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Tanagras: Figurines for Life and Eternity. The Musée du Louvre’s Collection of Greek Figurines

Tanagras: Figurines for Life and Eternity. The Musée du Louvre’s Collection of Greek Figurines

By Violaine Jeammet. Pp. 300, figs. 127, color pls. 268, drawings 19. Fundación Bancaja, Valencia 2010. $45. ISBN 978-84-8471-171-1 (paper).

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The latest Louvre catalogue on Greek figurines culled from the environs of Tanagra is a masterpiece of image and text. In 2010, the exhibition Tanagras: Figurines for Life and Eternity. Collection of the Musée du Louvre, was held in Valencia, Spain, as a collaborative partnership between the Louvre and the Bancaja Cultural Centre in Valencia. Emanating from a previous exhibition of the Louvre’s Tanagra figurines that was mounted in 2003–2004 at that museum and went on to travel to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the catalogue of the 2010 exhibition not only showcases the Louvre’s corpus but also includes Tanagra figurines from other museums as well as small sculptures of various provenance that presaged the development of the Tanagra style. That style became so influential that it spawned production abroad in Magna Graecia (esp. Tarentum), Sicily, North Africa (Cyrenaica and Alexandria), the Pontic region (Amisos), Myrina and Colophon on the west coast of Asia Minor, and Cyprus. Consequently, the images associated with the 212 catalogued objects provide an authoritative visual spread of the precious figurines that were widely diffused and valued during the Hellenistic period.

The catalogue was produced, as was the exhibition, under the expert direction of Jeammet, senior curator in the Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities at the Louvre. It is much more than a presentation of selected objects, and Jeammet has assembled a team of 24 contributors who have provided professional commentary not only on individual objects but also on content for the numerous sections that make up the volume. The organization of the book truly sets it apart from other works of its kind that present materials from museum collections, and catalogue entries are embedded in seven thematic chapters giving ample treatment of the Tanagra phenomenon. A total of 36 separate essays span the gamut of information, ranging from the Mycenaean cemeteries at Tanagra to the current 21st-century archaeometric analysis of the figurines. Constraints on the length of this review preclude the acknowledgment of each essay, but all have been masterfully written, and each provides an important scholarly component adding to the success of the text.

At the outset, the reader is reminded that the correct use of “Tanagra figurine” refers to a group of draped females—but also sometimes of children and men—that were originally crafted in Athens but were soon exported to Boeotia and produced primarily in Tanagra. Clandestine looting of Tanagra tombs during the initial discovery of the figurines in 1871 compromised contexts, and molds employed in the manufacture of figurines could be used for several generations of production, so precise dating has been sacrificed for the range of 330–200 B.C.E., which is traditionally accepted for the Tanagra style. The first section of the volume, “The Historical Background,” contains essays that focus on two disparate topics: (1) the 19th- and 20th-century appetite for Tanagra figurines fueled by economic and cultural circumstances, as well as by a select group of savvy dealers; and (2) the ancient history of Tanagra and its surrounding area spanning the Mycenaean period, with the prominence of Thebes underscored, and continuing from the Archaic into the Roman period with the final eclipse of Tanagra. The section concludes with an essay providing a review of the survey of ancient Tanagra, summarizing the results of the Urban Survey of Tanagra begun in 2000 that relied on the previous critical survey and mapping work of Duane Roller. The second thematic section, “Terracotta Production in Boeotia: A Thousand Year–Old Tradition” includes six essays that address different aspects of coroplastic production, including Mycenaean clay larnakes; Boeotian Geometric pottery and bell-shaped female statuettes; seated “flat” figurines; the beginning of matte polychromy; Boeotian pottery and figurine genre scenes, all from the Archaic period; and the Classical period, focusing on the deposition of offerings in and around inhumation burials and the evidence from Athens for the importation of figurines of dancers and veiled women.

Section 3, “Tanagras from Athens and Boeotia,” includes several essays that deal with the impetus of the Tanagra style and its development. A discussion of the origin of the “Tanagra” style in Athens shortly before 330 B.C.E. with probable Corinthian influence and the near-immediate diffusion of the style, particularly northward, due to Athenian trade networks underscores the primary role Attic coroplasts played, and one essay reinforces the Attic forerunners of some popular figurine types in the Tanagra repertoire. Attic influence is emphasized in another essay that discusses the Louvre’s Campana Collection of figurines made in Attic workshops for Acropolis sanctuaries and in a style that only slightly predates Tanagra production. The final three essays of this section are devoted to Tanagra figurines per se, with one focusing on how crafting techniques involving the use of the mold allowed for mass production, while utilization of multiple molds for different body parts and creative polychromy resulted in a stock of figurines variable in form and embellishment that came to be appreciated throughout the Greek world. Another essay reinforces how critical the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C.E. and the subsequent destruction of Thebes was to the establishment of Tanagra as an important coroplastic center and its receptivity to Attic, Corinthian, and Theban imports. The final essay acknowledges that although Tanagran craft centers have not been identified, workshops have been distinguished around two key types: the “Sophoclean Lady” (cat. nos. 83–6) and the “Lady in Blue” (cat. nos. 88–91), both inspired by large-scale sculptural prototypes, the former by the bronze statue attributed to the Athenian sculptor Leochares, set up in the Theater of Dionysos, and the latter thought to have derived from a now-lost famous archetype by Praxiteles but known in a copy found at Herculaneum as the “Large Herculaneum Woman.”

