Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Berthouville cups at the Cabinet des Médailles

Bacchic Centaurs in a Synopsis of Greco-Roman Art

Paris, Louvre.  From Carthage.  Constantinian: the types of Eros and the whole Bacchic troop remain constant

By the later second century BCE and thereafter, the "Dionysian and heroic styles were parts of the same artistic or expressive spectrum": R. R. R. Smith, in The Oxford History of Classical Art, OUP, 1993, edited by John Boardman, pp. 204-205.  R. R. R. Smith is also the author of Hellenistic Sculpture in the World of Art series and both texts are worth reading.  The Furietti Centaurs from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli are in harder stone and more academic in their treatment; besides the Tivoli Old Centaur has no baby Eros.  When I was a child I wondered whether the Eros was part of the original, though, of course, compositionally as well as iconographically, he had to be, and Cézanne was right to love this statue.  The head of anguish on the old centaur is similar to other anguished Hellenistic heads, but the Eros is uniquely masterly.  There are some contemptible 20th-century centaurs reproduced in Google Images (though the Disney ones in the Pastoral Symphony, in the original Fantasia, even if they may be too cute, do have real charm, and, of course, centaurs of both sexes and lots of sentimentality do go back to at least to the Classical period) but I won't discuss the latest ones, evidently less than a half century old, which look as if they came from Sci-Fi or Fantasy Fiction.
Paris, Louvre.  The Borghese Centaur.  
If you would like a fine catalogue of centaurs in their prime period, the Archaic, I recommend the Princeton University exhibition catalogue edited by J. Michael Padgett, The Centaur's Smile. Perhaps you will agree that centaurs play a different role after, approximately, the Peloponnesian War.  That is, they offer something different for viewers to relate to.
Anyway, that is why I came to use the Borghese baby Eros in lieu of my high school yearbook photo for myself on line.  In art history courses, 60 years ago, I was actually discouraged from admiring this art, and of course it is not because Eros is erotic that I love it: I rank it right up there with Verrocchio's putto in Florence.
As R. R. R. Smith said, these works dwell in an artistic expressive realm where Bacchus and Eros dwell alike.  I'd love to know the immediate source of the dancing infant with beribboned thyrsos and kantharos on the copper coin (above) that Thracian Philippopolis issued for Marcus Aurelius (it is my favorite coin).
Notice that the shape and spirit of a Bacchic Baby is like an Eros (see at heading)
Berlin.  Detail (in a teaching snapshot) of the Centaur Family.

This is the realm, of course, of the Berthouville cups, which recently came to the Getty Museum for technical study.  Anyone who had doubted whether the Old Centaur properly had the Eros, and anyone who doubted whether centaurs dwell in heterosexual families was just wrong.  We have, rendered in micro-mosaic, a Hadrianic copy in the Berlin Museum of the Centaur Family pitiably attacked by a predator, copying evidently the famous painting of ca. 400 BCE.*  
My modern favorites are Winsor McCay's of 1921 (see You-Tube, q.v., for most of the surviving parts), but I shall refrain from discussing them here.  Concerning centaurs, there is too much else to consider.
* At the end of this post, I provide a list of illustrations, pro tem, of famous works that I cite without having adequate images.
I cannot recall, or find even in Asia Minor, among all the exotic composite creatures that Greek art borrowed, preserved, and transmitted to us through the Romans, any early centaurs.  Traditionally Greece assigned them to Thessaly, but the name itself is of unknown origin (the suggestions are all of a later, literary period).  They must be aboriginally, truly Greek.  When the Lefkandi centaur (H. 36cm, Protogeometric, dated ca. 900 BCE), was found, it left, I think, no doubt.*  Today it is illustrated in every textbook, but it has such presence (to use the art critic's favorite epithet) that it reminds us that power, nobility, humor, etc., etc., are not due to realism or expressive facial expression but solely to the artist's vision and ability to imbue the work with it.  Now, Lefkandi (Euboea) is Greece, but by ship it is close to the Aegean Islands and thence to Anatolia, yet I cannot find any early centaurs farther east.  Even satyrs, like all the rest of the Orientals, like griffins, pegasoi, and all the rest that Greek art bequeathed to our Middle Ages and so to the Renaissance and many a graphic novela.  By the way, many of the creatures that Wiki Commons and Google Images have swept up, it seems, s.v. Centaur, are no such thing.  It is great to have the images, but the labels and captions are not to be trusted; what the creator of Little Nemo got right, so can we.

