Online Review: Book

The Derveni Krater: Masterpiece of Classical Greek Metalwork

Jasper Gaunt


By Beryl Barr-Sharrar (Ancient Art and Architecture in Context 1). Pp xvi + 239, figs. 168, color pls. 32, map 1. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2008. $75. ISBN 978-0-87661-962-9 (cloth).

In recent decades, Greek bronze vessels have justifiably commanded growing scholarly attention. An initially bewildering mass of loose handles and stray appliqués has slowly yielded secrets to patient classification, so that now these marvelous creations can be understood almost as well as their counterparts in pottery, and their plastic adjuncts and work in repoussé appreciated for the fabulous works of sculpture they can be. For archaic bronze volute kraters, the work of Rolley and, in particular, Conrad Stibbe has changed the field out of recognition. The present monograph, which concentrates extensively on a single bronze vessel, follows in a tradition that goes back to Züchner's Der Berliner Mänadenkrater (BWPr 98 [Berlin 1938]) and, more recently, Rolley's La tombe princière de Vix (Paris 2003). Appearing 30 years after Eugenia Giouri's fine monograph on the Derveni krater, this is a most welcome addition to a burgeoning literature, the more so when one reflects that this is the first monograph in the English language devoted to a single bronze vessel from the ancient world.

Chapter 1 ("Metal Vessels in Macedonian History") offers an overview of the finds from Sindos, Derveni, and Stavroupolis, which are considered imports (3). The second chapter ("The Derveni Tombs") summarizes the group of six tombs discovered north of Thessaloniki in 1962 while paying special respect to Tomb B, in which the Derveni krater was found (18–28). Chapter 3 ("The Derveni Krater") brings us to the krater itself. Extensive and important new technical documentation is supported by detailed photographs: the mouth is shown to be hammered rather than cast (31), and reason is given to believe that the inscription—in Thessalian dialect and stating Thessalian ownership—could have been added some time after the krater was made (43–4). This leads to speculation about the involvement of Thessalian families with Macedonia (44–6). Chapter 4 ("Precursors to the Derveni Krater") discusses fifth-century bronze volute kraters of Barr-Sharrar's so-called A-type, which she takes to be Attic, and the later adaptations of the handle types in South Italian potteries. A backward glance charts the morphological emergence of the A-type handle from the archaic tradition (59–61). The discussion brings up the famous Attic red-figure hydria by the Leningrad Painter depicting workers engaged in producing vessels. Barr-Sharrar follows Green in interpreting this to be a metalworkers' shop rather than a pottery (66–8).

Chapter 5, an especially rich section, is titled "Elaborated Volute Kraters of the Late 5th and Early 4th Centuries." Monuments such as the Attic red-figure dinoid krater in the J. Paul Getty Museum (80–3) and other terracotta reflections of metalwork, including fourth-century Attic black-glazed vessels of various shapes, are introduced. Numismatic evidence of innovation in metal vessels is included here (83, 92–3), and the techniques of ribbing and segmenting by angle raising are described. There are comments on the origin and fifth-century use of smaller vessels with surface elaboration and on the description in Athenaeus of the highly elaborated gold and silver vessels in the third-century procession of Ptolemy Philadelphos (86–7), as well as more about Neo-Attic marble kraters (89, 93–4).

