Old sexpot's past will certainly open your eyes

The History of Greek Vases

May 24, 2002

John Boardman once gave a TV programme on the Elgin Marbles. I say "gave" because there was no presenter exuding false enthusiasm, no "breakthrough", no shots of Boardman at the wheel of a motorcar driving through the Greek countryside, just a straightforward lecture with the marbles instead of a blackboard. I do not know how he persuaded the BBC to abandon their time-wasting rituals but the result was superb - just relevant facts, interesting ideas and the legitimate pleasure of the subject.

The same holds for The History of Greek Vases . Its coverage, from the 10th to the 4th century BC, is comprehensive, and its attractiveness is guaranteed by 358 illustrations that are splendidly reproduced and captioned. The text neither talks down to the reader nor uses jargon. Thus Boardman does not call on the soulless word anthropomorphism to explain why gorgons were painted to look like human beings, but talks of "the general Greek practice of de-mystifying the monstrous". The same unpretentiousness extends to his own work. For instance, one would never guess from his account of the multiple brush as used in Greek pottery that he had himself been the first to explore the subject.

Greek vases are not just art objects. They are sometimes the only witnesses of history. The period of Greece's early expansion when its literature and ways of thought began to diverge from those of its neighbours in the Near East is virtually undocumented. We know nothing about Homer's personal identity. The first lyric poets and philosophers survive only in fragments. No contemporary recorded the beginning of the self-governing polis. Pots, however, are found in plenty both in Greece proper and round much of the Mediterranean and Black Sea coast. They can be closely dated, and archaeologists can usually tell whether they are local or imported, and, if so, from where. They provide first-hand evidence in many spheres - in economics for the changing patterns of trade, in art for the evolution of perspective and realism, and in social history. Vases served many purposes from religious dedication to kitchen use. There are epic heroes and everyday scenes of work or play, drinking parties (for which many of the vases were made) and couples making love. Even these can teach scholars something new. For example, a phrase meaning "be quiet" or "keep still" occurs in Greek tragedy. So did it belong to the language of poetry or of ordinary speech? Well, on a vase in Boston acquired in 1970, a man engaged in the act of copulation is saying it to his girl. So it was evidently the latter.

But the material is vast. The Oxford website ( www.beazley.ox.ac.uk ) has 30,000 images from Athenian vases alone. A book cannot discuss or reproduce them all, only tell us how to explore for ourselves. Boardman's 500 footnotes do this meticulously. He does, however, credit us with a daunting degree of erudition, assuming that we know the meaning of naiskos , how Hercules killed the invulnerable lion, and what a stirrup vase is. (Answers: a shrine; by suffocating it; a misleading translation from German.) A more serious complaint will come from readers who feel cheated of a fight. According to a recent theory, the business of vase painting in Athens was down-market. What it did was produce imitations. White (the normal background colour on tall narrow vases) stood in for tusk ivory, red for gold, and black for silver (Achilles is described by Homer as using sulphur to polish a particularly precious cup). The rich never usually award clay pots a luxury rating; and the belief that they might have done so in ancient Athens is largely due to the arts and crafts movement. So runs the heresy, and Boardman has attacked it in specialist articles.

But not here. His mentions of it are brief and dismissive. He does, however, give us an interesting chapter on "connoisseurship", or the attribution of work to individual painters by observing how they treat minor details. The method, developed by Giovanni Morelli and much exploited by Bernard Berenson in regard to Renaissance painting in Europe, has been applied to Athenian vases by an Oxford scholar, John Beazley, with outstanding success. But in his enthusiasm for his painters and in using the language of high art connoisseurship to appraise their essentially humble work, Beazley can be suspected of ideological prejudice. Boardman argues that if Beazley has to be categorised in terms of late 19th-century fashion, it should be not as an arts and crafts man but as an aesthete.

This defence of Beazley's objectivity does not of course settle the question of the status of Athenian pottery at the time, nor would Boardman claim that it did. More pertinent is a convincing demonstration that, measured by contemporary rates of pay, good painted vases in Athens could be quite expensive. But even this merely makes the heresy less convincing. It does not disprove it.

The last word has probably not been said on the controversy but, whatever it may be, The History of Greek Vases will not be diminished. One can apply Steele's remark about Lady Elizabeth Hastings: "To behold her is an immediate check to loose behaviour: to love her is a liberal education."

The once-only reader will be saved from all kinds of ignorance and loose thinking: the committed student will get a more liberal education than from a year in the strait-jacket of a prescribed curriculum.

Maurice Pope is emeritus professor of classics, University of Capetown.

The History of Greek Vases: Potters, Painters and Pictures

Author - John Boardman
ISBN - 0 500 23780 8
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £29.95
Pages - 320

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