Italy as a unified country did not exist until the 19th century. The area we know as Italy, or the boot-shaped peninsula that extends into the Mediterranean Sea was originally colonized by peoples from Greece, areas from around the Mediterranean and other areas from the North including the Celts. By the 6th c. BCE a group known as the Etruscans had gained control of much of the north and central Italy. The Etruscan society was largely centred on Etruria (modern Tuscany) but would eventually rule the little Latin-speaking town on the Tiber River, Rome. With the rise of Romans, the Etrurians were assimilated into that larger body that would go on to be the largest Empire of the early Common Era. The Etruscan peoples were originally the most successful of the early populations of what is today Italy. The height of the civilization was around 900–27 BCE. They were a highly organized society with a religion gleaned largely from the Greek pantheon and a government that would be something of a model for the early Romans. The first Roman kings were from Etruscan heritage.
- Identify and describe the form, content, and context of Etruscan art
- Define the critical terms related to Etruscan art
- Explain Etruscan funerary practices
- Contrast Greek and Etruscan architecture
The Etruscans had a written language that seems to have been based on early Greek. It has not been entirely translated by modern scholars and so much of what can be known about the early Etruscans is through the objects they left behind and from a few oblique historical references. The objects that have been recovered from places like the necropolises of Cerveteri and Veii.
The Etruscans were also navigators of the seas surrounding the Italian peninsula trading with the advanced cultures of Greece, the islands, and areas further to the north and south. They were adept at bronze work and created sculpture, practical implements and weapons for exchange in trade. Etruscans built their cities in high places, which is not uncommon in areas vulnerable to attack across the land. Early Rome seems to have been built on the Etruscan model with the seven hills proving an optimum site.
They had an organized system of governance, the groups were still individual city-states although there is evidence that some of these organized themselves into a confederation or league at one point with a more centralized rule. Because trade was so lucrative, families could accrue wealth and so move up in the social construct of the city. That family life was central to the Etruscans is evidenced by the multiple members buried in the tombs and that they were wealthy by the burial goods placed with them. There is something of an Egyptian quality to the focus on burial places and goods in the Etruscan necropolis.
As with many aspects of Etruscan life, Greek models are suggestive but with significant differences. Firstly, Etruscan temples, like their homes, were made of mud-brick instead of marble or stone. This means that unlike the Parthenon history has no examples remaining of actual Etruscan temple architecture. However, Vetruvius – a 1st c. BCE Roman writer, architect, and engineer – gave an account of the Etruscan temple in his De Architectura.
According to Vitruvius the temples had a wooden structure with mud-brick walls which were then covered in stucco which could be painted or polished. Two rows of columns stood across the front porch (or pronaos) and were usually made of painted wood, although a temple at Veii had marble columns. There was a central staircase approach. There might be more than one cella, or interior space, on a tufa foundation. The tufa foundation you see in the image above is what remains of an Etruscan temple at Orvieto. While Greek temples tended to be rectangular the Etruscan model was more square in configuration.
Etruscan temples had low wooden roofs covered in tiles that extended beyond the foundation. This created some protection from the elements for the mud-brick structure. Unlike Greek temples with relief carving primarily reserved for the pediment and entablature areas, Etruscan temples had akroteria on the roofline which added to the visibility of the sculpture.
Like most sculpture from the ancient world, this would have been painted in bright colours. The Apulu (Apollo) of Veii is a terra cotta figure that would have been affixed to the roofline of the temple. According to Barbara Borg, the statue may have been made by the artist known as Vulca, the only Etruscan artist known by name. Note the dynamic striding posture of the figure with drapery that falls in stylized decorative folds. His lyre sits between his feet and he wears the archaic smile that signified life.
Other stone carvings called antefixes stood at the ends of the wooden roof beams offering some physical protection to the organic materials. They were often carved to represent the god Dionysus or Medusa, the Gorgon – apotropaic figures meant to offer spiritual protection from evil.
Etruscan tombs are sophisticated and complex structures that are very suggestive of the outlook on life and death shared by that culture. Like other ancient peoples, the Etruscans created special “cities of the dead” (necropolises) outside the walls of the cities of the living, but, arranged them both outside and in to mirror the places they had occupied while alive. The tumulus, or mound of the tombs, stood over multichambered depressions or rooms cut out of the tufa, a kind of local limestone. These tombs could cover a very large area and are thought to have housed the remains of generations of entire families. The tombs were laid out in an orderly manner like streets in a literal city. A number of these necropolises have been discovered, among them the large one of Banditaccia which contains several significant structures.
End of the Etruscans
The eventual dominance of Rome spelled the end of the Etruscan wealth and society. The people and their art continue but under the rule of the Romans and in the service of that culture. One of the objects from this later period of Etruscan art is the Capitoline Wolf, ca. 500-480 BCE. Some scholars suggest this work is not Etruscan and the two infants, Romulus and Remus, were definitely created during the 15th century. But most agree this represents an Etruscan workshop at the height of its powers, even if the subject belongs to the origin story of their successors.
- The Etruscans were a highly organized society with a religion gleaned largely from the Greek pantheon and a government that would be something of a model for the early Romans.
- Etruscan temples, like their homes, were made of mud-brick instead of marble or stone. This means that unlike the Parthenon history has no examples remaining of actual Etruscan temple architecture. However, Vetruvius – a 1st c. BCE Roman writer, architect, and engineer – gave an account of the Etruscan temple in his De Architectura.
- Etruscan tombs are sophisticated and complex structures that are very suggestive of the outlook on life and death shared by that culture.
Adapted from “Boundless Art History” https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/early-etruscan-art/ License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike