Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Art Eyewitness Essay: The Etruscans and Rome

The Etruscans and Rome
An Art Eyewitness Essay, Part III

By Ed Voves

"We must, indeed, all hang together," Benjamin Franklin declared to his fellow members of the Continental Congress in 1776, "or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

As a man of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, Franklin was well-versed with the histories of the Greeks and Romans. These narratives contained many incidents recounting how the Greeks and Romans had, indeed, failed to "all hang together."

There was another people from classical antiquity whose story also confirms the political lesson to which Franklin referred, the Etruscans.

The Etruscans, unlike the Greeks and Romans, were little known in Franklin's day, but now, two and a half centuries later, we have a much better appreciation of their considerable accomplishments. Thanks to  painstaking scholarship, we also have a significant body of evidence for the Etruscan failure to create an effective confederation of their twelve city-states, as Franklin and his colleagues were to achieve for the fledgling United States.                                                                                                                                                                

Chariot Fitting, 540-520 B.C.
© The British Museum 
The story of Etruscan civilization - and all civilizations - is how their citizens dealt with "existential" problems. These are dire challenges, providing occasions for successful, life-affirming responses or for failures leading to utter disaster.

The theory of civilizational "challenge/response" was the central theme of Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History, published in a multi-volume series from 1930 to 1961. At the risk of over-simplification, Toynbee's theory, "the greater the challenge, the greater the stimulus," can be grasped in several key quotes:

Civilizations, I believe, come to birth and proceed to grow by successfully responding to successive challenges. They breakdown and go to pieces if and when a challenge confronts them that they fail to meet.

The last stage but one of every civilization is characterized by the forced political unification of its constituent parts.

Toynbee also declared that civilizations rise and develop in "environments that are unusually difficult and not unusually easy." Such circumstances present problems which demand solutions. Survival - or extinction - depends on the response.

For the Etruscans the initial problem was how to gain access to the huge store of iron ore and copper ore located in their domains. Mining in the ancient world can never have been easy but the Etruscans managed to exploit the mineral wealth beneath their feet at an early date.

The Etruscan homeland was also rich in defensible positions. As Michael Grant describes in his book, The Etruscans, there were numerous steep-sided plateaus in Etruria. The early Etruscans readily took advantage of these natural fortresses for their villages, which then combined to form city-states.

The key words in the last quote from Toynbee are "unusually difficult." Compared with the problems faced in growing crops in mainland Greece, which is almost devoid of topsoil, the problems faced by the Etruscans were not "unusually" difficult. The Etruscans, skillful miners and metal-workers, were able to extract vast amounts of mineral wealth without extreme levels of effort. 

The Etruscans did confront two existential challenges. Their reactions to these challenges determined the fate of their civilization.

As we saw in the earlier Art Eyewitness essays, the Etruscans brilliantly responded to the first challenge, the overwhelming tides of Greek and Phoenician influence which threatened their cultural independence. Masters at adaptation, the Etruscans borrowed what suited them and ignored what did not, maintaining their own unique identity.

We can assess this response in one of the most famous works of Etruscan art, a magnificent, heartwarming statute of an Etruscan husband and wife from the collection of the Louvre.

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses,  ca. 520 - 510 B.C.
© Musee du Louvre

Known as The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, it was discovered in 1845 near the site of the Etruscan city-state of Caere, now called Cerveteri. The motif of reclining husband and wife on a burial monument originated in Asia Minor and almost certainly was brought to Etruria by the Phoenicians, major trade partners of the Etruscans. The haunting "smile" of the husband and wife exemplifies Greek Archaic art, which flourished during the sixth century B.C. and greatly appealed to the Etruscans.

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, however, is not a Phoenician statue nor is it a Greek one. In technical terms, this masterpiece demonstrates the skill of the Etruscans in using terracotta ceramics in compensation for the lack of local marble. More fundamentally, this tremendous work of art exudes an equality of husband and wife which could only have existed in a society where women were accorded a very high degree of respect and autonomy. This was exactly the attitude of the Etruscans toward women, very different from that of the Greeks.

