Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Funerary Vases in Southern Italy and Sicily

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Most extant South Italian vases have been discovered in funerary contexts, and a significant number of these vases were likely produced solely as grave goods. This function is demonstrated by the vases of various shapes and sizes that are open at the bottom, rendering them useless for the living (06.1021.209; 06.1021.211). Often the vases with open bottoms are monumentalized shapes, particularly volute-kraters, amphorae, and loutrophoroi, which began to be produced in the second quarter of the fourth century B.C. The perforation at the bottom prevented damage during firing and also allowed them to serve as grave markers. Liquid libations offered to the dead were poured through the containers into the soil containing the deceased's remains. Evidence for this practice exists in the cemeteries of Tarentum (modern Taranto), the only significant Greek colony in the region of Apulia (modern Puglia).


Liquid libations offered to the dead were poured through the containers into the soil containing the deceased's remains.

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Most surviving examples of these monumental vases are not found in Greek settlements, but in chamber tombs of their Italic neighbors in northern Apulia. In fact, the high demand for large-scale vases among the native peoples of the region seems to have spurred Tarentine émigrés to establish vase painting workshops by the mid-fourth century B.C. at Italic sites such as Ruvo, Canosa, and Ceglie del Campo.


The imagery painted on these vases, rather than their physical structure, best reflects their intended sepulchral function. The most common scenes of daily life on South Italian vases are depictions of funerary monuments, usually flanked by women and nude youths bearing a variety of offerings to the grave site such as fillets, boxes, perfume vessels (alabastra), libation bowls (phialai), fans, bunches of grapes, and rosette chains (69.11.7). When the funerary monument includes a representation of the deceased, there is not necessarily a strict correlation between the types of offerings and the gender of the commemorated individual(s). For instance, mirrors, traditionally considered a female grave good in excavation contexts, are brought to monuments depicting individuals of both genders.


The preferred type of funerary monument painted on vases varies from region to region within southern Italy. On rare occasions, the funerary monument may consist of a statue, presumably of the deceased, standing on a simple base (06.1021.230). Within Campania, the grave monument of choice on vases is a simple stone slab (stele) on a stepped base. In Apulia, vases are decorated with memorials in the form of a small templelike shrine called a naiskos. The naiskoi usually contain within them one (56.171.63) or more figures (06.1021.228), understood as sculptural depictions of the deceased and their companions. The figures and their architectural setting are usually painted in added white, presumably to identify the material as stone. Added white to represent a statue may also be seen on an Apulian column-krater where an artist applied colored pigment to a marble statue of Herakles (50.11.4). Furthermore, painting figures within naiskoi in added white differentiates them from the living figures around the monument who are rendered in red-figure. There are exceptions to this practice—red-figure figures within naiskoi may represent terracotta statuary. As South Italy lacks indigenous marble sources, the Greek colonists became highly skilled coroplasts, able to render even lifesized figures in clay (23.160.95).


By the mid-fourth century B.C., monumental Apulian vases typically presented a naiskos on one side of the vase and a stele, similar to those on Campanian vases, on the other. It was also popular to pair a naiskos scene with a complex, multifigured mythological scene, many of which were inspired by tragic and epic subjects (56.171.63). Around 330 B.C., a strong Apulianizing influence became evident in Campanian and Paestan vase painting, and naiskos scenes began appearing on Campanian vases (06.1021.227). The spread of Apulian iconography may be connected to the military activity of Alexander the Molossian, uncle of Alexander the Great and king of Epirus, who was summoned by the city of Tarentum to lead the Italiote League in efforts to reconquer former Greek colonies in Lucania and Campania.


In many naiskoi, vase painters attempted to render the architectural elements in three-dimensional perspective, and archaeological evidence suggests that such monuments existed in the cemeteries of Tarentum, the last of which stood until the late nineteenth century. The surviving evidence is fragmentary, as modern Taranto covers much of the ancient burial grounds, but architectural elements and sculptures of local limestone are known (1996.151.1; 1996.151.2; 1996.305). The dating of these objects is controversial; some scholars place them as early as 330 B.C., while others date them all during the second century B.C. Both hypotheses postdate most, if not all, of their counterparts on vases. On a fragmentary piece in the Museum's collection (29.54), which decorated either the base or back wall of a funerary monument, a pilos helmet, sword, cloak, and cuirass are suspended on the background. Similar objects hang within the painted naiskoi (1995.45.1). Vases that show naiskoi with architectural sculpture, such as patterned bases (1995.45.1; 69.11.7; 06.1021.228) and figured metopes (1995.45.1; 1995.45.2), have parallels in the remains of limestone monuments.


Above the funerary monuments on monumental vases there is frequently an isolated head, painted on the neck or shoulder. The heads may rise from a bell-flower or acanthus leaves and are set within a lush surround of flowering vines or palmettes (1995.45.2; 1995.45.1 [reverse]). Heads within foliage appear with the earliest funerary scenes on South Italian vases, beginning in the second quarter of the fourth century B.C. Typically the heads are female, but heads of youths and satyrs, as well as those with attributes such as wings, a Phrygian cap, a polos crown, or a nimbus, also appear. Identification of these heads has proven difficult, as there is only one known example, now in the British Museum, whose name is inscribed (called "Aura"—"Breeze"). No surviving literary works from ancient southern Italy illuminate their identity or their function on the vases. The female heads are drawn in the same manner as their full-length counterparts, both mortal and divine, and are usually shown wearing a patterned headdress, a radiate crown, earrings, and a necklace. Even when the heads are bestowed with attributes, their identity is indeterminate, allowing a variety of possible interpretations. More narrowly defining attributes are very rare and do little to identify the attribute-less majority. The isolated head became very popular as primary decoration on vases, particularly those of small scale, and by 340 B.C., it was the single most common motif in South Italian vase painting (96.18.22; 06.1021.233). The relation of these heads, set in rich vegetation, to the grave monuments below them suggests they are strongly connected to fourth-century B.C. concepts of a hereafter in southern Italy and Sicily.


Although the production of South Italian red-figure vases ceased around 300 B.C., making vases purely for funerary use continued, most notably at Centuripe, a town in eastern Sicily near Mount Etna. The numerous polychrome terracotta figurines and vases of the third century B.C. were decorated with tempera colors after firing. They were further elaborated with complex vegetal and architecturally inspired relief elements. One of the most common shapes, a footed dish called a lekanis (30.11.4a–c), was often constructed of independent sections (foot, bowl, lid, lid knob, and finial), resulting in few complete pieces today. On some pieces, such as the lebes in the Museum's collection (53.11.5), the lid was made in one piece with the body of the vase, so that it could not function as a container. The construction and fugitive decoration of Centuripe vases indicate their intended function as grave goods. The painted imagery relates to weddings or the Dionysiac cult, whose mysteries enjoyed great popularity in southern Italy and Sicily, presumably due to the blissful afterlife promised to its initiates.

Keely Heuer
Bothmer Fellow, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art