Online Review: Book

La céramique grecque d'Italie méridionale et de Sicile: Productions coloniales et apparentées du VIIIe au IIIe siècle av. J.-C [and] Hermeneutik der Bilder: Beiträge zur Ikonographie und Interpretation griechischer Vasenmalerei

115.4

La céramique grecque d’Italie méridionale et de Sicile: Productions coloniales et apparentées du VIIIe au IIIe siècle av. J.-C, by Martine Denoyelle and Mario Iozzo (Manuels d’art et d’archéologie antiques). Pp. 255, b&w pls. 302, color pls. 26, maps 4. Picard, Paris 2009. €68. ISBN 978-2-708-40839-5 (cloth).

Hermeneutik der Bilder: Beiträge zur Ikonographie und Interpretation griechischer Vasenmalerei, edited by Stefan Schmidt and John H. Oakley (CVA Beiheft 4). Pp. 192, figs. 137, tables 6, map 1. C.H. Beck, Munich 2009. €59.90. ISBN 978-3-406-59321-5 (cloth).

These two very different books might reasonably be regarded as offering between them something of a conspectus of current scholarship in Greek vase painting. But consideration of what these two books do—and do not do—raises some sharp questions as to whether Greek painted pottery is entirely well served by what is being written today.

If we ask what have been the poles around which scholarship on Greek painted pottery has maneuvered in the last couple of decades, the following seem to be primary. Should pots be thought of as archaeological objects that are nothing without their context and contribute primarily to the understanding of archaeological contexts? Should they be thought of as historical evidence, revealing through their scenes what the ancient world looked like and what Greeks got up to? Or should they be thought of as art, primarily interesting for the insight they give into the way in which Greeks ordered their thought-world as they processed both stories and experiences? Should attention be devoted primarily to comprehending the production processes to understand their implications for the economy and its organization? Or should attention be turned to the identification of artists’ hands and the understanding of the role of the individual within the expressive order of a region or generation? Should what is painted on pots be viewed in terms of a series of individual oeuvres, or in terms of sets of images of particular subjects? Are the images on pots best understood as taking their inspiration from other media, above all from oral and written literature, or as in debate with, and even inspiring contributions in, other media? When one group of people acquires the pots created by another, should we think of the form and imagery of the acquired pots as irresistibly impressing themselves on the purchasers? Or should we think that those who acquired the pots browsed selectively on their purchases and took up only such features of shape or imagery to which they were already conditioned by their own past ceramic and other material experiences?

Denoyelle and Iozzo’s extremely handsome and fully illustrated volume (300 figs., many of them full-page or half-page, plus 26 color pls.) in the Picard Manuels d’art et d’archéologie antiques series leads one to think by its subtitle that it is primarily interested in pottery in its archaeological context, and in how pottery in the Greek tradition interacts with non-Greek traditions in Italy. Far from it. The authors have essentially no interest in pottery outside the Greek tradition (or indeed in pottery that is not “painted”), and no interest in how pots were used or the specific contexts in which they are found (although these are sometimes noted, and the useful boxes of discrete information include some data about particular tomb assemblages). Theirs is a world where the agency most often lies straightforwardly with imported Greek pottery—in the seventh century B.C.E., there is across Italy a “substrat commun profondément influencé par Corinthe” (47); in the sixth century, massive importation of Greek pottery “a assurement causé un appauvrissement de la créativité et de l’originalité des ateliers” (67); “On relève une influence attique plus marquée dans une autre production datée de la fin du VIe et du début du Ve siècle” (94); and so on. Only occasionally, and again largely outside their main narrative, do the authors draw attention to what might be at stake in imitation—even if it is only copying with high fidelity because of high prestige (cf. 106).

What Denoyelle and Iozzo’s volume offers us is the fullest single-volume treatment of Greek-tradition pottery produced in Italy, arranged by chronological period and region or workshop. How different pottery traditions are distinguished from one another by clay color or how they are related technically is recorded, but the primary interest is in artistic style. The two authors have a magisterial command of the material and of the scholarship about it, and their account significantly updates Trendall’s discussions. From the arrival of black-figure pottery onward, this story is told in terms of the contribution of individual artists, beginning with the Kurashiki Painter (not in the—generally useful—index). The quality of the illustrations, and the details of the descriptions, make the stylistic story both vivid and easy to follow, but the approach is essentially that seen in Beazley’s Development of Attic Black-Figure (Berkeley 1951) of 60 years ago. This is seen, too, in the relationship assumed between painting and literature. Images are talked of as illustrations: “l’illustration quasi littérale de l’épisode narré au livre X de l’Iliade” (83 [Malibu, The J. Paul Getty Museum, inv. no. 88AE56]). When it comes to the Cyclops Painter’s name vase calyx krater in the British Museum (103), the question asked is not whether or not the image is inspired by a satyr play, but whether the inspirational satyr play is Euripides’ Cyclops (and the reason for doubting that it is Euripides’ play is related only to the relative dates of pot and play). Again we have to turn to a text box (114) to get any sense that there might be another way of looking at such scenes than searching for texts or other works of art behind them.

