One of the great periods in the history of Greek pottery, the Protocorinthian, is defined by the years 720-640 B.C. The Protocorinthian Period is commonly associated with the term “orientalizing” referring to the influence the cultures of Asia Minor exerted on the Greek styles during Archaic Period. The influx of artistic ideas from the Near East had a profound effect on the course of Greek art, but the Greeks did not simply copy outside ideas. What is special about the Protocorinthian Period is that Greek artists took Near Eastern art themes and adapted and modified them for their own purposes. The degree of oriental influence has been debated among scholars to the point of general agreement that the orient was influential but did not determine the course of Greek art. The Greeks may have originally used eastern motifs as a starting point, but what they ended up with was an art form wholly Greek.
Prior to the beginning of this new period, Corinthian potters were producing the finest of the geometric style, while Attic version was seen as stiff, rigid, and over elaborate in comparison. The Corinthian potters became restless with their technique and began a period of experimentation where they expressed themselves in new and daring ways. This restlessness was found in all aspects of Greek culture at the time, for the Greeks were in the process of emerging from the 'Dark Age' and renewing themselves culturally. The first tentative steps were geometric variations (zigzag or wavy lines), but then the lines changed in character and the vessels in shape. Before long animal and human figures were featured on the pottery. The commercial success of these new styles throughout the Greek world encouraged the Corinthian potters to continue their stylistic development.
How does an orientalizing influence fit in here? Trade and expanding Greek settlements created more interaction with the oriental people, particularly the Assyrians and the Phoenicians. The cultures of the Near East were highly developed compared to Greece at the time and the Greeks naturally looked to these cultures with admiration. The most visible aspect of a culture is its art, and here the Greeks found many examples from which to emulate. The life subjects painted on the Greek pottery were adapted from similar themes found in eastern non-ceramic media such as metal and sculpture. One need only look at Assyrian reliefs and similar Phoenician art forms to see the connection. Many motifs common to Protocorinthian and later Greek art have their origins in Near Eastern art, such as the palmette, lotus, sphinx as well as artistic techniques such as
The following collage shows the boldness of the new Corinthian style.
Compare the first piece of pottery with the last three, taking into account the Assyrian friezes. Number one is almost completely geometric, while the others express a new creativity which takes the frieze concept and places it on the pottery. This innovation took place over a 30-40 year span.
It is interesting that as this orientalizing style was achieving enormous success throughout the Greek world, certain sub-geometric styles continued in Corinth. It’s as if the Corinthians were willing to be daring in the commercial markets but conservative in their own style. Both styles continued down to the year 600 B.C. when the sub-geometric finally disappeared.
The Proto-Attic (Athenian) Period nearly parallels that of the Protocorinthians, but the Athenians were not able to create a style that was as popular during this time. Later, the Athenians would become more innovative and overtake the Corinthians who had compromised style for production.
This post was co-authored with Matthew Rogan.