Etruscan Art Essay

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Terracotta vase in the shape of a cockerel


Terracotta inscribed alabastron (perfume vase)


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Bronze thymiaterion


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Terracotta cinerary urn


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Etruscan Painting

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 dead.

The oldest known painted tomb in Etruria is the Tomb of the Ducks at Veii. On the walls are plain red and yellow zones, divided by horizontal bands of red, yellow, and black, upon which struts a row of birds. The colours and drawing recall 7th-century pottery in the Sub-geometric style. Painted scenes flank an inner doorway of the Campana Tomb, also at Veii; here natural colours and proportions are disregarded and every available space filled with animal or floral motifs.

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 are Etruscan.

From mid-Archaic to Hellenistic times Tarquinia was the greatest centre of tomb-painting. The fresco technique was generally used - walls of rock-cut tombs were thinly covered in plaster, the outlines of the picture sketched or incised, and the painting filled in while the plaster remained damp. Some of the paintings can be seen in the tombs; others are in the Museo Nazionale, Tarquinia.

The Archaic paintings have a two-dimensional plane, their designs based upon the relationship of figures and colours employed. Heads are drawn in profile, shoulders are frequently full-view, and legs are again in profile. Artists filled in these outlines with a uniform wash, adding some internal details. Blue and green were added to the palette and differing shades of colour were used.

The Etruscans' paintings abound with exuberant life, fully reflecting their confidence at this time. Funerary themes, such as banquets and athletic games, are repeated but other aspects of life appear. Only the back wall of the Tomb of the Bulls, dated 540-530 BCE, is fully decorated. Its principal scene illustrates a Greek epic story but erotic subjects are also shown. On all four walls of the Tomb of the Augurs are themes of funerary ritual and sports, some figures recalling the contemporary style of black-figure vase painting. The Tomb of Hunting and Fishing has carefree outdoor scenes whilst the main person in the Tomb of the Jugglers watches a display in his honour. The Tomb of the Baron illustrates a tranquil moment of worship or greeting.

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 period.

At this time the custom of tomb-painting had spread inland to Chiusi and other centres. At Tarquinia there are fewer tombs painted in the Classical period but, by the 4th century BCE, decisive developments had taken place in the graphic arts. The drawing style of the painted pottery and engraved bronzes evokes three-dimensional space, in which overlapping figures are presented in integral groups, their heads and bodies sometimes shown in three-quarter poses and with foreshortening. These techniques were also used in large-scale paintings in polychrome, in which shading and highlights were added to express volume: the artists were also concerned to contrast light and dark areas. The scene of a Greek fighting Amazons, on a sarcophagus from Tarquinia (Museo Archeologico, Florence), illustrates late Classical handling of linear perspective and colour tones. It may have been painted by a Greek artist working in Etruria.

As in other Etruscan art forms, a mood of despondency and a preoccupation with death are shown in Hellenistic tomb-paintings. Dreadful demons appear, often escorting the dead to the underworld and an idea of judgment is evident. Strong family feeling prevails, however, in paintings like those in the Tomb of the Shields at Tarquinia, in which successive generations are shown banqueting. The artist has attempted to express individuality and names are written beside the portraits. Occasionally civic pride appears, as in the illustration of the rescue of some famous Etruscan prisoners and the murder of their captors, or a full-length portrait of a nobleman in ceremonial robes from the Francois Tomb at Vulci (Museo Torlonia, Rome). Such scenes remind us of the Etruscans' own recollections of their glorious past and of their contribution to Roman ritual.

Etruscan Minor Arts

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.

Etruscan Pottery

The principal form of ancient pottery developed by the Etruscans is a black, glossy ware called bucchero, which appears before the middle of the 7th century BCE. Sometimes Villanovan forms with incised decoration were followed, but Greek pottery shapes became increasingly copied. Modeled embellishments were added, especially on vases imitating metalwork or carved ivory, and repeating patterns were impressed with a roller stamp. In the Archaic period, bucchero became heavy and over-decorated and, during the 5th century BCE, production ceased. See also: Pottery Timeline.

Until about 550 BCE, Corinthian black-figure imports continued to dominate the Etruscan markets. Subsequently Ionian influence is evident and Ionian craftsmen even worked in Etruria. Their most outstanding products are the Caeretan hydriae, a series of water-jars made at Cerveteri. Athenian potters manufactured special exports for Etruria and, as their superb black-figure and red-figure pottery increased in popularity, they monopolized the trade. Meanwhile Etruscan potters produced black-figure vases with Greek forms. The painting is seldom elegant, but is usually bold, with lively figures.

