Object of the Month: July 2018

The Tampa Museum of Art is a high-ceilinged box near the Hillsborough River, its air-conditioning creating blessed coolness. When I visited the other day, it had exhibitions (largely drawn from its permanent collections) including ‘Inspired by Nature: Vases, Birds, & Flowers’ and ‘Having a Ball: Striking Portraits from America’s Pastime’ showing the work of George Sosnak (1924–92), a folk art painter who immortalised significant baseball moments onto baseballs using Indian ink.

John James Audubon (1785–1851), ‘The Nashville Warbler’, plate 89 from Birds of America, 1830.

An Emile Gallé cameo glass vase, c. 1910, with iris decoration.

However, this month’s object comes from the newly rearranged gallery of classical art, which boasts a small but remarkable collection of Greek ceramics, including the most extraordinary pot – in terms of its decoration – that I have ever seen.

A wine krater depicting a comic character called Derkylos.

Derkylos is ready for his close-up.

This krater comes from southern Italy (as do most of the other, more conventional, examples on display), and is described as ‘Gnathian’ – from the site (modern Egnazia, in Apulia) at which this style of decoration was first found in the early nineteenth century. It is suggested that the polychrome (white, red, yellow) decoration, on top of a glossy black surface, is an attempt to mimic the finish of gold or silver vessels. But the remarkable thing (to me at any rate) is the naturalism of the depictions. Look at this hare on a pot in the British Museum:

A Gnathian bell krater with a leaping hare among trailing vegetation. (Credit: The British Museum)

And the comic little man in Tampa, with his short tunic barely covering his buttocks, and his jaunty gait with cane tucked underneath his arm, could be a twentieth-century song-and-dance man doing his routine among the olive trees. (Or indeed the clown of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, Will Kemp, doing his famous morris dance from Norwich to London in 1600.)

Will Kemp (with accompanying pipe and tabor) on his dance from Norwich to London.

He represents the type of the φλύαξ, ‘phlyax’, or ‘gossip’, the old man (sometimes a slave) who appears in tragi-comedy as the butt of jokes and the victim of trickery.

In this scene, three men (Gymnilos, Cosios and Carion) are trying to rob the miserly phluax Charinos, who is in bed. The name of the play is unknown. (Credit: Altes Museum, Berlin)

This dramatic genre, apparently invented in Magna Graecia in the fourth century BCE, seemed to blend traditional mythological characters with the themes of New Comedy, but very little is known of its writers beyond their names – indeed, the lack of any textual survivals has led to the suggestion that the dialogue was largely improvised.

A comic scene in which the phluax is a slave conversing with his master. (Credit: Musée du Louvre)

The character’s name, Derkylos, is not uncommon – its most famous bearer is perhaps the Athenian envoy to Philip of Macedon who became embroiled in the ongoing and vicious feud between Demosthenes and Aeschines. (It also appears in Aristophanes’ Wasps, as the name (apparently) of a drunkard.) The etymology is from δέρκομαι, ‘to see’ or ‘see clearly’: ‘Bright-eyes’ is the suggestion on the label in Tampa.

The vase is of course a krater, or jar for mixing wine and water. The provenance on the label is simply ‘Collection of Mr William Knight Zewadski’; it had been ‘recently discovered’ in 1994, according to J.R. Green, who uses its image on the frontispiece to his Theatre In Ancient Greek Society, which uses archaeological and artistic – rather then literary – sources for the nature of theatrical performance.

What a great shame that this whole genre of drama is missing from the literary record. Of course, if a text ever turned up, as a papyrus from Egypt or a charred parchment from Herculaneum, the likelihood is that we might not find it funny, but what insights might it give into the social life and attitudes of the Greeks in the West.


Two dolphins, a fragment from a Roman sarcophagus lid, c. 150–60, in the Tampa Museum of Art.

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Art, Classics, History, Museums and Galleries and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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