South Italian vases are ceramics, mostly decorated in the red-figure technique, that were produced by Greek colonists in southern Italy and Sicily, the region often referred to as Magna Graecia or “Great Greece.” Indigenous production of vases in imitation of red-figure wares of the Greek mainland occurred sporadically in the early fifth century B.C. within the region. However, around 440 B.C., a workshop of potters and painters appeared at Metapontum in Lucania and soon after at Tarentum (modern-day Taranto) in Apulia. It is unknown how the technical knowledge for producing these vases traveled to southern Italy. Theories range from Athenian participation in the founding of the colony of Thurii in 443 B.C. to the emigration of Athenian artisans, perhaps encouraged by the onset of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. The war, which lasted until 404 B.C., and the resulting decline of Athenian vase exports to the west were certainly important factors in the successful continuation of red-figure vase production in Magna Graecia. The manufacture of South Italian vases reached its zenith between 350 and 320 B.C., then gradually tapered off in quality and quantity until just after the close of the fourth century B.C.
Modern scholars have divided South Italian vases into five wares named after the regions in which they were produced: Lucanian, Apulian, Campanian, Paestan, and Sicilian. South Italian wares, unlike Attic, were not widely exported and seem to have been intended solely for local consumption. Each fabric has its own distinct features, including preferences in shape and decoration that make them identifiable, even when exact provenance is unknown. Lucanian and Apulian are the oldest wares, established within a generation of each other. Sicilian red-figure vases appeared not long after, just before 400 B.C. By 370 B.C., potters and vase painters migrated from Sicily to both Campania and Paestum, where they founded their respective workshops. It is thought that they left Sicily due to political upheaval. After stability returned to the island around 340 B.C., both Campanian and Paestan vase painters moved to Sicily to revive its pottery industry. Unlike in Athens, almost none of the potters and vase painters in Magna Graecia signed their work, thus the majority of names are modern designations.
Lucania, corresponding to the “toe” and “instep” of the Italian peninsula, was home to the earliest of the South Italian wares, characterized by the deep red-orange color of its clay. Its most distinctive shape is the nestoris, a deep vessel adopted from a native Messapian shape with upswung side handles sometimes decorated with disks (52.11.2). Initially, Lucanian vase painting very closely resembled contemporary Attic vase painting, as seen on a finely drawn fragmentary skyphos attributed to the Palermo Painter (12.235.4). Favored iconography included pursuit scenes (mortal and divine), scenes of daily life (91.1.466), and images of Dionysos and his adherents (96.18.57). The original workshop at Metaponto, founded by the Pisticci Painter and his two chief colleagues, the Cyclops and Amykos Painters, disappeared between 380 and 370 B.C.; its leading artists moved into the Lucanian hinterland to sites such as Roccanova, Anzi, and Armento. After this point, Lucanian vase painting became increasingly provincial, reusing themes from earlier artists and motifs borrowed from Apulia. With the move to more remote parts of Lucania, the color of the clay also changed, best exemplified in the work of the Roccanova Painter, who applied a deep pink wash to heighten the light color. After the career of the Primato Painter, the last of the notable Lucanian vase painters, active between ca. 360 and 330 B.C., the ware consisted of poor imitations of his hand until the last decades of the fourth century B.C., when production ceased.
More than half of extant South Italian vases come from Apulia (modern Puglia), the “heel” of Italy. These vases were originally produced in Tarentum, the major Greek colony in the region. The demand became so great among the native peoples of the region that by the mid-fourth century B.C., satellite workshops were established in Italic communities to the north such as Ruvo, Ceglie del Campo, and Canosa. A distinctive shape of Apulia is the knob-handled patera, a low-footed, shallow dish with two handles rising from the rim. The handles and rim are elaborated with mushroom-shaped knobs (96.18.55). Apulia is also distinguished by its production of monumental shapes, including the volute-krater, the amphora, and the loutrophoros. These vases were primarily funerary in function. They are decorated with scenes of mourners at tombs and elaborate, multifigured mythological tableaux, a number of which are rarely, if ever, seen on the vases of the Greek mainland and are otherwise only known through literary evidence (56.171.63; 11.210.3a,b; 69.11.7). Mythological scenes on Apulian vases are depictions of epic and tragic subjects and were likely inspired by dramatic performances (16.140). Sometimes these vases provide illustrations of tragedies whose surviving texts, other than the title, are either highly fragmentary or entirely lost. These large-scale pieces are categorized as “Ornate” in style and feature elaborate floral ornament and much added color, such as white, yellow, and red (20.195; 10.210.17a,b,d). Smaller shapes in Apulia are typically decorated in the “Plain” style, with simple compositions of one to five figures. Popular subjects include Dionysos, as both god of theater and wine (56.171.64), scenes of youths and women, frequently in the company of Eros (01.8.14; 17.46.2), and isolated heads, usually that of a woman (06.1021.229). Prominent, particularly on column-kraters, is the depiction of the indigenous peoples of the region, such as the Messapians and Oscans, wearing their native dress and armor. Such scenes are usually interpreted as an arrival or departure, with the offering of a libation. Counterparts in bronze of the wide belts worn by the youths on a column-krater attributed to the Rueff Painter (1974.23) have been found in Italic tombs (08.3a). The greatest output of Apulian vases occurred between 340 and 310 B.C., despite political upheaval in the region at the time, and most of the surviving pieces can be assigned to its two leading workshops—one led by the Darius and Underworld Painters and the other by the Patera, Ganymede, and Baltimore Painters. After this floruit, Apulian vase painting declined rapidly.
