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Apulian Red-Figure Hydria - LA.506
Origin: Mediterranean
Circa: 400 BC to 300 BC
Collection: Classical
Style: Apulian
Medium: Terracotta

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Before the modern advents of trains and automobiles, trade between civilizations concentrated around the Mediterranean moved foremost by sea. While many bulk commodities such as timber and stone could be loaded directly aboard a ship with little preparation, other commodities such as spices, wine, and grain needed to be packed in individual containers for transport both at sea and on land and to prolong their life span. Pottery was first created in order to fulfill these practical needs. Over time, the art form evolved from large, unadorned commercial transport vessels to refined, specialized works in elegant shapes used to hold precious substances such as perfume or oils.

An entire retinue of terracotta vessels dedicated to the rites of the dinner table began to appear. These pieces were based on the luxurious bronze and silver vessels that could only be afforded by the wealthy elite and were decorated with fanciful natural motifs and painted scenes of everyday life and celebrated myths. These wares were of such beauty that they themselves became prized commodities and were traded throughout the Mediterranean world; perhaps even for the very substances they were created to contain. These works are individually classified by their shapes and their form was inherently linked to their function, be it preparation, dispensation, or consumption.

The majority of the pots were thrown on a manually driven potter’s wheel and fired in a wood-burning kiln where the artist could determine the color of the vessel by controlling the oxygen flow within. While many potters threw and painted their own works, certain potters excelled in producing specific shapes, and other artists specialized in painting. Before the 6th Century B.C., the island of Corinth, with their distinctive black-figure wares that first appeared in the 7th Century, dominated the lucrative pottery export trade.

However, by around 525 B.C., the city of Athens, with their varied styles of vessel shapes and painted scenes, had wrested control from the Corinthians and established a firm monopoly in luxury wares. At first, the Attic painters emulated the black-figure style employed by the Corinthians. In black-figure technique, the vase surface was covered with a diluted wash of clay. A thicker solution of iron-rich clay formed the "glaze" used to paint on figures in solid silhouette. Intricate details were then incised onto the figures. Finally, painted red and white highlights were added before firing.

By 480 B.C., the black-figure style would be effectively replaced by red-figure wares which first appeared around 530. In the red-figure technique, the process was reversed and the figures appeared in red against a black background. Liquid glaze was used to outline the figures. Contours and inner lines were then added. The painted lines could be diluted to a golden brown or left jet black. After the figures were drawn, the background was added in black and the pot fired. Although the red-figure technique lacks the sharpness of black-figure painting, the increased painterly effects, the greater sense of movement, and the heightened emotions more than make up the difference.

In an overview of Ancient Greek pottery, perhaps no single style is as charming as the works originating from the Italian province of Apulia. The Greek colonies of southern Italy (known in antiquity as Magna Grecia) were marked by their initial allegiance to the ceramic styles of the Attic mainland. However, over the years, native traditions and innovations heavily influenced the works of Magna Grecian potters. Unorthodox forms and painting-styles were seamlessly merged with the standard Greek style, creating distinctive works of art unique to the Hellenistic world.

This gorgeous hydria is decorated with a red-figure mythological scene likely representing the Greek god of wine Dionysus. The scene is framed above by a reserve orange branch that encircles the neck and below by a reserve band filled with a painted meander motif. A nude male figure stands to the left in the main painted composition. The white fillet, or ribbon, that is tied around his head is an attribute associated with Dionysus. He stands in a contrapposto stance with his weight resting on his left leg. With his left arm, he holds a shallow cup known as a phiale out towards the seated female figure on the right.

The seated woman is most likely a maenad, the name for the female followers of Dionysus. She wears a peplos, a garment that is gathered at the waist and pinned at the shoulders. Jewelry adorns her body and a kekryphalos, the cloth that binds her hair, decorates her head. She holds a branch in her right hand, similar to the branch that Dionysus holds in his right hand, thus linking the two figures together. Various palmette motifs decorated the voids between them as well as the areas around the handles.

In antiquity, this lovely three-handled vessel would have been used to draw, transport and dispense water. This water would have been used to mix with wine in another retinue of mixing vessels known as kraters. Therefore, this hydria would have played an integral role during ancient drinking festivities. Thus, the theme of the painted scene is quite fitting. Such vessels were sometimes used as cinerary urns, revealing how much they were adored and honored even in their own time. - (LA.506)

 

 

 

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