Handle of a volute krater
Period: Late Hellenistic, 1st Century B.C.
Material: Bronze with silver and copper inlays
Dimensions: Height: 30 cm
Acquired on the European Art Market in 1991.
The handle is complete and in very good condition, with a uniform dark green patina.
This handle, whose dimensions and weight are impressive, was cast in a number of parts: the two lateral stems (used to solder the handle to the body of the vase), the central element with its rounded upper part, and the side panels decorated with volutes. The surface of the deep brown bronze is partially covered with a green patina. Thin silver and red copper sheets were used for the damascened decoration. Despite some small breaks (the flower on the left and the leaves on the right are lost), the piece is in remarkable condition.
The structure and decoration of this handle are reminiscent of very old prototypes, which appear as early as the Archaic period and continue to be used throughout the 4th century and into the Hellenistic period. The profile of the stems, which is only slightly curved (seen in profile, the handle forms a very slight open arch) would not fit on the sort of vessel one would expect with this sort of handle: a container with rounded body and shoulders, such as a volute krater. One must therefore conclude that this beautiful piece belonged to a monumental krater, or perhaps, that it was attached to a very different object, with nearly vertical walls.
The decoration, dominated by vegetal patterns, is extremely elaborate: the lateral sinuous stems look like two branches adorned with leaves and a large flower, composed of two tiers of semi-circular petals or a zigzagged edges. The central element, which was the true handle, is decorated on either side with openwork and composite volutes, from which spring leaves and palmettes. On the fl at plate located between the volutes and delineated by two Lesbos-style cymae, the polychromatic decoration is inlaid according to the damascening technique: palmettes and lotus flowers, whose petals and leaves are alternately made of silver or copper. A large shell in relief is cast on the interior of the handle, just above the edge that touched the lip of the krater.
In the damascening process, which was already known in the Mycenaean period, the metal smith first made a narrow channel with an engraving tool in the surface of the metal, so as to trace the pattern; these motifs were then covered with a silver, gold or copper sheet precisely hammered into the prepared grooves.
Although a few examples of Hellenistic volute handles come from documented sites (Mahdia, Pompeii), their general typology too closely echoes the classic Greek models to be significant in establishing a chronology. Rather, one should look to the damascening decoration to help classify the piece under discussion, comparing it, for instance, with the wreaths of leaves that adorn bronze fulcra dated to the 1st century B.C. (elements from the decoration of symposia couches) or the edges of bronze tables, as well as elements of other vessels originating from Pompeii.
On contemporary volute handles, see:
FUCHS W., Der Schiffsfund von Mahdia, Tübingen, 1963, pp. 26-27, pl. 36, 1-2.
PERNICE E. and al., Die hellenistische Kunst in Pompeji, vol. IV, pp. 9-10, fi g. 8f.
On the technique of damascening decoration:
FAUST S., Fulcra, Figürlicher und ornamentaler Schmuck an antiken Betten, Berlin, 1989, p. 168, n. 80-81, pl. 19 (Chieti); p. 180, n. 177-178, pl. 21, 2 (London); p.
183, n. 198-200, pl. 20, 22 (Marseilles).
GIULIA-MAIR A.R. – CRADDOCK P.T., Das schwarze Gold des Alchimisten, Corinthium Aes, Mainz / Rhine, 1993, pp. 36-37, fi g 17-18 (fulcra, in London).
Other bronze kraters:
FUCHS W., Der Schiffsfund von Mahdia, Tübingen, 1963, pp. 28-29, n. 31, pl. 39.
PIRZIO BIROLI STFANELLI L. (ed.), Il bronzo dei Romani, arredo e suppellettile, Roma, 1990, pp. 277, n. 84 (situle with silver decoration); pp.283-284, n. 120-121
(two bell-kraters from Pompeii).
On volutes kraters in the Greek world, see:
ROLLEY C., Les bronzes grecs, Fribourg, 1983.