Monday, January 11, 2021

A footbath as dining entertainment?

Although this elegant bowl could easily have been used for serving food, it is designated as a footbath by curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did they arrive at this conclusion? According to Marjorie J. Milne in her article "A Greek Footbath in the Metropolitan Museum of Art" published in the American Journal of Archaeology back in 1944, such shallow wide bowls with low lion-footed bases appeared fairly often in vase paintings, particularly in representations of Theseus' adventure with Skiron.  Such a bowl is also shown being used as a footbath for washing Odysseus' feet on a skyphos (two-handled cup) from Chiusi by the Penelope Painter.

Another unique aspect of this vessel is that it was cast and not tooled except for the radiating grooves separating the petals of the flower finials.  An armor specialist at the museum at the time points out that casting so large a bowl was a difficult feat.

The "footbath" was used for other purposes, too, by the Greeks, Etruscans, and the Romans, as revealed in literature and other vase paintings. It was apparently used for such tasks as a complete sponge bath or to wash an individual's hair.  It also made a convenient surgeon's basin.  Since the vessel was most frequently used to wash a guest's feet before a meal, it was usually kept in the diniing room. As such it was sometimes comandeered for entertainment purposes such as a wine cooler or to play kottabos, a game of skill played at Ancient Greek and Etruscan symposia (drinking parties), especially in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. It involved flinging wine-lees (sediment) at a target in the middle of the room. The winner would receive a prize ("kottabion"), comprised of cakes, sweetmeats, or kisses.

Ancient writers including Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides describe these competitions although the practice apparently died out by the Roman period.  Dexterity was required to succeed in the game, and unusual ability was rated as highly as corresponding excellence in throwing the javelin. Kottabos was customary, and, at least in Sicily, special circular buildings were established, so the players might easily be arranged around the target, and follow each other in rapid succession. Like all games in which the element of chance found a place, it was regarded as more or less ominous of the future success of the players, especially in matters of love – and the excitement was sometimes further augmented by some object of value being staked on the event like an attending servant.

The game seems to have originated in Sicily, or the land of the Sikels. But it spread through Greece, from Thessaly to Rhodes, becoming especially fashionable at Athens.  Although some scenes of kottabos have been found depicting women playing the game, such as a scene of four hetairai playing the game with a popular youth as the subject of the toast, painted by Euphronois, it is thought these scenes were meant to be humorous as women were not usually participants in the contest. Another interpretation of the four hetairai is that these female symposiasts are Spartans (Athenians considered them generally unable to control their women). This would account for the Doric dialect used on the inscription and also the absence of couches, which is consistent with the stereotypes about Sparta held by the Athenians. The use of female symposiasts as a humorous trope is consistent with several black-figure vases with figures that are interpreted as Etruscan women. As with Spartan women, they were considered to be uncivilized.

Bronze footbath with its stand, late 5th–early 4th century BCE from Sicily or southern Italy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

Image:  Detail from a fresco depicting a symposium scene with kottabos player (center) from the Tomb of the Diver, 475 BCE at the Paestum National Museum, Italy.


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