Chapters 6–8 focus intently on the krater itself. Chapter 6 ("Relief Friezes, Further Elaboration, Floral Ornament, and Workshops") brings much new observation and some new X-radiology to confirm the 1978 scientific study by George Varoufakis, proving that the oval body of the krater was hammered (from a cast bronze disc), the mouth hammered separately, and the two units then joined between the upper and lower zones of the neck (102 [pl. 17c]). A description of the process of raising the walls and hammering the repoussé is given, and the interior walls (and their ancient repairs) are not only described but illustrated in color details (102–3 [pls. 29, 30]). A painstaking account is given of the dozens of elements, cast and hammered, from which the krater was assembled (102–6). Related repoussé mirror covers and plaster casts of ancient metalwork, techniques learned possibly from Phidias' experience constructing the Athena Parthenos (106–10), lead to workshop considerations where the idea of "internationalism" (113) is a breath of fresh air. Chapter 7 ("The Major Repoussé Frieze") gives an exhaustive account of the relationship among the 10 hammered figures on the krater's main frieze, contemporary sculpture and vase painting from Athens, the Berlin Mänadenkrater, and later Neo-Attic sculpture. The hunter on the frieze, who wears only one boot, has been identified as Lykourgos or Pentheus. Barr-Sharrar argues for Pentheus (150), later amplifying this to suggest (as she has elsewhere) that "he might represent a historical initiate . . . sub specie aeternitatis" (153–54).

Chapter 8 ("Animal Friezes, Volute Masks and Cast Shoulder Figures") deals with the iconographic significance of the repoussé friezes of animals hammered into the lower body (160–63), the animals added to the upper zone of the neck (163–66), the masks of the male underworld deities placed in the handle roundels (166–68), and the four solid cast figures on the shoulder (168–75). Barr-Sharrar concludes that "[a]s each level of the iconography is studied, it seems more and more likely that the krater was designed for religious use" (160).

The final chapter ("The Uses and Workshop Origin of the Derveni Krater") brings together the salient components of the author's discussions for summary and final hypotheses. Recalling her arguments in chapter 7 (118–22), Barr-Sharrar again proposes that Dionysos' usurpation of Ariadne, his leg in her lap, may mimic a secret ritual at the Anthesteria in which the archon's wife, the basilinna, was married in a solemn ceremony to Dionysos (178–80). A putative prototype for the two figures is posited in a lost relief of the late fifth century, possibly with other figures repeated on the Derveni krater frieze. In a discussion of the initial purpose of the krater, the author suggests that the single shoe on the figure of the hunter may be "connected in some way to actual religious belief" (180). In emphasizing a separation between the krater's initial purpose and its final use (180–82), the author suggests religious significance in the entire iconographic program of the krater (182–84). A group of other objects possibly from the same workshop as the Derveni krater is then identified (184–86).

Dedicated to the memory of Peter H. von Blanckenhagen, the book is well structured and generously illustrated throughout the text with black-and-white photographs; the 32 color plates of the Derveni krater itself appear at the back of the book. The writer's passion for, and familiarity with, her material is evident; the arguments are densely textured. Here is a wealth of new observations; the insights added by discussions with metalsmiths and conservators are particularly valuable. Two arguments are structural. The proposal that the Derveni krater was made in Athens ca. 370 B.C.E., or perhaps a little earlier, has much in its favor. That it was made for religious cult purposes has been, and will likely remain, a subject for debate.

Some notes follow. In chapter 2, Williams has seen that the black-glazed vessels with gilding were imported (like some bronzes) from Athens and later gilded in Macedonia and elsewhere (13) (see D. Williams, "Gilded Pottery and Golden Jewellery," in O. Palagia and S. Tracy, eds., The Macedonians in Athens, 322–229 BC [Oxford 2003] 226–35). In chapter 4, additions to the catalogue of A-type kraters include a stray handle on the market and two kraters allegedly from the Balkans. For one of the kraters, see Minerva 16 (2005) 44. On the other, the reclining satyrs that replace the swans' heads (194 n. 2) share so much with their counterparts on louterion handles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (acc. no. 59.11.23a–e) that they may be assigned to the same workshop (see D. von Bothmer, "Newly Acquired Bronzes: Greek, Etruscan and Roman," BMMA 19 [1961] 142–43, figs. 14, 15; 146–47). Barr-Sharrar's discussion of the chronology of the A-type krater is compelling. She may one day be proven right in her assertion that the series is Attic, although for this writer, that is not quite yet clinched.

