ANCIENT ARTS AND
Etruscan Art (c.700-90 BCE): Summary
The Etruscans were a people who lived in Etruria in Italy during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Etruscan culture and civilization reached its peak during the sixth century BCE when their city-states controlled central Italy. Etruscan arts were strongly influenced by their trading relationship with Greece, although (like the Egyptians but unlike the Greeks) they believed in an after-life. This led to the employment of many Etruscan painters and sculptors by the nobility who commissioned tomb paintings (eg. "Tomb of the Leopards" c.480 BCE) and sometimes an ornate sarcophagus (eg. "Sarcophagus dei Sposi" c.550 BCE) to celebrate their passage into the after-life.
FORMS OF ARTS
Etruscans were also noted for their figurative sculpture made from stone, terracotta, such as the "Apollo of Velo" (c.500 BCE), as well as bronze sculpture like the "Capitoline Wolf" (c.500 BCE), "Chariot" (c.550-525 BCE) and the "Chimera of Arezzo" (c.450 BCE).
For rich Etruscans, art became a feature of every day life. Reconstruction of a seventh century Etruscan villa, in Murlo, revealed large painted terracotta panels adorning the entrances, as well as a number of fresco wall-paintings. Etruscan paintings and murals often convey a clear sense of joi de vivre, in the form of dancing couples or other human figures looking strong and healthy and full of life. In this sense, Etruscan art captured human emotion much better than the more stylized Greek art.
Etruria was also known for its goldsmiths: their artistry in gold being highly prized in Italy and Greece during the first millennium BCE. Examples include the significant cache of gold jewellery in the Regolini Galassi tomb, Cerveteri, which was unearthed in the nineteenth-century.
Sadly, from 396 BCE onwards, the Etruscan city states were overcome by Rome and absorbed into the Roman Empire. In the process, many Etruscan paintings and sculptures were destroyed and valuable bronzes melted down to make bronze coins, a common occurrence in the history of art of the time. And local art was subsumed into Roman art. As a result, the Etruscan artistic legacy is comparatively small. Collections can be seen at the National Etruscan Museum and the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, as well as the Getty Museum Los Angeles, founded by the art collector J Paul Getty (1892-1976).
The Etruscans inhabited the region of Italy bounded to the north by the valley of the Arno, to the east and south by the Tiber, and on the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea. In Antiquity it was called Etruria and contained great forests and rich potential for agriculture and mining. The ethnic and linguistic affinities of the Etruscans are not clear. According to a tradition well known in Antiquity they migrated from western Asia Minor around the 12th century BCE. To date no firm archaeological evidence supports this story but Etruscan is similar to a dialect once spoken on the Aegean island of Lemnos. Both languages may be survivals of an ancient Mediterranean tongue, or the Etruscans may have brought their language to Italy at an early date.
Archaeologists call the Iron Age culture
of ancient Etruria "Villanovan", reserving the name "Etruscan"
for the period after c.700 BCE. This nomenclature stresses a theory, still
upheld by some scholars, that the Etruscans only arrived in Italy at this
time. But a strong continuity links the 8th and 7th centuries in the region
and the Villanovan culture is now generally regarded as the true precursor
of Etruscan civilization, though a profound change did occur in Etruria
during this time.
One of the most important characteristics of this civilisation was the leading part played by religious doubt and the concern with the after-life: Their gods were of a mysterious and cryptic nature, and men had a profound dread of the fate awaiting them after death. It would seem that the idea of death was ever present to the Etruscan mind. In this context it is understandable that their art was primarily an art of the tomb. A kind of magic survival had to be secured for the dead in their final resting-place and then, according to later belief, in the shadowy world of Hades. This funerary cult was observed with the minutest attention to detail, and Etruscan art itself seems to have had no other end in view. (See also: Aegean Art (2600-1100 BCE) notably Minoan and Mycenean Art and their tomb culture.)
