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THE ETRUSCANS

Soon after the Greeks founded their first colonies in southern Italy in the mid-eighth century BC they encountered an Iron Age culture not so very different from their own: that of the people who called themselves Rasenna, but were later known as Etruscans. The Etruscans were beginning to transform their small agricultural settlements into cities and were becoming the best organized inhabitants of the peninsula, the only ones who were to be a match for the Greek invaders. During the next hundred years or so their materially rich civilization rivalled that of Archaic Greece. Their language, preserved in many thousand inscriptions, was not of the Indo-European group and is still little understood. It set them apart from the other people of Italy, who spoke dialects closely related to one another, including a primitive form of Latin. It has been suggested that they were themselves relatively recent arrivals in Italy, probably from west Asia, as Herodotus stated, but this can neither be proved nor disproved.

Although they shared a common language and religion, the Etruscans were not a political unit. Their independent city-states (traditionally said to be 12), at first monarchical and later republican, were somewhat similar to the Greek poleis, though much less frequently at war among themselves. From cities on the coastal plain between the Tiber and the Arno, they expanded inland as far as the Apennines, occupying the area of modern Tuscany and Umbria, rich in minerals which they exploited. Later they spread north into the fertile valley of the Po and south nearly as far as Naples. Rome itself was ruled by Etruscan kings until 510 BC. Their influence stretched further and by the end of the sixth century BC they seem to have dominated the whole peninsula apart from the areas colonized by the Greeks. Their fleet, perhaps the most powerful in the Mediterranean, protected their widespread commercial interests.

Cultural relations between Etruscans and Greeks were complex. Before the end of the eighth century BC the Etruscans adopted an alphabet like that of the Greeks (though-an independent derivation from the Phoenician has been proposed), but they wrote from right to left. They bought Greek artifacts on a large scale, notably pottery painted with scenes from Greek myths and legends and statues of Greek deities, some of whom they adopted, for example, Apollo and Artemis. From the seventh century BC onwards Greek artists are known to have been working in Etruscan cities. Yet Etruscan culture was not simply an offshoot from that of Greece. It sprang quite independently from similar Iron Age origins. Significantly, the Greeks and later the Hellenized Romans regarded the Etruscans as people apart.

The Etruscans left no literature from which we might gain some insight into their thought, feelings, way of life or their history. We know them only from the probably biased comments of Greek and Latin writers and from the material remains of their culture, found mainly in tombs and susceptible to a bewildering range of interpretations. They have been described by ancient and modern authors as a people obsessed by death and as one wholly devoted to the pleasures of living, as deeply religious and as amorally dissolute. Their art has been condemned for its lack of originality and praised for its vital spontaneity. Etruscan bronze work is known to have been prized in Athens in the fifth century BC, that is at the height of the Greek Classical period. At least one surviving work fully justifies this estimate - the famous She-Wolf of the Capitol (4,65), for centuries the totem of the city of Rome which was traditionally founded by Romulus and Remus, who had been suckled by a she-wolf. This is a superb example of bronze casting and chasing. It is also, of course, quite unlike any Greek animal sculpture. The extraordinary realism of the tense, watchful stance - ears pricked, brow furrowed, jaws snarling, hackles rising - epitomizes at its finest and most vividly factual the unidealized, down-to-earth quality of Etruscan art.



The frontier between the arts of the Greeks and the Etruscans is less easily defined than that between the arts of the Greeks and the Scythians, Celts and Iberians. Controversy among archeologists and scholars has raged

 

around the numerous objects found in the cities and cemeteries of Etruria. There are literally thousands of Etruscan tombs with painted and sculptured decorations, cinerary urns, sarcophagi and 'grave goods' ranging from the simplest household equipment to lavish and even sophisticated works of art. Yet much remains obscure. The objects themselves have been variously attributed to Greek or Etruscan artists, all too often by highly subjective criteria. It is for this reason rather more difficult to define the art than the artistic taste of the Etruscans.

Greek 'Geometric' pottery (see pp. 129-30) of the early eighth century BC has been found in tombs at Veii (a few miles north-west of Rome). But the majority of imported objects in Etruscan tombs of the eighth and seventh centuries are in Near Eastern styles: pieces of'faience' from Egypt, Phoenician bronze-work and ivory carvings and also Greek 'Orientalizing' bronzes and painted vases. They provide evidence of a substantial luxury-loving upper class in each of the main Etruscan cities. It was for their own use or pleasure, it should be noted, that rich Etruscans bought bronze cauldrons of a type made by the Greeks exclusively for dedication to the gods.

