Canino is a small Italian village in the north of Latium, near the former Etruscan town of Volci. At the beginning of the 19th century Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s second youngest brother, established a country estate there. It turned out that an Etruscan necropolis lay buried under his estate.
During the excavations which Lucien organised on the land from 1828 onwards, graves were uncovered containing many vases which had been brought from Greece by the Etruscans. These laid the foundation for his Museum Etruscum. However, Lucien Bonaparte was unlucky with money and was obliged to sell off his collections.
Baron van Westreenen bought one of the Canino vases between 1839 and 1840. On the jar, which was made circa 510 B.C., we see a Greek ship sailing the high seas. In front of the steersman five oarsmen are seated.
Were these all the oarsmen on board? No, because we see seven oars. However it suited the painter of this water jar better to represent only five men rowing.
Above the head of the steersman is a nonsensical inscription in Greek characters, which may be an exaltation to encourage the oarsmen. These men frequently needed to be urged on, since their work was hard. With the type of sail shown here it would only have been possible to sail with the wind. If the wind was not from the right quarter, the ship would have been driven off course. Hence there were oarsmen on board; when the wind was unfavourable they had to propel the ship along.
In 1961 the water jar was described by the antiquary F.L. Bastet (who was later to make his name as a writer) thus: ‘The Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum is indeed privileged to own this at once artistic and charming object from the heyday of Attic vase manufacture.’