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Greek Pottery

( Originally Published Late 1800's )



The scholars of Greek history are loud in their assertions of Greek priority in all the arts; and if in her fictilia they fail to find external evidences sufficient upon which to base their assertions, they reply, "he is the inventor of the art who first practices it artistically." To Greece really belongs the honor of giving the first real impetus to artistic expressions in clay, for the mould was invented by a Greek practician who first discovered the art of producing any number of copies from one original. Here originated the process, which was carried forward to such remarkable perfection.

The reddest and most ancient wares were produced at Sicyon, at Corinth the coarse, black ware, while Athens presented the lightest and most elegant, having the most perfect forms which are accepted as the standards of excellence to this day.

The decorations were mostly in black, being silhouettes of those exquisite groups, figures and heads known in their mythology and classic literature, these were fre quently accompanied by borders in representation of the laurel, ivy, and vines, their peculiarity being that each leaf was formed with a single stroke of the brush. This one fact affords considerable assistance in the detection of counterfeits; the freedom of the originals is lost by repeated touching.

With the exception of the paintings at Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabia, Greek art found no expression more perfect than that exhibited upon the vases from her souterrains.

There are four methods very generally used in the determination of the relative ages of the Greek vases:

1. The most ancient are decorated with historical characters, the figures being black, upon a red ground.

2. The toilet, dances, and games, are represented.

3. Details of the subject portrayed evidence the age. Clisthenes reduced the two poles of the car to one, consequently a car with two poles antedates these.

4. The vases of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabia are all black and varnished, none painted: these are more recent.

Others are of more elaborate and elegant form, exhibiting a more advanced stage of the art, as, for instance, the Barberini or Portland vase, which is probably the most beautiful of existing forms. This vase, as being the most celebrated, the most valuable and the most beautiful in existence, is worthy of more than a passing consideration here. It was discovered in the sixteenth century in the Monte del Grano, about three miles from Rome, where it had been deposited in a sarcophagus, and from which it was transferred to the Barberini palace, and became known as the Bayberini Vase. It afterward came into the possession of an English gentleman, who disposed of it to Sir Wm. Hamilton, and it was by him sold to the late Duchess of Portland, hence it is now termed the Portland Vase. The family have since deposited it in the British Museum, where it rests as a single and noble monument, eloquently asserting the high state of ceramic art, and the art of design, which was attained in its own unknown era.

It is nine and three-quarters inches high, with a circumference of twenty-one inches and three-quarters, but notwithstanding its inferior size among all the large and elegant vases which surround it, this stands in imperial eminence. It is composed of two bodies of vitrified pasteapproaching glass-of different color, but nicely united in two distinct strata, like a cameo, the outer strata of white, which serves in the formation of figures, the under strata being of deep blue, which throws forward the figures in fine relief. The whole is wrought with extreme precision, the workmanship, in every part, being most perfect. It is unnecessary here to explain a design which has long been discussed by antiquaries and scholars of eminence abroad, few of these being of concurrent opinion. The last and most accepted of these explanations was advanced by Dr. Darwin, the philosophic-poet, who describes the design as representing part of the ceremonies of the Eleusinian mysteries. He divides the vase into two compartments. The first is emblematic of moral life, and expressed by a Libitina seated upon ruins beneath a tree of deciduous leaf. She holds an inverted torch, and two companions with her seem to express the terror with which humanity gaze upon death.

The next compartment is immortal life, represented by a hero entering the gate of Elysitim, conducted by Divine Love and received by Immortality, who is to present him to Pluto, the judge of what company he is fit to keep in Elysium. How true this rendition may be, its general acceptance by the world of critics must bear tes timony. Certainly the idea is full of grace, and worthy the poet's mind. That this vase contained the ashes of Alexander Severus and Julia Mammoea, Darwin denies. In form and design the Greek vases have never been exceeded. They are today the true standards of excellence, regarded by all as the climax of artistic effort, the chefs doeuvre of antique ceramic art, by comparison with which we judge of modern success.



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