The discussion of marble vessels that adapt the metal A-type handles can be augmented subsequent to the publication of the book by the resurfacing of a remarkable Neo-Attic marble dinoid krater engraved by Piranesi (Sotheby's New York, 4 June 2009 [lot 119]). Here, the rounded body is decorated with two zones of gadroons, one falling over the shoulder, the other rising from the lower body and meeting at a band of guilloche at the point of greatest diameter. The neck is everted, the rim decorated with ovolo. The handles are descended from the A-type. This marble vessel must emulate a metal prototype like the one depicted on the Attic red-figure volute-krater fragments in Würzburg and modified in the ceramic adaptation in Malibu (75 [fig. 71], 80 [fig. 74]). Classical bronze dinoid kraters with A-type handles did not merely exist, therefore; they were famous enough to warrant the attention of later Neo-Attic artists. Since no cast foot was found with a pair of scrollwork handles in New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. nos. 96.18.10, 96.18.11; 54–5 [fig. 57a, b] [noting anomalies in their construction]), the question arises whether these, and perhaps other stray handles, too, might be assigned to dinoid volute kraters (which needed no cast feet) rather than volute kraters proper.

In chapter 7, submerged in the detailed discussion of the figures is expression of just how rare developed narrative strategies are on classical bronze vessels. Their world, such as it has come down to us, differs markedly from the ceramic series in the limited interest shown by bronzesmiths in representing mythological stories except in symbolic, emblematic terms. Technical considerations alone are insufficient explanation. To this underlying practice, the Derveni krater represents a thrilling exception.

As discussed in chapter 8, animal friezes on the necks of Attic ceramic volute kraters go back beyond the second quarter of the fifth century to the time of Exekias and are plentiful thereafter (163) (see CVA Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum 1 [United States 23] 86.AE.107, pl. 48.3). For a selection of animal appliqués from archaic bronze kraters (including lions, panthers, and deer), see Karousou's "Τεχνουργοἰ Κρατήρων: Fragmente bronzener Voluten-kratere" (AM 94 [1979] 77–91). The oinochoe in New York mentioned in chapter 9 (185, 219 n. 56) is more easily traced under its accession number (Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 09.221.10; see G.M.A. Richter, Handbook of the Greek Collection [Cambridge 1953] 112, 251, pl. 91h).

Finally, a larger question arises about the distribution of the bronze vessels from the workshop of the Derveni krater and their possible influences on local pottery. Some bronze vessels have been recovered from Macedonian contexts, but others must have been exported elsewhere. Barr-Sharrar recognizes in a Gnathian polychrome relief lekythos in Genoa (130–31 [fig. 118]) a copy of a lost bronze likely to be from the Derveni krater's workshop. This becomes all the more interesting because the bronze oinochoe in New York mentioned above (Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 09.221.10)—the handle ornamentation of which she relates to the workshop of the krater—is said to have been found at Teano. The delicate openwork palmette at the base of the handle of a black-glazed oinochoe from Tirana may be considered here, too (National Historical Museum, inv. no. 1172; A. Eggebrecht et al., Albanien: Schätze aus dem Land der Skipetären [Mainz 1988] 304, no. 183). More tantalizing is an isolated bronze stand excavated in Vani (J.Y. Chi, ed., Wine, Worship, and Sacrifice: The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani [New York 2008] 70). The very breadth of such distribution could be taken, if indirectly, to support Athenian manufacture.

With the assistance of the Getty Foundation, this book inaugurates a new series published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Ancient Art and Architecture in Context. The stated purpose, as indicated on the inside front cover, is to demonstrate "through case studies of specific artifacts and monuments, that aesthetic study, contextual investigation and technical examination are complementary tools to retrieve meaning from the past." Appropriately, the publication of this book was aided by a grant from the Archaeological Institute of America's von Bothmer Publication Fund. It is handsomely produced and impeccably edited; the series of color plates sets a new and welcome standard for images of the Derveni krater. In an age of expensive monographs, furthermore, here is a real bargain. This is a work that few will wish to be without, and there is everything to look forward to from future volumes in the series.

Jasper Gaunt
Michael C. Carlos Museum
Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia 30322


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