Greek Metalwork
History, Characteristics of Metalworking & Goldsmithery in Ancient Greece.


Greek Art of Metalworking

Contents

Materials and Technique
Jewellery
Larger Metalwork
Figurines
Influence of Greek Metalwork

Materials and Technique

Originating during the era of Aegean art, decorative metalwork and goldsmithing was practised by major artists, for instance Phidias, and reckoned one of the major arts. It allowed the sharp definition required for figures and ornaments, was valuable for its material and, unlike Greek sculpture and architecture, could always be enjoyed by private individuals with the extra pleasure of personal possession. Since all metals could be re-used profitably and except for gold are liable to corrosion, survival has been chancy, depending mainly on deliberate or accidental burial and suitable chemical contexts. So, though there is a fair quantity of Greek metalwork in museums and other collections, it is not properly representative. The metals in regular use were gold, electrum, silver and bronze. Gold, always the most precious, was kept mainly for jewellery, anyhow till the mid fourth century when the Macedonian and then the other Hellenistic kingdoms made regular issues of gold coinage. Electrum, which was an alloy of gold with some silver and occurred naturally in Lydia, was treated as an inferior sort of gold. It also provided the main coinage of some Asiatic Greek cities from the late seventh to the fourth century. Silver, the standard medium of currency in the rest of the Greek world, was relatively more valuable than now. It was employed for cheaper jewellery and more expensive toilet and table ware. Bronze, an artificial alloy of copper and tin with sometimes a little lead, was far commoner and, being also much more tractable than iron, it remained the normal metal for armour, vessels and stands, mirrors, plaques on furniture, and figurines. In value, the ratio of gold to silver varied between 15:1 and 10:1, while the ratio of gold to electrum depended on its supposed composition; bronze was much cheaper - in the late Hellenistic period, for which we have some information, it was worth between 1:100 and 1:150 of an equal weight of silver.

The techniques that have been observed are hammering, stamping and impressing, repousse, chasing (or engraving), inlay, gilding and silver-plating, solid and hollow casting, and - for jewellery only - filigree and granulation. Joins were made by folding, soldering, welding or riveting. Hammering, for long the basic method of making vessels and armour, must have been used continuously from the Late Bronze Age, when the art of the metal-worker was highly developed, and so too with engraving and solid casting. The other decorative techniques reappeared or were improved in the late ninth or the eighth century under the direct or indirect tutelage of Eastern craftsmen. Metalwork, of course, was intended to be kept polished and bright. The admiration for the patina of bronze, which by its mattness obscures detail and incidentally makes mirrors useless, did not appear before the Roman period, and is one of the more obvious instances where modern appreciation of the character of ancient art and architecture shows itself distressingly conventional and incomplete.

Jewellery

At the beginning of the Iron Age, such jewellery as was made by the Greeks was simple and not very skilful, but in the later ninth century as luxury became possible, output increased suddenly and both technique and style improved. Because the main purpose was to advertise personal wealth and there were limits to the quantity of metal that could be worn with propriety, the art of the jeweller tended always to intricacy and virtuosity. In early work granulation was especially important; by the fifth century the forms of figures and ornaments relied on filigree and enamel; and in the Hellenistic period and still more afterwards, inlaying with precious stones became popular. Generally for figures the style in jewellery resembles that in other figurative arts, though on some gold bands of the eighth century an Orientalizing style appears earlier than in vase painting. But in wreaths and pendants from the Classical period onwards there is often a much closer and more sensitive copying of vegetable forms. On the whole Greek jewellery shows excellent craftsmanship, a good sense of design and delicacy of detail, but in the general development of art its importance was secondary: the scale was too diminutive for full exploitation of the human figure.

Larger Metalwork

When Greek metalwork revived in the early eighth century, its most spectacular products were big tripod-bowls of bronze. In these objects, which seem to have been intended for show rather than use, three long straight legs and two upright ring handles are fixed to the rim of a shallow open bowl. Decoration consists usually of narrow bands of Geometric ornament - especially zigzags and small concentric circles joined tangentially (not unlike Celtic metalwork) which run down the legs and round the handles, and in some elaborate examples the handles had also cast horses or birds mounted on top and human figures either there too, or supporting the sides. By the end of the century these tripod-bowls were being superseded by a new, less open type of bowl with a separate stand. The models and perhaps some of the makers came from the East, probably from North Syria, but their style was soon imitated locally and, as the Greek Orientalizing style found canons of its own, almost as soon adapted. The bowls had two ring handles, again attached to the rim, each swivelling in a socket on the back of a human-headed bird (or 'siren'), which Greek taste determined should be female. But much more prominent were the heads and necks of animals, normally griffins, six or four of which soared up from the shoulder of the bowl. The handle attachments were cast solid, the griffin heads were at first hammered and then hollow cast with of course much cold working after. Decoratively, the combination was uneasy and the Greeks soon abandoned the sirens, but the griffins allowed inventive elegance and were still being produced at the beginning of the sixth century. During the seventh century, as methods of fighting changed and bronze was easier to obtain, metal helmets, corselets, greaves and other protective pieces became more desirable and some of those who could afford it fancied decoration, drawn from the current stock of human and animal figures; but though craftsmanship was good, the shapes of the fields were often awkward and became rare during the sixth century.


