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Physionomie d’une cité grecque: Développements stylistiques de la coroplathie votive archaïque de Tarente

Physionomie d’une cité grecque: Développements stylistiques de la coroplathie votive archaïque de Tarente

By Ágnes Bencze (Collection du Centre Jean Bérard 41). Pp. 240, b&w pls. 34. Centre Jean Bérard, Naples 2013. €30. ISBN 978-2-918887-14-0 (paper).

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While the study of masses of terracotta figurines from enormous votive deposits is in itself a very difficult, painstaking, and lengthy undertaking, the study of Tarantine coroplastic votives is made all the more complex by the unscientific excavations at Taranto that began in 1879 and that continued into the 20th century. Extensive votive deposits were uncovered in the sanctuaries of Fondo Giovinazzi, Pizzone, and at Saturno, among other sites in and around the city, that were accompanied by widespread looting and the dispersal of masses of material on the antiquities market. For the researcher, incomplete documentation or no documentation at all has rendered these important corpora all the more opaque, so it is not surprising that a relatively small number of studies have investigated any aspect of the archaic coroplastic material from Taranto, other than from a purely iconographic point of view.

It is for this reason that Bencze’s Physionomie d’une cité grecque is an especially welcome addition to the literature that concentrates on the terracotta figurines from Taranto and related sites, even though this study only focuses on figurines from the seventh to the end of the sixth centuries B.C.E. The author views this period as the formative phase of Tarantine coroplastic production, during the course of which she believes distinctive stylistic identities were developed that reveal direct lines of descent from Greek coroplastic centers on the Greek mainland and in East Greece. In her search for an aesthetic identity specific to Taranto, Bencze focuses on the faces of the figurines, believing that these are the most informative for style, and in this focus she acknowledges her reliance on the work of Croissant (Les protomés féminines archaïques: Recherches sur les représentations du visage dans la plastique grecque de 550 à 480 av. J.-C. [Paris 1983]).

In the first chapter, Bencze contextualizes her approach by means of a historiographic discussion of the concept of ethnicity, or identity, which is followed by an analysis of previous studies on Tarantine terracottas. She then presents a highly detailed review of Tarantine coroplastic corpora, not only from the copious votive deposits of Taranto itself and its dependants but also in museums scattered around Europe. In this section, the author is careful to inform the reader of the corpora of figurines she personally was able to examine in both museum and private collections, in contrast to those that were not accessible to her. The chapter concludes with a lengthy presentation of her system of classification, which largely follows that codified by Muller et al. (“Description et analyse des productions moulées: Proposition de lexique multilingue, suggestions de méthode,” in A. Muller, ed., Le moulage en terre cuite dans l’Antiquité: Création et production dérivée, fabrication et diffusion [Lille 1997] 437–63).

In the second chapter, Bencze defines the initial phase of the evolution of Tarantine production, referred to as Protoarchaic and dating to the seventh century B.C.E. Taking as her point of departure the 1979 study by Borda (Arte dedalica a Taranto [Udine]), she criticizes the a priori assumption of Borda that Laconian influences can be recognized at this early date. The paucity of the material and its heterogeneous stylistic and technical characteristics Bencze rightly believes militate against clear evidence for direct Laconian influence. Consequently, she hesitates to assign a specific ethnic identity to the material from this Protoarchaic phase.

It is only beginning ca. 580 that Bencze believes that such identity or identities begin to emerge when a true industrial production begins to be documented. This phase lasts to ca. 500 B.C.E. The third chapter of this book is dedicated to this discussion, which groups together figurines mainly of seated and standing females that are morphologically and technically similar, because of which Bencze assigns them a single, prolific workshop within the territory of Taranto. She collectively refers to them as belonging to the “San Biagio-Saturo” typology, after the major sites of their discovery. Five distinct stylistic identities come into focus, the most influential of which she believes was Achaean, to which she applies the label “achaeanizing” (Series A). Other identities include Cypriote (Series B), an unexpected influence she believes was transmitted through Aegean intermediaries; Laconian (Series C and D), singled out on the basis of stylistic affinities with Laconian metalwork; East Greek (Group F); and finally, one that was completely original to Taranto, even though Laconian stylistic overtones also are present. It is this “laconianizing” Series E that is the parent of the later, well-known, reclining banqueter figurines.

