A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks (9 page)

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Shipwreck evidence has a major role to play in the story of classical sculpture because some of the greatest works were not in marble but in bronze, and most of those that survive have come from the sea. Pheidias and his contemporaries Myron and Polykleitos were chiefly renowned as sculptors in bronze, and it was in bronze that sculpture as a medium had its greatest latitude – allowing arms to be shown extended, for example, and the shape of the sculpture to be created exactly before casting rather than being dependent on the vagaries of reduction during carving. Many of the marble sculptures of the Roman period are copies of Greek bronzes of the fifth century
BC
, including the famous discus-thrower by Myron and the spear-bearer by Polykleitos, both known only as Roman copies from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The number of bronze sculptures that once existed in the Greek world is staggering; Pausanias, the second-century
AD
geographer who wrote a travel guide to Greece, recorded seeing 69 bronzes of the fifth century
BC
at Olympia depicting victors of the games, and the Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder claimed that there were over 3,000 bronze statues in Athens alone. Their former presence can be seen today in the many empty plinths at Delphi and other sanctuaries. Bronze was eminently suited to reuse, and bronze statues were melted down when there was a pressing need, in times of war – for example, to make the bronze rams that tipped warships – or by conquerors for
whom the sculptures had no religious or cultural significance. Some of the bronzes that survived to the medieval period are likely to have gone to the foundries that made cannon, at a time when bronze was needed again in large quantities for the muzzle-loading guns that had become essential for warfare in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

As a result, fewer than a dozen large-scale bronzes of the fifth century
BC
survive, and of those the most outstanding – among the greatest works of art from antiquity – come from under water. In 1926 a magnificent bronze of Zeus or Poseidon was discovered by sponge divers in a wreck off Cape Artemisium on the island of Euboea, in the western Aegean about 100 kilometres north of Athens. The statue of a naked, bearded god, slightly larger than life, with his left arm outstretched for balance and his right arm flung back ready to throw a thunderbolt or trident, has become one of the iconic images of Greece. Two statues of similarly superb quality were discovered in 1974 by a snorkeller off the southern Italian town of Riace. All three of these bronzes are of the fifth century
BC
, though the sculptors are unknown and their original context – where they had come from, and where they were destined – can only be guessed at; the Riace warriors may have been from the Acropolis in Athens or from one of the great sanctuaries at Delphi, Olympia or Argos.

The Cape Artemisium wreck dates probably from the time of the Roman conquest of Greece in the mid-second century
BC
, and it seems likely that both wrecks represent the looting of works of art by the Romans and their shipment back to Rome, a process that eventually encompassed the acquisition of sculpture from Egypt and saw a considerable seaborne trade in antiquities in the Roman period. Because of the proportion of these ships which must have been wrecked, the Mediterranean has been called the last great repository of lost works of art in the world, leaving open the possibility that there are other bronzes as yet undiscovered to equal the quality of those that have been found – with the Artemisium sculpture a highlight of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the Riace bronzes among the greatest works of art on display in Italy today.

One of the most exciting finds that I made on the Tekta
ş
wreck was a beautiful one-handled bowl in black glaze, revealed intact on the seabed as I used an airlift to clear sand at 43 metres depth. Nearby were several two-handled cups known as kantharoi, also in black
glaze – a characteristically Greek finish in which a clay slip applied to the pottery turns glossy and black on firing. They were among ten kantharoi of this type to be found on the wreck, all sourced by their pottery fabric to the nearby Greek island of Chios. Kantharoi are usually associated with wine-drinking, but these ones may have been intended as votive offerings – similar cups with votive inscriptions around the rims have been found in temples at the Greek trading colony of Naucratis in Egypt and the sanctuary to the goddess Aphaia on the island of Aegina, close to Athens. Temples such as these drew people from around the Greek world, with some travelling long distances by sea to make votive offerings and a considerable industry springing up in the manufacture of such items, ranging from inexpensive pottery and figurines to fine vases, bronzes and weapons, and in the case of the Panhellenic sanctuaries of Olympia and Delphi some of the greatest works of art of antiquity – dedicated not by individuals but by city-states, vying with each other to set up the most magnificent sculptures in bronze and in marble.

Greek black glaze is best known from the painted vases that form the basis of many museum collections of ancient Mediterranean antiquities. Working in the quarter in Athens known as
Kerameikos
after the Greek word for clay, potters produced thousands of vases decorated with scenes from mythology, theatre and everyday life. In the sixth century
BC
they used the black-figure technique, painting the figures in a fine slip that turned black after firing, leaving the background red; in the fifth century it was the reverse, the background being painted with the slip and the figures left unslipped. In black-figure, the details were incised after firing, whereas in red-figure they were painted on, allowing greater scope for dimensionality and expression. The Greeks had no word for ‘artist' in the modern sense, describing all such creation as
technē
, meaning craft or skill, but there is no doubt that the finest vase paintings should be regarded as works of art, with the painter often signing his name, ‘schools' of painters being identifiable, and art historians today using terms such as ‘mannerist' to describe particular styles or genres.

The acquisition of Greek vases by the ‘Grand Tourists' was instrumental in spreading knowledge of ancient Greece in north-west Europe, as they were readily portable and ideal for display in museums and private houses. A key figure in this process was Sir William Hamilton, ‘His Britannic Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary' at
the court of Naples from 1764 to 1800, a passionate antiquarian and a man whose story involves one of the few wrecks known to contain ancient Greek vases – a wreck not of classical antiquity but of the eighteenth century. At the time of his posting to Naples, central and southern Italy provided rich pickings for collectors of antiquities, both from the Roman period – large-scale excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum were just beginning – and from the time when this was part of ‘Magna Graecia', including the colony of Neapolis itself. Many of the earliest finds of Greek vases came from the tombs of the Etruscans to the north of Rome, and in Hamilton's day they were still often called ‘Etruscan' or ‘Tuscan' vases – the reason why the English potter Josiah Wedgewood named his factory in Staffordshire ‘The Etruria Works'. Hamilton saw in Greek vases not just works of high craftsmanship but ‘Masterpieces of Art arrived at Perfection.' His first collection, sold to the British Museum in 1772, comprised a staggering 730 intact vases, providing the basis for the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities and remaining the single largest collection of Greek vases on display anywhere in the world today.

