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Metals to Ceramics

Greek and Roman vessels were produced in different media for different markets:  precious metals, such as gold and silver, were reserved for the wealthiest patrons, while bronze was more accessible to middle-class consumers. Ceramics were the least expensive due to the fact that clay has no inherent material value. Material value, however, was not the only factor affecting an object’s overall value. Within the spectrum of pottery production, as with other media, there was wide variability in quality and cost, ranging from sophisticated fine-wares with gilded ornamentation to mold-made, mass-produced vessels. Although lower-class consumers would have been unable to afford fine metal wares, both metal and ceramic wares were purchased by the wealthy for use in their households.  

The material from which a vessel was made did not significantly affect its function, and Greek and Roman artisans were able to produce similar forms, decorative motifs, textures, and colors in both metal and ceramic. Often, the more expensive metallic vessels provided the model for the ceramic pieces. In some cases the translation from metal to clay was purely mechanical:  Roman mold-made skyphoi (drinking cups), for example, with their relief ornament and metallic, lead-glazed surfaces generally imitate the visual effect of fine repoussé silverware, but lack the same level of craftsmanship.  In other cases, the ceramic artists set out to “translate” the metallic forms into clay, a process that required skill and sophistication. The color and finish of these ceramics, with their rich, glossy black reflective surfaces and carefully engraved patterns, emulate metallic forms and effects. The better ceramic artists thus exceeded the limitations of their medium, and sometimes paid homage to the humble clay by leaving an unpainted band that fired a buff or rich orange color.