The Etruscans and Ancient Art
An Art Eyewitness Essay, Part I
By Ed Voves
The word "mysterious" is often used to describe the Etruscans. These ancient people, who lived in central Italy, certainly offer many features of their way of life and religion which are difficult to interpret or explain. Yet, there is nothing essentially "mysterious" about the Etruscans.
The Etruscans were not an Indo-European people as were the Greek and Romans. They emerged, as a group of prosperous city-states at the end of the "Dark Age" following the fall of the Bronze Age civilizations, 1200-900 B.C. Basing their power and wealth on huge reserves of iron ore and copper, the Etruscans traded readily with the Greeks and the Phoenicians. Masters at adaptation, as we will discuss, the Etruscans borrowed artistic motifs when these struck their fancy, rejected those that didn't and maintained a distinctive cultural style for almost five hundred years, 750 to 300 B.C.
Appliqué depicting the Sun God Usil, 500–475 B.C. © Getty Museum
Unlike other non-Indo-Europeans, such as the Finns and Hungarians, the Etruscan language has yet to be traced to its origins. But the same is true of the Basques, another non-Indo-European people. There is no link, however, between the Basques and the Etruscans, further heightening the "mystery" of the latter.
One of the truly perplexing aspects about the Etruscans is the scarcity of museum exhibitions dealing with their remarkable civilization. In 1985, cultural officials in Italy proclaimed the "Year of the Etruscans." A full-slate of exhibitions was organized but, to the best of my knowledge, none traveled to the United States. Although I have been on the lookout for a major exhibit on the Etruscans over the last decade or more, I have yet to spot one.
I have done a good bit of reading about the Etruscans, notably Michael Grant's authoritative 1980 account. But there is no substitute for looking at art!
Fortunately, several museums in the U.S. have magnificent collections of Etruscan art and artifacts. It was at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston that I first encountered the Etruscans in 1986. Since then, visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the University of Pennsylvania Museum and several other art collections have enabled me to study the rise of the Etruscans and their "fall" to the power of Rome.
In the autumn of 1986, I made a brief trip to Boston to see some friends. I decided to visit the MFA to view their great collection of European paintings only to discover that the European wing was being renovated. This left me with time to explore the rest of the museum but once I entered the galleries for ancient art, I stayed there for the rest of the day.
Etruscan sarcophagi from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston © MFA Boston
There I discovered the Etruscans. Two burial structures - sarcophagi - gripped my imagination - and have never let go.
These stone coffins testify to the Etruscan focus on death and the afterlife. Discovered during the 1840's, both had been created for members of the same family. The sarcophagus on the right (above) is inscribed with the names "Thanchvil Tarnai and her husband Larth Tetnies, son of Arnth Tetnies and Ramtha Vishnai." Scholars believe that the couple on the older, less-finely sculpted, sarcophagus are the named parents, Arnth Tetnies and Ramtha Vishnai.
Deciphering Etruscan writing is no small feat, as I will briefly comment on below. However important, these details about the powerful Tetnies clan are less significant than the overwhelming sensation of sharing in the spiritual lives of people long dead. This was very palpable to me, when I found myself in their "presence" back in 1986.
What is portrayed on each sarcophagus lid is the "eternal embrace." Here we see two human beings who shared life and love during their distant era. They are united in death but also in everlasting life. It is worth noting that the equality in the relative size, husband and wife, reflects the fact that women in Etruscan society enjoyed social freedoms far beyond those of their counterparts in Athens during the late fourth to early third century B.C.
Etruscan Bronze Chariot, 6th century B.C © Metropolitan Museum of Art
A similar "stand-out" Etruscan experience comes by way of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Monteleone Chariot has been a fixture of the Met since 1903 and I never cease to marvel at it during my many visits to that wonderful museum.
The Monteleone Chariot was made early in the sixth century B.C., at the height of Etruscan power. The Etruscans were formidable warriors, but generally fought on foot. Chariots were used for ceremonies and celebrations of war victories. However, the era of the chariot's construction also witnessed the first stirring of Rome. Rising in revolt, the Romans cast out their Etruscan king, Tarquinius, in 507 B.C. Etruscan victory parades were to diminish in number as the Republic of Rome grew in power.
The bronze metalwork of the chariot was mounted on a wooden frame. Except for a tell-tale fragment of oak, none of the timber survived the long centuries during which the chariot rested in an underground tomb. Unearthed by accident in 1902, it was quickly purchased by Italian art dealers. The first director of the Metropolitan Museum, Luigi de Cesnola, was a well-connected archaeologist and he bought the chariot - legally - before the Italian government could intervene.
Detail of Etruscan Bronze Chariot © Metropolitan Museum of Art
This spectacular bronze vehicle is decorated with scenes from the life of the Greek hero, Achilles. The front of the chariot car shows Achilles receiving a new set of armor, helmet and shield from his mother Thetis. With this battle gear, Achilles will fight his famous duel with the Trojan hero, Hektor.
