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From Athens to Tarquinia: A Female Musician in Context

Sheramy Bundrick

In 1975, an Athenian red-figured pelike from ca. 450–425 B.C.E. was discovered in a pit tomb at the Etruscan site of Tarquinia, where it served as a cinerary urn (Tarquinia 102381, Cavagnaro Vanoni 2000–01: 384–93). Examination of the remains inside suggests that the deceased was female, a conclusion supported by the vase’s iconography. The primary scene depicts a young woman with chelys lyre and another with closed book roll; the former reaches to the latter as if to take the scroll, suggesting that it may contain musical notation or song lyrics. In this, the Tarquinia pelike can be compared with a slightly earlier red-figured hydria by the Niobid Painter, where a seated woman with barbitos looks at a scroll held up by a companion as she plays (Solow Art and Architecture Foundation, BAPD 11020), as well as a red-figured hydria from a funerary offering trench in the Athenian Kerameikos cemetery, where a young woman with barbitos and another with scroll are joined by Eros with an aulos (Kerameikos 8070/2698, BAPD 5521).

The Tarquinia pelike represents a new addition to the previously considered corpus of Athenian vases with female musicians (Bundrick 1998, Bundrick 2005: 92–102), as well as the corpus of vases showing women with book rolls (cf. Immerwahr 1964 and Glazebrook 2005). As such, it advances the discussion about Athenian women’s literacy and musical training. Like other examples from the Classical period, a stringed instrument is placed into a woman’s hands, and yet no inscriptions are included to identify these women as Muses. It seems increasingly clear that so-called respectable women are portrayed in these scenes, or at least that there is no obstacle to an ancient viewer reading them as such. Consideration of the known contexts of other examples — like the Kerameikos hydria noted above, whose Opferrinne was linked to a likely young woman’s grave — supports this view. To show a woman with a musical instrument is to highlight her accomplishments and depict her at leisure, as member of a harmonious oikos and embodiment of a feminine ideal.

The Tarquinia pelike must also be considered in its Etruscan context. Depictions of women playing music in Etruscan art are rare, aside from female revelers with krotala; a notable exception is the fifth-century Tomba della Scrofa Nera at Tarquinia, in which a young woman plays a chelys lyre while seated on the edge of a banqueting couple’s kline (Stopponi 1983). Given their prominent placement, the trio likely represent the tomb’s primary occupants — husband, wife, and daughter — in which case the daughter’s lyre-playing can be interpreted as a sign of status and leisure. Perhaps the pelike can be read in a similar way in its usage as ossuary. Although by the fifth century cremation was less common than inhumation at Tarquinia, this mortuary practice had a long history there, and traditionally urns were conceived as metaphorical “stand-ins” for the deceased. An imported Athenian vase would not function any differently from a locally made Etruscan vessel in this regard; indeed, the pelike may have appealed to the deceased’s family precisely because of its figural decoration, deemed appropriate for their loved one. The documented findspot of the Tarquinia pelike provides a unique opportunity to consider its musical iconography from multiple points of view, of both the Athenian producer and Etruscan consumer. 

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Ancient Greek and Roman Music: Current Approaches and New Perspectives

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