The Etruscans were slow to adopt the true red-figure technique. At first they painted figures in red over a black ground, though they were aware of the development in drawing technique in the early Classical period. By the end of the 5th century BCE fine· red-figure vases, closely following Attic style, were being made, mainly at Vulci and at Civita Castellana. The south Italian schools also influenced Etruscan pottery of the 4th century BCE, when northern cities, including Volterra, were producing red-figure ware. Black-glaze pottery became popular and, during the Hellenistic period sophisticated vase forms, silvered to imitate metal, were manufactured in central Etruria.

Etruscan Metalworking

The Greeks praised Etruscan metalwork, particularly their goldsmithing and bronzes. Bronze was used for a very wide variety of goods, from jewellery to armour, from horse-gear to household furniture. Bronze was hammered, worked in repousse, cast and engraved, the craftsmen following contemporary technical developments and artistic styles.

Pottery forms, especially those used for serving wine, were reproduced in bronze. Ladles, strainers, candelabra, incense-burners, braziers with their equipment, and other types of household goods were made of bronze and often finely decorated. Personal possessions include men's helmets, shields, armor, and beautiful toilet articles for women. Among these are caskets, in which combs, carved powder boxes, delicate perfume bottles, and the accompanying perfume pins and oil flasks were kept, and the wonderful series of hand mirrors with mythological and genre scenes engraved upon the backs.

Etruscan Decorative Artifacts

Among luxury goods, amber and ivory were carved, the former used mainly for jewellery and the latter for chalices, combs, and boxes. Multicoloured glass served for beads, brooches, and perfume-bottles. Semi-precious stones were cut and employed in rings and other jewelry. Gold and silver were used for cups and jugs and, above all, for jewellery. Etruscan jewelry is celebrated for its craftsmanship, particularly for goldwork using the technique of granulation. In the 7th century BCE Italic forms and Orientalizing designs were mingled in Etruscan jewellery but later Hellenic taste was followed. Brooches, pins, finger-rings, bracelets, earrings, hair-bands, buckles, and other pieces were exquisitely worked in the contemporary artistic style, a reminder of both the good taste and the ostentation of Etruscan nobles in the centuries of their prosperity.

The Legacy of Etruscan Art

Modern art historians have reached different conclusions about the achievements of the Etruscans in the visual arts. Some have considered them mere plagiarists, adopting Greek forms with little originality and indifferent ability. Indeed, for many years the question of Etruscan art's proper position among all the other Mediterranean arts has given rise to heated discussion. In 1879, J. Martha wrote: "The one great misfortune of Etruscan art was that it never had time to take shape." Modern critics have reached the conclusion that this art shows a complete lack of originality and represents nothing more than a totally provincial output, a mere reflection of Greek art on which it modelled itself. But see also: Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30).

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 Tuscany.

Some truth lies at both extremes. Without a substantial Italic tradition in the visual arts, the Etruscans were inspired by Hellenic styles in all seven centuries of their independent artistic development. Yet lacking the historic and intellectual background of Greek art, Etruscan artists sometimes failed to respond to Greek ideals and were capable of producing poor-quality work unacceptable in the Greek world. Etruscan art cannot claim to rank with that of Greece but its merit distinguishes it from contemporary Italic cultures and requires that it be judged by Greek standards. The Etruscans were always selective in their choice of Greek artistic precedents but, when their artists carefully followed them, they came close to the Hellenic models. When they took Greek forms and styles but adapted them to Etruscan conventions and taste, they subtly transformed them into their own, and even contributed new art forms.

The Etruscans must also take their place in the history of the visual arts as vital intermediaries between the Greeks and Romans. Profiting from the rich resources of their homeland, the Etruscans welcomed the civilization of their Greek contemporaries. During Rome's early development the neighbouring Etruscans were an acknowledged source of culture (especially for Celtic artists of the Hallstatt and La Tene styles), and introduced many Hellenic forms to Rome. A natural talent for draughtsmanship shines out of Etruscan achievements in the minor arts and especially in engraving on precious metals and bronze. It was probably in the field of plate and jewellery that the Etruscans exploited their technical skill and decorative taste to the utmost. Treasures from the tombs of the 'Orientalised' period have a characteristic richness and elaboration, and some Etruscan jewellery of the 7th and 6th centuries truly represents a high-water mark of art.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from "A History of Art": General Editor Sir Lawrence Gowling (1995), an outstanding work of reference which we highly recommend to all art lovers.

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