The Etruscan Achievement
An Art Eyewitness Essay, Part II
By Ed Voves
On November 15,1553, as construction workers labored to build fortifications around the city of Arezzo, Italy, an amazing bronze sculpture was unearthed. Originally thought to be a lion, it was later identified as the Chimaera from Greek mythology, fearsome opponent of the hero, Bellerophon, rider of the winged-horse, Pegasus.
Duke Cosimo I de' Medici of Tuscany was exultant when he heard the news. Even with the threat of renewed French invasions, Cosimo found the time and resources to bring the Chimaera to Florence for repair and conservation. The redoubtable Florentine goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini, worked to restore the battered monster, as did Cosimo himself, in his spare moments.
The Chimaera of Arezzo was originally part of a larger sculpture group, along with statues of Bellerophon and Pegasus. Despite the Greek origin of its legend, the Chimaera was a local creation, made around 400 B.C. On its foreleg is inscribed a dedication to Tinia, the supreme deity of the Etruscans and counterpart of Zeus.
The Chimaera of Arezzo, (detail, showing dedication to Tinia), ca. 400 B.C.
The Etruscans were a remarkable people of ancient Italy. Their homeland, Etruria, occupied the same territorial area as Tuscany, over which Cosimo ruled on behalf of the Holy Roman Empire. Trading partners and sometimes enemies of the Greeks, the Etruscans made a major impact on the civilization of Europe before Rome's relentless legions overpowered their independent city states.
The foundation of Etruscan civilization was provided by rich deposits of metal ores which were much sought after by the seafaring Greeks and Phoenicians. Substantial reserves of iron ore and copper ore were readily accessible to the Etruscans at a number of locations in their domains, but especially in the region known as the Colline Metallifere (metal-bearing hills) and in the Tolfa Mountains, located in the southern part of Etruria. Deposits of tin, the necessary component for making bronze along with copper, were also found in the Etruscan domains.
"Location, location, location," as real estate agents say. For the Etruscans this was very true. Their iron and cooper mines were located close to the coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea which borders Italy on the west. History would have been very different had the ore deposits been located on the eastern side of Italy, hemmed in between the Apennines Mountains and the Adriatic Sea, whose shoreline lacks adequate harbors for much of its length.
The Etruscan World, 750-300 B.C. © J. Paul Getty Museum
On the Tyrrhenian Sea coast, there were numerous ports providing safe anchorage for the Greek and Phoenician merchants eager to purchase or exchange products for the iron and copper of the Etruscans. Later in their history, the Etruscan city states developed merchant vessels and warships of their own - and a reputation as pirates among the Greeks. One suspects that this was a case of "it takes one to know one."
The Etruscans were not, however, mere suppliers of iron ore and raw copper. They were master metalsmiths, as the magnificent Chimaera of Arezzo attests.
Despite the numerous outside influences on their art, from Greece and the Middle East, the Etruscan city-states developed into vibrant centers of art and industry. A notably independent attitude infused Etruscan life and art which can be detected in its earliest manifestation, known as the Villanovan Culture.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has an exceptionally rich collection of Etruscan art. One of the earliest pieces of Villanovan art at the Met confirms the technical skill and stylistic independence of early-Etruscan artists. The Bronze Bow Fibula with Four Ducks, shown below, is a safety pin used to fasten a woolen cloak or cape around the neck and shoulders of its owner. Incredibly, the fibula is dated to 900 B.C.!
Bronze Bow Fibula with Four Ducks, ca. 900 B.C. © Metropolitan Museum of Art
In 1853, three centuries after the Chimaera of Arezzo was unearthed, another key Etruscan discovery was made. A necropolis, a "city of the dead," with 193 tombs was excavated near Villanova, twelve kilometres to the south of Bologna in northern Italy. The cinerary urns, in which the ashes of the deceased had been placed, and many of the related "grave goods" were primitive by comparison with the sophisticated sarcophagi and artifacts from later periods of Etruscan history.
Bronze Villanova cinerary urns, like the one above, are as significant as if they had been made of gold. These containers testify to a spiritual revolution, the "Urnfields Culture," which began around 1300 B.C. in central Europe and then spread down into Italy. The bodies of the dead were cremated, but reverently buried in urns, testifying to a growing awareness of the human soul.
From later Greek and Roman writings, we know that the Etruscans were a notably religious people. The north-to-south diffusion of the Urnfields Culture was a foundational event in the rise of the Etruscans. Many theories have been raised, proposing that the Etruscans had journeyed from a homeland in Asia Minor to Italy. The "urnfield" at Villanova, dated to the 9th–8th centuries B.C., shows their roots as deeply planted in Europe.