The fourth thematic section of the volume, “The Meaning of the ‘Tanagras,’” encompasses several topics. Two essays cover clothing, and a review of the garments worn provides an indispensable survey of the clothes depicted on the figurines with nuances of fabric textures referenced in the better molds. Clothes were also dedicatory offerings to deities, and specific colors carried symbolic meaning. An additional four essays consider the Tanagra figurines from the aspect of ritual. The topic of cults in Boeotia is introduced and emphasizes the panoply of Olympian gods, local heroes, and deities specific to the area who received worship. Prominent were Hermes, Aphrodite, Eros, and Dionysos, and it is suggested that many of the Tanagra figurines can be associated with these particular deities, especially in their liminal aspects and transformative powers. An important cautionary proviso is raised that the prominence given to the funerary aspect of Tanagra figurines because of the illicit excavation of tombs in the 19th century that led to their discovery may unduly bias the contextual basis for how the figurines have subsequently been viewed. Survey of the upper part of the town revealed numerous sanctuaries, although no information exists for cult paraphernalia. Study of Tanagra figurines found at other sites, indeed, indicates that they could serve as temple votives as well as funerary gifts. Whether votive donations or tomb offerings, a strong case is made that the figurines fulfilled a ritual function and could represent the living or the deceased in the act of a religious ceremony.

The longest thematic section in the volume is “Following in the Steps of Alexander the Great,” which includes eight essays that address the Tanagra “phenomenon” throughout the Greek world, detailing the Attic impetus for the style with infusion from Corinthian coroplastic and metalworking influences and the spread northward to Boeotia. Expansive Attic trade networks and widening cultural horizons at the end of the fourth century B.C.E. made the distribution of Tanagra figurines inevitable, with imports and the local use of derivative molds establishing a relatively consistent widespread style and high level of quality seen in Alexandria and Myrina in Asia Minor. During the third century, the diffusion of Tanagra figurines continued, sometimes with local variations or proclivities favored, with production documented over a wide area from Cyprus, Cyrenaica, and throughout Italy and Sicily—with Magna Graecia and especially Tarentum dominating—and the style reached Samnium, Latium, and Etruria through intermediary production centers.

The next section of the book is a single but very important essay that presents a summary of the scientific analysis that was conducted on a subset of the Tanagra figurines being prepared for inclusion in the 2003 exhibition; intent on determining original objects from modern copies when a massive forgers’ market was rampant during the 19th century, when the Louvre was acquiring figurines for its collection, luminescence dating revealed that few of the Louvre Tanagras were not original. Furthermore, physiochemical study of the clay along with stylistic analysis of the selected figurines suggested three different production centers for the Louvre material: Tanagra, Thebes, and Athens.

The final thematic section of the volume (“Colourful Figurines”) and the three essays in this section focus on the polychrome decoration that the Tanagra figurines so brilliantly display. The pictorial effects achieved by a limited palette used by painters of the figurines as well as the sophisticated craftsmanship necessary for the application of gilding is presented in one essay, while the final two essays consider the novelty of color derived from various organic pigments and materials applied over a kaolin preparation that allowed for a delicacy of shading; and the more exuberant colors of the late fourth century are the result of exotic pigments discovered during Alexander’s campaigns. The text is followed by several invaluable appendices that include a detailed chronological chart, a section containing several maps (the site map showing the diffusion of Tanagra figurines throughout the Mediterranean and the Hellenistic East is particularly critical); tables summarizing the archaeometric analyses of the figurines conducted by the Centre de Recherché et de Restauration des Musées de France; a lengthy table that lists sites—in Greece, East Greece, Ionia, Pontus Euxinus, Italy and Sicily, North Africa, and the Near East—where Tanagra figurines have been recorded and includes their contexts and key scholarly citations; a glossary of terms; and a comprehensive bibliography.

Tanagras: Figurines for Life and Eternity is a splendid volume, rich on many levels. The text is detailed but far from ponderous, and the inclusion of notes at the end of each essay will be appreciated by the scholarly reader. All catalogued objects are illustrated by stunning color photographs with additional halftones to illustrate the back of figurines. The opulence of the photography extends to the cover, which showcases the image of a small Tanagra statuette whose surface has been embossed after printing to simulate the textured surface of a terracotta figurine. With a volume so impressive, one hesitates to point out that a scrupulous reader might notice vagaries of spelling in different essays, the mismatch of catalogue numbers and numbered illustrations on some pages, and that the typeface and font size for the notes make for difficult reading. Nonetheless, the book is magnificent and appreciably adds to a very important facet of the coroplastic arts.

Nancy Serwint
School of Art
Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts
Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona 85287-1505

Book Review of Tanagras: Figurines for Life and Eternity. The Musée du Louvre’s Collection of Greek Figurines, by Violaine Jeammet

Reviewed by Nancy Serwint

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.Serwint

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