Astra Planeta in the British Museum
This paper will focus on two ancient objects in the British Museum found in Italy, a Greek red-figured calyx-krater of circa 430 B.C and a large Etruscan or Italic carved amber pendant of circa 450 BC, both with images of the sun driving his chariot pulled by a quadriga up out of the ocean. On the vase, the scene is clearly set at dawn, as the sun rises from the sea and the stars sink into it. The stars are shown as youths, diving and disappearing into the water, the earth-encircling Oceanus. On the main side of the pendant is charioteer (Helios? Phaethon?) with whip in hand. On the amber's reverse, a youth (a wandering star?) bridles a hippocamp, a subject which may signify Oceanus or the rising of one of the wandering stars. Both entered the British Museum in the 1870s, and were likely excavated from graves in Apulia. Amber (electron in Greek), because of its color, translucency, glimmer and naturally-occurring electromagnetic properties was always associated with the sun and celestial realm. Whether the amber carving represents Helios or Phaethon, the material of the pendant underlines the subject. The youths diving and immersed in the sea invite a closer scrutiny of all Greek and Italic images of charioteers, divers and swimmers. Both British Museum masterpieces deserve a closer look in terms of the sky and the truths of the universe as told in the fifth century BC in Greek and Greek-inflected art especially that found (and made or made for) South Italy.
Faya Causey is the head of the academic programs department at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. She has lectured and published on a variety of subjects, but primarily on amber, antiquity, and on modern and contemporary artists and architects whose work has ancient aspects, notably Cézanne, Jasper Johns, and Sigmar Polke. Dr Causey is the author of Amber and the Ancient World (Getty, 2012) and Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Getty, 2012), an online scholarly catalogue.