THE BEAUTY OF ETRUSCAN ART HAS ENDURED FOR OVER 2500 YEARS
Yet its Origins Remain Steeped in Mystery and Controversy
By: Stephen Beiner
I am not at all sure that I believe in reincarnation, but if I did live in an earlier life, I very well might have been an Etruscan. When I made my first trip to Florence over twenty years ago, I immediately fell in love with the city and the surrounding Tuscan hills. I returned to Florence many times thereafter, and eventually opened an office facing the Duomo in the center of the city. Most of all, I fell in love with Etruscan art. Its strength, vibrance, elegance and simplicity continue to move me as only very beautiful art can.
Beyond the beauty of the city, the Tuscan landscape, and the elegant art, perhaps it is the underlying mystery of the Etruscans that also intrigues me. Because their language is for the most part undeciphered, we can only guess at who they were and from where they came. What we do have is magnificent art and architecture from a people that we know very little about.
There are some things that we do know about the Etruscans. We know that at the time of their greatest power, between the 7th century BCE and the 5th century BCE, Etruria probably embraced all of Italy, from the Alps to the Tiber River. The ancient Romans called the people of the country Etrusci or Tusci from which is derived the name of the modern Italian region of Tuscany, Toscana in Italian.
Attempts to identify the origins of the Etruscans have been inconclusive. Even ancient traditions do not agree on where the Etruscans came from, although no lack of speculation exists on the subject, both in antiquity and in the present. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus maintained that the Etruscans came from Lydia, an ancient country in Western Asia Minor. The Roman historian Livy and the Greek historian Polybius agreed. However, another ancient Greek historian, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, believed that the Etruscans were an indigenous Italian race.
The reason we know so little about the Etruscans is that their language continues to be indecipherable. While they used the Greek alphabet, the Etruscan language is nothing like Greek. One theory is that the Etruscan language was a remnant of a once common language that became extinct with the decline of the Etruscans. In 1954, at Pyrgi near Rome, a gold tablet with bilingual texts in Etruscan and Punic was discovered near a temple sight. Scholars hoped it would become the Rosetta Stone for the Etruscans; unfortunately linguists cannot understand the ancient Punic language either. The discovery of the Zagreb mummy also led scholars to hope for a breakthrough in understanding Etruscan. The mummy was wrapped in a linen shroud that had 1200 Etruscan words written on it. Because so many of the words on the shroud were repeated, scholars were not able to put them in context and thereby interpret them. Scholars have been struggling with translating Etruscan for centuries; writing in the 1st century BCE, the Greek historian Dionysus called the Etruscan language "unlike any other," noting the difficulties that have ever since hindered attempts to translate its surviving fragments. The Etruscan language seems to contain both Indo-European and non-Indo-European language elements as well as traces of ancient Mediterranean dialects; it cannot be classified into any known group of languages. One of the mysteries of Etruscan civilization is why the written record is so sparse and why the Romans wrote almost nothing about the Etruscan language or its literature. Because no Etruscan literary works or references survive, the people continue to remain intriguingly mysterious. What exists is their great art forms, from which we have to intuit who they were.
Archeological discoveries have shed some light on early Etruscan history. The first permanent settlements probably date to the end of the 9th century BCE. At that level of excavation, new types of sepulchers were found differing greatly from earlier burial structures of the region and containing quantities of amber, silver, gold, and Egyptian gem-work not found in any of the older tombs. The character of their art and the many distinctive features of their religion now lead scholars to believe that the original Etruscans were an Oriental or Middle Eastern people. The conclusion of most archeologists therefore is that the Etruscans did emigrate from a region in Asia Minor, if not precisely from Lydia, as Herodotus supposed. The original homeland of the Etruscans was probably between Syria and the Dardanelles.
One of the things that we do know about the Etruscans is how they treated their women. Greeks were basically misogynists and the Romans were chauvinistic. The Etruscans, on the other hand, treated their woman well and apparently held them in high esteem. We see from Roman literature that the Romans often accused the Etruscans of being too submissive to their wives. In surviving tomb cities of the Etruscans, the sarcophagus lids show the husband and wife in equal positions, often in affectionate gestures, bordering on pornographic. One well-known terracotta sarcophagus lid shows the figure of a man and a woman, presumably his wife, reclining on a triclinium (dining couch), eating a meal. Both figures are propped up on their left elbow, with the man close behind the woman. Both faces share a secret, tender smile.
Of the little that is known about the Etruscans from their art, it is clear that they were fond of music, games, and racing. The Etruscans introduced the chariot into Italy. It also is clear that the Etruscans were a highly religious people. Seeking to impose order on nature, they established strict laws to govern the relations between people and the gods. They did not approach religion with the scientific "rationalism" of the Greeks; instead they superstitiously tried to influence the afterlife of the dead by decorating their tombs as they did their houses. Despite some educated guesses about their religious practices, even this aspect of Etruscan civilization remains quite enigmatic.
Most of what is known about Etruscan religious practices comes from the art that is associated with their burial and funerary customs. The Etruscans were fond of decorating their sarcophagi with sculptures of life-like humans in natural poses. A great variety of cinerary or burial urns with magnificent sculpture and decoration have been found. In this respect, Etruscan art was greatly influenced by that of the Greek city-states, Corinth in particular. During the height of the Etruscan civilization, Greek art itself was going through what art historians refer to as the "Orientalising period." During the 8th century BCE eastern influences were bringing a new direction to Greek art, and so to Etruscan art. Most art historians characterize Etruscan art as somewhat cruder or less mature than the contemporary Greek art in style and execution. While some Etruscan art is copied from the Greeks, the Etruscans left their own individual, indelible imprint on the art they left behind, which is outstanding for its originality and imagination.
The Etruscans, like most ancient people, did not regard art for its own sake but created objects either for daily use or religious purposes. Therefore no Etruscan artists are known by name and a few examples of strictly public art or sculpture of size in durable stone exits. Additionally, Etruscan art, while sharing general characteristics, is clearly different from one city to the next, reflecting the political independence of each. The most famous Etruscan works are in terracotta (baked clay), which include not only sculptures on sarcophagi lids, but artifacts from temples and sculptures. The Etruscan wealth and power were in good part based on their knowledge of metalworking and their exploitation of iron deposits that were abundant in Etruria. They brought the older art of bronze working to a new height. The She-wolf now in the museum in Rome and the Chimaera, now in the Museo Archeologico in Florence, both made in the 5th century BCE, are remarkable examples of bronze animal sculpture. Etruscan gold work was among the finest anywhere in the ancient world. Etruscan art reached its zenith in the late 7th century and early 6th century BCE; working in bronze, the Etruscans made chariots, bowls, candelabra and polished mirrors, all richly engraved with mythological motifs. The Etruscans also crafted fine gold, silver and ivory jewelry, using filigree and granulation. While the Etruscans first imported or copied painted Greek pottery, they soon became expert at the potter's wheel. They developed a distinctive polished black bucchero ware with delicately incised or relief decoration that suggested metalwork.
Etruscan art, while originally dependent upon Greek art, developed its own quite complex forms. While recognizably Hellenized, the underlying spirit of Etruscan art retained an energy quite different from its Greek counterpart, which searched for precision. The Etruscans had a highly developed sense of beauty and proportion; a careful appreciation of the magnificent art that they left as their legacy provides us a small window on their civilization and highly developed culture.
Stephen Beiner practices family law; wills, trusts, estates, and probate law; and art law in Boca Raton, Florida. Together with his wife, Judith, he owns the Griffin Gallery of Ancient Art, located at 5501 North Federal Hwy., #4, Boca Raton, Florida.