The Etruscan skill in using terracotta to sculpt a human likeness was not limited to one or two great works of art. Following Greek example, the Etruscans created terracotta embellishments for the roofs of their temples called antefixes. Modeled to take the form of the heads of a mythological characters, a row of upright antefixes was placed along the eaves of a temple roof to keep rain water from seeping under the roof tiles causing damage to the wooden beams underneath. 

Initially, an antefix was likely to bear the countenance of Medusa or some other fearsome monster. But the Etruscans could not resist creating endearing likenesses of human beings like this antefix, made at Caere, and now in the Getty Museum.

Antefix from Caere , 510–500 B.C.
© J. Paul Getty Museum 

From the humble beginning of creating antefixes, evolved the remarkable Etruscan school of votive portraits, designed to be placed in their temples. There are so many of these to choose from, but the superlative example (below) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art certainly deserves inclusion here. 

Terracotta Head of a Youth, 3rd–2nd century B.C.
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Created during the waning years of Etruscan power, this portrait of a helmeted hero looked back to the golden age of the city states of Etruria. Once again, it is a brilliant adaptation of Greek art, in this case evoking the idealized features of Alexander the Great. The hero's face, however, preserves the emotional mystery, as well as the vigor, of Archaic era which Etruscan artists continued to favor after the Greeks themselves had abandoned it.

By studying the examples cited above, we can see how the "challenge/response" to Greek and Phoenician culture sparked a vigorous assertion of Etruscan identity. The first "existential" challenge culminated in an Etruscan success story of the highest order.

The second "existential" challenge, however, resulted in failure, defeat and the eventual loss of Etruscan political independence.

The threat to the Etruscans was posed by the Latin-speaking inhabitants of a village on the banks of the Tiber River, the southern border of Etruria. The name of this huddle of thatched-roofed huts, built on seven hills, was Rome. 

Early Rome had nothing to recommend it, except its location. There were no deposits of iron ore, copper or tin. Rome's strategic position, however, meant a great deal to the southernmost of the Etruscan city-states and to groups of ambitious free-booting Etruscan warriors. They coveted the fertile soil of Campania, the richest agricultural region in the south of Italy. To get there from Etruria, travelers needed to pass through Rome.

Around 600 B.C., Etruscans took control of Rome and, over the course of the next century, transformed it into a city. The Etruscans introduced the alphabet and stone buildings, drained a marshy area to create the Forum and strengthened the defenses with an encircling rampart. Nobody looks favorably on being conquered, however, especially a people who later became very successful conquerors themselves.

In 507 B.C., the Romans rose in rebellion against the Etruscan king, Tarquinius or Tarquin the Proud. According to Roman history, the king's son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped a virtuous noblewoman of Rome, Lucretia. To preserve her family's honor, Lucretia committed suicide, sparking the successful Roman revolt. 

The story of Lucretia was narrated by the Roman historian, Livy, and passed down as part of the foundational myth-history of Rome. Artists from the Renaissance to the Romantic era frequently depicted the event, usually with Lucretia in varying degrees of "undress" to heighten the erotic appeal and selling price of the work.

Rembrandt, ignoring the "sex sells" approach to art, painted two versions of the suicide of Lucretia which are of enduring value.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Lucretia, 1664
© The National Gallery of Art

Though separated by over two thousand years from the actual event, Rembrandt accurately captured the emotional traits of the citizens of early Rome in the way he presented Lucretia: honor, courage, determination, self-sacrifice and patriotism.

Early Rome's virtues may not have been lacking among the Etruscans, but we have no histories of the Etruscans, written during ancient times. This make an impartial judgement difficult, if not impossible. A comparison of a Roman work of art, much later in date though it is, with the The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, does help us take the measure of Roman attitudes vis-a-vis those of the Etruscans.

Funerary Relief of Publius Aiedius Amphio and his wife Aiedia, ca. 30 B.C.

The Funerary Relief of Publius Aiedius Amphio and his wife Aiedia, dates to around 30 B.C. Roman portraits, such as this, evolved directly from the example of Etruscan votive images. However, these highly realistic Roman likenesses developed in reaction to the spirit of Etruscan votive portraiture. 

The couple on The Sarcophagus of the Spouses projects feelings of enjoyment of the "good life" - for all eternity. The careworn faces of Publius Aiedius Amphio and Aiedia testify to their lives of toil and sacrifice on behalf of their family and their fellow citizens of Rome. They pose standing-up (some Roman funerary reliefs are full-figure) not lounging on a couch. This marble sculpture, and many similar Roman portraits, proclaims the implacable willpower of the Roman people.

