Italy before the Romans
The Art of the Etruscans
This chapter introduces the work of a group of people inhabiting the central area of Italy known as Etruria. Today this area is known as Tuscany, still reminiscent of its ancient origins in Etruria. This group represents an enigma, where did they originally come from? Opinions range from the East to the North, representing both ancient scholarship and contemporary scholarship. Regardless of origin, the Tusci or Etruscans eventually melded with the indigenous populations into a cohesive group recognized today and in its contemporaneous time frame as the Tyrrhenians (Greek name) or Etruscans. Many of their works are reflective of Greek Archaic motifs, yet following in the traditions of great cultures, these motifs were adopted and adapted to fit the aesthetic definitions of the adopting culture, Etruscans. The Etruscans also influenced roman architecture, most especially in temple construction. The Romans followed the design of the Etruscans by setting their temple on podiums and focusing a front entrance. The structure was meant to be approached from the front and to function as a structure, not a sculptural mass as in the Greek tradition. The Etruscans were well traveled and traded throughout the Ancient World. The area, Etruria, was rich in mineral wealth: iron, tin, copper and silver. These natural resources became the source of export wealth, which allowed the Etruscans to become major importers of luxury goods. The basis for this information comes from the rich tomb excavations. In the tradition of the Ancient World, the deceased was buried with items, which reflected their economic circumstances. Similar to Ancient Egypt, Etruscan tombs were painted with scenes taken from life: banquets, recreational activities, generally scenes that expressed joie de vivre or lively and joyful times. In addition to the painted interiors, the Etruscans constructed and used sarcophagi for burials, again similar to the ancient Egyptians. However, the sarcophagus would have a portrait of either the single occupant or the husband and wife, in a relaxed and joyous pose, unlike their Egyptian counterparts: stiff and formal. An equally important difference was the participation of women and the presentation of women as participants. Many of the tombs depicted women attending the banquets, reveling in the occasion. This was the antithesis of the Greek tradition. Only female servants or prostitutes could attend these events. The last Etruscan city fell to the Romans in 273 BC and Roman citizenship was granted to the Etruscans in 89 BC, thus absorbing the Etruscans into Rome.
One of the most telling and instructive objects which can and do define a culture is the ornament, which that culture uses as a method of adornment. In Etruscan society, jewelry was used to establish status and personal wealth. Gold ornaments were the indicators of both the personal wealth of the individual and the community wealth of the group. The Etruscans were great sailors and traders, in fact, they dominated the seas. This domination led to great wealth for the community as a whole.
Among the tomb treasures excavated, were gold jewels. The gold fibula from the Regolini-Galassi Tomb (9.1) is an example of this type of luxury item, which is one of the hallmarks of Etruscan society. It illustrates the benefits of import goods and how these motifs are re-designed to fit the aesthetic definitions of the society importing them and by using comparative iconographic analyses can show the influences coming from the East. The stalking lions and the rosettes, which form a double circle, one ringing the lions and the other circling the smaller interior, hearken back to the Achaemenid Empire. The use of the lion as a decorative device was common in the Orient. The lion-headed bracelets are illustrative of just such influences. In the East, the lion was a symbol of power and might, we have many objects, which show the leader or king in the act of killing lions (Assyrian Dying Lioness 2.25). This was to illustrate a two-fold point, the power and might of the king, Ashurbanipal fearlessly hunting the lions and the second portion of the two-fold was to illustrate the power of “man over beast”. This created for the king (Ashurbanipal) an almost divine status and emphasized his invincibility either at war or at play.
The Etruscans, on the other hand, used the lion motif not as a representation of kingly power, in this case, but rather, as an adornment to be used by both men and women. This fibula (9.1) a brooch or pin, which attaches to the garment at the shoulder, is very fine example of Etruscan metalwork. Even more intriguing is this ornament was worn and used by a women. The quality of the craftsmanship and the gold are the indicators for both her social status and wealth. The re-design of the lion motif into a gentler and softer design demonstrates the re-use of design elements. This Etruscan artist created a very elegant ornament acquiring a motif and re-defining that motif to fit into the cultural context of the patron and the cultural group itself.
This theme is repeated in other jewelry, for example, this 6th century BC pendant in gold clearly illustrates the influence of the Greeks as seen in an electrum earring with griffin heads dated c.650 BC. Both ornaments use the griffin motif, yet each has been individualized to fit into its particular cultural context. Another point to illustrate the great diversity of the Ancient World and the effectiveness of trade as a tool for cultural dissemination of ideas as artistic motifs, are two ornaments both using the griffin motif. Both the bracelet and the belt buckle are Achaemenid and were created at about the same time as the Greek Archaic earring. All three groups do, in fact, illustrate the diversity, which each group represented. All three, Achaemenid, Greek and Etruscan, share the motif, griffin, but each group has fashioned the motif to fit into its own particular cultural context.