The portrait immortalised the dead man's features and so wrested him from the powers of darkness. Here we have the reason for the creation and continuing popularity of the Tuscan portrait out of which, in its turn, the Roman portrait was to emerge. On a burial urn from Chiusi we can see that in the earlier period a faithful copy of the dead man's face, in the form of a bronze mask, was affixed to the vessel. Later, the head was carved and took the place of the urn's lid. Eventually this heterogenous creation gave way to a real statue. Similarly, the frescoes which covered the damp walls of the Tuscan hypogea (subterranean burial chambers) are important as religious symbols. They depict the funeral feasts; they also portray the occupations and pleasures of his earthly life, and most of all they give concrete shape to his life in the next world. This clears up the apparent contradiction of a sepulchral art infused with an ardent and vigorous feeling. of life. To the mystic souls of the Etruscans the life of this world merely foreshadowed the more significant and infinitely more permanent destiny awaiting them after death. Consequently they paid less attention to the adornment of their towns than to their tombs which were built of solid stone or hollowed out of the same material - dwelling places intended to defy the onslaught of time. In the necropolises at Tarquinia and Cerveteri, virtual cities of the dead, the setting and very rhythm of Etruscan life is made real for us in an astonishing way.
The Villanovans were capable craftsmen,
decorating their pottery and bronzes with geometric designs and occasionally
with primitive representational scenes. During the 8th century BCE they
began to copy goods obtained from Phoenician and Greek merchants, but
traditional Italic forms remained dominant until c.700 BCE.
The Etruscans adopted the grid street-plan
used at Greek colonial sites in Italy, but ideal town-planning was difficult
to impose on the older cities of Etruria, which had grown from Villanovan
villages. An example of an ideal plan is the colonial site of Marzabotto,
near Bologna, founded towards the end of the 6th century BCE. A main street
ran due north and south and was crossed at right angles by three streets
of similar width, all flanked by drains. A grid of smaller streets divided
the rest of the town. Buildings for religious observance crowned the nearby
hilltop and cemeteries lay outside the habitation area, an Etruscan custom.
Little is known about the external elevations
of houses, though tomb facades and representations, especially on cinerary
chests, presumably reflect their appearances. Examples show facades each
with a porch and columns, and indicate an upper storey. A cinerary chest
in the Museo Archeologico, Florence, represents a stone house with fine
masonry and arched doorways, flanked by pilasters.
The Villanovans made models of familiar objects and primitive statuettes from clay and bronze. Their human figures have large heads with ill-defined features and thin, straddling limbs, while their lively animals sometimes recall Greek Geometric types.
During the Orientalizing period objects of glazed ceramic ware, ivory, precious metals, bronze, and pottery from the eastern Mediterranean and Greece reached Etruria. Some of these imports were carved or modelled in the round, others were decorated in bas-relief. Etruscan craftsmen enthusiastically imitated them, making lavishly embellished objects for personal and household use. They portrayed monsters, strange men, and draped female figures, usually presented in compact volume and often with carefully noted details. Foreign repertoires were mingled and Italic themes occasionally added to produce an eclectic Etruscan Orientalizing style.
At Chiusi, a contemporary sculptural form
probably had local inspiration. The ashes of the dead were often placed
in vessels with lids fashioned as schematic human heads, though some examples
seek to convey individuality.
Simple temple decorations in terracotta
occur about the middle of the Archaic period. Subsequently antefixes of
various designs were made in molds; some have heads surrounded by a shell
motif, others depict complete figures. The bas-relief friezes repeat groups
of gods or men and some lively horsemen. Most celebrated, however, are
the compositions in high relief and statues, modelled in the round, which
were set upon the roof. The sculptors, inspired by the achievements of
the Greek late Archaic style, created naturalistic figures capable of
expressing both movement and emotion. Energy is implicit in fighting warriors,
their details picked out in colour, from Civitii Castellana, and there
is latent menace in the striding Apollo from Veii. The sculpture of Veii
was famous in Antiquity and the Romans recalled that Vulca of Veii, the
only Etruscan artist known by name, decorated a temple in Rome towards
the end of the 6th century BCE.
