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Work Attic type A cup with black figures

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Archaic Greek Art (7th-6th centuries BC)

Coupe à figures noires

© 2007 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Archaic Greek Art (7th-6th centuries BC)

Kardianou-Michel Alexandra

This cup decorated with black figures and with a continuous curve and a rather broad, tall foot, was made by the potter Nikosthenes, who worked in Athens in the mid-6th century BC. The range of shapes he produced and the sheer size of his output make him a remarkable ceramicist. Both the inside and outside of the bowl are decorated with a rather unusual subject - two warships in full sail. Dolphins leaping beneath the handles and mermaids complete the scene.

Nikosthenes, an artist and potter

Nikosthenes (fl. 545-510 BC) owned his own workshop, where he produced and signed 139 black-figure and 10 red-figure vessels. His works are remarkable in terms of quantity, quality, and range: his output accounts for a quarter of all signed Attic black-figure vessels.
He made and signed one of the earliest psykters and was the first to use Six's technique to decorate large vessels. He recreated styles of vases such as the pyxis with a tall foot, outcurving walls, and conical lids or the Nikosthenic amphora. This style of amphora is the most characteristic of his output. It has flat handles and a belly which imitates bronze vessels and Etruscan ware. The Attic black-figure version of the bucchero amphorae, made exclusively for export, shows that Nikosthenes was a shrewd businessman. He worked with Anakles, Lydos, and painters of red-figure vessels such as Oltos and Epiktetos.

The decoration

The cup is decorated with two warships on each side. On each ship, a straight stem painted with an eye for good luck stands above the prow, whose ram is shaped like a boar's head. The helmsman is standing keeping a lookout. The coxswain is standing at the stern, which is elegantly curved like a swan's neck. The ladders are fastened horizontally. The ships are being followed by dolphins. Mermaids painted on the rinceaux near the handles complete the decoration. The artist perhaps intended a reference to the story of Ulysses and the mermaids from Homer's Odyssey.

Greek ships

Successive waves of emigration encouraged Greek sailors to turn their old pentekonters - ships with one tier of fifty oarsmen - into biremes - narrow ships with two tiers of oarsmen. Biremes, with their pointed rams and fighting platforms, were perfect for waging war as well as for transport. They could maneuver very quickly using their oars and sails.
In around 700-650, the Phoenicians increased the speed and tonnage of their own ships, which meant they could conquer markets further afield, blocking the ambitions their Greek rivals had to the west.
In around 600, the Corinthians added a third tier of oars, not on the same vertical axis as the two lower tiers, but positioned further out over the water. These ships were extremely easy to maneuver and paved the way for the success of the third wave of Greek colonisation, and later, in 480, victory over the Persian fleet at Salamina.
Archaeological digs have uncovered small models of Greek ships, often in terracotta, sometimes in ivory or bronze. The ram was given a bronze decoration, usually in the shape of a boar's head. The ships were painted in bright colours.
The earliest depiction of a trireme on pottery of the archaic period dates from the early 6th century. The subject is unusual on cups but is more common on dinoi, where ships were often represented in the inside of the lip so that they looked as if they were floating once the vessel was filled.


Boardman John, Les Grecs outre-mer. Colonisation et commerce archaïques, 1980.
Casson L., Ships and Seamanship, 1971.
Morisson J.S.M. et Williams R.T.,Greek Oared Ships, 1968.
TostoVincent, The Black-figure Pottery Signed NIKOSTHENESEPOIESEN, 1999.

Technical description

  • Signée par Nicosthénès, potier

    Coupe à figures noires

    Vers 520 - 510 avant J.-C.

    Provenance : Vulci


  • H. : 11 cm. ; D. : 28 cm. ; L. : 35 cm.

  • Acquisition , 1866 , 1866

    Faces A and B: Ships

    F 123

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Galerie Campana III
    Room 653
    Vitrine 13 : Attique à figures noires : l'atelier de Nicosthénès

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Additional information about the work

The potter has signed his work in Greek, painting an inscription above the forward sails: NIKOSTHENESE.OIE (Nikosthenes made it).