So finally to Berthouville.  The catalogue has exhaustive bibliography, but these are basic:
—Kenneth Lapatin, ed., "The Berthouville Silver Treasure and Roman Luxury," Los Angeles, the Getty Museum, 2014.
—Jon Van de Grift, "Tears and Revel, the Allegory of the Berthouville Centaur Scyphi", American Journal of Archaeology 88, 1984, pp. 377–388, 386–387, ills. 1–1, pls. 51–53.

Naturally, I cannot use the brand-new photographs from the 2014 catalogue, and the generous supply of photos s.v. Berthouville in Google Images are mostly of the most winsome centauress (chosen also for the catalogue's dust jacket) or are small and poor images, while the photographs used by Van de Grift probably were made for Babelon's 1916 monograph and, even though the reproductions are small, they are useful.  However, I must say that the Getty Foundation has priced their scholarly and and beautiful catalogue quite affordably, and Amazon has it.  Indeed, I learned of it, here in the deep South where I live, thanks to Amazon's very well programed servers, which, when I ordered the book on Hellenistic sculpture (also published by the Getty Foundation), instantly suggested the Berthouville book as well.  As for Jon Van de Grift, his article, abstracted from his dissertation (its committee eminently well chosen for this work), is the only thing he has published, or taught, on Greek and Roman art, as I learned from my Google searches: I wanted to make sure that he had not died.

I had forgotten how much I must have forgotten (if, as I doubt, I had ever thought through the subject) about the representation of centaurs in Greek art.  But if I am ever to complete this initial blog post, as such, I must do so now.

Here I shall illustrate only a few of my favorites, which also are good examples, I think, of what I've been mulling over, favoring less well known works.  For example, on the cusp from Archaic to Early Classical art, the attack of the centaurs on the goddess Iris by the Kleophrades Painter,* whose indomitable joyous energy prevents his rowdy image from being merely typical of its time.  Or the centaur on the Broomhall krater,* still essentially Late Geometric, a vigorous man-beast, a wild creature with anthropoid potential to educate heroes.  Here Greek art verges on the utter humanity of the Ram Jug Painter's amphora in Berlin, just decades later, where Peleus knows to hand over the infant Achilles to the wise centaur Chiron. the tutor of heroes.  There may have been folklore about Chiron for generations, but here an innately empathetic artist brings us to the dawn of literary storytelling: it consists of fragments of a huge vase, but, between Beazley's description* and the early-digital photos that I tried to get, you can make out the infant in his short-sleeved chiton handed over to Chiron.
Chiron, like the Broomhall centaur, is shown returning from the hunt
Carefully reassembled, using the curvature as well as the story, we see the infant Achilles proffered on the palm of Peleus
I have searched, so far in vain, for a reproduction of the Pompeian copy of the famous Classical painting showing Chiron earnestly, charmingly, tutoring the boy Achilles: it introduced the four-legged Chiron comfortably seated on his hindquarters!  This wonderful addition to one centaur's urbanity exists, usually fragmentary, in sculptured copies, too.  It is important here to document the ever-increasing (since the Pompeian wall-painting, in this case, is very fine) humanizing of the centaurs by about the early fourth century BCE, reminding us, as so often, of the virtuosity and beauty of the all-but-wholly lost Greek painting, which was as famous in its time as Renaissance painting of the 16th century in its turn.  Indeed, it was the tantalizing ancient descriptions of famous Classical paintings, both mural and, especially, panel paintings, that at least as much as statuary brought about the European Renaissance: our temptation to recover, somehow, though mistaken wishful thinking, is itself an important element in the individualistic emphasis that makes our art seem alien to most Asian traditions (except Chinese): not so much our centaurs, et al., as our humanizing them.
Here we come to that stream of art styles often called Hellenistic Rococo in handbooks (because it seems in the eighteenth century to follow Classical, as if there were some organic sequence at work) which, again, recurs and this time must have been due, indeed, to surviving Early Roman Imperial workshops and treasured collectibles.

The styles used for heroic centauromachies, never equaling the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia* and the centaur metopes of the Parthenon all are different, and the story of the wild horse-men of Thessaly itself, in surviving works, is less popular than the sentimental and psychological stories: is it that a disseminated, Hellenistic culture is not culturally significant in the same way as that before Alexander?  Of the heroes, in Archaic and Classical art, it is Herakles that most often deals with centaurs, such as Nessos or Pholos.*

