The Metropolitan Museum of Art returns a pot to Italy
One of the most notorious repatriations is that of a 6th century B.C.E. ancient Greek pot, commonly referred to as the Sarpedon Krater or Euphronios vase. This pot was looted from an Etruscan tomb not far from Rome in 1971 and a year later illegally bought by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (MMA). The Italian government eventually requested the return of the pot, having collected evidence for its theft and illicit sale. In 2008, seeking to avoid a long and potentially damaging court battle, the MMA struck an agreement with the Italian government for its return. After it was exhibited at the National Etruscan Museum, the Villa Giulia, in Rome, in 2014 the vase was moved to The National Archaeological Museum of Cerveteri, nearby the Etruscan tomb from which it had been stolen 43 years before. Italy had achieved the impossible: forced the return of a stolen piece of its history from a wealthy and influential universal museum.
In the story of the repatriation of the Euphronios vase—this unequivocal win for the protection of heritage and redress of colonialist collection strategies—we have the opportunity to reflect on the various meanings and phenomena of repatriation: what gets lost, what gets gained, and how meanings shift.
With the Euphronios repatriation, the MMA gained an end to legal entanglements and perhaps some moral high ground for negotiating the return. Needless to say, however, it lost its very expensive and beautiful pot. But, what else was lost? Perhaps a bit of authority to write a certain type of history.
Museums are, among other things, in the business of codifying the history of art. Within institutions like the British Museum, the Vatican, and the MMA, the arrangements of their spectacular treasures have written the history of art for nearly three centuries. In this history, individual works are markers on a timeline: a painting, sculpture, or ancient pot. And this history has nearly always been presented as tidy, inevitable, and linear, with white Western men nearly always at the forefront of invention and innovation, as conquerors, kings, popes, explorers, pioneers, collectors, patrons, painters, and sculptors. In short, a white male imperialist history. Therefore, the great pieces of art in universal museums are not only valued for their beauty or cultural worth but also for their role in the establishment of a particular imperialist art historical knowledge. With the return of the Euphronios vase, the MMA has lost, in some measure, its authority to do this.
As for Italy, what is gained by the return of the Euphronios vase is substantial. With the vase brought back to the region in Italy where it was buried in a tomb, The National Archaeological Museum of Cerveteri gains a star object, with which it can highlight first rate Greek vase painting and construct a more nuanced and contextual meaning of ancient Etruscan burial and culture in the region. And, of course, Italy has won a notorious repatriation fight against a formidable opponent, which gives hope to others with similar repatriation claims.
The social life of the Euphronios vase
And what about the vase itself? Although it sounds odd, thinking about the experience of the Euphronios vase reveals a lot. Anthropologists and art historians like to think about the social life of things, or the biography of objects. This approach ascribes the meaning of an object not through its maker or owner but rather by a study of its form, use, and trajectory—its life history. So, how has the form, use, and long travels of the Euphronios vase made its meaning?
The Euphronios vase began its life at about 515 B.C.E., born in the Keramikos, or potters’ quarter, just outside the walls of ancient Athens, made from Attic clay. The pot itself was formed by Euxitheos and painted by Euphronios, an innovative painter who would, in the modern era, come to be regarded as one of the most talented Greek pot painters. The Euphronios vase was not cheap; scholars surmise it would have cost approximately a week’s wages in the 6th century B.C.E. The vase, in shape, is called a krater—a large wine serving bowl—intended to be the focal point and inspiration of discussion, at an all-male drinking party called a symposium.
The pot has painted scenes on two sides, the most remarkable of which illustrates a moment from Homer’s Iliad, recounting an episode in the Trojan War between the Achaeans (Greeks) against the city of Troy (which was also largely Greek). On the vase we see a slain warrior on the Trojan side, Sarpedon carried off the battlefield by the gods of sleep and night, to be returned to his homeland for proper burial. Sarpedon was killed by Patroclus, who is then killed by Hector (prince of Troy), an event which leads to his death at the hands of the famous warrior Achilles (but not before Hector prophesizes Achilles’s death). An Athenian would have known the dark prophecy of the death of Sarpedon, and no doubt such an image would have inspired drinkers to reflect on a range of topics, such as the inevitability of death, the imperfect power of the gods, the fate of great warriors, and the primacy of burial rituals. The very material of the pot, the story it tells in its decoration, and the symposium for which it was made all reflect a deeply Hellenic identity. Despite this, the Euphronios vase eventually left its homeland forever.
Indeed, it is unclear how long the pot remained in Greece but at some point, it traveled across the central Mediterranean Sea to Etruria (the land of the Etruscans, the central area of Italy, around Rome). Thousands of Athenian pots were sold to the Etruscans from the 8th to the 3rd century B.C.E. and thousands were placed in Etruscan tombs so we can safely assume that they were desired and valued by their buyers—although not much is known about how they were used. We assume that Etruscans used them in the ways the Greeks used them, wine cups for drinking, hydria for serving water, and kraters (like the Euphronios vase) to mix wine and water together, likely on a special occasion, given their value. However, there is evidence from painted tombs that Etruscan women participated in feasts in which Greek pots were used, which is different from Greek practice. How deeply the Etruscans understood the Greek identity is hard to know. How long the Euphronios vase was used by its Etruscan owner(s) is also hard to say.
