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From Clay to Stone: Monumentality and Traditionalism in Volterran Urns

From Clay to Stone: Monumentality and Traditionalism in Volterran Urns


Representations of vases are remarkably common in Volterran urn sculpture of the second and early first centuries B.C.E. Among these, the closely related shapes of the bell and calyx kraters stand out. Not only do they occur much more frequently than representations of other vessel types on the front reliefs of the sculpted urns, they were also reproduced as monumental versions of ceramic kraters that were used as funerary urns. On the sculpted urns, the motif of the calyx/bell krater is limited to two specific types of scene: the Abduction of Helen and the somewhat obscure scena del vaso nel mezzo ("scene with a vase in the middle"). Because calyx/bell kraters had commonly been used as ash urns since the fourth century B.C.E., this article argues that the choice to represent clay vases in the more monumental medium of stone sculpture should be regarded as a deliberate cultural statement. The intimate association between the kraters and burial in Volterra meant that their inclusion in a mythological scene on an urn relief helped relate the narrative specifically to the rite of passage of the deceased individual. Even more important, however, are the tensions between cultural conservatism and aspiration that are revealed by the representation of ceramic kraters either as stone burial urns or on stone burial urns. While the increasing adoption of sculpted urns by elites betrayed their desire for monumental display, the re-creation of increasingly obsolete and distinctly humbler clay urns in the new medium suggests a social conservatism, as a result of which traditional ritual customs were idealized.


DOI: 10.3764/aja.113.1.39