When talking about art in ancient history, it’s not unusual to stumble across unfamiliar pieces of terminology – and sometimes, the jargon is so obscure that there’s no way you’ll understand what it means unless someone explains it to you.
One of these random pieces of art terminology is the term ‘bilingual pottery’, which was a type of pottery that existed in ancient Greece around the 6th century BC. These vases almost exclusively came from Athens, and included the older black-figure style of decoration on one side of the pot and the newer red-figure style on the other side. Often, both sides would show the same scene, just each one done in a different style!
So, instead of having pots that spoke two languages, the ancient Greek bilingual pots actually showed a period of style-change in the artistic community. Why did the painters and potters decide to showcase both styles at once? It may have come about as a reflection of potters’ uncertainty as to whether or not the public would be willing to accept this new style of decoration – after all, if the public didn’t buy it, they’d have to come up with some new decorative style to market.
They need not have worried, however – red-figure decoration soon took off, and pieces of bilingual pottery became rarer and rarer. In fact, the period in which they were produced was quite short, which may be why so few examples have survived into the present day.
The names of potters who produced these kinds of pieces still survive, however – among those who created bilingual vases are included the Andokides Painter, the Lysippides Painter, Psiax, and Oltos. Of course, the painting style wasn’t limited to vases – Epiktetos the painter created some bilingual cups, while the Andokides Painter worked on both vases and bilingual amphorae.
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Tomorrow: Etruscan terracotta… forgeries!