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Vases or Pots?

The legacy of Greece and Rome to the modern world is far from consisting only of literature. The Renaissance began in Italy, where the physical remains of antiquity were everywhere visible. Enormous ruins, temples and aqueducts and theaters, dominated Rome and many other cities. In an outpost of Empire like Britain, where things were on a more provincial scale, that is not so, and the sheer size of the Pantheon and the Coliseum still comes as a surprise to northerners.

Another aspect of that legacy was the precious treasures surviving from the wreck of the high culture. The Vatican, like the great treasures of Vienna and Paris, still possesses marvels of ancient luxury, valued as much for their materials as for their artistic quality: cameos, and carved crystals, and mosaics, and statues in rare and precious stones. These works fall rather outside what is classed as serious or major art by modern taste, and the cultivated tourist no longer regards as the first priority in London or Vienna such objects as the Augustan Gem in Vienna (a large cameo depicting the apotheosis of Augustus) and the Portland Vase in the British museum (a virtuoso creation in layered and carved glass once believed to be of precious stone.)

The Renaissance knew very little of the Greek gold work, both jewelry and objets de luxe, which in the last 150 years has come to light in great quantities. People of that period would have been fascinated by the exhibition “The Gold of Greece,” recently on show in London and New York; but nowadays such a spectacle has a faintly middle-brow air. Serious scholars are embarrassed by the decorative arts, and one does not expect contemporary artists to be inspired by its splendors at any level more ambitious than that of the museum gift shop and the manufacture of replicas in less expensive metal. Ancient jewelry has come down in the world, at least academically, in recent centuries.

By contrast, Greek vases have gone up. For the popes of the sixteenth century, as for the milords of the eighteenth, the vases which were of interest were not the pottery ones which now populate our museums and are the subject of so many books on Greek vase painting, but the few huge carved ones in stone, like the Borghese Vase and the Medici Vase, both five feet high, ascribed (optimistically) to no less an artist than Phidias, and reckoned among the supreme works of art. They were copied in marble at Versailles, in bronze at Osterley Park, in alabaster at Houghton Hall, and in silver gilt—and in a set of eight—by the goldsmith Paul Storr for the Prince Regent. The originals are now respectively in the Louvre and the Uffizi.

It was in the second half of the eighteenth century that serious attention began to be given to the pottery vessels which were coming to light in great numbers from tombs in Italy and Sicily. So many of them came from Tuscany that they were at first not believed to be Greek. They were called “Etruscan vases,” and Josiah Wedgwood named his pottery works “Etruria” on that account (1769). Their inexpensive material and simple but elegant shapes made a great appeal to a period in which many people were attuned to Rousseau and increasingly repelled by the rococo. There had always been a tradition which deplored excessive luxury and ornamentation at the table and in the house; that tradition now was triumphant. Determined efforts were made to induce the public to like and admire these simpler products of ancient Greece: not least by collectors and dealers.

That is indeed a recurrent note in the story. Sir William Hamilton, British envoy to the court of Naples, was a great collector; he had picked up, and married, the celebrated beauty Emma Hart, who as Emma Hamilton was to inspire painters and to scandalize and delight Europe as the mistress of Nelson. He bought the largest and most desirable of ancient marble vases, the Warwick Vase (discovered in 1771; now in Glasgow). He also amassed an extensive collection of Greek pots, which the British Museum finally bought for £8,000; not without an energetic propaganda campaign and the publication of a sumptuous catalog in four grandiose volumes, filled with encomiums of the beauty and value of the objects illustrated.

Greek vases became the rage (they are “vases” to their admirers, “pots” to those who think them overvalued). Goethe was not unmoved. In his famous Italienische Reise he says,

We were taken back into earlier epochs by inspecting a precious vase of considerable size and perfect preservation. People pay a lot of money now for Etruscan vases, and certainly one finds beautiful and exquisite pieces among them. Every traveller wants one. People do not value their money so highly as they do at home; I was afraid that I might be tempted myself…

No better publicity could be imagined. Munich and Berlin followed the trend. Soon every national museum and many universities had fine collections. Prices went up and up, and they are still high: more than £2 million has been paid for a single piece of Athenian painted pottery.