Generalizations, like the above, are risky. What we can say is that, as Rome gained in strength, the Etruscans failed to muster the kind of emotional fortitude we see on the faces of Publius Aiedius Amphio and Aiedia. As a result, they were unable to  achieve Toynbee's "last stage but one of every civilization ... the forced political unification of its constituent parts."

Michael Grant emphasized that we should "erase the term 'Etruscan' and replace it by the name of one of the Etruscan states." The Romans, "team-players" for much of their early history, quickly learned that they were dealing not with Etruscans but with independent-minded citizens of Caere, Veii, Vulcii, Tarquinii and Clusium.

Between the years 507  to 396 B.C., the Romans successfully dealt with a host of political and social problems. Unified on the home front, the Romans sharpened the point of their most effective weapon: the strategy of "divide and conquer." With this policy, rather than numerically superior forces, the Romans began their campaigns to conquer Italy, starting with the Etruscans.

"Divide and conquer" was first carried-out against Veii, located twelve miles northwest of Rome. Veii competed with Caere to be the most prestigious and powerful of the Etruscan city-states. The leaders of Rome's republic took note, establishing good relations with Caere while marshaling their forces against Veii. In 396 B.C., the Romans launched a devastating attack on Veii, capturing and sacking the city. Not one of the other Etruscan city-states sent support to Veii in its hour of need.

Shortly after seizing Veii, Rome was nearly destroyed by a massive invasion of Celtic warriors in 387 B.C. Caere provided vital assistance to help Rome survive, the kind of aid that had been denied Veii. Rome would always maintain cordial relations with Caere but that did not prevent the Romans from eventually bringing this Etruscan city-state under its power.

Rome's triumph over the Etruscans was as much a campaign of incorporation as conquest. The Romans had the good sense to confer Roman citizenship upon the look Etruscans, and eventually upon all the various peoples of Italy, by 90 B.C. At the same time, local customs were honored and even the non-Indo-European language of the Etruscans continued in use for over a century.

Statue of Aulus Metellus, known as "The Orator"110-90 B.C.

The gradual process of "Romanization" is apparent in the bronze statue known as "The Orator."  Created around 100 B.C., the statue records both the physical features of Aulus Metellus and the regalia of the Roman Senate to which he belonged. 

Yet, Aulus Metellus was not a "noblest Roman of them all," as he looks at first glance. Metellus came from an Etruscan family and the hem of his toga is inscribed with an invocation in the Etruscan language. This statue, which I saw at the 2015 Power and Pathos exhibition organized by the Getty Museum and the National Gallery in Washington, is a masterful expression of the now-combined forces of Etruscan and Roman civilization. 

The rise of Aulus Metellus to the rank of Roman senator set the stage for other Etruscans to gain power in the Roman establishment. For good and ill, Etruscans would continue to affect the course of Rome's destiny.

Cinerary Urn with Aeneas and Turnus, 200–100 B.C.
© J. Paul Getty Museum 

The greatest of these influential Etruscans was Gaius Maecenas, (ca.70 B.C- 8 B.C.). Maecenas, the chief political advisor of Octavian Caesar, later Augustus, was also the most cultivated patron of the arts of his age. Maecenas encouraged Virgil to write an epic poem, based on the legends of Aeneas, the refugee prince of Troy. The adventures of Aeneas were sacred to the Etruscans and Romans and were frequently depicted on works of art such as the cinerary urn, made  between 200 to 100 B.C.

Virgil  (ca.70 B.C-19 B.C.). was born in Mantua, a city founded by Etruscans in the north of Italy. After some prodding by Maecenas and Augustus, he composed his great poem, the Aenead, one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. Sadly, Virgil died before completing it.

Maecenas and Virgil represent the culmination of Etruscan civilization. The legacy of Aelius Sejanus (20 B.C.-31 A.D.) had a very different effect.

Sejanus, "this ambitious Etruscan" as Michael Grant calls him, rose to the rank of prefect or commander of the Praetorian Guard. He was the most trusted official of Tiberius, the second emperor of Rome. Then, as a result of a political power play, Sejanus was accused of plotting against Tiberius and executed in 31 A.D.

