The tradition of making sculpture in terracotta represents one of the signal artistic accomplishments of ancient Italian cultures before and during the rise of Rome as the dominant regional power. From Pliny the Elder we learn that in the seventh century BC, an exiled Corinthian merchant, Demaratus, introduced the fashioning of figures from baked earth, an art that was “brought to perfection by Italy and especially by Etruria” (Naturalis Historia 35.45, 157). The first recorded artist names on the peninsula in fact belong to sculptors who worked in clay, Vulca of Veii and Gorgasus and Damophilus of Magna Graecia, who produced decorations for temples in Rome around the turn of the sixth to fifth centuries BC. As several examples in the Getty collection show, Tarentine masters were not far behind, signing their works by inscribing their names into the damp clay matrix. Identified in later Greek literature as coroplasts—literally, “modelers of girls”—these artisans crafted figurines of great variety and expressiveness that are among these cultures’ most distinctive art forms.
Mass produced and finished by hand, terracottas were ubiquitous in the ancient Mediterranean. Usually modest in scale, statuettes circulated widely over long periods and through multiple generations of molds, providing critical evidence for regional styles, patterns of trade, and local cults. Commonly found in dwellings, graves, and sanctuaries, terracottas gave tangible form both to private spiritual beliefs and to public religious observances.
This catalogue features a selection of the most important works attributed to coroplastic workshops in southern Italy and Sicily from the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The sixty terracottas investigated by Maria Lucia Ferruzza span the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods from about 550 to 100 BC. Comprising large-scale sculptures and statuettes, as well as votive heads, altars, decorative appliqués, and masks, they number among a larger collection of over a thousand terracottas described by Claire Lyons in an accompanying guide.
Among our holdings perhaps the most remarkable of all is the life-size funerary group of a seated poet as Orpheus and two sirens captured in a moment of song (cats. 1, 2, and 3). This is surely one of the most spectacular achievements of the ancient coroplast’s art from anywhere in the Mediterranean. Much interest attaches also to the smaller figurines that represent miniature versions of celebrated sculptures, such as the Apollo playing a kithara (cat. 44), which echoes the Apollo Kitharoidos carved by Timarchides in the second century BC. A unique pair of altars with expressively modeled reliefs of the Adonis myth (cats. 47 and 48) depict aspects of cult worship and faith in the afterlife that held particular sway among the residents of Magna Graecia.
Following an introduction to the collection, the catalogue entries situate each object within its wider typological and iconographical milieu, citing connections to centers of production in Puglia, Lucania, Calabria, Sicily, and the Greek mainland. Technical analyses conducted by the Getty’s Antiquities Conservation Department have revealed details of manufacturing techniques and the application of a palette of polychrome pigments and gilding.
Ancient Terracottas from South Italy and Sicily is the second in a series of web-based scholarly catalogues of the collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art at the Getty Villa. By presenting this important material in an online format, our aim is to launch a new platform to share the latest research and to encourage readers to explore related groups of terracottas in the museum. We are grateful to the author, all the contributors, and the Publications staff for realizing this innovative and accessible guide to the collection.