Vases or pots? We are dealing with the tableware of antiquity, the cups from which people drank, the pitchers and bowls from which they served. This is not, that is to say, a “pure” art, like the making of statues or easel pictures, with no end beyond the aesthetic one: these things were made for daily use. What was their standing in antiquity? After the publication of the Hamilton catalog it was often asserted or assumed that the status of Greek potters was high, that big prices were paid for fine pots, and that their productions were cherished and used by the elite. They were, in fact, in the full sense works of art.

The study of these vases later became a respected branch of scholarship. That is due above all to the genius of Sir John Beazley (1885-1970), a critic gifted with a marvelous eye and memory, who also wrote very well. He spent a long life on distinguishing and attributing the painted vases to individual artists; and his results turned a rather hit-and-miss affair into an orderly and scholarly one. A range of “schools,” “studios,” and “masters” fell into place, on the model of the artists of the Italian Renaissance; Beazley used the method of Giovanni Morelli, who pointed out that painters have their own characteristic formulae for ears, nostrils, and the like, and that their study enabled the patient and perceptive inquirer to identify the work of each individual artist. Beazley’s results, and his method, have been generally accepted as authoritative.

For some years now Michael Vickers, of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and David Gill, of the University College of Swansea, have been attacking this consensus. Artful Crafts is an exposition (and repetition) of their case, and it is entertaining as well as scholarly. They argue that in the ancient word the pots were in reality of low price and little esteemed; that their shapes and their decoration alike derive from the objects which really were highly valued, namely, vessels in gold and silver, for which pottery was no more than a cheap substitute; that consequently there were no real, original artists among the potters; and—they say aggressively—

The practice of rich collection and dealers employing a learned hack to publish or puff their “vases” has inevitably meant that the status of the material, and of the craftsmen who produced it, has been exaggerated and that market imperatives have resulted in the suspension of critical judgment on the part of those otherwise best equipped to discuss the question of value.

Fighting words; and the authors go on to say, with some complacency, “We are reliably informed (by a former ancient-art consultant) that one consequence of our thesis is that some North American collectors are now questioning the wisdom of acquiring painted pottery, since the field is now so controversial (and nothing puts off collectors as much as controversy: they want their investments to be secure and not subject to the vagaries of scholarship.)

We have here assertions of more than one sort. On the first point, that painted pottery was not “especially valuable” in Greece, I think the case is proved. It should be said, however, despite the polemical energy here put into refuting the opposite view, that there is disconcertingly little evidence, from the sources cited here, that anyone much has held it; at least recently. The ancient writers hardly ever mention painted pottery, and such scraps of evidence as there are for ancient prices suggest that it was very inexpensive; surprisingly so, in fact. Both Persian kings and Roman emperors are described as serving pottery cups at table to individuals whom they wanted to punish or humiliate, everybody else drinking as usual from precious metal. Artful Crafts contains an amusing account of early modern scholars glossing over these facts or blandly stating the opposite. The authors are also right to insist that plate, precious metal, was what people wanted in antiquity, at the periods when they could afford it; as many of then could in Athens in the fifth century BCE, when the spoils of King Xerxes’ failed invasion, the booming local production of silver, and the profits of their empire, together meant that the upper class possessed more bullion than at any time before the conquests of Alexander the Great flooded Greece with the treasure of the East.

We possess very little of that plate. As in many other periods, it was constantly being melted down; there was as little respect for old styles and craftsmanship as there was in the seventeenth century. And it was not the custom at that time, any more than it is now, to bury treasures with the dead. It is consequently only from the fringes of the Greek world that we recover a few of the spectacular golden objects which existed; for in southern Russia and in Macedon that custom still prevailed. It is important to remember that the ancients loved richness, as well as simplicity. Their taste, in fact, resembled that of the Renaissance, in some important respects, more closely than it resembles ours.

Adolf Loos, propagandist for the Modern Movement, said in 1908, “Greek vases are as beautiful as a machine, as beautiful as a bicycle.” Terence Conran said in 1984, “To be simple in decoration is always to be in good taste.” Those opinions, essentially moral but masquerading as aesthetics, express the dominant taste of the twentieth century, and it is one to which the simple shapes and plain earthenware of Greek pottery make a strong appeal. We are not at ease with sumptuous materials; an Oxford colleague (not a man of notably abstemious life) expressed embarrassed surprise at finding me gazing into a jeweler’s window. But the ancients did not think the supreme aesthetic merit was the avoidance of risk. Visitors to Thessaloniki who see the recently discovered gold and silver treasures buried with Philip, the father of Alexander, will find in them a combination of purity and opulence.

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