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Head-Vase in the form of a Monkey’s Head

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: Apulian, South Italian
: ca. late 5th century B.C.
: Ceramic
: H : 15.3 cm

Ex-American private collection, Colorado, 1980-1990’s.


Good condition.


An expressive monkey with a tight-lipped and pursed mouth, alert staring eyes, and with a wild fringe of hair surrounding the face, is the perfect subject for this unusual and striking head-vase. The musculature of the monkey’s face, which is well-modeled in clay, is further emphasized and accentuated by the judicious use of black painted lines on the mouth, eyes (complete with “crow’s feet” wrinkles at the edges), and the hair framing the face. The monkey’s face is remarkably similar to a monkey head-vase in the archaeological museum in Ruvo. They are so close in form, incorporating the same nuances and subtle details of facial anatomy, that the faces may have been made from the same mold. The upper part of the vase is more traditional in its decoration: an egg and dot pattern decorates the exterior of the vessel’s rim, and the face of a woman, her head adorned with wreath in added white, is painted in the center of the vase’s neck and just above the face of the monkey. The back of the vase is painted black and enclosed palmettes and a flower flank the handles. A rare example of the relationship between the pottery of South Italy and that of mainland Greece, the monkey is derived from an earlier 5th century B.C. Attic type.

Representations of apes exist in eastern Mediterranean and Aegean regions from the third millennium B.C. onward. They were beloved household pets of the Greeks, as well as the Romans, Egyptians and Assyrians. Aristotle distinguished three types: the tailless monkey, the long-tailed monkey, and the sacred baboon. The first two types were kept as pets and were often represented in comic scenes and trained to do all kinds of tricks. The close relationship between man and ape in antiquity is emphasized by Pliny’s words in his Natural History (VIII, 80, 216) where he writes that “Tame apes, kept as household pets, which have children, carry them around and show them off; they are delighted when the children are stroked and seem to understand that they are being congratulated.” Even in antiquity, apes were considered intelligent animals and their ability to imitate precisely what someone showed them was considered remarkable. This endearing animal continues to intrigue us in the modern era, hence our fascination with the inquisitive expression, large staring eyes, and purse-lips of the figure on this head-vase.


F. Di Palo, Dalla Ruvo antica al Museo archeologico Jatta (Fasano 1987), 198, inv. 1517, for the comparable monkey head-vase in Ruvo.
For head-vases in the form of human heads, see Beazley, J. D., Attic Red-figure Vase-painters (Oxford, 1963), 1529-1552; Beazley, J. D., “ Charinos: Attic Vases in the Form of Human Heads, ” Journal of Hellenic Studies 49 (1929): 38-78.
For monkey vessels in Greek art: A. Kozloff (ed.), Animals in Ancient Art from the Leo Mildenberg Collection (Cleveland 1981), 114-15, no. 95, ape aryballos; 117, no. 98, monkey aryballos.
J. M. Padgett in A. Walker (ed.), Animals in Ancient Art from the Leo Mildenberg Collection Part III (Mainz 1996), 63-65, no. III, 90-91; 66-67, no. III, 93; entries with extensive bibliography.

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