The artistic style of the chariot's Achilles motifs is an almost pure example of Greek-Archaic era art. Some scholars have speculated that the chariot might have been made in one of the Greek colonies of southern Italy and then sold or sent as a gift to the Etruscans. However, the Etruscans greatly favored the Archaic style in their own art, so much so that they retained it even after the Greeks had innovated more natural and humanistic representation during the fifth century B.C.
Bronze Statuette of a Young Woman, 6th century B.C.
© Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Etruscans borrowed widely from the Greek merchants and city-state builders in southern Italy and Sicily. The Etruscans also maintained close trading and cultural relationships with the Phoenicians, so much that their ethnic origins have been frequently - and mistakenly - traced to the Middle East. Yet, the Etruscans' basic attitudes to life and the after-life, society and eternity, were formed long before the interaction with seafarers from Greece and the Phoenician city-states began in earnest during the seventh century B.C.
Of the Etruscans, Michael Grant wrote:
They were temperamentally different from the Greeks, and in consequence had different needs and customs... Far from requiring the delineations of the human body, whether idealized or realistic, the Etruscans' own conception of art involved highly formalized, dream-like patterns, and sometimes, grotesquely caricatured exaggerations and elongations. The balances and proportions, the clear frameworks and logical formal principles that were the essential features of Attic classicism held not interest for them at all.
The Etruscans also adapted the Greek alphabet for their unique language. Since the Greeks had done the same, borrowing the Phoenician lettering system, this cultural transfer does not denote a failure on the part of the Etruscans to innovate or create for themselves.
Terracotta Vase in the Shape of a Cockerel, ca. 650–600 B.C.
© Metropolitan Museum of Art
One of the most delightful - and significant - Etruscan artifacts in the Met's collection is a small vase, inscribed with the twenty-six letters of the Etruscan alphabet. It almost certainly was an ink bottle since the head acts as a stopper and could be attached to the bird’s body by a cord. The missing tail, curving downward to form a third foot, would have kept the ink bottle from tipping over.
Detail of Terracotta Vase in the Shape of a Cockerel
© Metropolitan Museum of Art
When the Etruscans adapted the Greek alphabet for their own use, the process followed the same pattern as their incorporation of elements of Greek art. The Etruscans found writing a key tool in managing their expanding trade with Greek and Phoenician merchants and with their Latin neighbors and subjects. Literacy, likewise, was valued for its uses in religious practices, the Etruscans being notably devoted to the rituals and traditions honoring their gods.
This emphasis on putting their faith into practice may account for the large number of "speaking objects" which record the names of Etruscans in association with specific artifacts. These inscriptions are likely to have been written, painted or incised on objects of value to record the names of donors of gifts to Etruscan temples.
Terracotta inscribed Alabastron, ca. 600 B.C. © Metropolitan Museum
Alternatively, inscribing one's name on a precious commodity like the perfume vessel or alabastron (above) might also signify that it was a high-status present (or bribe) to an influential person who might need to be reminded who the gift was "speaking" for. In the case of this alabasteron from the Met's collection, it is incised on the rim with the words "I am the gift of Licinius Hirsunaie."
The Etruscan alphabet undoubtedly played a large role in the transactions of a collaborative religious "league' or council which was held once a year at a sacred site called the Fanum Voltumnae.
The Etruscans, however, never developed any comparable degree of political unity. The individual Etruscan city-states made alliances with the Greeks and with the Phoenicians, based in Carthage, but seldom cooperated among themselves. In 396 B.C., the Roman Republic launched a devastating assault on Veii, one of the leading Etruscan cities. Despite the fact that the Romans had been besieging Veii for years, none of the other Etruscan city-states made any effort to assist Veii. The destruction of Veii marked the first great military victory of Rome - and the eventual downfall of Etruscan civilization.
This lack of political unity among the Etruscans is reflected in the lack of evidence that they composed sophisticated works of history or philosophy as did the Greeks and Romans. Nothing of their literature, such as it was, has survived - only a mass of inscriptions, most of which are still undeciphered.
Long after the Etruscan city states fell under the hegemony of Rome, the Emperor Claudius (10 B.C.-54 A.D) wrote a twenty-volume history of the Etruscans but sadly it was not preserved. Had this tome by Claudius survived, it would likely have included a sermon or two reproving the Etruscans for their love of the "good life."
The Etruscans did indulge themselves in golden jewelry and prestige imported goods from Greece and the Middle East. They became supremely gifted goldsmiths themselves, making it often difficult to tell if spectacular works such as the golden bracelet (below) were imported or made in an Etruscan workshop.
This bracelet, one of a pair in the collection of the British Museum, is a classic example of the "orientalizing" influence of the Phoenicians on the Etruscans, and the Greeks, too, which took place occurred during the seventh century B.C. Close inspection of the bracelet shows designs of a "Master of Animals" flanked by lions and three women, each grasping a tree-like plant. These motifs are clearly of Phoenician or Syrian origin but the bracelet could well have been made by an Etruscan craftsman.
Detail of Gold Votive Bracelet, ca. 675 B.C.-650 B.C. © British Museum
We have vivid evidence of the Etruscan love of the "good life" in the spectacular tomb paintings which have been preserved. These rare surviving paintings show how the Etruscans viewed life after death as a continuation of the delights of this life.
