The charm and background of the Caeretan Hydriae
by Prof. J.M. Hemelrijk
A hydria is a vessel to carry and pour water (two horizontal and one vertical handle).The Caeretan hydriae were probably made to contain water for rituals and were therefore provided with remarkably lively ornaments and extensive figure scenes. They have all been found in tombs in Caere (Etruria) and date from ca 530 – ca 500 BC. They are unique among Greek pottery because of their exuberant colourful appearance.
They were produced by two artisans of East Greek origin. Their history can be reconstructed with some likelihood as follows.
In the middle of the 6th century BC Persia was conquering Asia Minor or Anatolia (= roughly the peninsula now called Turkey). This area is usually indicated as East Greece, and was at that time the centre of Greek civilization (science, art, literature). It was probably from Phocaea (on the West coast of Anatolia/Turkey) that the later painters of our hydriae fled as children with their parents to the West, possibly at first to find a new home in Corsica. Their parents were to all likelihood artisans in the trade of terracotta roof-ornaments as is suggested, for example, by the exuberant lotus-palmettes the boys later on introduced on their hydriae (about 530-525 BC).
These refugees from Phocaea in Asia Minor must have been about the best educated people of the time: among them, we may suppose, were the parents or grandparents of even now still famous philosophers: Parmenides (born about 540 BC) and Zeno (the man of the riddle of Achilles and the tortoise), who was born about 490 BC. Among such outstanding persons our painters grew up. This explains their great interest in mythology and literature.
Roughly about 530 they founded a workshop for pottery in Etruria (Caere; now Cerveteri). They may have been induced to specialize in their particular branch of pottery (hydriae) by high local demands for elaborate ceremonial water-vessels that were less costly than the same, more fashionable, hydriae in bronze.
Because of the very colourful ornaments and the fine, often unusually humorous, scenes the hydriae form an exception among Greek “vases”. Both painters may have sat at the wheel, and their paintings are not hard to distinguish: the elder one I have called the Eagle-Painter and the younger, more progressive, artist is known as the Busiris-Painter. On one or two vases the hands of both can be identified! On many hydriae the ornaments are not by either but were clearly painted by not very proficient helpmates, probably Etruscan boys, some of whom may, later on, have had their own truly Etruscan workshop.
Sometimes a vase must have been in the hands of three or even four painters! That we are able to infer so much and such complicated proceedings is very exceptional and is one of the topics fully discussed in More about..
The vases are arranged in the catalogues according to their ornamental schemes; this ordering is evident but very difficult to memorize; therefore I have added a separate sheet with the table of the catalogue and the type of ornaments: this sheet serves to facilitate the understanding of the often detailed discussions.
On this site the books described above, written by Prof. J.M. Hemelrijk, are ready to use as PDF-files in the menu "Download".