The tomb in Cerveteri, in the Greppe Sant’Angelo necropolis, where the Euphronios vase was entombed, was huge, with many chambers, and used from the late 4th to 3rd century B.C.E. Because the tomb was looted and we have no associated finds to date nor the exact part of the tomb in which the pot was found, we cannot date its burial any better than the date of the tomb itself. But, this alone tells us that the Euphronios vase was used for at least a century before it was buried; sadly, we don’t know if this use was mostly by Greeks or Etruscans because we don’t know when it arrived in Italy. However, a precise repair, with metal rivets, was made sometime in antiquity, which can be seen on the less famous side of the vase, which shows young men readying for battle. This reveals to us some vigorous use and special care.
The looting of the tomb
In December of 1971, the tomb in Greppe Sant’Angelo was looted and the Euphronios vase was stolen. If the vase was again broken during its theft is not known but we do know that when it was illegally exported to Switzerland it was extensively repaired. It was then sold to the MMA, for $1 million, the greatest price the museum had ever paid for a work of art. The pot was conserved again by the MMA upon its arrival in New York (to which it travelled in its own first-class seat on a TWA flight from Zurich) and treated to a bespoke glass case, designed by staff from Tiffany’s, at its unveiling. The pot’s initial display at the MMA was a great media event. It was described as the finest Greek pot to survive from antiquity; the director of the museum at the time called it an ancient Leonardo da Vinci. The vase was immediately featured in books about ancient Greek art and general survey texts, picked out as a singular achievement in the narrative of Western art history. With the Euphronios vase’s installation in the Greek and Roman galleries of the MMA its previous life as an object of Etruscan value was erased. The Euphronios vase became one of the many focal points of the museum’s collection, arguing for a narrative that places the singular achievement of ancient Greek art at the foundation of Western visual heritage, where it became the wellspring of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and an expression of Western imperialist inevitability and dominance.
In its New York home, the Euphronios vase was enjoyed by increasing numbers of visitors from the 1970s on to the first decade of the 21st century; the MMA had over 4.5 million visitors in 2007, the last year of its stay. In addition to these public viewers, the Euphronios vase hosted scores of academic and celebrity visitors, not to mention regular after-hours attention from conservators, lighting technicians, photographers, security consultants, exhibition designers, and curators, seeking to extract from it maximum historical and aesthetic content. The Euphronios vase lived in the MMA as a subject of near constant focus, awe, and inspiration.
The attention which the Euphronios vase enjoyed in its temporary New York residence can hardly compare with the emotional hero’s welcome it received at its homecoming to Rome, in 2008. Its first unveiling occurred at the Presidential Palazzo del Quirinale, in a special exhibition together with other repatriated objects entitled Nostoi, which means “those who return home,” also the title of a lost ancient Greek epic poem, about the return of the Greek heroes after the sack of Troy.
The Nostoi exhibit was widely covered by the international press, its reviews full of pathos and emotional satisfaction, also seen as an example of Italian political savvy on the part of the increasingly unstable government of president Romano Prodi. At the Palazzo del Quirinale, the Euphronios vase wasn’t standing in for the superiority of Greek art or the foundations of Western heritage in an imperialist narrative; it spoke instead of the return of a precious object to its homeland after a long struggle far away, a triumphant warrior of a watershed battle in the growing cause for cultural heritage repatriation. Remember the vase was made in Greece, though it was found buried in an Etruscan tomb in central Italy.
The next move for the Euphronios vase was to the National Etruscan Museum at Rome in the Villa Giulia, where it was exhibited, for the first time, as a treasured piece of Etruscan culture. Its meaning now shifted yet again, to one centered around Etruscan appropriation of Greek sympotic practice, trade with the wider Mediterranean world, and burial customs. Visitors to the Villa Guilia came to learn about the pre-Roman history of Italy, to understand one of the earliest civilizations of the Italic peninsula (the Etruscans), a part of which was the trade in beautiful Greek vases. The Euphronios vase now told a story anchored in its own ancient Italic experience, not about the foundations of Western art and imperialism in a universal museum, not the catharsis of a long sought and hard-won repatriation, but the story of its past owners and users.
And, finally, in 2014, the Euphronios vase was installed in a museum very close to where it had been deposited in antiquity, The National Archaeological Museum of Cerveteri, a 15-minute drive from the Greppe Sant’Angelo necropolis (in what was once Etruria, the home of the Etruscans). It now sits among other grave goods and assemblages found in local Etruscan tombs, excavated by archaeologists who work to reveal and understand Etruscan culture. The Euphronios vase is now truly home, back in the region where in antiquity it had been cherished as an elite Greek import, regarded with wonder in lively social ceremony, and chosen to accompany its owner into the afterlife and eternity.
The Cerveteri museum is a quiet place, especially on the second floor where the Euphronios vase is exhibited, and it is easily missed by less intrepid museum visitors. And those visitors are a tiny fraction of those the pot has been accustomed to seeing: the Cerveteri museum welcomed some 12,500 visitors, in 2018. But, for those who climb the steps to find the Euphronios vase in the cool solitude of its new museum home, they will find not only a remarkable ancient object but a nearly impossible challenge: to believe that this is the pot which has traveled so far away and returned, suffered destruction and careful restoration twice, been the subject of so much violence, desire, admiration, and contention, whose meaning has been remade so many times: Attic Greek, Etruscan, Greek again but in the service of a Western imperialist narrative, glorious booty returned to its Italian homeland, a poster child for repatriation battles, then Etruscan again, in a deeply local and contextual way. This quiet wonder can be contrasted with the continued high celebrity which the Euphronios vase enjoys on the global digital sphere. Indeed, because of its complex biography, it is among the most famous pots in the world.
Read about the Euphronios krater on Trafficking Culture
Elizabeth Marlowe, Shaky Ground: Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art (London: Bloomsbury, 2013)
Nigel Spivey, The Sarpedon Krater: The Life and Afterlife of a Greek Vase (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019)