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How to Read Greek Vases

How to Read Greek Vases

By Joan Mertens. Pp. 176, color figs. 214. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2010. $25. ISBN 978-0-300-15523-5 (paper).

Reviewed by

This beautifully produced and elegantly written book provides a superb introduction to the appreciation of Greek vases by one of the foremost authorities on the subject, Joan Mertens, curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As the author notes in her introduction, the choice of the 35 vases that are the focus of the discussions is a personal one, and the narrative should be seen as a kind of extended gallery talk. Mertens’ approach to the vases is a very traditional one that avoids controversies, and herein lies the source of both great strengths and some weaknesses of the work.

The book is mainly about black- and red-figure vases, mostly Attic, and the author’s fine introduction is devoted almost entirely to the history of the study of vases painted in those techniques. Though Mertens mentions in passing new approaches to the study of vases, she insists that Beazley “made the last major contribution to achieving a whole view of an ancient Greek vase as a work of art” (24). It is principally as works of art rather than as cultural artifacts that she approaches the objects, and her main concern throughout is to help the reader know what to look for when viewing a vase. She wants the viewer to experience the pleasure and excitement from “recognizing the complexity of component elements [shape, technique, secondary ornament and figural decoration] and their masterful integration” (26).

The vases, which all come from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, are presented in chronological order. Aside from three prehistoric pieces, all the remaining vases were made between the eighth and third centuries B.C.E. Fifty-five other objects, mainly from the museum collection, are included as comparanda to illuminate aspects of the vases under discussion. Since the principal audience for the book comprises educated museum-goers who know little about Greek vases, these additional objects are particularly useful.

So, for example, the statue of a kouros is shown beside a sixth-century Attic black-figure amphora (no. 10) on which two kouros-like youths are depicted, and in her text Mertens notes that “the kouros established the nude male figure as a focus of artistic investigation” (66). Accompanying the depiction of a lively symposium on the outside of a red-figure cup attributed to Makron (no. 23) are bronze symposium implements (strainer, ladle, and lamp stand) similar to those that appear in the scene. Opposite a fourth-century Campanian red-figure skyphos (no. 33) are a bronze belt and pectoral similar to the ones worn by the warrior depicted on the vase. The inclusion of a depiction of lekythoi placed on a tomb enriches the discussion of a white-ground lekythos attributed to the Achilles Painter (no. 28), demonstrating how the vase would have been used.

Mertens’ entry on a black-figure neck amphora recently acquired by the museum (no. 12), with Herakles fighting Geryon, illustrates well the sensitivity and range of her discussions. By comparing it with the previously discussed neck amphora by Exekias (no. 11), she notes the idiosyncratic shape of the vase and draws the reader’s attention to small hollows at the base of each handle, “most likely made by impressing a finger” (78). Also idiosyncratic is the fact that the combatants appear on opposite sides of the vase, so that Herakles’ arrow must travel around the vase and over a flying siren to reach Geryon. After her detailed discussion of the imagery and its sources, the author concludes by demonstrating the wide popularity of the subject with a fifth-century B.C.E. Cypriot relief (fig. 31).

From the outset, Mertens rightly emphasizes that “the objects we are considering here are all utilitarian” (26), but a weakness of the approach is that when all is said and done, the vases still stand as disembodied objects in museum cases. If they are utilitarian, one would like to know who used them and where. The vast majority of Attic black- and red-figure vases has almost certainly come from Italian tombs, Etruscan or South Italian, yet there is hardly any mention of this outside of some introductory comments. That Makron’s red-figure symposium cup (no. 23) was found in an Etruscan tomb at Vulci is never revealed, nor that the Nausicaa Painter’s hydria with Herakles strangling snakes (no. 24) was found at Capua, or that the great volute krater by the Painter of the Woolly Satyrs with an Amazonomachy was found at Numana near Ancona. At the least, the find place deserves some note when it is known. Even when a vase is said to be “one of a group of four found in a tomb in Athens” (103), the reader is given no guidance about how to learn more about the tomb or the other vases. An appendix listing each vase with standard references to it (e.g., ABV, ARV², RVAp) would have been useful.

A few minor quibbles are perhaps worth mentioning. Three of the vases show distinct signs of having been mended in antiquity (fig. 12; nos. 14, 27) but there is no explanation of these mends aside from a passing comment about “a piece that broke and was repaired” (12). The general reader might well be puzzled by these marks. For the same reason, it also would have been useful to explain, however briefly, the misfiring on the front of number 22, a Panathenaic amphora from Vulci.

I should emphasize that none of these points detracts from the great value of Mertens’ sensitive approach to the objects that are the focus of the book. Ultimately, one comes away feeling that one has been reading something closer to a series of intricate poems than a group of scholarly essays. The expert and the casual reader alike can both enjoy and benefit from the author’s insights into Greek pottery.

T.H. Carpenter
Department of Classics and World Religions
Ohio University
Athens, Ohio 45701

Book Review of How to Read Greek Vases, by Joan Mertens

Reviewed by T.H. Carpenter

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 4 (October 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Carpenter

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