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Work The Graincourt Treasure: plate decorated with fish

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Plat aux poissons

© 1992 RMN / Martine Beck-Coppola

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

The Graincourt Treasure was found in the Pas-de-Calais département in 1958. It reveals the popularity of silver tableware in Gaul in the 3rd century AD. The Gallo-Roman silversmiths readily drew on decorative motifs dating from the Hellenistic period, adapting them into remarkable original compositions, such as this plate decorated with fish. The décor, on the theme of fishing, is reminiscent of the marine still lifes particularly associated with mosaic flooring.

The Gallo-Roman Graincourt Treasure

The Graincourt Treasure was found in Graincourt-lès-Havricourt in 1958 during an operation to defuse a wartime bomb. The treasure consisted of nine pieces of silver tableware, including this plate, and was probably buried for safekeeping some time during the Germanic invasions that ravaged Gaul during the second half of the 3rd century AD. It seems that the names of the owners are marked on the backs of some of the pieces in the form of graffiti. Silver tableware had been particularly prized in the Roman empire since the 1st century BC and the trend spread to Gaul in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. A number of Gallo-Roman sites have given up similar treasure troves, including Chaourse in the Aisne département and Rethel in the Ardennes. The sheer quantity of such prestigious pieces reflects their popularity among the wealthy and the taste for luxury that noble families were able to indulge in the provinces of the empire.

A marine still life

The decoration of this circular plate is remarkable both in terms of the originality of the subject and the sensitive way the space is used. The theme is a marine still life or a fishing scene where only the fisherman is missing. The central medallion depicts fish, lobsters or crayfish, a basket of shellfish, and two dead birds. The frieze around the flat rim of the plate takes up the same theme. It is decorated with a regular motif of a dead animal, probably a hare, alternating with water birds, octopuses, fish, shellfish, and crustaceans, along with equipment used for fishing and navigation, such as anchors, oars, nets and hoop nets, baskets, and amphorae. The artist took great care with the decoration, which is extremely realistic, particularly in details such as the birds' feathers, the scales of the fish, and the weave of the wicker baskets.

Gallo-Roman metalworking: inspired by Hellenistic designs

The fishing scene was not dreamed up by the Graincourt silversmiths. It belongs to a repertoire of decorative motifs that dates from a few centuries earlier, during the Hellenistic period, possibly originating in the workshops of Alexandria. Many pieces of bronze and silver tableware decorated with similar motifs have survived, as well as examples of mosaic flooring, particularly in Africa. Such images originally included fishermen at work. Roman goldsmiths drew on these Hellenistic scenes and adapted them to create new compositions, in which the decorative aspect of the still life took precedence over the narrative dimension.

Bibliography

Berlin Claude, Fumaroli Marc, Moinot Pierre et al., Des mécènes par milliers : un siècle de dons par les Amis du Louvre, cat. exp. Paris, musée du Louvre, 21 avril-21 juillet 1997, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1997, p. 197, n 29 G.
Trésors archéologiques du nord de la France, cat. exp. Musée
des beaux-arts de Valenciennes, 1997, pp. 28-32.
Trésors d'orfèvrerie gallo-romains, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion
des musées nationaux, 1989, n 87, pp. 138-140.

Technical description

  • Plat aux poissons

    IIIe siècle après J.-C.

  • D. : 35 cm.

  • Don de la Société des Amis du Louvre avec la participation de P. Lévy, 1958

    Bj 2214

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Salle Henri II
    Room 33
    Vitrine centrale 6

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