Located 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. It is a veritable catalogue of classical mythology, an indispensable graphic source for anyone preparing to study Greek mythology.
The world’s most famous black-figure Attic vase
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 reduced to pieces in 1844.
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). 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.
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.
Pictures by Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana