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Hydria vase

Illegally excavated artifacts sold on legitimate markets to institutions

Hydria Vase

The black-figure vase, dating back approximately 500 BC and on display at the Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome, belongs to the category of vessels that the Etruscans used to carry water, the so-called “hydriai”. It is generally attributed to the artist referred to as the “Micali Painter” (from Giuseppe Micali, the first scholar to study and publish his works), who created the hydria for a wealthy Etruscan aristocrat. The Micali Painter, with the help of his collaborators, probably painted the largest group of Etruscan black-figure vases, about 200 in total.

The pictorial decoration illustrates a myth that first appeared in the 7th Homeric Hymn: the metamorphosis of Tyrrhenian pirates into dolphins – as the Greeks called the Etruscans. The poem describes the kidnapping of Dionysus by the Tyrrhenian pirates, who believed he was the son of a king and aimed at obtaining a large ransom. Once onboard, Dionysus manifests his true identity by wrapping the entire ship with shoots of ivy and vine and then turning into a lion. The pirates, shocked by the prodigy and terrified by the ferocity of the feline, dive into the sea and are transformed into dolphins.

The “Micali Painter” masterfully captures this very moment, the metamórphōsis, displaying it much as in a modern film strip, six men falling into the waves of the sea while gradually changing, the upper part of their bodies already dolphin, and the legs still human. The vine-shoot on the left side of the scene alludes to the presence of Dionysus, the god of wine and vine.

The vase was found during clandestine excavations in southern Etruria and later sold illegally to American buyers. On display at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, the hydria vase was proved to be of illicit origin thanks to the work of the Carabinieri of the Comando Tutela Patrimonio Culturale. It was eventually returned to Italy by the museum on May 9th, 2014 through a joint operation with US Customs and Border Control, and demonstrates how iconic works can wind up in legitimate museums and galleries even though they have been illegally obtained. In this case the vase was returned to its rightful home, but usually the fate of these stolen artifacts is not nearly so positive.

Since 2019, the Micali Painter Hydria has been part of Villa Giulia’s Etruscan collection. You can experience the vase here in a high-fidelity photogrammetric representation which brings to life the myth of Dionysus captured on its surface.

Hydria Vase

Coming from an unknown tomb context of southern Etruria, it is probably of Vulcan production.


510 – 500 BC


Micali painter




52×29,6 cm


Etruscan Museum Villa Giulia – Italy

Augmented reality

You can try this effect at home, just follow the instructions:

  1. Make sure you have Instagram installed on your phone
  2. Open the camera or an app to scan the QR code (if the QR code is not an option for you, use the link)
  3. Enjoy the experience and share it