Pelike

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A pottery vase from the region of Apulia which can be identified given its shape as a red-figure pelike. It is decorated in red with a pictorial scene, with details in white. Female heads are depicted on the front and back of the recipient, accompanied by vegetal motifs.

Both faces are painted in profile with long hair pulled back into a bun, knotted with a white ribbon. These heads can be identified as the “Belle Dame” motif, a representation of a female figure not associated with any goddess or identifiable person, but which appears in most pottery vases from Magna Graecia with the same characteristics.

These female heads are framed by vegetal decoration and below the handles can be seen the typical palmette decoration of Greek vases of this period. The neck of the vase is decorated by a wave frieze, another Greek pictorial characteristic.

A pelike is a Greek pottery recipient catalogued as a type of amphora, but one with a wide base. It has two vertical handles, symmetrically on either side, which fall from a narrow mouth with a thick lip to the top of the spherical belly. It was used to store and transport liquid or solid foodstuffs.

This example is from Apulia in the south of Italy made up of the region of Daunia mostly coincident with the modern province of Foggia and Mesapia to the south. From 320 BC Athens stopped exporting ceramics and only produced some vessels that were given as prizes to athletes in the Panathenaic Festivals. The ceramic produced by the Greek colonies in the Italian peninsula took the place of the Athenian ware in the Mediterranean market.

Red-figure pottery was one of the most important figurative styles of Greek production. It developed in Athens around 530 BC and was used until the 3rd Century AD. In the space of a few decades it took over the place of the previous dominant style of black-figure pottery. The technical base was the same in both cases but in red-figure pottery the colouring is reversed so that the figures stand out on a dark background as if they were lit up in a more natural way. The painters who did black-figure work were forced to keep the motifs they painted well apart one from the other and to limit their complexity. In contrast, the red-figure technique gave much greater liberty. Each figure was silhouetted against a black background, allowing the painters to portray anatomical details with greater accuracy and variety.

The technique consisted of painting the motifs on the vessels while they were still unfired using a transparent slip, which when fired took on a black coloration. In this manner the motifs were invisible before firing so that the painters had to work from memory without seeing their earlier work. Once the piece had been fired the zones which had not been covered by the slip retained the red colouring of the clay while the glossy areas, those that had been “painted, acquired a dense, brilliant black colour.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

- MAYO, M. ed. The Art of South Italy, Vases from Magna Graecia. Richmond. 1982.
- TRENDALL, A.D. Red Figure Vases of South Italy and Sicily. London, 1989.
- TRENDALL, A.D., CAMBITOGLOU, A. First Supplement to the Red-Figured Vases of Apulia. London, 1983.

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