Marble Relief of the Praetorian Guard, ca. 50-51 A.D.
© Louvre Lens

Whether Sejanus was planning a coup against Tiberius or trying to position himself to thwart Gaius-Caligula, the mad grand-nephew of Tiberius, will never be proved. What is beyond dispute is that Sejanus transformed the Praetorians from a few battalions of bodyguards into a powerful military unit, capable of murdering the emperors they were supposed to protect. Before they were finally disbanded in 312 A.D., the Praetorians were responsible for assassinating thirteen Roman emperors. Worse, their constant intrigue undermined the very concept of the rule of Roman law. 

By creating the "behind-the-throne" power of the Praetorians, Sejanus set in motion a train of events which led to the eventual collapse of Rome's empire. How ironic it is that an Etruscan, whose ancestors contributed so much to the rise of Rome, should have unintentionally caused its downfall. 

Text copyright of Ed Voves. All rights reserved.

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, J.Paul Getty Museum, the British Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Musee du Louvre, Louvre-Lens and the Altes Museum, Berlin

Introductory Image:                                                                       
Candelabrum (detail), ca. 500-475 B.C. Bronze: 61 in. (154.9 cm) height, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, #61:11.3

Chariot - or Furniture - Fitting (excavated at Castel San Mariano, Perugia), 540 -520 B.C. Silver electrum repoussé: 15.50 cm (length) x 9 cm (width). British Museum, bequeathed by Richard Payne Knight #1824,0420+.2

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, (found at Cerveteri, in the necropolis of Banditaccia), 520 - 510 B.C.Terracotta  polychrome: H. 1.11 m. ; l.  1.94 m., Musée  du Louvre.  Campana collection, 1863. #Cp 5194

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses (detail) © Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines, Dunod

Antefix from Caere (Cerveteri), 510–500 B.C.  Terracotta and slip: 34.5 × 28 × 26.1 cm (13 9/16 × 11 × 10 1/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum,  Gift of Leon Levy. 83.AD.211.11

Terracotta Head of a Youth, 3rd–2nd century B.C. Terracotta: . 8 1/2 in. (21.6 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase by subscription, 1896. #96.18.173 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Lucretia, 1664. Oil on Canvas: 120 x 101 cm (47 1/4 x 39 3/4 in.)  National Gallery of Art. Andrew W. Mellon Collection # No.1937.1.76  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Funerary Relief of Publius Aiedius Amphio and his wife Aiedia (found along the Via Appia in Rome)  30 B.C. Marble sculpture:  64.5 x 102 x 24 cm. Altes Museum, Berlin.   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:-0030_Grabrelief_Publius_Aiedius_Amphio_und_Frau_Aiedia_Altes_Museum_anagoria.JPG

Statue of Aulus Metellus, known as "The Orator", (found near Lake Trasimeno in the province of Perugia), 110-90 B.C. Bronze: 179 cm (70 in) National Archaeological Museum, Florence. Photo courtesy of J.Paul Getty Museum

Cinerary Urn with Aeneas and Turnus, 200–100 B.C. Alabaster with polychromy: 34 × 46 × 19 cm (13 3/8 × 18 1/8 × 7 1/2 in.), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California. # 71.AA.294

Marble relief statue of the Praetorian Guard, ca. 50-51 A.D. Marble: 163 cm (64 in) × 134 cm (53 in) × 28 cm (11 in). Musee du Louvre, Louvre-Lens, France. # Ma1079

Monday, June 15, 2020

Art Eyewitness Essay: The Etruscan Achievement

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. 

The Chimaera of Arezzo, ca. 400 B.C., © National Archaelogical Museum, Florence

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 Biconical Vessel, Villanovan Period © British Museum

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. 

Cinerary Urn, 8th century B.C. © Princeton University Art Museum

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.

Grave goods from the Benacci Necropolis, © Archaeological Museum of Bologna

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

Introductory Image:                                           
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

Monday, June 8, 2020

Art Eyewitness Essay: The Etruscans and Ancient Art

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. 

Gold Votive Bracelet, ca. 675 B.C.-650 B.C. © British Museum

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," TarquinaUniv.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

Introductory Image:
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)