vases” after a type of farce that had developed in South Italy, featuring stock characters with exaggerated features and grotesque masks. The so-called Pronomos Vase, named after the Boeotian flautist Pronomos who is depicted in a central position on the vase, remains one of our most important pieces of evidence for Ancient Greek theatre, due to the wealth of information it provides regarding the roles of characters, costumes and musicians in satyr plays.

Museum replicsa of Ancient Greek red figure vases and pottery

calyx krater by the famous South Italian vase painter, Python, depicting Alkmene seated on her pyre

In terms of decoration, Apulian artists were fond of using coiling tendrils , swirls, floral motifs and palmettes to fill the plain black background of the vase, as well as floating portraits or cameo faces of nymphs and satyrs, which gives an overall effect of a much more elaborate, “busy” composition, compared with those of Attic origin. The compositions are often rendered in polychromatic form, with white, yellow purple and red slips added to the surface of the vase after firing, and the building up of layers of slip was carried out in order to achieve the effect of chiaroscuro shading. In a departure from the traditional Attic method used to create red-figure ware, in which the outlines of the figures were drawn and the negative spaces painted with slip, which would then turn black once fired, artists in Etruria applied red and white slips on top of the black gloss to create their figures, a technique known as the “false red figure technique”.

Museum replicsa of Ancient Greek red figure vases and pottery

an elaborate trozzella

Like most surviving Attic pottery, the names of the potters and painters responsible for the creation of South Italian vases were not recorded, but rather through study of individual stylistic details scholars, such as Beazley, have been able to discern specific “hands” and to attribute modern nomenclature to specific vases, for example “the Berlin Painter”, or “the Spotted Rock Painter”. However, Paestan vase painting is unique in that it is the only region in South Italy in which signatures of vase painters have been preserved, specifically, a certain Asteas and his colleague Python, who are thought to have been highly influential in this region and responsible for developing the ware’s stylistic canons.

Museum replicsa of Ancient Greek South Italian vases and pottery

detail of the handles of the Pronomos vase

Author: Alexandra Hamburger for It’s All Greek.

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