"Tomb of the Leopards," Tarquina, Univ.of Michigan Art Images
Depictions of feasting and revelry on the walls of Etruscan tombs appealed mightily to modern-day writers and artists. So too, did the Etruscans' quirky, unconventional rejection of "Golden-age" Greek classicism. D.H. Lawrence wrote that "if you love the odd spontaneous forms that are never to be standardized, go to the Etruscans,"
Alberto Giacometti was certainly one of the premier twentieth century artists who heeded Lawrence's advice. Giacometti closely studied ancient art, as was noted in the major retrospective held at the Guggenheim Museum in 2018. The elongation of such Etruscan works as the third century bronze now called "Shadow of the Evening" was such an influence on Giacometti's signature figures that it might seem too obvious to merit commentary here.
(Top) "Shadow of the Evening" Statue, Volterra, 3rd century B.C.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Alberto Giacometti's The Chariot, 1950
The close artistic affinity of Giacometti's The Chariot for "Shadow of the Evening" should not distract us from grasping the creative process displayed in both. Each of these works confirms Lawrence's appraisal of the Etruscan rejection of "standardization" in favor of an art aesthetic of their own. And just as Etruscan artists adapted Greek and Phoenician art to suit their practice, so did Giacometti respond to the Etruscans. The result in both cases was a strikingly unusual and appealing work of art.
The Etruscan achievement in the visual arts is too vast to be properly treated in a short essay like this. I plan to follow with further essays, focusing on aspects of Etruscan art such as their masterful Bucchero pottery which was popular throughout the ancient world.
For the present, let us conclude with Michael Grant's assessment of Etruscan art:
Uninterested in the classical principles of propriety, they went all out to capture the instant, unrepeatable visual flash... In a world of overpowering divine forces, what had gone before or would come after did not interest their artists. Instead, they expressed the world of their imaginings by inconsequential improvisations, characterized by force and fantasy and charm.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photo: Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Terracotta Statue of a Young Woman, late 4th century B.C. Terracotta H. 29 /7/16 (74.8 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. purchased with Rogers Fund, 1916. #16:141 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Appliqué depicting the Sun God Usil, 500–475 B.C. Bronze: 20.7 × 16.5 cm, 1340 g (8 1/8 × 6 1/2 in., 2.9542 lb.). Getty Museum # 2017.126 © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California
Sarcophagus and Lid with Portraits of Husband and Wife, from Vulci, late 4th–early 3rd century B.C. Volcanic tuff stone: Height : 88 cm (34 5/8 in.); width: 73 cm (28 3/4 in.); length: 210 cm (82 11/16 in.). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum purchase with funds by exchange from a Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius C. Vermeule III. #1975.799
Sarcophagus and Lid with Husband and Wife, from Vulci, 350–300 B.C. Travertine stone: Height: 93.3 cm.(36 3/4 in.); width: 117.4 cm. (46 1/4 in.); length: 213.8 cm (84 3/16 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum purchase with funds donated by Mrs. Gardner Brewer & by contribution & the Benjamin Pierce Cheney Donation. #86.145a-b
Etruscan Bronze Chariot inlaid with Ivory, 2nd quarter of the 6th century B.C. Bronze, ivory: H. 51 9/16 in. (130.9 cm), length of pole 82 1/4 in. (209 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. purchased with Rogers Fund, 1903. #:03.23.1 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bronze Statuette of a Young Woman, late 6th century B.C. Bronze: H. 11 9/16 in. (29.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917. #17.190.2066 © Metropolitan Museum of Art
Terracotta Vase in the Shape of a Cockerel, ca. 650–600 B.C. Terracotta bucchero ware: H. 4 1/16 in. (10.31 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fletcher Fund, 1924. #24.97.21a,b © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Detail of Terracotta Vase in the Shape of a Cockerel, showing the Etruscan alphabet. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Terracotta inscribed Alabastron (perfume vase), ca. 600 B.C. Terracotta: H. 5 5/16 in. (13.5 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fletcher Fund, 1926. #26.60.94
Gold votive bracelet, ca. 675 B.C.-650 B.C. One of Pair, likely found in Palestrina,Italy, Galeassi Tomb. Gold - granulation, embossed, stamped: Length: 18.50 centimetres (excl. head and clasp); Weight: 419 grammes; Width: 5.60 centimetres.British Museum. #1872,0604.699 and #1872.6-4.700. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Detail of Gold votive bracelet, ca. 675 B.C.-650 B.C., showing designs of a "Master of Animals" flanked by lions and three women, each grasping a tree-like plant
"Tomb of the Leopards," detail of banqueting scene, Tarquinia, Italy. University of Michigan Art Images for College Teaching. #ETR 108.
Etruscan Statue (Modern name - "Ombra della sera" or "Shadow of the Evening"), 3rd century B.C. Bronze: 57.5 cm (about 22.6 inches) Guarnacci Museum of Volterra https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f5/Ombra_della_Sera_Volterra.jpg
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Alberto Giacometti's The Chariot, 1950. Bronze on wood base: 65 3/4 x 27 3/16 x 27 3/16 inches (167x 69 x 69 cm)