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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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Page 10

Athenian Pottery an Expression of the Greek Sense of Beauty


    Athens is proud of her traditions of naval and military glory; of the commerce of the Peiræus; of her free laws and constitution; of her sculptured temples, her poets, her rhetoricians and philosophers. Almost equally well might she be proud of her vases. They are not made—let us bear clearly in mind—by avowed artists, servants of the Muses and of the Beautiful; they are the regular commercial products of work-a-day craftsmen. But what craftsmen! In the first place, they have given to every vase and dish a marvelous individuality. There seems to be absolutely no duplication of patterns.[11] Again, since these vases are made for Greeks, they must—no matter how humble and commonplace their use—be made beautiful—elegantly shaped, well glazed, and well painted: otherwise, no matter how cheap, they will never find a market.

    The process of manufacture is simple, yet it needs a masterly touch. After the potter has finished his work at the wheel and while the clay is still soft, the decorator makes his rough design with a blunt-pointed stylus. A line of black glaze is painted around each figure. Then the black background is freely filled in, and the details within the figure are added. A surprisingly small number of deft lines are needed to bring out the whole picture.[12] Sometimes the glaze is thinned out to a pale brown, to help in the drawing of the interior contours. When the design is completed, we have an amount of life and expression which with the best potters is little short of startling. The subjects treated are infinite, as many as are the possible phases of Greek life. Scenes in the home and on the farm; the boys and their masters at school; the warriors, the merchants, the priests sacrificing, the young gallants serenading a sweet-heart; all the tales, in short of poet-lore and mythology,—time would fail to list one tenth of them. Fairly we can assert that were all the books and formal inscriptions about the Athenians to be blotted out, these vase paintings almost photographs one might say, of Athenian daily life, would give us back a very wide knowledge of the habits of the men in the city of Athena.

    The potters are justly proud of their work; often they do not hesitate to add their signatures, and in this way later ages can name the "craftsmen" who have transmitted to them these objects of abiding beauty. The designers also are accommodating enough to add descriptive legends of the scenes which they depict,—Achilles, Hercules, Theseus, and all the other heroes are carefully named, usually with the words written above or beside them.

    The pottery of Athens, then, is truly Athenian; that is to say, it is genuinely elegant, ornamental, simple, and distinctive. The best of these great vases and mixing bowls are works of art no less than the sculptures of Phidias upon the Parthenon.


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