The François Vase, named after its discoverer, is an ancient Greek black figure volute krater from the 6th century BC, discovered in a tomb in Etruria in 1844. It was made in Athens by a potter who signed his name as Ergotimos, and painted around 570 BC by the vase painter Kleitias (whose name is also signed on the Greek pot). The François Vase has been much admired as a fine example of early Attic black figure vase painting. It is currently held in the Museo Archeologico in Florence.
The François Vase
The distinctive shape of the François Vase is that of a volute krater, an ancient Greek pot that functioned as a mixing bowl for water and wine. Its great size means that it could have catered for a large number of people, and it has been suggested that the vase was perhaps commissioned for a wedding. The central theme of the painted vase, depicting the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, could be seen to support this idea.
The scenes represented on the François Vase are mainly episodes from Greek mythology, particularly the stories surrounding Peleus and Thetis and their son, the famous Greek hero Achilles. They are separated into bands around the vase. From top to bottom, the scenes are as follows:
- In the first band, the hunt for the Calydonian Boar on side A, Theseus and dancing Athenian youths saved from Minos’ labyrinth on side B.
- In the second band, the funeral games for Patroclus on side A, the battle of lapiths and centaurs on side B.
- In the third band, the wedding of Peleus and Thetis on both sides
- In the fourth band, Troilus pursued by Achilles on side A, Hephaestus returning to Olympus on side B
- In the fifth band, an animal frieze.
- On the foot of the vase, a battle between pygmies and cranes.
- The handles are decorated with gorgons, and a depiction of Ajax bearing the body of Achilles.
Early Attic Black Figure Vases
Early Attic (Athenian) vase painting adopted some of the styles and features of Corinthian pots. Vases were painted using black figure technique; figures were painted onto the pot with black paint, then details scraped away to reveal the clay colour underneath. The effect is of black figures on a red background. Sometimes other colours might be used to paint in additional detail later. The François Vase was painted using this technique.
Early Attic vase painters also borrowed the Corinthian style animal and monster friezes to decorate their pots. As the Athenian painters grew more confident with their craft, they began to separate large areas into several long, narrow friezes, so that the whole vase was covered with many figures and scenes. We can see the effects of this style on the François Vase.
At the beginning of the 6th century BC, myths were starting to become more popular as the subjects of these friezes, taking over from the simple repeated animal and monster patterns. Kleitias, in particular, seemed to favour the use of myths, as we can see on this painted vase.
Kleitias the Storyteller – The Painted Vase
Kleitias, in his depiction of various mythological themes on the François Vase, shows himself to be a skilled storyteller. The narrow friezes offered by this style of vase painting restricted the painter to subject matters that involved processions, repetition, or large groups of bystanders. Kleitias has represented all of these with success on his vase, such as in the wedding procession or the chariot race at Patroclus’ funeral games.
In his representation of Achilles pursuing Troilus, however, Kleitias has tried something a little different. He has managed to capture a ‘snapshot’ of the myth that tells us everything we need to know about the story. Rather than resorting to the use of space fillers in the form of bystanders who bear no relevance to the myth, each figure here adds depth or importance to the scene. Events shown in this frieze cannot all be strictly happening at the same time; they take us through the myth from left to right, through the chase to the effects of Troilus’ death.
On the far left, we see the fountain house where Troilus has been gathering water. Women fetching water add pathos to the tragic action happening in the middle, and perhaps give a Homeric flavour to the scene; in the Iliad, Homer describes how Achilles chases Hector past the fountain house where women would normally gather water. Next come gods connected to the myth, influencing the mortal events. In the middle of the scene, Achilles chases Troilus as he tries to ride to safety. According to legend, Troy could not be taken if Troilus were to reach the age of twenty, so Achilles set out to kill him. Troilus’ sister, Polyxena, is shown running ahead. Finally, on the far right, Priam receives the bad news and Troilus’ brothers emerge from the city to avenge his death