Mythical Ceramics: The Gregorian Etruscan Museum

The Gregorian Etruscan Museum was the first museum dedicated solely to artifacts found in ancient Etruria (modern-day Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria).

Vatican Map of Etruria

Etruscan cities were prosperous, independent city-states that were linked by culture, religion, and language. Because of their prosperity, trade flourished in this area, leaving many artifacts for archeologists to find and study. Etruria remained a dominant force in central Italy until the Etruscans supported the Roman Marius in Rome’s civil war and the region was fully incorporated into the burgeoning Roman Empire.

By far the most interesting room of this museum is Room IX, which houses imported Greek ceramics found in the ancient city of Vulci. Before we dive into the artwork, it is probably helpful to explain the different types and uses of each vessel.

  • The first ceramic depicted above, the Amphora, was used to hold both wine and oil. Its name was derived from the Greek word amphí, which means “on both sides” (a reference to the double handle), and the Greek word phérō, which means “carry.” Victors of the Panathenaic Games would receive so-called Panathenaic amphora filled with oil made from sacred olives.
  • The next ceramic, the Kantharos, was a deep vessel with a tall foot and two handles that rose above the lip of the cup. It was closely linked to the God Dionysus, who would typically be depicted with a Kantharos.
  • The Kyathos was a deep vessel with a low foot and a single handle that rose above the lip of the cup. It was used as a ladle, and in fact, the word “Kyathos” was a term of measurement, meaning 0.136 litres.
  • A Kylix was a wide vessel with two handles and was used during symposia (drinking parties). It was also used in a game known as kottabos, where a player would attempt to fling wine from a whirling kylix into a small container.
  • The Oinochoe was used in conjunction with the Kylix during symposia. It was the vessel which transported wine from a krater to the kylix. Its name was derived from the Greek word oînos, which means “wine,” and the Greek word chéō, which means “I pour” – pretty literal those Greeks, even if they did have awesome drinking parties.
  • Finally, the Hydria was used to hold and transport water. Its name was derived from the Greek word hydōr, which means “water.” This particular vessel had three handles, two on either side and a third protruding from the lip, which was used while carrying the vessel on one’s head.

Now that we have the types of ceramics straight, let’s dig into the actual works located in this room. The first major work is known as the Attic black figure Amphora by the Ptoion Painter, which juxtaposes a banquet scene, representing the world of man, with a scene depicting the Judgment of Paris, representing the world of the gods. The Ptoion Painter was well known for his depictions of this juxtaposition of the two universes. In fact, similar juxtapositions are also found painted in Etruscan tombs; these paintings are believed to have been done by Greek immigrant artists.

The Attic black figure Amphora of the E Group has been identified as being part of the “E Group,” a classification of amphorae that are thought to have been created by the Attic potter Exekias, who was active during the 6th century BC. This particular amphora depicts a victorious athlete lifting a large tripod on one side while on the other depicts a charioteer. Exekias was known to be fond of depicting horses, four of which appear on this amphora.

The Etruscan black figure Amphora by the Micali Painter is decorated with a battle between Iolaus, Athena, Heracles, Cycnus, Ares, and Phobos, among others. It has been attributed to the Painter of Micali, who was known for his disproportionate figures, reduced spaces, marked gestures, approximate anatomies, and ornamental details.

Rooms XVII and XVIII of the Gregorian Etruscan Museum house what were thought to be Etruscan, but were re-identified as Roman or Greek vases.

For instance, the Laconic Kylix with Prometheus and Atlas was made in Sparta during the early 6th century BC. It depicts Atlas, whose punishment for helping his brother Prometheus is to keep heaven and earth separated. Prometheus, on the other hand, was tied to a pole and presented as food for an eagle, who ate his liver every day, only for it to regrow every night. Comparatively, Atlas sounds like he got off lightly.

Room XIX of the Museum is dedicated to Attic ceramics ranging from 560 to 460 BC, which reached Etrusia via trade routes from Athens. In this room is the Panathenaic Attic Amphora of the Michigan Painter, which is typical of panathenaic amphorae. As mentioned above, panathenaic amphorae were given to the winners of the Panathenaic games. All such Amphorae were decorated with the goddess Athena, flanked by two small columns topped with a cockerel, a symbol of combative temperament, and the inscription “ton Athenethen athlon,” meaning “of the Athens contests.”

During the 6th century BC, ceramicists moved away from the traditional black-figure style in favor of the red-figure method, which allowed ceramicists to better define the figure’s details, since the details were now painted on instead of scratched into the ceramic. The “Bilingual” Attic Kylix shows the transition towards fully adopting the red-figure style, combining both methods into the single work. Indeed, the figure on the inside of the kylix was done in the black-figure style, while the figures on the outside surface are done in the red-figure style on a painted black background.

Attic black figure Amphora signed by Exekia is one of the most famous amphorae. The ceramicist Exekia, as mentioned above, was rather prolific, and this amphora is considered his masterpiece. It depicts Achilles and Ajax playing dice on one side and Castor and his horse Kyllaros and Pollux playing with his dog on the other.

For those unfamiliar with the Trojan War myth, Achilles is the Greek’s greatest fighter and is nearly invincible, save for his ankle (thus, our expression “Achilles’ heel”). Ajax is a fellow Greek warrior in the fight against Troy; in fact, it was said that he was second in bravery and strength only to Achilles. He is known for recovering Achilles’ body from the Trojans and for committing suicide after Achilles’ armor is awarded to Odysseus rather than to him. This scene obviously takes place before the tragic ending of these two mythical heroes. Castor and Pollux, depicted on the reverse, are mythical twins of Leda and Zeus, the father of the Gods, who had seduced Leda while he was in the guise of a swan. (Although according to some versions of the story, Pollux is the son of Zeus and Castor is the son of Leda’s husband, the King of Sparta.) The Greek gods had very messy love lifes.

Another famous ceramic is the Attic Kylix in the style of Douris, which depicts Heracles floating along inside a golden goblet (yes, a golden goblet) on his way to the island of Erytheia, where he will face the Geryon, the herdsman Eurytion, and the dog Orthros on his quest to capture a herd of cattle (his 10th labor). Heracles is shown in his usual iconography: the Nemean lion skin, the cub, and the bow.

The Attic Kantharos of the Vatican Class also uses Heracles’ life as its inspiration. This kantharos is a janiform with the face of Heracles on one side and the face of an African King on the other.

Historians believe that the King is a depiction of Busiris, the mythical Egyptian king who sacrificed any foreigner that came to Egypt in exchange for the total avoidance of famine. Heracles was such a foreigner who was captured and brought to the sacrificial altar, which turned out to be a disatorious mistake on the part of the Egyptians. Heracles escaped his bindings and massacred the entire Egyptian court.

The final vessel that I want to talk about is the Attic Kylix of the Painter of Oedipus. On the inside of the ceramic, Oedipus is depicted seated listening to a riddle put to him by the Sphinx of Thebes. To enter the city, Oedipus must answer the riddle correctly, which he is indeed able to do. Upon entering the city, however, Oedipus unwittingly married his mother, recently widowed Jocasta, Queen of Thebes. Giving Sigmund Freud the name for his famous “Oedipus Complex.”

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