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Arretine ware began to be manufactured at and near Arezzo (Tuscany) a little before the middle of the 1st century BC. The industry expanded rapidly in a period when Roman political and military influence was spreading far beyond Italy: for the inhabitants of the first provinces of the Roman Empire in the reign of the Emperor Augustus (reg. 27 BC – AD 14), this tableware, with its precise forms, shiny surface, and, on the decorated vessels, its visual introduction to Classical art and mythology, must have deeply impressed some inhabitants of the new northern provinces of the Empire. Certainly it epitomised certain aspects of Roman taste and technical expertise. Pottery industries in the areas we now call north-east France and Belgium quickly began to copy the shapes of plain Arretine dishes and cups in the wares now known as Gallo-Belgic, and in South and Central Gaul, it was not long before local potters also began to emulate the mould-made decoration and the glossy red slip itself.
The most recognisable decorated Arretine form is Dragendorff 11, a large, deep goblet on a high pedestal base, closely resembling some silver table vessels of the same period, such as the Warren Cup. The iconography, too, tended to match the subjects and styles seen on silver plate, namely mythological and genre scenes, including erotic subjects, and small decorative details of swags, leafy wreaths and ovolo (egg-and-tongue) borders that may be compared with elements of Augustan architectural ornament. The deep form of the Dr.11 allowed the poinçons (stamps) used making the moulds of human and animal figures to be fairly large, often about 5–6 cm high, and the modelling is frequently very accomplished indeed, attracting the interest of modern art-historians as well as archaeologists. Major workshops, such as those of M.Perennius Tigranus, P. Cornelius and Cn. Ateius, stamped their products, and the names of the factory-owners and of the workers within the factories, which often appear on completed bowls and on plain wares, have been extensively studied, as have the forms of the vessels, and the details of their dating and distribution.
Italian sigillata was not made only at or near Arezzo itself: some of the important Arezzo businesses had branch factories in Pisa, and by the beginning of the 1st century AD, the Ateius and Rasinius workshops had set up branch factories at La Muette, near Lyon in Central Gaul. Nor were the classic Arretine wares of the Augustan period the only forms of terra sigillata made in Italy: later sigillata industries in the Po valley and elsewhere continued the tradition. The history of sigillata manufacture in Italy is succinctly summarised in Hayes 1997, pages 41–52.
In the Middle Ages, examples of the ware that were serendipitously discovered in digging foundations in Arezzo drew admiring attention as early as the 13th century, when Restoro d'Arezzo's massive encyclopedia included a chapter praising the refined Roman ware discovered in his native city, "what is perhaps the first account of an aspect of ancient art to be written since classical times". The chronicler Giovanni Villani also mentioned the ware.
The first published study of Arretine ware was that of Fabroni in 1841, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, German scholars in particular had made great advances in systematically studying and understanding both Arretine ware and the Gaulish samian that occurred on Roman military sites being excavated in Germany. Dragendorff's classification was expanded by other scholars, including S.Loeschcke in his study of the Italian sigillata excavated at the early Roman site of Haltern. Research on Arretine ware has continued very actively throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, for example with the publication and revision of Oxé-Comfort and the Conspectus of forms, bringing earlier work on stamps and shapes up to date. As with all ancient pottery studies, each generation asks new questions and applies new techniques (such as analysis of clays) in the attempt to find the answers.
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