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The Pinakes of Locri

Pinax of Persephone and Hades     
photo: AlMare    
One time I visited the pinacoteca of the Girolamini monastery across the street from the Naples cathedral. I was curious as to why it would have a collection of pins or pine cones. As it turned out, a pinacoteca is an art gallery. I made a mental note to discover why. I lost that mental note, however, until dear Laura wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed the "pinakes" discovered at Locri on the Ionian coast of Reggio Calabria and now on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria (a.k.a. the National Museum of Magna Grecia) in the city of Reggio Calabria. Alas, the museum is currently being spruced up, said sprucing to go on probably for the rest of 2013. The famous displays such as the Riace Bronzes and the pinakes may be seen at their temporary location, the Tommaso Campanella building in the same city. Anyway, she said "Go see the pinakes. They remind me of the ivory panels in Salerno."

The first thing I learned about pinakes confused me. The Pinakes was a bibliographic work written by Callimachus (305–240 BC). It was a listing of the holdings in the great Library of Alexandria. It was probably the world's first library catalogue, yea, even before the internet and Google, back when people read books and even scrolls. The collection at the Library of Alexandria contained nearly 500,000 scrolls grouped by subject matter and stored in bins. Each bin carried a label with painted tablets hung above the stored papyri. The tablets described the contents of the bin by title, author, etc. The tablets were called pinakes. (Modern Italian retains the hard Greek 'k' and the Greek pronunciation of PIN-a-kays. In English, the common plural is 'pinaces', giving us the pronunciation of PIN-a-seas. That's ok. If you're not sure, just point. The singular was pinax. Ah, getting closer!

A pinax, in ancient Greece, was the general word for a small board that might be painted on and serve as a devotional or votive tablet. It could also be used to refer to a terracotta, marble or bronze tablet engraved with devotional figures from Greek mythology and deposited in a sanctuary or in a burial chamber. In later Christian context, the pinax referred to the painted image on almost any surface for display. Thus, modern Italian—pinacoteca. Art gallery.

Thousands of Greek pinakes were recovered in the 1900s in Locri (really, at the nearby original Greek site of Epizephyrian Locris). Most of them were of terracotta and from the sanctuaries dedicated to Persephone and Aphrodite. They are small, seldom larger than 30 cm  (about 15 inches) on a side. The discovery and recovery of the pinakes were the result of the efforts of Paolo Orsi (1859-1935), the great archaeologist who pioneered much of the excavation and research of sites of Magna Grecia in Sicily and the southern Italian mainland. He was for a brief time (1900-1901) in charge of the museum in Naples, but then moved to Reggio Calabria, where he started to uncover the vast store of pinakes in 1908 and then published yearly progress reports. He became an early advocate of what is now known as the National Museum of Magna Grecia in Reggio Calabria. (It opened to the public in 1954 in the Piacentini Building, so named for the architect. It contains countless testimonies to both prehistoric and historic times of the sites of Magna Grecia, including a coin section, a lapidary, a section dedicated to underwater archaeology, a 10,000 volume library, and a restoration laboratory. The acquisitions continue to increase and the entire museum, as noted above, should be reopened soon. It is one of the most prestigious museums in Italy.)

The pinakes have been dated to about 490-450 BC. and are of local manufacture. The marble pinakes were individually carved; terracotta ones were impressed in molds and bronze ones could be repeatedly cast from a model from which wax and resin impressions were made. Under ideal display conditions (that is, when the museum in Reggio Calabria reopens), the pinakes are grouped by subject matter in order to compare similar ones more easily. Viewers will note that the small votive slabs have all been painstakingly pieced back together. None was found intact. That seems odd, but it's clear once you know the reason:
the act of worship, itself the ritual of devotion, say, to Persephoneinvolved breaking the pinakes to avoid the sacrilege of having them reused at some point.

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