HERE is always something intriguing about private collections, especially when they are truly private and anonymous rather than a fashionable accessory for the newly rich. Contemporary art more often than not falls into this unfortunate latter category, and collections put together by dealers and investment managers are of no more interest than homes tricked out by interior designers.
Collections of things that are not fashionable, and that demand actual knowledge and expertise on the part of the owner, are obviously likelier to be interesting, in the same way other people’s libraries are almost always intriguing because they reflect the interests and to some extent personal histories of their owners. And with libraries as with collections, they don’t have to be big to be distinguished; in fact if they are too big they become rather impersonal. Comprehensiveness is for museums rather than for private houses.
Again, we expect collections to be found in wealthy quarters of cities: it is easy to imagine substantial houses filled with paintings, studies lined with books and precious objects of various kinds. But experience
Tshows that some large and impressive houses contain little of note, while obscure suburbs may hold unsuspected treasures — the word, in fact, appropriately used as the title for an exhibition of antiquities from private collections at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum.
The works on display come from 11 private collections scattered across Melbourne, but they have one important thing in common: most of them reflect the influence and teaching of one of the most important art historians Australasia has produced, although one far less well known to most readers than Bernard Smith, the great pioneer of Australian art history who died last September.
Arthur Dale Trendall (1909-95) was one of the greatest scholars of the history of ancient ceramics of the 20th century, a specialist on the ancient wares of southern Italy and Sicily, the region known in antiquity as Magna Graecia. Trendall, as we learn from the excellent account of his life by J. R. Green, which is available online, was born in Auckland and studied at the University of Otago and then Trinity College at Cambridge, where he became a research scholar in 1933, before moving to Rome where he was for a time librarian at the British School, then returning to Trinity as a fellow of the college.
In 1939 he was appointed to the chair of Greek at the University of Sydney, succeeding Enoch Powell who had returned to England to enlist in the army; he also held the chair of archeology and was responsible for the Nicholson museum. In 1954 he moved to Canberra to become the first master of University House at the the Australian National University and, finally, in 1969 to Melbourne to become a research fellow at La Trobe University.
In the course of these years, Trendall pursued his scholarly work on the vases of southern Italy, producing an impressive series of volumes on the vases of Apulia (where the main centre of production was Taranto, the ancient Taras), Paestum (ancient Poseidonia) and southern Italy in general. Along the way he inspired many younger scholars and also, as it turns out, the collectors whose works are now on display at the Ian Potter Museum.
There are other fine things in the show as well, but the most important objects are Greek vases, including some Attic ones as well as a majority of southern Italian wares. But whether produced in Attica itself or in Apulia or Sicily, all these vases had specific uses and functions within the dinner parties that were a central part of ancient social life.
The world of the classical Greek city, the polis, was largely a public one. Private houses were relatively modest, conspicuous expenditure being confined to public buildings such as temples. The citizens met informally in the agora and formally in the ecclesia — the assembly — as well as in endless juries and commissions.
Complementing this public existence, as well as the private world of the home, was the intermediate domain of sociability rep- resented by dinner parties or symposia; one of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium, takes place at such a gathering. They were held in dining rooms of private houses, where guests reclined on couches around a central space and food was served on portable tables.
There were conventions, although these were subject to variation: food was eaten first, then water was brought to wash hands and wine was served. Although food and wine seem to have been served together in the Homeric period, there is a formula in the Iliad and the Odyssey about the desire for food being sated, which marks the point at which conversation begins. The same prin-
Ceramic loutrophoros (a vessel for washing) from Apulia, southern Italy, C315BC
Glass miniature amphora, first century BC, Italy