Early in the sixth century, the makers of bronze vessels took to casting handles and sometimes feet and rims and, since such parts were solid, they have survived damage and corrosion much better than the thin hammered bodies. The casting of the body as well, for larger vessels, came much more slowly and was not common until the third century. Generally the shapes of bronze vessels relied on harmonious curves, since Greek methods of working thin metal did not encourage sharp angles on the body, but in contrast the heavy handles and rims were often molded and chased very crisply. The rim and, if it was of any height, the foot, might have bands of simple ornament in relief - such as eggs, tongues or beading. The body needed no such ornament to define its shape and was often, but not always, left plain. And decorative exuberance tended to be concentrated on the handles and particularly on the plates by which they were attached, though sometimes the grip itself took 'on human form.

Hand-mirrors, about 6-8 inches in diameter, were another important product of bronze workshops. During much of the sixth and fifth centuries the standard type was a smooth cast disc of bronze, slightly convex on one side and concave on the other, and with a beaded rim. For handle and stand combined there was a solid-cast human figure, soon regularly female and draped, standing frontally in the poses more or less familiar in the sculpture of the time. So that the transition from the head of the figure to the handle should not appear too spindly, a small winged youth or animal was often added on each side, secured to the shoulder of the figure or the rim of the disc or to both. A similar sense of design is evident in the patera, an object much like a small frying pan, though its handle usually has the form of a naked youth. In the later fifth century, a new type of mirror came in, with the disc protected by and often hinged to a lid. For decoration, a head or a mildly erotic group, done in repousse, was fixed to the outside of the lid and there might also be engraving on its inside too.

Note: For information about ceramics from ancient Greece, including the Geometric, Black-figure, Red-figure and White-ground technique, see: Greek Pottery: History & Styles.

Figurines

Besides serving as attachments to other objects metal figurines were more often prepared as independent pieces. They were, of course, mostly of bronze and, unless of some size, cast solid or nearly solid. Their purposes were for dedication in sanctuaries and increasingly for private possession. Bronze figurines, roughly finished and clumsy in design, seemed to have been made occasionally throughout the earlier Iron Age. Then with the eighth century, output became much greater, craftsmanship improved and a coherent style was created, parallel to that of the figures of Geometric vase painting. The leading types were standing naked men and standing horses. In the seventh century metalworkers adopted the Daedalic formula for their human figurines and, as sculpture became established, generally followed its development for anatomical forms, though they always allowed themselves more liberty in the choice of types and poses. For example, naked women and integrated groups appear regularly among the figurines of Archaic Greek sculpture, though in statuary these were not acceptable before the fourth century. And in Hellenistic Greek Sculpture hunch-backs were represented with full deformity only on works of minor scale. The reasons are obvious enough. First, it was very much quicker and cheaper to make figurines than statues, so that experiment could be afforded more easily. Second, they were not so exposed to public view and consequently to the rules of public decorum. Third, their smallness did not present the same problems of aesthetic or mechanical balance. Generally the art of metal figurines reached its highest level in the sixth and earlier fifth centuries, when the forms of sculpture were still simple and strong. and though some excellent pieces were made later average quality declined; the small scale did not permit the subtle treatment of surface which began to become important in the High Classical style of Greek Sculpture. The Baker dancer, of the later third century, is an exceptional piece for its time; not surprisingly it is rather larger than average.

Influence

From the seventh century onwards Greek bronzework had a strong effect in Etruria, though the Etruscans (who had their own supplies of copper) were technically highly competent and maintained distinctive traditions of their own. In Spain the native metalwork, like the sculpture, eventually shows some not very profound Greek influence. Elsewhere in Europe along the northern boundary of the Greek world there was a market for Greek products, but the native style was too alien to be Hellenized, though some Greek workshops evidently tried to incorporate elements of Scythian art in objects for sale in the Ukraine. In the East, some Greek components may be detected in the Persian art of the Achaemenid court from the late sixth to the late fourth century, but apart from this there was only a little casual export before Alexander's conquests. Then, as the new Hellenistic kingdoms imposed Greek culture on their subjects, the taste for Greek metalwork too became normal. A curious testimony, though belonging to the Roman period, is the discovery at Begram in Afghanistan of a craftsman's stock of plaster-casts from which to make facsimiles of earlier Greek bronzework sculpture and objects for local customers. How far a Greek tradition persisted in these parts is not known, but the main effect was in the Mediterranean lands, where the style of the Roman period directly continued, or developed from, Hellenistic models. In the Renaissance the new study of Greek art and Roman art, based on central Italy, lacked Greek models to study; and when in the middle of the eighteenth century Hellenistic metalwork came to light at Pompeii and Herculaneum, it provoked only a little mannered imitation.

Resources:
For more articles about the visual arts of classical antiquity, see:

Sculpture of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
Greek Architecture (900-27 BCE)
Archaic Greek Painting (c.600-480)
Early Classical Greek Sculpture (c.480-450 BCE)
Late Classical Greek Sculpture (c.400-323 BCE)
Classical Greek Painting (c.480-323 BCE)
Hellenistic Style Statues and Reliefs (c.323-27 BCE)
Hellenistic Greek Painting (c.323-27 BCE)
Roman Sculpture (c.55 BCE onwards)

• For more about the evolution of the visual arts, see: History of Art.
• For a detailed chronology, see: Timeline, History of Art.
• For more about metalwork in Ancient Greece, see: Homepage.


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