The Medici Conspiracy: Exekias and Greek Trade

Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini in The Medici Conspiracy lay out the evidence that the Italians were able to gather against Giacomo Medici, and a few other dealers. They’ve shown beyond reasonable doubt, in my opinion, that the items were dug up by tombolari in illicit ‘excavations’ and then smuggled out of the country and into Switzerland. The book is brilliant – I disagree with a few points here and there, but every once in a while a book comes along that changes the world, and I believe that The Medici Conspiracy is such a book: it will change archaeology and antiquities collecting. (I’ve read the 2006 Hardcover edition).

In the last twenty years, and particularly in the last ten years, opinions about collecting antiquities, particularly those without provenances, have shifted considerably. It’s easy to condemn today something done in the past, when knowledge and standards were different.

Having read the book it’s blaringly obvious that the artefacts various dealers sold, but which originated with Medici, were looted from Italy. Is this just hindsight, or should it have been obvious at the time?

Provenances do get lost, there are far more old collections of antiquities than people realise, often poorly or not catalogued … and the provenance of Greek vases is not quite as ‘obvious’ as the authors make it sound. Hindsight is always 20/20 …

On p. 61, repeated almost word for word on p. 343, Watson and Todeschini state the following:

“As Bartoloni and her colleagues point out, J.D. Beazley, in his 1956 publication, Attic Black-Figure Vase Painters – still today a reference book for black-figure ceramics – identified sixteen vases by Exekias for which the provenance was known and another six for which the provenance was not known. According to Beazley, thirteen of the vases whose provenance was known came from Etruria – five from Vulci, five from Orvieto, one each from other places in Italy – whereas only three came from other countries (two from Athens, one from France). In the case of Euphronios … vases of known provenance, nine came from Etruria (two from Cerveteri, two from Vulci, one each from other places), three from Greece, and one from Olbia on the Black Sea”

It’s been a while since I studied Greek vases, but there are some serious issues with these claims. Five or six vases linked to Euphronios as potter or painter clearly recently came out of Italy, as shown my the Medici Polaroids. With Exekias it’s a completely different story.

If this is indeed the information that the Italian archaeologists gave Watson and Todeschini, I’m slightly concerned – and since their research elsewhere is so thorough, why didn’t they check these claims. I don’t know if “Bartoloni and her colleagues” simply didn’t bother to keep up with research on Greek vases – because a heck of a lot has changed since 1956 – or if they were deliberately putting a pro-Italian spin on the information. Whatever the reason, they are wrong.

Elsewhere, when it comes to Greek vases, the authors seem to be following some sort of Italian nationalistic propaganda (throughout the book, but particularly pp. 341-343). The claims on p. 341:

“As the three experts make clear, the Greek colonies of southern Italy and Sicily, together with Etruscan cities, were primary commercial destinations for vases made in Greece … Etruria was obviously a special area for some reason, because only in Etruria “have objects of exceptional quality been found.” Scholars believe that these exceptional objects were sent as examples, as “commercial propaganda,” … to encourage international trade.”

Yes, many amazing Greek vases have been found in Italy, but they were made in Greece, and have also been found there too. The museums in Athens have fabulous collections of Greek vases too. The Athenian trade with Etruria consisted mostly of vases – they don’t seem to have used these vases to encourage anything else, nor was Etrurian trade considered more important than, for example, trade with Cyrene.

Ann Steiner, in a BMCR review of a collection of vases in Munich, with old Vulci provenances, states the case quite clearly against ‘special’ production only for the Etruscans:

“the majority of the vases included in the volume have a secure provenience, Vulci. It is therefore interesting to consider whether this group of vases supports the hypothesis that Athenian painters saw the export market as their first audience, and created both shapes and subjects to suit Etruscan requirements. The CVA subject-index lists more than 50 topics, excluding the Panathenaic prizes. All but two or three of these topics are also listed in Agora XXIII, the publication of the majority of the black-figure pottery excavated from that site. Likewise, the CVA index lists 22 different workshops or painters identified by Beazley, of which 17 are likewise represented at the Agora. This small sample suggests that the pottery used in Athens is very similar to that used at Vulci and undermines the idea that the Etruscan market demanded special and different products.”

