An Apulian Fish Plate (the Sansone Painter)
Period: late 4th century B.C. (ca. 320-310)
Material: Greek Ceramic
Dimensions: D: 20.5 cm
Ex-European Private Collection, acquired before 1990.
This vessel is intact, except for minor chips on its edge. There are abundant traces of wheel marks under the body of the plate. The pinkishbeige terracotta is covered with a thin layer of miltos that imitates the red appearance of Attic pottery. The black paint is extremely well preserved. The piece was decorated in the red figure technique, with the anatomical details of the fishes highlighted in white and golden yellow in places, while their bodies were coated with dark brown.
The simple, elegant shape is composed of two elements which were made separately and assembled before firing: a) a concave, circular plate with a hollow central knob (omphalos) corresponding to the attachment of the foot; the rim of the dish is high and vertical, slightly curved and folded outwards; b) a conical foot, molded at the base and hollow.
The subject of the decoration focuses on marine life, but it is much less stereotyped than that of most Apulian fish plates. Indeed, two fishes, which may belong to the labra or perchs family, are preceded by a smaller fish which is placed at a right angle, while a cuttlefish and a torpedo close the composition. A continuous frieze of waves is painted on the rim. The edge of the foot and a wide band under the lower plate are painted in black. The style is animated and full of life, but many details are fanciful and do not reflect the real anatomy of fishes, as if the artist had been looking for pretexts to decorate rather than describe marine species.
There are today over a thousand documented fish plates (including fragments). Although these vessels had already appeared in the 5th century B.C. in the repertoire of Attic pottery, the majority of them were manufactured in the Italian Colonial world (Apulia and Campania mostly) and can be dated to the following century. The animals are generally rendered with a great deal of care, to the point that the different species of sea animals can easily be identified; most often they are fishes (labra, perchs, sargoi, etc.), but there are also torpedoes, crustaceans (crabs, shrimps of different sizes), mollusks (shells) or invertebrates (starfishes), etc.
Despite the publication of several recent studies on this subject, the exact purpose of these plates remains unknown (it is noteworthy that the same form also exists in the reserved version, that is to say entirely painted in black). The archaeological critics most often take into account the presence of the marine animals and indicate that these vessels would serve to transport, eat or give fish. The fact that they frequently appear in necropoleis may suggest that they were used at funerary dinners and during rituals connected with funerals. A number of discoveries in southern Italy would even evidenced that fish plates were exclusively made for funerary purpose, and that they would be closely linked with the beliefs and expectations of the afterlife or with the means of passage into the world of the dead.
The German archaeologist N. Kunisch also gives another interpretation, which is more original but very difficult to prove. Floating on the surface of the water-wine mix that filled the kraters which were used at banquets (symposia), these fish plates would have served as targets for a variant of the kottabos, a game of skill very popular in the ancient Greek world.
The style of our plate can be related to the work of the Sansone Painter, that the archaeological critics associate to the White Sakkos group, one of the last major red-figure Apulian groups. The overall composition, more varied than usual, the species of fishes selected, as well as the details of the fins (the pectoral fins, for instance, are almost treated like bird wings), of the mouths fitted with small teeth, the “backbone” and “mustache” of the torpedo, the impressive tentacles of the cuttlefish argue for an attribution to this painter who would have worked in Canosa (in modern-day Puglia) during the last decades of the 4th century B.C.
Mc PHEE I. – TRENDALL A.D., Greek Red-Figured Fish-plates, Basel, 1987, pp. 143-144, pl. 62 (Mattinata group, the Sansone Painter).
KUNISCH N., Griechische Fischteller, Natur und Bild, Berlin, 1989.