The severe style of early Greek Classical
sculpture was not so fully assimilated by the Etruscans, though they became
more interested in representing human anatomy and accepted a trend towards
idealization. A head, which forms the lid of a cinerary urn, demonstrates
such impersonal presentation, an example of the association of Greek style
with a local art form (Museo Archeologico, Florence). The development
of the Classical style in Etruria is shown in a series of votive statuettes
in terracotta and bronze. The men are either nude or when clothed they
sometimes wear an Etruscan cloak or military equipment, while the dignified
women are finely dressed. The Mars of Todi, one of the few surviving large-scale
bronze statues, illustrates the later Classical style of Etruria. It is
a graceful study of a pensive young soldier, standing in a well-balanced
pose with the weight upon one leg (Vatican
Museums, Rome). Many contemporary household bronzes are of outstanding
quality with their cast components, for example the handles or feet, formed
of well-composed groups of figures.
Almost all large-scale Greek paintings
have perished but we can trace the development of their drawing, from
painted pottery styles. Greek graphic art had a profound influence upon
Etruscan polychrome wall-paintings, which form the most numerous group
of murals to survive from the pre-Roman Classical world. The Etruscan
wall-paintings have come down to us because underground tombs at some
Etruscan centres were decorated in fresco. This art form probably had
a religious purpose: to perpetuate the efficacy of funerary rites and
to recreate the familiar surroundings of life in the dwellings of the
There were early painted tombs at Cerveteri and painted terracotta plaques have been found in both the necropolis and the living area, demonstrating that buildings, like tombs, had wall-paintings. Two series are outstanding, both painted in black, white, brown, and red/purple on a light background.
Of mid-6th-century date, the five Boccanera
slabs show the influence of Corinthian vase-painting. They depict seated
sphinxes and figures, standing stiffly, linked only by their gestures
(British Museum, London).
The more flowing lines of the Campana plaques (Louvre, Paris) suggest
Ionian taste. Movement is introduced and figures carefully interrelated.
Whether the figures represent gods or men, details of dress and symbolism
Some late Archaic and early Classical tombs
have banqueting scenes on the end wall, while on the sidewalls accompanying
musicians and dancers are shown, representing the performing arts for
which the Etruscans were famous in Antiquity. In the Tomb of the Leopards,
two figures recline on each of the three couches and naked boys serve
wine. The sidewalls of the beautiful Tomb of the Triclinium, c.470 BCE,
have fine compositions with a lyre-player, flautist, and energetic dancers,
their draperies emphasizing movement. The drawing displays a new competence,
familiar from Attic red-figure pottery at the beginning of the Classical
In the absence of fine objects of wood, leather, textiles, or other perishable materials, the minor arts of the Etruscans must be judged mainly from their pottery and metalwork. Since both personal possessions and household objects were placed in tombs, they survive in some quantity and provide an eloquent commentary on the major arts.
Traditional Villanovan pottery had forms characteristic of the Italic Iron Age-fired, brown/black, with incised decoration. During the 8th century BCE they also began to copy the shapes, light-coloured fabric, and designs painted in red/brown, of Greek Geometric imports. By 700 BCE, local potters were imitating yellow/buff Corinthian ware, decorating it in dark paint, sometimes depicting monsters, animals, or men from the Orientalizing repertoire.
Another equally extremist point of view
maintains, just as confidently, the complete independence of the art of
ancient Tuscany. Both attitudes go too far, and so in many ways are quite
mistaken. If we are to get at the truth we must take a less extreme and
dogmatic view. It is quite true that Etruscan art was continually and
beneficially influenced by artists from Greece and Magna Graecia. Unless
the profound effect of the Greek workshops is taken into account, Etruscan
art cannot begin to be understood. But the work of the Etruscans was not
merely a slavish imitation without a genuine identity of its own. It was
the outcome of the abilities, taste and spirit which were the individual
characteristics of this people who, from the 7th century down to the beginning
of the Christian era, were able to develop an original civilisation in
For the main index, see: Art Encyclopedia.