Just because scholars have analyzed ancient Greek pottery for centuries doesn’t mean they’ve uncovered all their secrets.
|This kylix, or cup, of the Painter of Oedipus began the hunt for messages hidden below
the surface of some ancient Greek pottery [Credit: Vatican Museums]
A researcher announced Thursday the discovery of hidden messages in some artifacts that casts new light on the creative process behind some of the most important art in history.
Mario Iozzo, the director of the National Archaeological Museum in Florence, revealed details of a study that has led him to re-examine hundreds of items. He spoke to an audience of scholars Thursday at a specially arranged lecture in the Vatican Museums.
The path to Thursday’s announcement began almost two years ago as Dr. Iozzo was inspecting a kylix, an ancient Greek cup with handles for drinking wine. It is part of the collection of the Gregorian Etruscan Museum in the Vatican. Painted in a style known as Red-figure and dating from around 470 B.C., the main design on the cup is of Oedipus listening to the riddle of the Sphinx of Thebes. On the underside of the kylix is another mythological scene depicting satyrs.
“It was an afternoon in the fall of 2016,” the curator of the museum, Maurizio Sannibale, recalls. The sun was already low in the sky. “At a certain point, a beam of sunlight came through the window and fell directly on the kylix. In that special light, you could see that something was there.”
The two men were studying the underside of the cup. They could just make out an inscription beneath the paint. The words had to have been inscribed in the clay while it was still moist, and then covered with the black paint that is used in the creation of Red-figure ceramics for the background.
|Maurizio Sannibale, director of the Gregorian Etruscan Museum, part of the Vatican Museums
[Credit: Vatican Museums]
There had been hints before of the existence of hidden writing on classical Greek vases, urns and cups. In 2012, a scholarly paper was published revealing that a verse of poetry had been found beneath the painted surface of another example of the ancient potters’ art. But the paper was more focused on the attribution of the verse than its purpose.
Twenty years earlier, a Canadian scholar, J. Robert Guy, had made out a single word carved into the surface of the kylix in the Vatican, which is why Dr. Iozzo took such a close interest in it. That’s also why he and Dr. Sannibale became excited when they saw in that autumnal light not just one word, but many.
With the help of advanced photographic equipment at the Vatican Museum, Dr. Iozzo established that the inscription on the Oedipus kylix was a message to the painter, telling him what to represent and, to some extent, how. The writing isn’t in the same hand, or even the same dialect, as that used by the painter, so he concluded that it could only have come from the potter.
Dr. Iozzo has since examined several hundred pieces of Red-figure ceramic and found similar inscriptions on seven.
“What we now realize is that the potter had considerable influence over the choice of subject matter,” he says.
|Dr. Mario Iozzo, director of the National Archaeological Museum in Florence, shown checking
an Etruscan bronze statue [Credit: DPA/ZUMAPRESS]
The messages follow a convention: They start near the mouth of the figure in question, like cartoon bubbles, and extend in the direction to which the figure is turning in the finished painting, suggesting the potters often decided in detail the arrangement of the scene to be depicted and the position of the characters in it.
Why their messages were cut into the surface of only some items isn’t known. Dr. Iozzo’s theory is that they were reserved for the most valuable, luxury products.
He believes his findings, to be published next month in the American Journal of Archaeology, could open up new areas of study. “What we need to do now is to take the ancient Greek ceramics in all the museums of the world and see what is underneath the paint,” he says.
For Dr. Sannibale, it has another significance. He notes that much of the high culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans survived. “Many of their plays, for example, have come down to us,” he says. Yet archaeologists and other specialists are still piecing together the mundane details of everyday life in classical Greece and Italy.
“What this does is to open a gash through which we can peer into a workshop producing ceramics two and half thousand years ago and see how it operated,” he says. “For me, that is more fascinating than the discovery of a [new text by] Cicero.”