Roman Faience Skyphos with a Pomegranate Branch in Relief
Culture: Roman, Ro-Imperial
Period: 1st century A.D.
Dimensions: H : 8.4 cm
Price: CHF 104'400
Ex-Michael and Judith Steinhardt collection, New York.
The vessel has been reassembled, and minor restorations are evident in the foot. The glaze is perfectly preserved. The beige terra-cotta is covered with ocher-yellow glaze on the outside and green glaze on the inside of the vase.
The skyphos has a high cylindrical body with a straight wall, supported by a small circular foot, which was probably modeled separately and attached before firing. The two ring-shaped handles are surmounted by a horizontal thumb-piece that forms a kind of extension of the lip; it facilitates and stabilizes the handling of the vessel.
The decoration in relief (probably made using the technique of terra sigillata) includes a single repeating motif on both faces: a long sinuous branch with pointed leaves and circular fruits, in which archaeologists recognize either small pomegranates or myrtle berries. As on many vessels made of precious metal, of which this skyphos is a beautiful imitation, the use of plant branches for decoration is not rare; among the plants most frequently represented are the olive, the wild grape, and the oak. A symbolic meaning is often sought to explain them: the pomegranate, the fruit of Aphrodite, was a symbol of fertility; the myrtle, which served for the crown of a bride, was not only linked to marriage and fecundity, but was also given to underground deities and deposited in tombs during burial rites. The presence of these plants, however, might have simply been a response to an aesthetic problem, especially since these flora were so widespread in the Mediterranean world. Skyphoi are among the most documented forms of glazed terra-cotta in the workshops of Asia Minor.
Thanks to its excellent state of preservationand its fine technical and artistic qualities, this piece is an outstanding example. According to the classifi cation of A. Hochuli-Gysel, it belongs to skyphoi of type 1acharacterized by the rounded and more slender outline of the lower partand would be a production of a micro-Asiatic workshop based, perhaps, in Tarsus. It can be dated to the early imperial period. The ancient Near Eastern technique of adding leaded glaze to a previously fired terra-cotta vessel was adopted by several workshops in Asia Minor toward the end of the Hellenistic period. The process required a second firing to fix the glaze. This method was certainly used since it allowed a better imitation of vessels in precious metal than did the usual black figure pottery; among the most commonly attested forms, most were borrowed from the repertory of metalworking, for example, the skyphos, oinochoe, or kantharos. In the early imperial period, the competition of glass, an easy-to-work material and available everywhere, and easily reusable, prevented glazed pottery from achieving great commercial success, despite qualitatively good results and widespread distribution.
On glazed terra-cottas in the Hellenistic and Roman periods:
GABELMANN, H., Zur hellenistisch-römischen Bleiglasurkeramik in Kleinasien, in Jahrbuch des deutschen archäologischen Instituts, 89 (1974), pp. 290ff .
HOCHULI-GYSEL, A., Kleinasiatische glasierte Reliefkeramik (Bern, 1977), pp. 21ff . (type 1); pp. 91-92 (decoration: pomegranates).
On silver parallels:
GUZZO, P. G. (ed.), Argenti a Pompei (Milan, 2006), p. 86, no. 23 (Pompeii).
PIRZIO BIROLI STEFANELLI, L., M. E. MICHELI, and B. PETTINAU (ed.), L’argento dei Romani: vasellame da tavola e d’apparato (Rome, 1991), p. 261, no. 41 (treasure of Boscoreale); pp. 267-68, nos. 73, 74 (Pompeii, Casa del Menandro). Trésors d’orfèvrerie gallo-romains, exh. cat. (Paris, 1989), pp. 66-67, no. 9 (decoration: myrtle branch).