The François Vase is a large Attic volute krater decorated in the black-figure style.
A real masterpiece of ancient pottery and the epitome of black-figure painting, the François Vase can be considered a landmark in the study of Greek pottery as it marks a turning point in the art’s development, constituting a great advance in Athenian pottery and painting styles.
Currently held in the National Museum of Archaeology in Florence, the François Vase is a jewel of ancient pottery decoration. Art, history, and myth, all in a container, but not just any: it is the François Vase.
Archaeologists and art historians alike simply refer to it as the “François” after the name of its discoverer, Alessandro François. It is the oldest black-figure Attic krater and it bears 270 painted subjects and 121 inscriptions.
From as early as the seventh century. B.C., the Greek region of Attica had an important vascular tradition and as such, exported its masterpieces abroad.
One of the main hubs in Italy was most likely the city of Vulci in Etruria, and it is in a chamber tomb on the site of Vulci’s Fonte Rotella that the Florentine archaeologist found the vase dispersed in two burial mounds already looted in ancient times, and reduced to pieces in 1844. Despite repeated research, the fragments of the vase, which were never entirely found, were sent to Florence.
Once restored in 1845 through the work of the restorer Vincenzo Manni, in Florence, the François Vase was given back its original shape, and along the years, missing pieces have been discovered, or re-discovered.
Descriptions and the restorations of the François Vase
The François vase dates back to 570 BC; it is a krater (i.e., a container) originally used to draw on the wine with jugs before pouring into kylikes (cups). It stands at 66cm tall, with a diameter not exceeding 57cm.
It is distinguishable from other vases of the period as its related stories and drawing style both constitute something new in Athenian painting. It is also the earliest known Attic volute krater, and one of the earliest Greek kraters still in existence.
As a volute krater, its handles elaborately mimic the spirals of an Ionic column’s capital’s volutes, probably inspired by costly metal prototypes.
Abundantly labelled, it was easily attributed to the hands of the black-figure painter Kleitias and the Athenian potter Ergotimos, thanks to the doubly inscribed “Ergotimos mepoiesen” and “Klitias megraphsen”, respectively meaning “Ergotimos made me” and “Kleitias painted me.”
Since it was found in an Etruscan tomb, it is easy to understand that this krater must have been “an object of prestige” that travelled from Greece to Italy, and therefore would have been part of an elaborate market linking the Greek region of Attica with the rest of the Mediterranean basin.
Since its discovery three restorations have been undertaken, one of which is related to a memorable event.
On September 9, 1900, a custodian of the museum was quarreling with a coworker and hurled a wooden stool against the protective glass casing. The vase broke into more than 600 fragments. While the damage seemed irreparable, the restorer Peter Zei was able to reconstruct the François perfectly; he also added a piece found in the meantime.
Restored once more in 1902, but missing a piece that was stolen, it had to face restoration again in 1973 after Florence was flooded in 1966, which resulted in the vase being damaged.
There are two hundred and seventy figures minutely represented within the six friezes that cover the krater. These are joined by no less than a hundred and twenty-one inscriptions and labels. Of the six friezes, two are on the neck, three on the belly, and one on the foot. Five of them represent stories from myths, while only one of them constituted solely animals.
The Myth: Achilles, Thetis and the Troyan war
The decoration extends over the whole surface through a series of horizontal bands. The figures are drawn in great detail and most are identified by inscriptions; there are also signatures of authors, namely, those of the pottery painter Kleitias and the ceramist Ergotimos.
Figures are painted in black on a red background, and the interior details were produced with thin incised lines. In total there are seven narrative sections, each pertaining to a particular myth. The common thread between the episodes is the story of Achilles, the hero par excellence. The main scene is located along the central section and occupies the vessel’s entire circumference.
It is the most famous wedding in all of Greek mythology. The bride and groom are Thetis, the sea goddess, and Peleus, a mortal. From their union Achilles is born. This is the episode that inspired the entire Homeric epic. During the wedding party Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite begin arguing over who is the most beautiful. Paris chooses Aphrodite and wins Helen’s love, the most beautiful woman in the world. From their love the Trojan War arises.
The decoration: the frieze and the base
On the upper frieze: after having defeated the Minotaur with the help of Ariadne, Theseus is seen dancing with the young Athenians, who have just been released. Also, the Calydonian Boar Hunt, which involved heroes from all over Greece led by Prince Meleager.
On the lower frieze: the funeral games instituted by Achilles in honor of Patroclus, and the battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths. Below the central band, with the wedding of Peleus and Thetis occupying the entire circumference of the vase, are depicted the killing of Troilus by Achilles and the return of Hephaestus to Olympus.
On the base is represented the struggle of the Pygmies with the Cranes, the Geranomachìa mentioned in the Iliad. On loops, on both sides, the scene is the same: a winged Artemis (Potnia Theron, a female deity, mistress of fairs and animals) and Ajax carrying the body of Achilles, killed by Paris.
This cup is therefore a great specimen of literate pottery with a highly narrative content. Technically and artistically, this krater is often referred to as a “milestone” for the development of Greek pottery, and is something new in Athenian painting.
The reason for this lies in several aspects of its making.
As aforementioned, only one of the six friezes of the vase is an animal frieze, while all others correspond to narrations of myths. This represents a real shift from past centuries’ animal motifs and geometric patterns.
This is the sign of an elaboration in the intentions of the painter, as well as a gain in confidence in his skills and rendering of human figures that are drawn differently from Oriental and Geometric prototypes. Bodies are more accurately rendered and less geometric, and there is far more movement in the picture than ever.
Instead of filling in the empty spaces with patterns and geometric designs, Kleitias leaves the negative spaces empty, going against previous trends in Greek vase painting.
The François Vase is a monument in itself for it remains the earliest found example of its type, and its delicate appearance and area of discovery have helped expand our knowledge of Greek art history and its market.
Lastly, its decorations have widened our appreciation of certain lost myths or epic poems.
This post was originally published on April 24, 2016, and has been updated and enriched on July 16, 2018.
Pictures by Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana