9876 A MAGNIFICENT MONUMENTAL ALABASTER VASE WITH FINE ETRUSCAN RED AND BLACK PAINTED DECORATION Probably Rome. Early 19th Century.   Measurements: Height: 51″ (129.5cm) Width: 28 1/2″ (72.4cm)

Of white alabaster. The volute krater form with extensive red and black Etruscan painted decoration including classically robed figures within a temple, gorgon masks, Greek key and anthemion motifs. Paint refreshed in places. Repair to old crack.

The collection of the late Marco Gobi, Rome.
The collection of Daniel Katz, the Etruscan dining room, Lansdowne Walk, London.

This painted vase is modeled after Apulian volute kraters from the ancient world, large vessels used for diluting wine with water in Greek symposia. The volute is the largest of all the types of kraters, named for its handles, which extend vertically from the vessel’s shoulder and resemble the scrolled volutes of a column’s capital. From the 8th century BC onwards, the Greek colony of Taras in the southeast Italian region of Apulia (or Puglia) was a major production center for pottery, and particularly of black-figure and red-figure works. Another technique was white-ground vase painting, a variation of red-figure painting that flourished in the late 6th and 5th centuries BC, used particularly for funerary purposes. It was most popular in Athens and came closest to imitating the wall paintings of Pompeii.

This vase adopts the “ornate” type of design, which features many figures among profuse decoration and coloration, rather than the “plain” style of pottery, which was simple and more monochromatic. “Ornate” decoration was used on larger vessels and usually depicts funereal subjects to commemorate a deceased individual. A naiskos, a small temple commonly used in shrines or reliefs of funeral architecture (figure 1), is generally shown on one side while a rectangular stele, a commemorative slab or marker made of stone or wood, is featured on the other.

The painted decoration of the present vase is related to that on The Hamilton Vase, perhaps the most famous of the Apulian volute kraters excavated in the 18th century, now in the British Museum (figure 2). It is attributed to the Baltimore Painter (fl. 330 BC – 310 BC), a Greek red-figure vase painter named for a vase in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, whose larger vessels depict mythological figures and naiskoi. The Hamilton Vase was featured in Pierre-François Hugues d’Hancarville’s publication of Sir William Hamilton’s collection of antiquities, Antiquités Étrusques, Grecques et Romaines (1766-67), illustrated in both black-and-white and colored engravings. The four-volume work was instrumental in spreading scholarship and interest in classical vessels among 18th century intellectuals, collectors and artisans.

Like the imagery on the Hamilton Vase, the main scene on this vase is centered by a naiskos surrounded by four figures. A youth stands beside his horse within the small ionic temple, which is decorated with garlands and a wreath in the pediment. His spear and body amour rest behind him and he holds a wreath in his right hand. The main difference in composition between this and the Hamilton Vase is the direction in which the youth and his horse face; here, they look toward the right while in the Hamilton example they look left.

D’Hancarville described the central figure in the naiskos as Castor, son of Leda and the Spartan king Tyndareus, based on Homer’s description of Castor as an excellent horseman. Together with his twin half-brother, Polydeuces, who was born to Leda by Zeus, they are known collectively as the Dioscuri.

Outside the naiskos, two male and two female figures look upon the temple with various offerings. At the top left, a seated male figure with drapery on his lap rests his arm on a shield, while holding a spear in one hand and a pilos and taenia (narrow strip of ribbon used as a headband) in the other. The pilos was a brimless, conical felt or leather hat worn alone or under a helmet. It is also often associated with the Dioscuri, and was explained in antiquity as being the remnants of the eggshells from which they hatched, since their mother Leda had been seduced by Zeus in the guise of a swan.

Below him a female figure leans forward toward the temple with her left foot on a block at its base. She is wearing a chiton, an ancient Greek form of clothing made from a large rectangle of fabric sewn or pinned at the side and shoulders. She holds a mirror, raised in her right hand and a wreath in her left.

On the bottom right side, another female figure stands similarly clothed with her right foot on the base of the temple. She carries a wreath in her left hand and a raised palm leaf in her right, the attributes of Victory. Above her, another nude male figure sits with drapery at his back. He turns to face the naiskos, holding a staff in his right hand and an ivy vine hanging from a phiale (libation vessel) containing fruit in his left hand.

On the reverse, the body of the vase is painted with a series of anthemia interspersed with lotus decorations. The anthemion, Greek for “flower,” is comprised of radiating petals derived from the honeysuckle and palmette, and was widely used in the ornamentation of architecture and ceramics. The neck of the vase is painted with an interesting asymmetrical pattern, which flanks a central motif reminiscent of side-view elevations of ionic volutes.

Like a great number of the extant volute kraters of this type, the handles of the present vase terminate in swans heads where they meet the shoulder of the vase, yet another allusion to the myth of Leda and the Swan. The handles are painted to the front with apotropaic symbols of gorgoneia (stemming from the Greek word “apotrepein” meaning “turning away”). The gorgon is a monstrous representation of a female creature with wings on its head and venomous snakes for hair, whose gaze had the power to turn its beholder to stone, and which was used on buildings, shields and other weaponry to protect and ward off evil.

The monumental scale of the vase is unprecedented and its highly distinctive red decoration on a white alabaster ground is extremely rare. The vase combines the figural and foliate patterns of red-figure volute krater decoration, like that on the Hamilton Vase, with the color palette of white-ground vase painting. A pair of vases in the Salon Cerise of the Hôtel Beauharnais (figure 3), although much smaller, employs similar “Etruscan” red and black decoration on a white alabaster ground, and given the important scale of this vase it is possible that both it and the Beauharnais pair were for the same imperial commission.

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