The Etruscans, who referred to themselves as Rasenna, were big proponents of "I did it my way." Excavations of Urnfield burials in other regions of Europe have revealed little in the way of "grave goods." Not so for the Etruscans, who rivaled the Egyptians in their lively view of the afterlife. Even while cremating the bodies of their deceased, they placed all manner of useful and beautiful artifacts in their graves.
One of the key works of early Etruscan art is this amazing cinerary urn shaped like an Etruscan house. A treasure of the Princeton University Art Museum, it is one of only three such urns made from hammered bronze. Others were made in terracotta ceramic, but are not as detailed. This extraordinary work of art gives rare details of the actual dwellings of the Etruscans, while providing insight into their conceptions of the afterlife.
In 1875, another Villanova-era "city of the dead" was unearthed, the Benacci Necropolis. Bronze plate, vessels and weapons, of notable sophistication, were found at this site, dating to around 700 B.C. These show the growing skill of Etruscan metalwork at the time when trade and cultural ties with the Greeks were just getting underway.
The most sensational discovery at the Benacci Necropolis was a strikingly original ceramic vessel. The Benacci Askós takes its name from the Greek word for wineskin. It was likely used to pour wine or oil in sacred ceremonies. The handle, shaped like a mounted warrior, is truly unique, no other comparable example having been found.
The Benacci Askós, late 8th century B.C. © Archaeological Museum of Bologna
What really impresses me about this terracotta masterpiece is the insight it provides into the vivid imaginative faculties of the Etruscans. If their minds found delight in the way that the Greeks depicted their myths and legends, it was because their own capacity for wonder was well developed by the time that they first saw Greek narrative art on vases and amphora imported into Etruria.
Three centuries of ever-increasing expertise lay between the artisan who created the Benacci Askós and the unknown master who made the Chimaera of Arezzo. Both the Benacci Askós and the Chimaera reveal kindred forms of visual expressionism, depicting the hero's journey or the human mastery of savage nature in unforgettable style. Both works are Etruscan achievements of the highest order.
It was fortunate that the Etruscans had developed a healthy self-identity before the arrival of Phoenician merchants and colonizing Greeks. Three major forms of artistic expression arrived along with imported wine, olive oil and purple cloth: geometric pottery, "orientalized" motifs on jewelry and Archaic painting and sculpture. A less creative people than the Etruscans would have been submerged beneath these powerful tides of foreign artistic influence.
Barrel-shaped Wine Jug, 725-700 B.C. © Metropolitan Museum of Art
A brilliant illustration of Etruscan resilience and adaptability is a distinctive barrel-shaped wine jug or oinoche in the Met's collection. Made about 725-700 B.C., the jug is decorated with an almost text-book example of Greek geometric painting. The two deer at the center of the barrel conform to a Near Eastern motif which can be seen on a Greek ceramic vessel, found on Cyprus, also at the Met.
When viewed as an integrated work of art, this striking piece ranks as a definitive illustration of cross-cultural interaction. Equally important, as Richard Daniel de Puma writes in his insightful book on the Met's Etruscan collection, "This piece demonstrates the Etruscan ability to synthesize and seamlessly combine disparate foreign elements with their own traditions."
The Etruscans' eclectic attitude to artistic styles from around the Mediterranean extended to their role as collectors of art. The Etruscans, like Gilded Age patrons such as J.P. Morgan, bought huge quantities of "masterpiece" art. They especially prized Greek vases which they treasured in this life and in the life hereafter. It has been estimated that over half of all the Greek vases surviving to modern times were discovered in Etruscan tombs. Many like the red-figure amphora from Athens, below, were of the most superlative quality.
Amphora, attributed to the Dikaios Painter, ca. 510. BC. © British Museum
The Etruscans were not content to merely adapt or collect the art of other cultures. Early in the seventh century B.C., initially with the help of Greek artisans, the Etruscans in the city of Caere began experimenting with a black-hued form of pottery which we know today as Bucchero ware.
Bucchero Jug & Lid (from Chiusi), ca. 550 B.C, © Metropolitan Museum of Art
In his classic study of the Etruscans, Michael Grant noted:
Etruscan bucchero, made of unusually fine clay - preferably with a manganese content - was turned on the wheel and then baked in a slow-burning fire, in such a fashion that the oxygen reached the clay in insufficient quantities to turn its iron content red, but turned it black instead. These ware seem to have been designed in the first place for funerary use, but were then extended to household employment as well and ... were exported on an enormous scale.
It is fascinating to compare the Etruscan technique for Bucchero ware with the methods used by the celebrated Native American potter, Maria Martinez (1887-1980).
Working at the San Idelfonzo Pueblo in New Mexico, Martinez polished the clay surface of her pots and then fired the pots in a kiln which reduced the oxygen, just as the Etruscans had done. The result was the same, the striking metallic-looking, "black on black" ceramics which are featured - in both cases - in art museums around the world.
