Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Art and Craft in Archaic Sparta

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  • "I suppose if Lacedaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent for her power. … [A]s the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages, after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is."


    Laconian black-figure vase painting produced a characteristic style and reached even remote regions of the Mediterranean.

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    These words written by Thucydides at the end of the fifth century B.C. (The Peloponnesian War, Book 1:1), contrasting the austerity of Sparta (Lacedaemon) with the rich architectural and artistic scenery of Athenian life, seem to be quite reliable for his own time. Archaeological finds of the preceding centuries, however, show that the image of Sparta, as a city-state without art dedicated exclusively to warfare, cannot be simply extrapolated to the Archaic period. In fact, in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., and especially in the first half of the sixth century B.C., Sparta and its region, Laconia, had its own workshops in several genres of artistic craft, such as vase painting, metalwork, ivory and bone carving, and even stone sculpture, in which artists created works in an original, often well-recognizable style with a distinct iconographic repertoire.


    Painted pottery was produced in Laconian workshops already in the eighth century B.C., in a local version of the Geometric style, and circulated to most regions and centers of the Greek world. After the mainly nonfigural decoration of the Orientalizing period, around 630 B.C., Laconian vase painters adopted the black-figure technique from Corinth, at about the same time the more famous and important Athenian black-figure style began. Although it cannot be compared to the Athenian in quantity and in artistic invention, Laconian black-figure vase painting produced a characteristic style and reached even remote regions of the Mediterranean, beyond the boundaries of the Greek world. Its heyday coincides roughly with the second and third quarters of the sixth century B.C., when five leading masters and some lesser painters were active. The most popular pottery shape was a local variant of the kylix (a rather shallow, two-handled drinking cup on a more or less tall stem), usually decorated with a figural scene in the tondo and with ornamental rows and compact black bands on the exterior (59.15). In the tondos, mythological subjects are frequent, alternating with scenes from real life, which, however, always bear a heroic connotation. Laconian black-figure painters had a predilection for special variations on conventional mythological scenes, symbolic figures like winged human figures, sirens, and sphinxes, and floral ornamental patterns including pomegranates and tendrils (14.30.26). A specific Laconian vase shape is the lakaina (1986.11.7), which, however, was never decorated with figural scenes. Laconian pottery was widely distributed in the Greek East (Samos, Rhodes), in North Africa, where part of the Greek population claimed Spartan origins (Naucratis, Cyrene), in Southern Italy (where Taras, the only city-state founded by Spartans in the West, could play a role as a center of distribution), Sicily, and Etruria. It can be argued that the representation of myth and life seen on Laconian vases also inspired some local artistic creations in the Greek West and in Etruria.


    An outstanding field of Laconian art and craft was bronzeworking, in particular small-scale bronze sculpture and the production of decorated bronze vessels. Solid cast, small-scale bronze figures usually embellished vessels, tripods, mirrors, and other utensils; however, isolated pieces found in sanctuaries could also have been votive offerings on their own. A characteristic Spartan figural type can already be recognized in the eighth century B.C. in the representation of horses, a widespread subject in early Greek small-scale bronze sculpture: among these extremely abstract renderings of the late Geometric period, a large number of statuettes found in Laconia and in the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia can be ascribed to Laconian craftsmen (69.61.2).


    Towards the end of the seventh century B.C., Laconian bronzeworkers began to produce magnificent decorated vessels and other artistic objects. The greatest assets of Laconian workshops are large kraters (mixing bowls) and smaller hydriai (water jars), made by hammering and decorated with solid cast figures, ranging from floral ornaments and snakes to animal and human protomes and mythological figures. Vertical handles can assume the shape of a human figure; in other cases, mainly on the earlier pieces, we find a pair of lions (1989.11.1) or the face of a goddess (1995.92) at the base of a handle or below the rim. Laconian bronze vessels are distinguished essentially on stylistic grounds from contemporary Corinthian, Argive, Athenian, and other products, taking into account both the shape and technical traits of the vessels themselves and the rendering of the figural decoration. One particular class of bronze objects can be entirely ascribed to Sparta on the account of their special iconography: disk-shaped mirrors supported by figures of nude girls (38.11.3). The subject of naked women is extremely rare in archaic Greek art, but the conspicuously young, almost childish female figure, naked except for a series of ritual attributes, can be plausibly ascribed to Laconia, where the local cult of Artemis Orthia may have inspired this unusual iconography. Sometimes Spartan mirrors of this type were exported as well, with examples from as far away as Cyprus (74.51.5680).


    The Spartan sanctuary of Artemis Orthia is also the find-spot of other unusual series of votive offerings, among which are the curious tiny lead relief-figurines, representing a winged goddess (24.195.4), a variety of human figures, and different kinds of animals.


    Laconian bronze artifacts were especially popular in the West: they were not only exported to Southern Italy, Sicily, and Central Italy, but also inspired important local productions of bronze artifacts. While in the case of painted pottery, imports and local imitations can be distinguished rather clearly, the same task becomes extremely complicated with bronzes. In fact, decorated bronze artifacts were prestigious goods and traveled along different itineraries than pottery, reaching sometimes surprisingly distant destinations. Craftsmen specialized in this art could travel more easily, following commissions to remote regions. They could settle down in new places and found new workshops whose stylistic and iconographic repertory could derive at least partly from the tradition of their founders. For this reason, often fine bronzes are tentatively ascribed to a Spartan workshop, although discovered in Italy, or even beyond, in France or Central Europe. However, these attributions are subject to long debates, sometimes without a real possibility of conclusion. This problem is particularly evident in Southern Italy, where a number of bronze artifacts show characteristic traits that recall the Laconian tradition, nevertheless they cannot be ascribed to Sparta with certainty. A famous example is an elaborate tripod found in Metaponto, very similar to the one in the Metropolitan Museum's collection (1997.145.1).


    Literary sources confirm that in the sixth century B.C., Sparta was also a major artistic center and home to several important artists and workshops. Some of the artists may have been immigrants, mainly of East Greek origin, such as Bathykles of Magnesia, whose elaborate "throne" of Apollo in Amyclae is described in detail by Pausanias (Description of Greece, Book 3: 18.6–19.5). Others seem to have been born and educated in Sparta, such as Gitiadas, creator of the cult statue of Athena Chalkioikos and of prestigious votive gifts to Artemis in Amyclae (Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book 3:18.7 and 4:14.2). While these works of art, however famous in late antiquity, are now lost, we can rely on some extant stone sculptures for an idea of Laconian large-scale art: such works include the Archaic Spartan hero reliefs, especially the monumental piece found in Chrysapha, and an early sixth-century B.C. female head in Olympia, which can be connected with Sparta on firm stylistic grounds.


    In the second half and particularly in the last quarter of the sixth century B.C., Laconian crafts declined in quantity and quality. Laconian painted pottery was driven out of its old markets by Athenian exports. There were still remarkable achievements in bronze statuary, as evinced by a hollow-cast bronze statue head in Boston, but gradually Laconian artists abandoned the characteristic stylistic traits of the region and adopted more generic conventions of Late Archaic Greek art.

    Agnes Bencze
    Department of Art History, Péter Pázmány Catholic University, Budapest