The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Jessica Hughes
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Over the last year or two I’ve been growing increasingly obsessed with South Italian vases. At the start of lockdown I bought a pile of museum catalogues and books about them, so I’ve been working through these during the last few months – often just gazing at the lovely pictures and getting lost in the details. I also ordered Michelin maps of Puglia and Campania & Basilicata, which I’ve been marking up with all the sites and museums I’m reading about. Hopefully I’ll be able to plan a proper trip before too long, but in the meantime, maps and GoogleEarth tours are a good substitute.
When did you first come across these vases?
I first came across South Italian vases when I was doing my PhD on personifications of cities, provinces and nations in Greco-Roman art. One of the objects I looked at was a vase by the Darius Painter which depicts personifications of ‘Hellas’ and ‘Asia’ amongst the gods, while the Persian King Darius sits beneath them on a throne, listening to a messenger. Like many other South Italian vases, this one has been connected with Greek tragedy, and it was intriguing to think about the significance of this scene in relation to its findspot in a tomb at Canosa (Puglia). Since then, I’ve always been drawn to South Italian vases whenever I come across them in museums, although it’s only in the last year that I’ve started to seek them out and research them in a more focused way.
Can you tell me a bit about these vases and their context?
They were made in Southern Italy in the areas of Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Sicily, mostly during the fourth century BCE. At first glance they look quite similar to Athenian red-figure vases; however, as soon as you look more closely, you see that the South Italian vases are really quite different. They have their own personalities, unique styles, and novel subjects. They also have different functions from Athenian vases (which were used in a wide range of domestic and symposiastic contexts), since most South Italian ones were found in tombs, and often seem to have been made especially for the grave.
What is it about these vases that appeals to you most?
There’s so much to like about South Italian vases! I like the extravagance and detail of the painted images, particularly the way that the faces are drawn, and the depiction of landscapes, including rocks, trees and flowers. In the past, scholars have sometimes been quite rude about these vases, calling them ‘vulgar’ and even ‘barbaric’, and focusing on mistakes that the painters have made in depiction of perspective or of the human figure. But to me, this just makes them even more appealing! The place of their production is another reason I’m drawn to these vases. My in-laws live in Campania, and we love spending time there, exploring new places, revisiting old ones, and learning as much as possible about the region’s history.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Two years ago we got an allotment, and now spend most of our spare time down there. It’s like a little paradise. The whole allotment site is beautiful – full of wildlife, with a river at the bottom and trains rumbling past in the distance. We’ve got a big plot so we are growing loads of fruit and vegetables, including things from Italy that are difficult to find here in the UK, such as ‘friarielli napoletani’ and Vesuvius piennolo tomatoes. As my neighbour on the next-door plot said to me yesterday, “It’s a place where you can forget all your troubles.”
Jessica Hughes is Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at The Open University, where she currently teaches on the modules ‘Discovering the Arts and Humanities’ (A111), and ‘Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds’ (A330). You can find out about her research on votive offerings and other material religion topics on her website www.campaniasacra.org.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.