Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Ancient Greek Wine Art

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Posted by Burke Morton On August - 11 - 2009

Wine Cup with OrgyI know more than a little about ancient Greece, as Ancient Mediterranean History was the only major I seriously considered other than Music, and I took many of the requisite classes just because I was interested. The Greeks made significant impacts on the world that are still influencing our cultures (witness the Athenian system of government as but one example), and left behind physical manifestations of that cultural richness that serve as reminders of a fallen society. Not that we are good at learning from historical object lessons....

The Greeks had a special influence on wine and wine culture. They were in the vanguard of wine-making 5,000 years ago, and their wines were treasured across Europe, western Asia, and north Africa. Most people still don't think of anything beyond Retsina when it comes to Greek wine, if they know anything at all, but Greek wines are ascending nowadays, and the residual effect of this is that some of the Grecian wine-reveling past is attracting broader interest, too.

Drink & Be Merry
Take, for example, Greek wine cups, which are some of the most common works of ancient Mediterranean art still available for us to enjoy. These terra cotta wine cups depict common scenes of Athenian life in the Archaic period (about 2500 years ago). The cup shown above is a tall-handled cup, known as a kantharos, with a depiction of an orgy. And no, you can't click on the picture to make it bigger. Not tame, but then most people think of this aspect of ancient Greek society when they think of it at all. And as far as some other Greek art goes, we could safely call this PG-13.

So think of the Swinging 70's multiplied by a thousand, and that's a bit of Greek life 2,500 years ago--work hard (must kill the Spartans!), play hard (where's thy neighbor's wife?). This tall-handled cup is not the shape we most commonly see of a Greek wine drinking vessel. Museums across the country have more examples of the shape the Greeks called a kylix in their collections. The kylix looks like an inverted frisbee on a small pedestal. It was designed so that you can drink from it while reclining, which shows some incredible forethought: clearly it's an artistic 'party promoter' meant to prepare and, as you will see, eventually excite those soon to be taking part in the scene on the kantharos.

Anyway, the kylix is so flat and wide that I'd imagine it would be difficult not to slosh the wine out, especially when you read the inscription on this one as you stare into it to take a drink:


This is a fairly famous piece (and also probably not PG-13...) from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The words on the top are, "&Eta&epsilon &Rho&alpha&iota&sigma &Kappa&alpha&lambda&epsilon," which translates as "The girl is pretty." This is certainly innocent enough, in light of what is going on in the picture. Notice, though, the words cascading from the man's mouth: "&Eta&epsilon&xi&epsilon &Eta&epsilon&sigma&upsilon&xi&omicron&sigma" which of course means "Hold still!"

Background on the Kylix
This kind of thing was quite common, apparently. Here is some further illumination on the kylix from Wikipedia:

"The almost flat interior circle on the interior base of the cup, called the tondo, was the primary surface for painted decoration in the Black-figure or Red-figure styles of the 6th and 5th century BC. As the representations would be covered with wine, the scenes would only be revealed in stages as the wine was drained. They were often designed with this in mind, with scenes created so that they would surprise or titillate the drinker as they were revealed."

Sounds like it would be as much fun (considering that almost no artistic subject matter is taboo) to make one of these as it would be to drink from one. Since most of these wine cups are made of terra cotta, it is apparently not difficult to execute either the pottery or the glaze, so anyone could have made one of the wine cups, though, as you can imagine, only the works of masters are celebrated today.

In this way I guess it's like watercolor, but not as easy to clean up.

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