The 'Meidias' Hydria: A Visual and Textual Journey of a Greek Vase in the History of Art of Antiquity (C. 1770s-1840s)

By Kalkanis, Emmanouil | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2013 | Go to article overview

The 'Meidias' Hydria: A Visual and Textual Journey of a Greek Vase in the History of Art of Antiquity (C. 1770s-1840s)


Kalkanis, Emmanouil, Journal of Art Historiography


The cultural history of artefacts is a rewarding field of enquiry for understanding the many different ways that certain objects have been seen and valued in the past by different people and for various reasons. Not least, these stories in all their variety can provide fresh insights into our own way of seeing how people make things meaningful and why they ascribe value to them.1 In examining a particular monument, for example, it is possible to illustrate the ways that it becomes invested with meaning and cultural significance through the antiquarian networks it is caught up in.2 Additionally, a closer view of these processes can provide an understanding of the relations between the practices of artistic creation and the reception of ancient art that has been assimilated into the body of aesthetic thought of a certain period in time. In regard to ancient ceramics, most studies of individual vases concentrate on explaining the shapes, pattern-work, figure style and iconography; in the case of the Meidias3 hydria (Fig. 1), for instance, any discussion of the extent to which the iconography has been studied and interpreted by scholarship in modem times is brief and selective.4 This study thus is not primarily concerned with the object itself as an archaeological product of a late fifth-century BC Athenian workshop - an area in which exceptional work has already been undertaken by Bum.5 The broader scene of collecting and appropriating ancient vases in the late-eighteenth century is likewise not a major theme here.6 It aims, instead, to examine how the subject-matter of the Meidias hydria (the hydria bears two distinct scenes: the lower scene, encircling the vase, showing Heracles and others in the garden of the Hesperides; and the larger scene above, covering the shoulder and presenting the abduction of the daughters of Leucippus by the Dioscuri; Castor and Pollux - both scenes of the vase, which seem to introduce the fashion for paradise gardens on vases and an enticing prospect of how life might be like after death, demonstrate many of the primary characteristics of Meidian iconography), enjoyed the approbation of scholars and so to trace how this was subsequently developed over a particular period of time. More specifically, it focuses on the history of the reception of a single vase: that is, on the early textual and visual responses to the painted scenes and the shape of the hydria. My aim here is to consider these responses, and to present evidence to study them reflecting on how one of Hamilton's most prized possessions was featured through text and pictures.

By examining all this, new light may be shed both on the status of the hydria and of the antiquarian publishing culture of which it became a part; and by reviewing the evidence on which various antiquarian projects showed an interest in it, this study will attempt to explain how, through the mechanics of publication, the Meidias hydria was textualised by being reworked as engraved plates in various folios and scholarly accounts. Moreover, considering that the textual and artistic interpretation of ancient vases is embedded in the social fabric of visual culture before and after 1800, this essay also concentrates on how the reception of the hydria emerges from the intellectual and socio-cultural transaction between the scholar (or publisher), the visualised motifs, and their interpretation. Thus, I show how these interpretative choices responded to contemporary trends in the copying and 'translating' process of ancient imagery into engraved illustrations; in particular, I argue that the textual and visual interpretation of the myths featured on the hydria had been gradually configured from a late eighteenth-century aestheticbased model of (vase) scholarship (not really related to any intrinsic interest in the vase, or any vase, as an object) into a more critical consideration (of modem arthistorical nature) and attention to previously hidden characteristics and a gradual shift of interest in the late-1830s and 1840s. …

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