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Bronze Vessels from the Acropolis: Style and Decoration in Athenian Production Between the Sixth and Fifth Centuries BC

Bronze Vessels from the Acropolis: Style and Decoration in Athenian Production Between the Sixth and Fifth Centuries BC

By Chiara Tarditi (Thiasos Monografie 7). Pp. 412. Edizioni Quasar, Rome 2016. €50. ISBN 978-88-7140-717-3 (paper).

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It is unfortunate that the bronze finds from the Athenian Acropolis have not received scholarly attention commensurate with that lavished on sculpture in stone or pottery. This is largely a result of their poor preservation, which has deprived originally splendid artifacts of their spectacular character. This holds true as much for the monumental tripod cauldrons of the eighth century B.C.E. as for the impressive griffin cauldrons dating to the seventh century. In the sixth and fifth centuries, Athena’s sanctuary was replete with smaller bronze containers whose main body was hammered and whose legs or handles or other functional components were cast. The hammered parts have perished, whereas the vessels’ cast attachments (feet, handles, bases) have survived, dislocated from their immediate functional context. A great many of them were retrieved during the Acropolis excavations of Panayiotis Kavvadias in 1885–1890. It is precisely this material that the volume under review publishes in detail—most of it for the first time. It is numerically impressive and, as Tarditi shows, archaeologically significant in many ways. Its unpublished status for well over a century is indicative of the unevenness of approach that has traditionally characterized the archaeological study of the Acropolis. This also is evident in the lack of attention given to bronze artifacts in the new Acropolis Museum. Poorly understood and lukewarmly displayed on the margins, these artifacts have been treated like the poor relatives of the great sculptural masterpieces of the Archaic and Classical periods. However, the impressive wealth in metal of this newly published material conferred to the sanctuary, to its worshipers, and to Athena herself glitz and great pride while functioning as practical tools in the service of cult. Tarditi would rightly argue that part of this pride derived from the opportunities afforded to bronze workers (and to all those directly or indirectly involved in the ambient economy of metalworking) for the production of a great variety of vessels in large numbers. Indeed, the thread of argument running through this hefty study is that approximately half of the preserved fragmentary remnants of bronze vessels from the Acropolis were produced by Athenian workshops. The argument is convincing, but there is no doubt that future studies will examine further the notion of “workshop” and its implications for fleshing out the visual and material culture of Athens in the Archaic and Classical periods.

The core of the volume (31–213) is the lengthy catalogue of some 1,135 artifacts (mostly handles and feet, many of them fragmentary) representing a small number of shapes (428 basins, 100 tripodic ring stands, 3 kraters, 23 hydriae, 31 kalpides, 17 lebetes, 18 oinochoai, 38 paterae, 4 situlae, and 17 plates or lids; 142 feet and 314 handles are undiagnostic). These shapes determine the organizational structure of the catalogue, but the variety of forms and their elaborations warranted numerous further subdivisions within this overarching typological arrangement. This classification is often tedious and rigid, and it distracts from the fact that its contents are all accidental remnants of much larger artifacts. As is often the case in this type of publication, each artifact has been given a short entry that includes information on shape, object, production, classification, conservation (“preservation” would be a more precise term), technique, weight, dimensions, bibliography, and a short description. Unfortunately, the accompanying photographs—mostly black-and-white and slightly larger than thumbnail size—do not sufficiently supplement the lacunae of the brief descriptive entries. These entries should have been longer and more detailed, given that there are no drawings of sections or profiles of the very few entirely surviving vessels or of the illustrated comparanda from other sites included in the volume. Users of this book will have a hard time assessing the state of preservation or surface details of numerous artifacts in the photographs, which were taken by Tarditi herself. Important information (e.g., many dedicatory inscriptions) receives only passing mention, and one wishes that entries had been given more attention and more editorial care (e.g., the dedicatory inscription on the patera handle inv. no. 7199 is transcribed in the catalogue entry [202] differently from its later appearance in the analysis [285]).

The main intellectual labor in this book is contained in chapters 4 (“Formal and Stylistic Analysis,” 215–96) and 5 (“Athenian Production,” 297–322). Chapter 4 is a thorough analysis of formal and stylistic elements that have enabled Tarditi to define coherent groups in this corpus in terms of chronology and stylistic attribution. Her chronological assessments are carefully based on important archaeological indicators (e.g., Stibbe’s analysis of the anthemion—a prevalent decorative element in this corpus—in archaic and classical Greek art; and stylistic comparisons of figural components, such as the kouros-shaped handles of paterae or the siren finials of ornate handles). In chapter 5, she outlines the main characteristics of those pieces in the corpus that she attributes to Athenian production (631 pieces, 55%). These attributions are mostly based on the plethora of artifacts that seem to be technologically and stylistically coherent, yet they are distinctly different from the high-quality products that have been securely attributed to Laconian and Corinthian workshops in recent years. Following Stibbe’s lead, Tarditi concludes that Athenian workshops formulated an altogether local profile, the main characteristics of which are “high quality and the ability to assimilate elements of earlier Laconian and Corinthian production, organically and elegantly reprocessed, creating stylistically uniform and well-characterized works” (297).

This is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the archaeology of the Athenian Acropolis and to the study of ancient metalwork. The author's insights will facilitate research on various aspects of the cultic life of the Acropolis in the Archaic and Classical periods. Tarditi’s attributions of bronze vessels from all over the Mediterranean to Athenian workshops enlightens aspects of Athenian trade no less than the dynamics of cultural exchange within the large canvas of Mediterranean interconnections. Last but not least, this reviewer cannot stress emphatically enough that in terms of iconography and epigraphy, the material published in this book is impressively rich in its implications. One hopes that scholars will turn to it with the attention it deserves.

Nassos Papalexandrou
University of Texas at Austin

Book Review of Bronze Vessels from the Acropolis: Style and Decoration in Athenian Production Between the Sixth and Fifth Centuries BC, by Chiara Tarditi

Reviewed by Nassos Papalexandrou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.papalexandrou

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