It is unfortunate that in this chapter, which comprises highly detailed discussions of style and technique, little attention is given to fabric, which, in the opinion of this reviewer, is the single most important factor in the recognition of workshop production. It is highly unlikely that a single workshop was responsible for the totality of the industrial production throughout the entire course of the sixth century in the territory of Taranto, even though it may have been within this workshop that certain stylistic identities were born. In Sicily, for example, in the second half of the sixth century, workshops were utilizing a shared regional typology whose products were indistinguishable from one another, except by fabric. It is difficult to accept the notion that independent workshops did not spring up in Tarantine territory over the course of the later sixth century, given the explosive demand for votive terracottas that is evidenced by the quantity of material known to date from sacred contexts.

While Bencze’s acute observations do indeed reveal a multiplicity of styles at play within a coroplastic output that spans nearly two centuries, in many of these observations comparisons to noncoroplastic works in stone, ivory, or bronze take precedence over those referring to terracottas. The eventual creation of an eclectic visual language, such as is documented by the sixth-century terracottas from around the gulf of Taranto, is much more comprehensible within the realm of immediate and freely occurring coroplastic exchange. One misses references to coroplastic models that could have played a role in the complex evolution of this Tarantine production.

The fourth chapter is focused on the figurines of reclining banqueters, a motif that dominates Tarantine coroplastic production from the later sixth to the end of the fourth century. These collectively make up Series G, originating around the middle of the sixth century; Series H, whose introduction is placed in the third quarter of the century and which has an East Greek imprint over the Laconian; Series J, which illustrates an eclectic mix of Laconian, East Greek, and Attic influences; and the enigmatic Series K, which is completely original. It is noteworthy that the earliest of these male types are related stylistically to Bencze’s Series E, which comprises figurines of females wearing a kalathos. She notes that the introduction of this reclining banqueter motif at Taranto around the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. probably received impetus from representations of banqueters on Laconian painted pottery. Even so, with the introduction of this new coroplastic motif at Taranto, a profound transformation in artisanal practice took place, one that then defined coroplastic production for almost two centuries. This new typology also entered into a wider circulation that included sanctuaries in and around Metaponto.

The fifth and final chapter is devoted to the significance of the Tarantine banquet, a useful appendix in a book otherwise dedicated to discussions of style. Bencze provides a historiographic overview of the interpretation of the Tarantine banqueter motif. Rejecting certain aspects of previous arguments while embracing others, she arrives at the conclusion that the banqueters represent the heroized citizen, one who reflects the ideal virtues of the community. Moreover, she convincingly demonstrates that the origin of this motif at Taranto is to be found on Laconian cups that were decorated with similar symbolic messages.

A study that focuses primarily on style serves to sensitize the reader to the structural nuances that comprise a terracotta image, nuances that otherwise can go unrecognized. The sensitive eye of the author and her ability to convey her observations has resulted in an enlightening picture of a complex coroplastic language. Whether the impulses responsible for the formation of that language are indeed those that are presented in this study is for each reader to determine. The author also is to be commended for the thoroughness of her approach, which seeks to contextualize all known archaic figurines from Tarantine contexts, rather than those from specific collections. Unquestionably, this study is a most valuable contribution to the literature on Tarantine coroplastic production and surely will serve as a foundation for future research.

Jaimee Uhlenbrock
Department of Art History
State University of New York, New Paltz

Book Review of Physionomie dune cité grecque: Développements stylistiques de la coroplathie votive archaïque de Tarente, by Ágnes Bencze

Reviewed by Jaimee Uhlenbrock

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at


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