The theoretical problems of interpretation kept concealed by Denoyelle and Iozzo are what Hermeneutik der Bilder declares to be its concern. The title suggests that we should not expect this volume to have any interest in pots as pots; rather, that it is unashamedly a volume about pictures. After two opening essays, one by Schmidt sharing the title of the volume and the other by Lissarrague entitled “Reading Images, Looking at Pictures, and After,” the volume divides into three sections labeled “Semantik,” “Diskurse,” and “Formation.” These are hardly transparent terms, and even looking at their contents it is hard to tell the first two apart: Meyer’s essay “Zur Relevanz bildlicher Darstellungen mythischer Figuren” counts as “Semantik”; Junker’s “Zur Bedeutung der frühesten Mythenbilder” as “Diskurse”; Stähli’s essay on naked women is in “Semantik”; but Sutton on lovemaking is in “Diskurse.” “Formation” is easier to distinguish: those doing studies of artists are confined here, though so, too, are Shapiro (comparing sculptural and graphic presentations of the death of Sarpedon) and Heinemann looking at imagery on perfume vessels.

At one point, Denoyelle and Iozzo distinguish distinct patterns in what has concerned French and German archaeologists, Italian archaeologists, and “les Anglo-Saxons” (26). Hermeneutik der Bilder grew out of a dispute between the two editors (Göttingen Forum für Alterumswissenschaft 9 [2006] 1001–18; http://gfa.gbv.de/z/pages) over the interpretation of white-ground lekythoi, and divisions of scholarship on national lines not surprisingly show up in this volume. French and German traditions come face-to-face at the beginning of the volume. Lissarrague’s survey of issues involved in text and image, and treating images as texts, eschews the presentation of any “definitive system.” By contrast, Meyer’s paper is divided into 12 numbered sections/propositions, each concerned with some particular aspect of the relationship of myth to imagery. Although this, too, is surprisingly unsystematic, the emphasis on the range of possible roles myth might perform and how it might perform them is salutary. The piece is somewhat undermined, however, by the failure to discuss the concept of a myth. Later in the volume, Carpenter quotes Jonathan Z. Smith on myths being “specific acts of communication between specific individuals at specific points in time and space about specifiable subjects” (158). Such an understanding of myth would seriously undermine Meyer’s paper.

Anglo-Saxon scholars, and scholars trained in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, dominate the papers that focus on a single painter or other narrowly defined corpus of pottery (e.g., Circe scenes in Stansbury-O’Donnell’s disappointing paper on the way countering iconographical expectations produces humor). It is only when a German scholar, Kreutzer, confronts the issue of attribution in a paper on Lydos that we get a serious attempt to frame the treatment in terms of methodological problems and possibilities.

But the overwhelming impression given by the volume is not of scholars from different traditions engaging with one another over issues of interpretation, but of a disparate collection of papers all in one way or another addressing interpretative problems, but most of them not terribly interested in theory or methodology. Lissarrague’s counsel that “the text is a key for us, but the image is not necessarily an illustration of that specific text” (18) simply sits next to Froning’s claim that the Getty “Birds” krater reflects an unknown satyr play, rather than a known comedy, and Carpenter’s ready identification of (lost or largely lost) plays by Euripides and Sophocles as the source for images by the Darius Painter. Similarly, Stähli’s insistence that “Ikonographischer Analyse kann es nicht darum gehen, durch Interpretation isolierter Bildelemente eine in sich schlüssige Gesamtdeutung eines Bildes vorzulegen, die dann auf alle Bilder, die Segmente desselben Bildvokabulars aufweisen, übertragen wird” (49) sits uncomfortably next to Kunze-Götte’s paper on the theme of the grave in white-ground lekythoi, with its dominant emphasis on the representation of the tomb, Sutton’s relentless focus on sex scenes, and Seifert’s attempt to read out of the representation of children on Athenian pots the norms and roles inculcated by the phratry and oikos. It is not that Stähli’s paper renders these other analyses void, but that the tension between the methods of interpretation employed should have been brought out into the open, not left unremarked and undiscussed.

The failure of the contributors to foreground their methodological and theoretical disagreements is one reason why this volume fails to break new ground. Although there are certainly new data here, in particular in the contributions by Sutton and Heinemann, there is hardly an argument or claim that will cause surprise. Almost without exception, the papers move within well-established circles of reference. But if the contributors talk past one another, with the sole exception of Hedreen on Dionysiac vase imagery, they, like Denoyelle and Iozzo, even more talk past archaeologists and ancient historians. Evidently, the interpretation of pictures can ignore archaeological context, show scant regard for assemblages, flatten regional differences, and turn a blind eye to cultural interaction between producers and consumers. For contributors to this volume, how to interpret paintings on pots is a problem not even worth getting into an academic fight about. No surprise, then, that other classicists, archaeologists, and ancient historians all treat scholarship on vase painting as having no consequences for them. But our understanding of the ancient world should depend as much on our ability to interpret painted pottery as on our ability to read ancient texts. It will not do so until both those who write manuals and those who engage in case studies on specialized material themselves decide that their work has to engage with archaeologists, historians, and classicists more generally, and come to situate their work with regard to the bigger agenda.

Robin Osborne
Faculty of Classics
University of Cambridge
Sidgwick Avenue
Cambridge CB3 9DA
United Kingdom
ro225@cam.ac.uk

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Osborne

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