Bucchero: The shiny black pottery of the Etruscans

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Marija Georgievska
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Etruscan pottery was very common in Italy between the 7th and the 5th century BC when the Etruscan civilization was a major Mediterranean trading power. It was made in various shapes and forms and was separated in two kinds. The first type was very similar to the red-and-black Greek wares from the same period, and the other kind was the Etruscan black pottery known as Bucchero.

Bucchero items were made black, sometimes gray, and decorated with geometrical patterns or simple figures. The color of the ware was made black by being put in an atmosphere charged with carbon monoxide instead of oxygen. This technique is known as ‘reducing firing, ‘ and it converts the typical red-orange clay color into the bucchero color.

The term comes from the Spanish word bucáro which means a vase or a jar. It is not known precisely when the wares were first made, but the production of the finest items and the most expensive dates sometime between the 7th and the 6th centuries BC. They were created in many Etruscan cities including Veii, Tarquinia, and Vulci.

The stylized figures painted on the objects were often made in white, red, and black colors. The motifs are mainly Oriental and can be seen on various bucchero items such as oenochoes, chalices, plates, vases, and cups.

A serving tray found in an Etruscan tomb from the 6th century BCE on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. Author: Mary Harrsch. CC BY-SA 2.0

There are some pieces that were crafted with three-dimensional shapes of animals and humans and can be seen on more important bucchero items such as chalices. It is believed that at first, these black objects were made for funerary purposes and later the Etruscans started to produce and use them as casual tableware.

A Greek kantharos in bucchero.

The forerunners of the technique are the Villanovan people who made the first rough bucchero ceramics called Impasto. These ceramics were the basis for the potters of the Etruscan culture who later turned the rough pots into the finest bucchero items. Many of these items were found in settlements and tombs in Etruria in modern-day Tuscany in central Italy. They were exported to many other countries such as France, Africa, Egypt, and Spain.

Oinochoe wine jug in bucchero. Author: I, Sailko. CC BY-SA 2.5

The production of bucchero is divided into three phases which are the bucchero Sottile, also known as the thin-walled bucchero; the transitional objects; and bucchero pesante or heavy bucchero. The heavier wares are associated with northern Etruscan areas and the finer with the southern. In the middle of the 5th century, bucchero pottery was replaced with more elegant Etruscan pottery decorated with shapes in red and black colors.

Bucchero plate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Author: katie chao and ben muessig-23.160.10. CC BY-SA 2.0

Also, there were many imported vessels from Greece that had been made to suit the taste of the Etruscan people. The Etruscans made a lot of imitations of this pottery from Greece in modern Greek designs which became very popular after a few decades. On these items, the most common scenes were from Greek mythology and applied to the surface with a roller stamp.

An item decorated with animal and human figures.

The wares of bucchero may draw their inspiration from the elite metal wares of the period, crafted of silver which could be seen as tableware in the homes of wealthier people. Black bucchero items were some imitation of metal because of their shiny surface.

A bucchero chalice with three-dimensional decorations.

Some of the vases that were made with this replica technique are decorated with layers of tin or shiny leaves made from gold and silver. Probably at the end of the 5th century, the bucchero was replaced with the more elegant Greek pottery and was not exported again. Many of these items can be seen in museums all around the world and are considered to be the signature ceramic style of the Etruscan people.