4th Century BC
8″ (20.3cm) high x 12.5″ (31.8cm) wide
This striking drinking cup – or skyphos – dates from a powerfully dynamic time in the Classical world. Its technical name differentiates it from more plebeian cups (referred to as kotyles) in terms of construction and decoration. Skyphoi must be deep, have two handles and a plain or low-flanged base; this piece possesses the latter form. The handles come in various forms; this example follows the Athenian and Corinthian model in having a pair of ear-shaped thumb- holds that project horizontally from the rim. The basic form dates from the Geometric period (900-800 BC), at the end of the Greek Dark Ages, so most of the variation is stylistic and decorative. Red- and black-figure wares constitute a narrative of Mediterranean social mores in the first millennium BC, as well as a general guide to mythological heritage and stylistic trends.
This piece is unusual in that it comes from one of the earliest Greek Colonies. A series of demographic, political and economic problems in the 8th and 7th centuries BC brought about a major exodus to Southern Italy as well as other sites such as Southern France and the Black Sea. There were so many Greeks living in Italy that the area was dubbed “Magna Graecia” – Greater Greece – and the immigrants brought many artistic and social traditions with them. Perhaps most significant was the Chalcidean alphabet, which was used by the Etruscans, and their sculptural and painting methods. Apulia – the origin of this piece – is a portion of Southern Italy bounded by the Ionian and the Adriatic, culminating in the peninsula of Salento. Magna Graecia was eventually absorbed by the Roman Empire in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, yet many of the stylistic trends that distinguish the Greeks from other Classical groups can be seen on pieces such as this.
Most of the notable Greek-Italian fusion red figure ware vessels currently known come from Apulia; there is a good chance that this piece was made in the city of Taras, as this was the main production centre for the area. Two main styles were distinguished, that have a social and a chronological basis. The main variant was the “plain style”, of which this piece is a good example. It differs from the “ornate [rich] style” in terms of the number of figures and the manner in which they are represented. The ornate painters tended to use larger vessels (such as hydriai, amphorae and volute kraters) with numerous figures arranged in multiple registers and in extravagant colour schemes.The plain style started off simple, with fewer figures painted in a more fluid style, but gradually became less plain and more ornate after the middle of the 4th century. Personal styles are also visible; many artists can be recognised on the basis of the way they represent certain things, although these pieces are rarely signed. Notable exponents of the plain style include the Sisyphus Painter and Tarporley Painter, while ornate artists include the Ilioupersis Painter, the Darius Painter and the Baltimore Painter. Earlier narratives and themes are usually mythological, Dionysiac or Aphrodisiac; later themes included matrimonial, feminine and erotic iconography. Athletic and theatrical designs also appear, but the former – which is more of a Greek preserve – vanishes from the stylistic repertoire after about 370 BC.
The design of the current piece seems to fall into the ceremonial – or perhaps matrimonial – category. It depicts an athletic youth dressed solely in a wreath of flowers around his curly black hair, carrying a basket (?) in his right hand, his billowing robe tucked under his left. He is facing towards an elegantly-dressed older woman, who turns her face away. She is carrying an identical basket and another, wider, more platter-like receptacle at shoulder height. The figures are separated by foliate scrollwork and geometric designs. The figures are pale red in colour – reflecting the iron-poor clays of Apulia – with a black-painted background. Surface details are picked out in fine brush-strokes with great fluidity and anatomical accuracy, and the drapery on the female figure is simply outstanding. It is impossible to be sure as to the identities of these figures as they lack detailed iconographic pointers. The male may represent Hermes and his mother, Maia, but is more probably designed as an attractive scenario for adornment of this beautiful drinking cup. This is an attractive and fascinating piece of ancient art.Login to view price