Wisconsin (2022) p/b 352pp £35.95 (ISBN 9780229321048)

Since their first discovery, high-quality black- and red-figured ceramics found with Etruscan burials have provoked fierce debate. From the 17th to early 19th centuries, art historians and others with vested interests insisted that they were manufactured locally. Then, once their Athenian provenance was proved, questions multiplied. How had they reached Italy? Were they mostly second-hand, used for a while in chic Athenian houses, and then sold on? And why did Etruscans want items, which apparently depicted specifically Athenian lives and interests? While some scholars recognised (and perhaps exaggerated) the importance of a trade in ‘luxury’ pottery, others downplayed its significance: vases, they maintained, were exported as ‘little more than profitable ballast’; Etruscans were ‘ready and receptive for anything exotic’ with an ‘appetite for attractive pottery, whether or not the scene meant anything to them’.

The truth, B. argues, lies in the pottery itself, and the context in which it was discovered (although in many cases, thanks to looters and a poorly policed art market, this is unknown). So, as part of her engrossing study, she gives voice to the vases and traces their ‘biography’: made either speculatively or as commissions in Athenian workshops (where at least one Etruscan potter may have been employed), sold to merchants (marks found on bases suggest not just prices but the names of traders—‘SO’ may be the wealthy Aeginetan, Sostratus, mentioned by Herodotus), and finally carried in procession to be interred with the Etruscan dead along with other objects carefully curated to tell a specific story about the deceased.

Meanwhile, fascinating details emerge: how painted inscriptions may be in-jokes understood only by fellow artists and traders; how the shapes of some Athenian vases evolved to mirror Etruscan bronzeware; how most erotic Attic vases come from Etruscan tombs. Moreover, certain subjects suggest that, far from reflecting Athenian interests, vases such as those showing athletes wearing loincloths, women banqueting with men, warriors engaging in divination using livers or, indeed, the flight of Aeneas from Troy, were conceived specifically for the Etruscan market.

Turning her attention to eye cups and scenes in which water plays a prominent role, B. questions, too, whether Etruscan interpretations of vase paintings may have differed significantly from both our own and those of the original artist. Etruscans, for example, might have seen Fufluns, god of their dead, in the figure whom we automatically identify as Dionysus, or taken an image of winged Eros pursuing a fleeing handsome youth to show a death-spirit tracking down its victim. Their own traditions, too, may well have influenced their understanding of certain scenes, since for them the Dioscuri guided dead souls to the Underworld, images of sea voyages suggested death, and Amazons may have been positive female role models. B. is surely right to insist that it is a mistake to interpret everything from a purely Greek viewpoint and, if by shifting our perspective we identify more ‘known unknowns’, then that is progress.

Thoroughly researched, well-written and thought-provoking, this book will enhance an interested reader’s understanding not just of Athenian vases and their vibrant trade but of Etruscan life, death and beliefs. There are, however, a few caveats. Lengthy quotations are not translated from Italian into English; much of the discussion of individual find spots is perforce specialised; and—most significant of all—in the reproduction of the 111 images B. has been very badly served by her publishers. Printed throughout in black and white, many are so small or muddy that they are of no use whatsoever, which in a study where the image is so vital is frustrating to say the least. Whether the hardback version is any better, the present reviewer does not know, but if it is (while those with a general interest in Atheno-Etruscan art and trade may make do with the paperback) keen specialists and libraries might be advised to pay extra for that edition.

David Stuttard