In short, the Athenian vases exported to Vulci are quite similar to the ones found in the Athenian Agora – they were not vases designed specially for the Etruscan market. There are a few examples, such as Nolane vases, which are almost all found in Italy, but the Athenians do not seem to have been creating their pottery production with the Etruscan market in mind.

This becomes clear when we look again at the distribution of works by Exekias with provenances, and include the many works identified since Beazley published his seminal study in 1956 – and which the Italian experts for some reason chose to ignore.

[The ‘trademarks’ on vases were added in Athens at the time of production (Arafat and Morgan p. 109, citing the same 1979 study by Alan Johnston) – so it means that they were intended for a specific market, but there is always the possibility that the item didn’t end up there.

In the 18th century there began a craze for ‘Etruscan’ vases (most of which of course later turned out to be Greek), and excavations began throughout Italy to find them. The Etruscan buried their vases in tombs, hence their better condition. Excavations did not start in Greece and Turkey until later, and only in recent decades have they become as numerous as those in Italy – the Italian countryside has been more thoroughly excavated than the Greek one, and that is one reason we have so many more vases from Italy than Greece. I should also point out that many of the early excavations – from example those that provided the vases for Sir William Hamilton’s collections – were no more professional than those of the tombolari, and the ‘provenances’ they provided no more useful. I would not wish this to be taken as an endorsement of the tombolari; I am simple making the point that standards in archaeology have changed dramatically over the centuries.

The ‘French’ Exekias is a fragmentary amphora originally depicting Apollo, Artemis, a deer, and Leto. The fragment now in Narbonne Museum, France, was found a few kilometres outside the town at Montlaurès; initially it seems to have been the more important town, but by the Roman period Narbonne was pre-eminent. The fragment by Exekias shows that extensive trade was going on at the time, probably directly with Greece rather than through Italy, if we compare the example of Massalia (Marseilles). It seems to have been known as Helyce palus in Antiquity (Avienus), and had an active port nearby (it’s 15 km inland but on the Aude river) based on the rich archaeological finds, including a lot of Iberian pottery and large numbers of sherds of both Italian and Attic vases from the 6th century BC onwards. The Narbonne Exekias is illustrated in the Beazley Archive Database here (along with a number of his other vases, one of which is listed as ‘lost’).

We tend to concentrate on Attic vases found in Etruria, because that is where they have been excavated in good condition (due to their use as grave goods in chamber tombs), but the trade was widespread. An Euphronios was found at Olbia on the Black Sea. And the importance of Greek trade with France is well illustrated by the find made in 1953 in Vix in NE Burgundy. There archaeologists excavated the grave of a Gaulish princess, which included one of the best preserved (late) Archaic bronze pots we have, now known as the Vix Crater: it was made in Greece, or possibly Southern Italy. The Crater’s companions, silver drinking cups and a phiale came from Attica; a bronze Oinochoe is from Etruria. Amongst the 40,000-something pot sherds found in the surrounding area were Black Figure pieces from Attica, showing that pottery was also traded that far north. I think the BF Droop cup was also find in the grave, which included pearls (possibly from Bahrain) and a diadem that seems to be Scythian (a French schoolboy created a nice web site illustrating the finds here).  The points I’m trying to make is that even ‘barbarian’ inland France has evidence for quite extensive trade links, and that if these items were taken out of their archaeological context, then we would probably assume they had come from a grave in Etruria or Magna Graecia rather than Gaul.

Attic vases were also found at Conliege in the Jura. Further north, fragments of black figure vases have been found in Germany, for example at Heuneburg on the Danube (images of two here). Greek vases from the Archaic and Classical period were widely traded – and not just to Italy. These pots are believe to have travelled from Athens to Massalia, then up the Rhone and been traded from there to the Germans.

Watson and Todeschini mention the Narbonne Exekias, but they ignore many others that have been identified in the half-century since Beazley’s seminal work on Black Figure Vases and accepted by scholars of Greek vase painting. We also have to remember that the Iron Curtain did not fall until 1989, so many of those collections were hard to access at the time, and collections in countries such as Albania and Cuba are still not easy to see today.

