- Reading Greek Vases
The importance of visual repetition in Athenian vase-painting has long been recognized. As such scholars as Claude Bérard and François Lissarrage have shown, vase-painting communicates in what amounts to a language of visual elements; it is repetition that creates a language out of these elements. Despite the general consensus on this topic, however, Ann Steiner's Reading Greek Vases is the first book to consider the visual repetition in vase-painting in and of itself; it also attempts to connect the discussion of the topic to current theories of the importance of repetition in communication in general (information theory, narratology, etc.) more comprehensively than has been done hitherto. [End Page 352]
Steiner begins her book with a theoretical discussion of repetition's importance in communication and narration. In chapters 2 and 3, she discusses repetition first in the works of Exekias and his followers, then in what she refers to as "types," vase-types such as horse-head amphoras, in which identical images appear on both sides of the vase. Chapters 4 and 5 concern issues of what she refers to as metadiscourse: inscriptions and spectator figures, the repetition of which frames the narrative discourse of vase-painting. In chapters 6–9, she covers a series of ways in which scenes on different sides of a vase can relate to each other: among others, how one can continue the other's narrative, serve as a paradigm for the other (as on vases in which two similar scenes appear, one in the divine realm, the other in the mortal realm), or parody the other. In chapter 10, she presents 6 cases of interpretation based on the principles established in the earlier chapters. In chapter 11, she considers the relation of the genre that she has been discussing to its principal use-context, the symposion.
This book presents many careful interpretations of vase-paintings and of the relations between the different images on vases. Indeed, there are so many excellent interpretations that it would be difficult to single out examples. Like the City of Images, this book could serve as a textbook for a reader interested in learning how to read the language of vase-painting.
Its structure is, however, less successful. Steiner sets the book up as an exploration of the issue of repetition, rather than as an argument. Despite the careful discussion of earlier literature, it is not entirely clear what she intends, broadly, to add to discourse in this area. This weakness extends to the individual chapters, most of which end with clear conclusions that could perhaps have served better as thesis statements. As a result, the book is sometimes hard to follow, and some sections—even very well-stated ones—repeat points made in earlier scholarship (as, for instance, the discussion of the relation between the decorative programs of drinking vessels and the symposion itself, which repeats an argument from Lissarrague's Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet).
There are also, as is inevitable in a book on so large a topic, some arguments that seem less secure than others. Steiner discusses kalos inscriptions as a form of metadiscourse without acknowledging that, as Dover shows in Greek Homosexuality, they often appear in scenes with which they seem to have no narrative connection. She also sometimes seems to advance unconvincing claims for the significance of spectator figures: they may well, as she argues, show that the scenes in which they appear are intended to be of interest to elite Athenians, but this does not necessarily imply that the scenes are connected to each other in other significant ways. Finally, one could complain that there are forms of repetition in vase-painting that Steiner fails to discuss: she concentrates almost exclusively on repetition in the decorative programs of individual vases, rather than the repetition of elements in the genre at large that lends the elements their significance. This has been more extensively discussed in earlier scholarship, and Steiner may avoid it for that reason, but if so, this should be stated...