Hamilton is perhaps best known for his wife Emma and her love affair with Admiral Nelson, whom she first met in Naples in 1793 at the beginning of the wars with France that were to make Nelson's name. She is almost certainly the woman depicted in the frontispiece of Hamilton's second catalogue of vases,
Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases mostly of pure Greek workmanship discovered in Sepulchres in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies
, showing a tomb being opened in which a skeleton and vases can be seen. Following the French invasion of Italy under Napoleon and the advance of the French Army on Naples, Hamilton had his second collection of more than 1,000 vases crated for transport to England. With Nelson's help, he had eight of the crates – about a third of the collection – stowed on the ship of the line HMS
Colossus
, which set sail in November 1798 carrying wounded men from the Battle of the Nile. On 10 December she grounded in the Scilly Isles off Cornwall, with only one man drowned but the ship and most of the vases lost. In 1974 divers discovered the wreck and over the next four years raised more than 30,000 fragments of vases, most of which went to the British Museum and are stored alongside Hamilton's first collection. Piecing together hundreds of sherds resulted in the rebuilding of a bell krater – a wine-mixing bowl – showing the fire god Hephaestus, an image that can be
matched to one of the beautiful engravings in Hamilton's catalogue by the German artist Heinrich Tischbein. That and another of the reconstructed vases, showing Europa and the bull, can be dated to 440–430
BC
, very close to the time of the Tekta
ş
wreck and shortly before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.

One of the vases in the British Museum that is not part of the Hamilton collection has a particularly close bearing on the Tekta
ş
wreck. Acquired by the museum from Napoleon's sister-in-law Alexandrine Bonaparte in 1843, the ‘Siren Vase' is one of very few red-figure vases known to depict a ship. In a scene from Homer's
Odyssey
, the painting shows Odysseus lashed to the mast to prevent him from being entranced by the Sirens – birds with women's heads, their lips parted as if singing, and one of them hurtling off the rocks towards him. What makes the image so fascinating is that the ship is shown with an eye painted on the side under the bow. Among the most remarkable finds at Tekta
ş
were two marble disks decorated to resemble eyes, with a central lead spike for attachment to the hull. Known as
ophthalmoi
, after the Greek word for eye, several have been found in the port of Piraeus but these are the first from the wreck of a merchantman. Their purpose in allowing the ship's protective deity to look forward is alluded to by Aeschylus, who wrote in his play
The Suppliants
how ‘… from my lookout point here on the sanctuary of the suppliants I see their ship, for it is well marked and does not escape me: the trimming of the sail, the side guards and the prow that looks at the forward course with its eyes obeying the guiding steering oar.' In the Mediterranean today, eyes continue to be painted on the sides of fishing boats as an apotropaic, to ward off bad luck, and in southern India eyes are incised into boats to endow them with life, allowing the Tekta
ş
finds to be linked to maritime traditions widely spaced geographically and through time.

… a State should be like a bowl of mixed wine, where the wine when first poured in foams madly, but as soon as it is chastened by the sober deity of water, it forms a fair alliance, and produces a potion that is good and moderate.

This quote from Plato's
Laws
shows that as well as the ‘Ship of State' analogy discussed earlier in this chapter, the running of a city could be compared with wine-drinking. For Plato the context was the
symposium, meaning ‘a drinking together', where correct drinking behaviour – showing self-knowledge and restraint – could be compared with that of a well-ordered city. Images of symposia appear on hundreds of red-figure vases of the fifth century
BC
, showing men reclining on couches and the essential ingredients of the occasion – amphoras full of wine, jugs for mixing and pouring and cups and bowls for drinking. The discovery of this equipment on the Tekta
ş
wreck provides a direct link between archaeology and ancient philosophy; the pottery and wine could have been taken straight from the wharfside to a symposium, and provided Socrates and his interlocutors with all that they needed.

Ships and seafaring occupied a prominent place in Plato's concept of the ideal state; in addition to the four virtues of an ideal city – wisdom, courage, moderation and justice – there were five economic classes: producers, merchants, retail traders, wage earners and – as one class – sailors and shipowners. The word ‘city' here is only a loose translation of Plato's word polis, meaning a body of citizens and their guiding principles rather than just the physical reality. His most influential work,
The Republic
, in which he sets out the basis for the ideal polis, only has that title because it is the nearest Latin translation in one word of its title in Greek,
Politeia
, ‘About the Polis', the origin of our words polity and politics.

Plato wrote
The Republic
about 380–370
BC
, but like all of his works it is a dialogue set in the lifetime of his mentor Socrates in the previous century. It is a captivating thought that at the time of the Tekta
ş
wreck, Socrates was engaging in discussion with the educated elite of Athens as well as people in the street that resulted in many of the concepts that feature in Plato's dialogues: the theory of the ‘forms', immutable essences such as beauty that are the basis of knowledge; the analogy of the cave, in which people trapped inside see only shadows on the wall and not the reality of the world outside; and aspects of the ideal polis, including a role for women as equal citizens to men. Plato represented a shift in philosophy from interest in the natural world, characteristic of the ‘Presocratic' philosophers of the sixth century
BC
, to the world of people, a reflection of the intensive focus on politics and the polis in the Age of Pericles.

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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