Saturday, May 8, 2021

Waterfowl in Greco-Roman art

Ducks, geese, and swans were often depicted on serving ware in both Greek and Roman households. Although fish was a more common protein source than ducks and geese, even the humiliores occasionally enjoyed poultry.  Following his triumph, Caesar sponsored a public feast for 260,000 of the poorer people of Rome, offering them ducks and geese as well as seafood and game.  

But waterfowl as art was used to appeal to Greek and Roman intellect as well as to their stomachs.  In addition to their inclusion in myth such as  the legendary transformation of Zeus into a swan to seduce Leda, these species appeared multiple times in popular works of Aesop and Aristophanes as they were deemed "characterful" enough to lend themselves to literary purposes.  In his play "The Birds", Aristophanes points out that a goose could act as an agent of Eros when used as a competitive gift exchanged in the homosexual courtship between an erastês and his young erômenos.

Some scholars, like Pliny the Elder, also thought these birds possessed "intellectus sapientiae," an understanding of wisdom. In his Natural History, Pliny relates the story of a goose that attached itself as the constant companion of the philosopher Lacydes, never separating from him either in public or at the baths, and either by night or day.

It is not surprising, then, that they were among the 69 species identified as subjects of paintings, mosaics, and sculptures found in the remains of Roman structures in Pompeii and other cities that survived the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.

Image: Silver Wine Strainer from Greece, 2nd half of the 4th century BCE, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum and on display at the Getty Villa in Gallery 111.  Image courtesy of the museum.

Note: The form and decoration of this silver strainer were popular in the 300s BCE, especially in Macedonia in northern Greece. The flanged rim and projecting handles allowed the strainer to rest on the rim of a container. The perforations in the strainer's bowl form an elegant whirligig surrounded by concentric circles. The Getty describes the ends of the handles as terminating in ducks' heads but I think geese or swan heads are more likely due to the long necks that curve sinuously out from the wide base, which is engraved with palmettes.

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