Home National museum Beauty and function flow into the Ancient Greece exhibit at the National Museum of Australia | Canberra time

Beauty and function flow into the Ancient Greece exhibit at the National Museum of Australia | Canberra time

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This vase is easily one of my favorite objects in our latest exhibition, Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, from the collections of the British Museum. Known as a hydria, it is identifiable by its handles and wide neck, used to store and pour water. The word hydria relates to the Greek name for water, from which English words such as fire hydrant and hydrate derive. You can imagine picking up this hydria and taking a big sip of water from it – a refreshing thought for those hot summer months. A particular sympathy exists here between form and decoration. The hydria depicts a decorative band of women in a fountain house engaged in the very activity for which this vessel was designed – collecting water. Many women are depicted balancing their hydria on their heads. Running vertically between the women are lines of letters, which do not translate into recognizable ancient Greek words or names, but rather convey the group’s fluid chatter. Hidden among them is a single inscription kalos (meaning “beauty”), a declaration of love from the potter to a certain Sime. I love the detail in this scene. Notice how much attention is paid to the postures, hairstyles and clothing of the women, with slight variations differentiating each individual. Look for the woman on the far left, who fills her hydria with water from an ornate lion-headed waterspout, while other women await their turn. See how those leaving the fountain house skillfully balance the hydria on their upright heads, presumably full of water, while those arriving carry their empty vessel horizontally. This scene provides insight into a domestic task that is otherwise only rarely seen in ancient Greek art. The identity of the women – whether citizens or slaves – is unknown. What we do know is that this type of scene became relatively popular on hydria produced in the last quarter of the 6th century BCE, with about 75 examples surviving. Perhaps they nurtured a taste for real-life glimpses, and the scene reflects the Enneakrounos, a famous Athenian public bath whose name refers to a fountain fed by nine springs. However, there are also other interpretations of the scene. Some have interpreted these images as representing a ritual that took place during the spring festival of Anthesteria which celebrated Dionysus, the god of wine. Still others identify these scenes to reflect purification rituals preceding wedding ceremonies. Ideally, we would take into consideration the archaeological context of the vase to try to unravel its meaning, but in this case, this information is not available. Still, there is an interesting story behind the discovery of this hydria. The hydria was discovered in April 1829 during excavations supervised by Lucien Bonaparte, the radical younger brother of Napoleon I of France, and his wife Alexandrine, who lived together in exile in Italy. Their exile was partly due to Lucien’s political activities in France, but also because their secret marriage took place against the wishes of the Bonaparte family. While in Italy, Alexandrine and Lucien searched much of their newly purchased estate at Canino, near Viterbo. This site covered an Etruscan necropolis at Vulci, an area that had maintained strong trade relations with the Greek mainland in antiquity and where some of the most spectacular examples of Attic black- and red-figure ware known today have been discovered. . From 1828 to 1829, Alexandrine and Lucien oversaw the discovery of around 2000 Attic vases. While Lucien thought of himself as an archaeologist, his increasingly cash-strapped circumstances made him more interested in uncovering valuable objects than in systematic excavations. Its published catalogs provide frustratingly little information about this hydria and its archaeological context beyond the approximate date and location of its discovery. Unlike her husband, who favored more intellectual approaches to material culture, Alexandrine became a shrewd merchant and amassed a network of contacts across England and Europe. After Lucien’s death in 1840, Alexandrine resold the collection throughout Europe, enabling the British Museum to acquire this hydria in 1843.

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