The silver-gilt dedications from the Gallo-Roman sanctuary of Mercury (using the Latin name for the local cult) are not all of the same date; the scyphi are dated by comparison with those from Hoby, which are, say, a couple of generations earlier.
Fragment of cameo glass with Bacchic subject
The Louvre has a fragment of cameo glass that reminds us that the neo-Classical style of the Portland Vase and the Hoby cups does not date this continuation of Hellenistic Rococo, a different maniera.
Not all garland bearers are of this quality, but this one may be from the Forum of Trajan and combines stocky style with the levity typical of its subject
Being architectural and superior, the fragment of Garland Bearers (probably from the Forum of Trajan) is celebratory in spirit but sturdy in style.
An ancient treasure collectible, recycled and redesigned
Among the treasures in the wonderful Schatzkammer gallery that opens opposite the Café Richelieu in the Louvre, marked by the unique bronze equestrian statuette of Charlemagne or one of his successors, his orb being explicitly Imperial though his horse's forelegs are rather rubbery, are some of the best ivory diptychs.  Remade in the early middle ages, here is a cameo framed in a jeweled border topped by a classical gorgoneion and supported by lions at the lower corners; it represents Bacchus and Ariadne in a frontal chariot, drawn by four centaurs splayed to left and right, celebrating them in gesture (and one at left blows a trumpet).  It is that reversion to frontality and symmetry, framed by the representation of jeweled glory, that epitomizes the rejection of illusions.

The subject, however, and indeed the frontality that converts a scene into an icon, are much older.  See the bronze coin of Commodus, in a specimen from the Athenian Agora, that with centaurs (think of the NYC Public Library's flanking lions) glorifies the cult of Asklepios.  Here, if not earlier (since Commodus is not all that early, but it may belong to the Pergamene cult that catered to the whole Greek Imperial world), we have the kind of art that impressed late Medieval and early Renaissance artists in the treasuries of cathedrals and monasteries, which wealthy Florentine and Flemish collectors and cardinals and popes emulated—the ancestry of the Cabinet des Médailles itself (which has its share of large, fine ancient coins).
This large third-century sarcophagus has it all, the Bacchic thiasos with the joyous centaurs, and the portraits of the deceased, promoted to eternal bliss, in the center, in place of Bacchus and Ariadne themselves.

Now, the whole range of subject matter, of centaurs of both sexes, of their involvement in wine and sex, of their message of intoxication, relate them very intricately with the Borghese centaur, with the Furietti pair and the micro-mosaic picture from Tivoli, of the perfect understanding and mastery of this 'rococo' style, place the Berthouville scyphi and the cups in Naples (not discussed here) in a class by themselves.  So little, if we may judge from literature, has been preserved.  Silver-gilt table service is at the mercy of history's worst looters.  The motifs themselves, of course, are Bacchic (theatrical), but the workmanship and the materials and the long continuity of the tradition (think of all the best work in silver that, so far, has survived from the early modern centuries).
This Post is less than I should wish, but I hope that the centaurs' continuity and its consistency with the general history of Greek art, and its Greco-Roman dissemination, seem plain though I have used only a very few illustrations.
There is so little work of such sophistication surviving.  Cicero's Verrines shows how famously artistic silver table ware was a treasure that the unscrupulous would die for, though they hoped to escape with it.  J. Babelon and today's specialists have devoted lifetimes of study to this rare treasure, and of all the treasures in the Cabinet des Médailles, this was the one I was most surprised to find   (during renovations) spending more than a year in America.  When I first saw it more than thirty years ago I had gone to see the Brygos Painter's kylix with satyrs dancing ecstatically around Dionysos, * a work of genius if ever there was one (his contemporary, Makron, a wonderful vase-painter in his own right, used the same motif, but it is static).  I had never heard of Berthouville, but I never forgot it.

Here are the references that the red asterisks lead to:
The Centaur Family from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli: in Beazley's abbreviated translation of Pfuhl's Masterpieces of Greek Drawing and Painting, fig. 119.
The Centaur from Lefkandi: a different view, Hampe & Simon, The Birth of Greek Art, fig. 177.
The centaurs attacking Iris by the Kleophrades Painter: ARV2, 1963, p. 191, no. 102.  A detail is given by Boardman (World of Art) Athenian Red-Figure Vases of the Archaic Period, fig. 139.
The Broomhall krater: Beazley, The Development of Attic Black-Figure.  For this vase and the next, the original Sather Lectures edition, 1949, pl. II, is best.
The Ram Jug Painter's Peleus: Idem, pl. IV, shows the fragments before reassembled.
The Seated Centaur: neither the published illustration nor my old photograph has so far been located.
The West Pediment (Centauromachy) of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia: see, in the blog, a Traditional Art History, for the Early Classical period, Prints A89 and MA86.
Herakles and Pholos: T. H. Carpenter, Art and Myth in Ancient Greece, fig. 185.
The Brygos Painter's cup with satyrs dancing around Dionysos: again, in Beazley's translation of Pfuhl, fig. 40.
There are, of course, less easily accessed illustrations of some of these.

1 comment:

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