Etruscan Bucchero ware came in two basic types, a rugged, thick-walled form called Bucchero pesante and the lighter, more elegant, variety known as Bucchero sottile.
Bowl with Lid, (Bucchero pesante), late 6th century B.C © Metropolitan Museum
Kantharos (Bucchero sottile), ca. 650–600 B.C. © Metropolitan Museum of Art
The solid-work-a-day Bucchero pesante was favored in the northern regions of Etruria, while the exquisite Bucchero sottile was a trademark of southern Etruscan city-states, principally Caere.
The wide-ranging export of Bucchero ware brought great wealth to Caere and other Etruscan city-states. The lucrative sale of the region's iron and copper ore continued into the fifth century B.C. as well. The spread of Bucchero ware reflected Etruscan political/military advances into southern Italy and north toward the Alps
Prosperity creates problems, as does poverty. Social stresses in the Etruscan city-states, evidently took place during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., as they did in Greece and elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. The Greeks, inventors of historical writing, left detailed accounts of the political dissension and power shifts of that period, leading to the rise of democracy in Athens and oligarchy in Sparta.
No detailed narrative of Etruscan history survives, with the result that precise details are lacking of the surging tide of difficulties and challenges faced by the Etruscans. We do know that the Etruscans failed to create a unifying political structure or confederation among the twelve principal city-states of Etruria.
Military defeats at the hands the Greeks, now solidly entrenched in southern Italy and Sicily, halted Etruscan expansion. Raids, followed by migration, of fierce Celtic tribes into northern Italy, added to the declining fortunes of the Etruscans.
These challenges, however, were nothing in comparison to the rise of a Latin city-state on the very doorstep of Etruria. This city-state had been ruled for over a century by Etruscan kings before the dynasty was expelled in 506 B.C. Establishing an oligarchic republic, the newly independent state declared itself as Senatus populusque Romanus and began challenging the Etruscans on their southern borders.
The Etruscans, as we will see in the concluding Art Eyewitness essay, failed to take effective countermeasures to protect their civilization. They had centuries of impressive achievements to their credit but could not bring themselves to adapt politically as they had done artistically.
During the fourth century B.C., the Etruscans watched as changing geopolitical forces threatened their way of life. No longer masters of their own destiny, they were unable or unwilling to respond to the rise of Rome.
Text copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
The Chimaera of Arezzo, ca. 400 B.C. (discovered in Arezzo, 1553) Bronze cast: Ht 78.5 cm, L 129 cm Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence, inv.1
Bronze Bow Fibula with Four Ducks (safety pin), Villanovan Period, ca. 900 B.C. Bronze: (length) 3 7/16 x 3/8 in. (8.8 x 1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art Fletcher Fund, 1926 #26.60.87
Bronze Biconical Vessel, Proto-Etruscan or Villanovan Period. Bronze: Diameter: 41 centimetres (max); Height: 30.50 centimetres; Weight: 1707 grammes. British Museum #1928,0117.2
Cinerary Urn in the Form of a House, Villanovan Period, 8th century B.C. Hammered bronze: h. 29.5 cm (11 5/8 in.) roof: 49.2 x 37 cm (19 3/8 x 14 9/16 in.) walls: 39.7 x 30.6 cm (15 5/8 x 12 1/16 in.) Princeton University. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. #1999-70
Grave goods from the Benacci Necropolis, Tomb 39, Bologna, 750-720 B.C Archaeological Museum of Bologna #12791
Askós from Benacci Necropolis, Tomb 525, Bologna, Proto-Etruscan, late 8th century B.C. Ceramics: (Height) 7 cm. Archaeological Museum of Bologna #12791
Barrel-shaped Wine Jug (oinoche), Geometric Period, 725-700 B.C. Terracotta: H.13 3/16 in. (33.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Schimmel Foundation Inc., 1975. #1975.363
Amphora, attributed to the Dikaios Painter. (Made in Attica, 510.BC.- 500 B.C., found in Vulci). Pottery, red-figured amphora type A: Diameter - 400 mm.; Height: 630 cm.; Weight: 10.20 kilograms. British Museum #1843,1103.88
Etruscan Bucchero Jug and Lid (from Chiusi), ca. 550 B.C. Terracotta (Bucchero pesante): H.: 14 1/2 in. (36.8 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, 1896, #96.9.140a
Etruscan Bucchero Bowl with Lid, late 6th century B.C (Archaic) Terracotta (Bucchero pesante): Dimensions:H.: 8 1/4 in. (21 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, 1896. #96.9.139a–c
Etruscan Bucchero Kantharos (drinking cup), ca. 650–600 B.C. Terracotta (Bucchero sottile): H. with handles 12 in. (30.5 cm), diameter 10 1/4 in. (26 cm). Metropolitan Museum, Rogers Fund, 1921 #21.88.146