Who were the Etruscans?

October 13, 2013 at 6:50 pm (Art History) (, , , )

Italy’s first civilization, the Etruscans, inhabited central Italy after the first millennium BCE.  Known as Tyrrhenians to the Greeks and Tusci to the Romans, there are many theories as to Etruscan origin.  Herodotus believed that they emigrated “from Lydia in Asia Minor and that King Tyrsenos was their leader,” while Dionysus of Halicarnassus wrote that they “were native Italians (Kleiner 143).”  More current research has implied that they relocated from the North.  According to the Memphis International Cultural Series film, “The Etruscans,” the society consisted of “twelve major city-states with a stratified class structure.”  Women held a higher place in Etruscan society than in Greek and there was “upward-mobility” even for slaves.  As masters of the sea, Etruscans were proficient in both naval protection and trade with surrounding cultures.  These associations were evident Tusci art.

The Etruscans emulated Greek culture in some aspects.  For instance their artistic periods, which mirror those of the Greek, begin with an Orientalizing period.  The Regolini-Galassi Fibula (650-640 BCE) was discovered in a tomb in Cerveteri and featured five Oriental-styled lions.

Regolini-Galassi Fibula

Regolini-Galassi Fibula

During the Archaic Period, Etruscan temples, as described by Vitruvius, utilized columns similar to Greek Doric columns, but they differed in that they were made of wood and limited to the front of the building.  Unlike the Greeks, early Etruscans constructed their temples of impermanent materials, attached most statuary to the roof and housed statues of their primary gods/goddesses in three separate cellas (145).

Model of Etruscan Temple

Model of Etruscan Temple

A stunning example of rooftop, terracotta statuary is the Apulu of Veii (510-500 BCE).  The statue’s smile is characteristic of the Greek Archaic period, but early Etruscan art displays “energy and excitement” through facial expression, gestures and stance (146).

Apulu of Veii

Apulu of Veii

Much of what we know about the Etruscans is exhibited by their tombs and funerary practices.  The Banditaccia necropolis in Cerveteri contained rock-cut tombs covered by tumuli.

Cerveteri Tumuli

Cerveteri Tumuli

The many underground chambers “resembled houses of the living” and the most decorative of these tombs, the Tomb of the Reliefs, was covered with stucco reliefs depicting themes of home and family (148-149).

Tomb of the reliefs

Tomb of the reliefs

These tombs could house many generations and in some cases sarcophagi were fabricated to hold the cremated remains.  The Sarcophagus with reclining couple, found in Cerveteri (520 BCE), is particularly instrumental in depicting Etruscan culture.  It displays not only the dynamic gestures and lack of balance that differentiates Etruscan from Greek art, but the higher status of Etruscan women, who were allowed to dine with their husbands to the horror of their Greek counterparts.

Sarcophagus with reclining couple

Sarcophagus with reclining couple

Rock-cut tombs found at Tarquinia, differ from those at Cerveteri in that they are covered in colorful, mural paintings.  The Tomb of the Leopards (480-470 BCE) displays banqueting couples like those portrayed on the Cerveteri sarcophagus enjoying life under the guard of magnificent leopards.

Tomb of the Leopards

Tomb of the Leopards

Another mural, Diving and Fishing (530-520 BCE) celebrates both life and nature with all the color and vivaciousness of Minoan landscapes (150).  Greeks of this time period typically buried their dead with a “stele or statue” as a marker (147).  Although both cultures put an emphasis on life, the Etruscans clearly respected the permanence of death or afterlife.

Diving and fishing, Tarquinia

Diving and fishing, Tarquinia

The Etruscans “lack of political cohesion” left them vulnerable to the expanding Roman Empire (144).  After the Roman defeat of the last Etruscan king (509 BCE) and the remaining Etruscan fleet (474 BCE), late Etruscan art began to reflect “the economic and political decline of the once-mighty Etruscan city-states” and the influence of Roman culture (154).  The number and intricacy of tombs decreased, but the Etruscans still produced amazing works of bronze and terracotta.  The Capitoline Wolf (500-480 BCE) “capture[s] the psychic intensity of the fierce and protective beast” and was used to represent the legend of Rome’s founder Romulus and his brother Remus (151).  Although it is an Etruscan work of art, it became the emblem of the republic.

Capitoline Wolf

Capitoline Wolf

A similar statue, the Chimera of Arezzo (4th century BCE) embodies the vivacity given to humans in earlier Etruscan art.  The arched gateways later adopted by Roman architects originated with the Etruscans.

Chimera of Arezzo

Chimera of Arezzo

The Porta Marzia (2nd century BCE) brandishes one of these arches accompanied by framing pilasters, which are borrowed from Grecian architecture (153).

Porta Marzia

Porta Marzia

The dismal climate of the late Etruscan period is evidenced by the disparity between the Sarcophagus of Lars Pulena (2nd Century BCE) and earlier sarcophagi.  The subject is alone and his “somber expression contrasts sharply with the smiling, confident faces of the Archaic era when Etruria enjoyed its greatest prosperity (154).”

Sarcophagus of Lars Pulena

Sarcophagus of Lars Pulena

A very late Etruscan statue, the Aule Metele, epitomizes Roman domination, as he dons Roman clothing and is depicted in Roman style.  By the first century BCE, Etruscan culture had been completely absorbed by the Roman Empire.

Aule Metele

Aule Metele

Source:

Kleiner, Fred S.  Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.  Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.  Print.

WONDERS: The Etruscans.  Dir. Calvin Dean.  Memphis International Culture Series.  2011.  Film.

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