2) Another area for discussion would be the painted interiors of Etruscan tombs. This particular art form allows the viewer to peek in on moments in time and witness events that were considered popular or important in Etruscan society. In using a social analysis methodology, certain societal standards can be touched and explained. Influential themes migrating from the Orient would be the presentation of the society in the “act of living”. We see this important theme used in earlier societies, i.e., Egypt. The great tombs of ancient Egypt are tableaux, which give us, the viewer, a peek into the daily lives of the tomb’s owner.
This same idea or concept was an important issue in Etruscan society as well. The difference in design and presentation is meaningful though. In a comparison between Egypt and Etruria, there are certain similiarties or commonalties. Both tombs have walls which are painted, for example, in the New Kingdom Dynasty XVIII tomb of Nebamun (3.31), we see a group of musicians and dancers. Its counterpart in Etruria, the tomb of the Leopards (9.8) we have the same theme, thus the commonality remains. However, the difference in depiction is clearly discernable. Both tombs served a purpose, houses for the dead. But the difference between the Egyptian and the Etruscan decorative program is in the representation of the themes. Both tombs give us a view into aristocratic life styles, but the flexibility of the Etruscan musicians is in direct opposition to the rigid and formalized presentation of the Egyptian musicians. An even more dramatic difference is the depiction of the dancers from both tombs. The girls from Nebamum’s tomb are posed and rigid. The Etruscan dancer presents a vitality and dynamic movement, which is not present in its Egyptian counterpart. We see the dancer striding across the space with open and animated arm movements and gestures. Another example of this theme is from the New Kingdom Dynasty XVIII tomb of the Vizier Rekhmire (1504–1425 BC) and the Etruscan tomb of the Triclinium at Tarquinia (5th C. BC). Again the repeated theme is music and the dance. We see the gestures and movements of the Etruscans are open and broad, while the gestures of the Egyptians are stiff and formal. The theme of “dancer and musician” crossed geographic borders but it did not remain the same, the new culture (Etruscan) transformed the theme to meet the intellectual and cultural needs of its population. Thus art served both groups, illustrating a similarity yet maintaining a difference.
Another area of likeness is the presentation of flora and fauna. In the New Kingdom Dynasty XVIII tomb of Menna (1425–1417 BC), the background is the papyrus grove in which Menna is hunting. The water birds and ducks are rendered in a free and graceful manner, unlike the rendering of the human figures. Its Etruscan complement is a figural landscape from the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing (9.9), that same informality and dynamic movement which was present in the previously cited Etruscan tombs is here as well. There is a history for representing animals in a more natural and realistic manner, which goes back to the Paleolithic period. That sense of flight is maintained by both tomb interiors; however, in the Etruscan tomb, the sense of flight is more graphically emphasized by fully involving the entire surface of the wall with the birds and not just narrow section as in the Tomb of Menna.
3) Etruscan sculpture demonstrated an innovative vision when creating sarcophagi. Unlike the Greeks, the Etruscan sarcophagus could show a “loving couple” engaged in a common activity such as this couple reclining on a banqueting couch. The cover of the sarcophagus forms the bed of the couch and the four legs supporting the sarcophagus become the couch legs as well. The artist has even gone so far as to curve the sarcophagus to form a pillow. This sarcophagus continues the joy of the banquet or dinner even into the afterlife. Cultural identity was augmented by the presentation of the couple in a clearly identified daily activity. The position of women in Etruscan was articulated by the sarcophagus, which presents women as wives attending banquets with their husbands, an unheard of concept in Greece. This type of presentation, showing women in loving conjugal relationships, was not unusual. A 5th century sarcophagus shows the couple on the banqueting couch but in different positions than the “loving couple”. The wife is sitting next to her husband rather than reclining as he is. Still the focus is on the two individuals as a couple.
Even toward the end of Etruscan sovereignty, they continued this tradition of creating a monument to contain the deceased that highlighted a particular emotional moment. The Sarcophagus of Lars Pulena (9.14) features the deceased, reclining. Lars Pulena’s facial expression is more somber, perhaps not cogitating on death, but rather, meditating on the state of his city’s circumstances. Etruria was in a constant state of siege and eventually Rome annexed Tarquinia in the early 2nd century BC. These developments dealt a deathblow to the independence of Etruria. These political events continued to be reflected in the works produced during this late period. Another example denoting this somber quality is the Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa. This echoes the dark, sad melancholy reflected in the Lars Pulena sarcophagus, but in a more contemplative fashion. The cloak-like garment Seianti is drawing over her shoulders and head, casts a shadow over her face, almost as if mimicking the loss of identity that Etruscan society was experiencing at this time. Once again, the artist has responded to the needs of the society by mirroring the emotional atmosphere of the society itself.