Campanian vases were produced by Greeks in the cities of Capua and Cumae, which were both under native control. Capua was an Etruscan foundation that passed into the hands of Samnites in 426 B.C. Cumae, one of the earliest of the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia, was founded on the Bay of Naples by Euboeans no later than 730–720 B.C. It, too, was captured by native Campanians in 421 B.C., but Greek laws and customs were retained. The workshops of Cumae were founded slightly later than those of Capua, around the middle of the fourth century B.C. Notably absent in Campania are monumental vases, perhaps one of the reasons why there are fewer mythological and dramatic scenes. The most distinctive shape in the Campanian repertoire is the bail-amphora, a storage jar with a single handle that arches over the mouth, often pierced at its top (06.1021.240). The color of the fired clay is a pale buff or light orange-yellow, and a pink or red wash was often painted over the entire vase before it was decorated to enhance the color. Added white was used extensively, particularly for the exposed flesh of women (06.1021.238). While vases of the Sicilian emigrants who settled in Campania are found at a number of sites in the region, it is the Cassandra Painter, the head of a workshop in Capua between 380 and 360 B.C., who is credited as being the earliest Campanian vase painter. Close to him in style is the Spotted Rock Painter, named for an unusual feature of Campanian vases that incorporates the area’s natural topography, shaped by volcanic activity. Depicting figures seated upon, leaning against, or resting a raised foot on rocks and rock piles was a common practice in South Italian vase painting. But on Campanian vases, these rocks are often spotted, representing a form of igneous breccia or agglomerate, or they take the sinuous forms of cooled lava flows, both of which were familiar geological features of the landscape. The range of subjects is relatively limited, the most characteristic being representations of women and warriors in native Osco-Samnite dress. The armor consists of a three-disk breastplate and helmet with a tall vertical feather on both sides of the head (91.1.444). Local dress for women consists of a short cape over the garment and a headdress of draped fabric, rather medieval in appearance (01.8.12). The figures participate in libations for departing or returning warriors as well as in funerary rites. These representations are comparable to those found in painted tombs of the region as well as at Paestum. Also popular in Campania are fish plates, with great detail paid to the different species of sea life painted on them (06.1021.241). Around 330 B.C., Campanian vase painting became subject to a strong Apulianizing influence, probably due to the migration of painters from Apulia to both Campania and Paestum. In Capua, production of painted vases concluded around 320 B.C., but continued in Cumae until the end of the century.
The city of Paestum is located in the northwest corner of Lucania, but stylistically its pottery is closely connected to that of neighboring Campania. Like Cumae, it was a former Greek colony, conquered by the Lucanians around 400 B.C. While Paestan vase painting does not feature any unique shapes, it is set apart from the other wares for being the only one to preserve the signatures of vase painters: Asteas and his close colleague Python. Both were early, accomplished, and highly influential vase painters who established the ware’s stylistic canons, which changed only slightly over time. Typical features include dot-stripe borders along the edges of drapery and the so-called framing palmettes typical on large- or medium-scaled vases (62.11.3). The bell-krater is a particularly favored shape. Scenes of Dionysos predominate (1976.11.5); mythological compositions occur, but tend to be overcrowded, with additional busts of figures in the corners. The most successful images on Paestan vases are those of comedic performances, often termed “phlyax vases” after a type of farce developed in southern Italy. However, evidence indicates an Athenian origin for at least some of these plays, which feature stock characters in grotesque masks and exaggerated costumes. Such phlyax scenes are also painted on Apulian vases (24.97.104).
Sicilian vases tend to be small in scale and popular shapes include the bottle and the skyphoid pyxis. The range of subjects painted on vases is the most limited of all the South Italian wares, with most vases showing the feminine world: bridal preparations, toilet scenes, women in the company of Nike and Eros or simply by themselves, often seated and gazing expectantly upward. After 340 B.C., vase production seems to have been concentrated in the area of Syracuse, at Gela, and around Centuripe near Mount Etna. Vases were also produced on the island of Lipari, just off the Sicilian coast. Sicilian vases are striking for their ever increasing use of added colors, particularly those found on Lipari and near Centuripe, where in the third century B.C. there was a thriving manufacture of polychrome ceramics and figurines (30.11.4a–c).
Heuer, Keely. “The Five Wares of South Italian Vase Painting.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/five/hd_five.htm (December 2010)
Mayo, Margaret Ellen, ed. The Art of South Italy: Vases from Magna Graecia. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1982.
Taplin, Oliver. Pots & Plays: Interactions between Tragedy and Greek Vase-Painting of the Fourth Century B.C. Los Angeles: Getty Museum, 2007.
Trendall, Arthur Dale. Red Figure Vases of South Italy and Sicily. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1989.
Trendall, Arthur Dale. The Red-Figured Vases of Lucania, Campania, and Sicily. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
Trendall, Arthur Dale. The Red-Figured Vases of Paestum. Rome: British School at Rome, 1987.
Trendall, Arthur Dale, and Alexander Cambitoglou. The Red-Figured Vases of Apulia. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978–82.
Heuer, Keely. “Funerary Vases in Southern Italy and Sicily.” (November 2010)