Due to the wonders of the internet, I came across a map, which shows ‘The Distribution of the works by Exekias’ on Google Earth (here). As we can see, the finds are indeed concentrated in Etruria and Greece, as Watson and Todeschini state. But the map shows pots found around the Mediterranean that they ignore.

I think Watson and Todeschini possibly included the amphora fragments by Exekias found in Locri and now in Reggio Calabria Museum as amongst their Etrurian provenances  (? though Locri is in the toe of Italy). All the other Exekias vases and fragments from Italy were found in Etruria.

The vases in mainland Greece  mention are also shown on the map: one in Eretria, one from the sanctuary at Brauron, and the two from Athens, including a beautiful Kalyx Krater dedicated on the north slope of the Athenian Acropolis (showing Heracles being introduced to Olympia). I count four vases in mainland Greece, not Watson and Todeschini’s “two from Athens” – or seven Exekias works if one includes Samos.

A vase by Exekias was found in the Sanctuary of Demeter in Cyrene; the city was a Greek colony, and trade between Greece and Libya is well attested. The Cyrene Exekias, a vase by Kleitias, part of a Panathenaic amphora, and other pottery excavated from the sanctuary are illustrated in an article here.

Three vessels by Exekias were found in the Heraion of Samos, are now in the Vathy Museum; a fragment of a Kalyx Krater, fragments of at least one amphora, and fragments of a lid. Samos is part of Greece, but Watson and Todeschini seem to have been writing about the three Exekias works found in mainland Greece and excluded these.

In addition I can add three more works by Exekias and/or his studio which do not appear on this map:

Other fragments found in France are attributed to Exekias in his early years; they come from La Monédière in Bessan,  and were once an amphora with Athena and with Heracles fighting the Nemean Lion. Two of the fragments are in Boardman AJA 82.1, 1974, ill. 1 – where they are mislabelled as from Ensurune, see Jully here.

A fragment attributed to Exekias or his studio was found further west, down the coast from Montlaurès at Emporium, a city found like Marseilles by Phocean colonists from Turkey (c. 575 BC), and which became the largest Greek colony in Spain. It is particularly interesting as it has ‘Onetorides kalos’ written on it, and Onetorides is the only kalos-name associated with Exekias as a painter (he potted amphorae painted by others with the kalos-name Stesias).

Another Exekias was found at Ullastret in Catalonia (published in the Ullastret CVA). A whole book has been written about the commerce in ceramics to Languedoc and that part of the coast: Exekias may be the best artist found there, but his vases were not unique finds.

[I should be clear that one has to differentiate between Exekias as painter (and also potter, which I am writing about), and Exekias as potter, with the painting done by Group E.]

A later example will show just how difficult it can be to work out where antiquities come from. Archaeologists agree unanimously that the Sevso Hoard was looted, but not where it was looted from; almost everyone I know has a different argument for why Italy/Syria /Turkey /Lebanon/Libya / the former Yugoslavia/Hungary /France/ (insert country of your choice) is where it came from, and they all tend to give good reasons to support their choice. A Caeretan Hydria is almost certain to have been found in Caera (Cerveteri), and a Tarentine sculpture is particularly distinctive because of it’s stone – but more important works, which moved around in Antiquity, tend to be harder to assign provenances to.

We know not only that works by Exekias were made in Athens, but also the specific area of the city in which he worked (the Keramaikos). Despite this, it’s not possible to be as certain as Watson and Todeschini would like to make it sound to work out where an unprovenanced work by Exekias was found.

I don’t know of any finds from the Black Sea, but I think that I’ve demonstrated that works by Exekias were shipped all around the Mediterranean in the Archaic period. Although the majority of his work had an Italian provenance in the past, as more research is being undertaken, and more collections published, this is no longer the case. This is why although an Exekias without a provenance is likely to have come from Etruria, it could just as easily have come from anywhere else in the Ancient World.

The Medici Polaroids and supporting evidence prove that those items were looted from Italy, but without this, the case could have been made for numerous items having been dug up elsewhere. It’s not as obvious as it appears with hindsight that an Exekias must come from Italy …

Anyone interested in archaeology must read this book: Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini The Medici Conspiracy.

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