Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Southern Italian Vase Painting

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  • Many of the paintings bring to life stage practices and costumes.

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    For nearly 300 years, Greek cities along the coasts of southern Italy and Sicily regularly imported their fine ware from Corinth and, later, Athens. By the third quarter of the fifth century B.C., however, they were acquiring red-figured pottery of local manufacture. As many of the craftsmen were trained immigrants from Athens, these early South Italian vases were closely modeled after Attic prototypes in both shape and design.


    By the end of the fifth century B.C., Attic imports ceased as Athens struggled in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C. The regional schools of South Italian vase painting—Apulian, Lucanian, Campanian, Paestan—flourished between 440 and 300 B.C. In general, the fired clay shows much greater variation in color and texture than that which is found in Attic pottery. A distinct preference for added color (53.11.5), especially white, yellow, and red, is characteristic of South Italian vases in the fourth century B.C. Compositions, especially those on Apulian vases (50.11.4), tend to be grandiose, with statuesque figures shown in several tiers. There is also a fondness for depicting architecture, with the perspective not always successfully rendered.


    Almost from the beginning, South Italian vase painters tended to favor elaborate scenes from daily life, mythology, and Greek theater. Many of the paintings bring to life stage practices and costumes. A particular fondness for the plays of Euripides testifies to the continued popularity of Attic tragedy in the fourth century B.C. in Magna Graecia. In general, the images often show one or two highlights of a play, several of its characters, and often a selection of divinities, some of which may or may not be directly relevant. Some of the liveliest products of South Italian vase painting in the fourth century B.C. are the so-called phlyax vases (24.97.104), which depict comics performing a scene from a phlyax, a type of farce play that developed in southern Italy. These painted scenes bring to life the boisterous characters with grotesque masks and padded costumes.

    Colette Hemingway
    Independent Scholar