Among the many objects in 'Orientalizing' styles there are some which are generally agreed to have been made in Italy, presumably by Etruscan craftsmen. They include ivory arms with long-fingered hands, probably handles for mirrors or fans, their sleeves decorated with prowling lions, which no inhabitant of Italy at this date is likely to have seen for himself and which must have derived ultimately from Assyrian art. Lions also appear prominently on one of the finest examples of Etruscan gold jewelry, a large fibula or clasp from a very rich and perhaps royal tomb at Caere (modern Cerveteri) (4,66). The maker of this piece derived from the Near East not only decorative motifs but also techniques of working gold which he elaborated into a feat of virtuoso craftsmanship. The five lions on the upper part are cut out and applied to the ground. Lines indicating their manes are composed of minute granules of gold; so, too, are the lines of the wreaths that surround them and the zigzags on the bars joining the two parts of the fibula, soldered to the surface by an exceptionally tricky process. On the lower part six rows of winged lions are outlined by granulation and here there are also tiny ducks modelled in the round. Etruscans clearly loved such work, on which wealth was conspicuously displayed both by the precious nature of the material and, still more, by the lavish expenditure of time and skill.

The 'Orientalizing' style of the seventh century BC drew the Etruscan cities on to the periphery of a cultural world that had its centre in Assyria, then the dominant power in the Middle East (see p. 107). It was carried throughout the Mediterranean not only by Greeks but also by Phoenicians. This great maritime trading nation had settled in the Lebanon and about 800 BC established at Carthage a colony that became their new capital, from which they gradually expanded along the coasts of north Africa and southern Spain. The Etruscans were to be closely involved with the Phoenicians, or Carthaginians as they came to be called, until both were conquered by Rome. In the sixth century BC they were allied against the Greek cities of the western Mediterranean. It was, none the less, to the Hellenic world that the Etruscans turned for works of art.

The Archaic Greek style which, as we have seen (p. 132), followed the 'Orientalizing' style in sixth-century Greece, was introduced to Etruria by imports and also by Greek artists many of whom were probably refugees from Asia

 

Minor after the Persian conquest of Ionia in 548-547 BC. Most of the more notable surviving works of art made for the Etruscans - whether by Greek or local artists - are in this style. A magnificent and unusually well-preserved bronze-covered processional chariot found in a tomb near Spoleto is a case in point (4,67). Both the subject-matter and the style of the decorations are Hellenic. On the front Achilles receives his armour, a helmet and a shield with grimacing gorgon mask, from his mother Thetis. One of the side panels shows Achilles battling with Memnon, the other the apotheosis of Achilles. Scenes from the story of the Trojan War as recounted by Homer were, of course, often painted on Greek pottery at this period, sometimes with great narrative ability. But here the compositions are so crowded that the artist's aim seems to have been merely one of enrichment.

Etruscan love of adornment found its most striking expression in bronze mirrors and caskets engraved with figurative designs of great vivacity and elegance. An early example shows an embracing couple animated in a jerky dance (4,68). Comparison with contemporary Greek vase decoration is illuminating. On an Archaic Greek vase the figures are depicted with the utmost clarity, almost as if they were a frieze of silhouettes (4,12). Here they are placed together in such a way that the design is at first sight difficult to 'read'. They are to be understood as facing one another, with the youth's right arm around the girl's shoulders. Apparent similarities between the arts of the Greeks and Etruscans are often deceptive. They overlie differences which go much deeper. For instance, a Greek statue of the late sixth or early fifth century BC, like those of the warriors on the temple at Aegina (4,21), may have provided the model for the figure of a youth on the cover of an urn found at Caere (4,69). But there is a world of difference between them. The heroic idealization of the Greeks has been brought down to earth. The Etruscan figure is much more descriptive, much more factual -almost the portrait of an individual caught in a casual moment, a banqueter resting his elbow on a cushion, with a cloth thrown lightly over his loins.

A different kind of deviation from the Greek ideal is apparent in the Apollo of Veii. This famous Etruscan statue has the face, the braided hair and even the enigmatic smile of a kouros (4,70). The motif on the pier which serves as a support between the legs is lifted straight from Greek architectural ornament. The drapery which seems to have been ironed into pleats and folds is also Greek, though imitated from a kore since male figures in Greek sculpture were usually nude. But this Apollo with his heavy limbs and somewhat lumbering gait has none of the poised elegance of Greek statues. And it differs still further from the Greek in two other respects. It is of molded terracotta, not of marble, which was very rarely used for sculpture in Etruria (not until much later did the Romans exploit the quarries at Carrara; see p. 202). And it was one of a group of figures which stood outlined against the sky along the roof ridge of a temple, giving the latter a very different aspect to that of its Greek prototype.

The earliest Etruscan temples seem to have been simple rectangular huts built of timber and mud-brick with decorations of molded and painted terracotta. Although the building materials remained the same, this basic form was amplified under Greek influence before the end of the sixth century, when temples began to be set on high plinths or podia and provided with columns, pitched roofs and triangular pediments, later filled with sculpture. Very little survives apart from foundations and fragments of terracotta, but the descriptions by Roman writers enable us to reconstruct their general form (which was to influence later Roman architecture; see pp. 199-202). In contrast to Greek temples, the cella was often divided into three compartments for different cult figures and seems never to have been completely surrounded by columns (4,71). There was a deep porch in front and sometimes colonnades on either flank, but not at the back. The podium had steps only at the front. Thus, whereas the Greek temple was intended to be seen from an angle, the Etruscan was designed to be approached along its axis and this determined the symmetrical plan of its forecourt. Etruscan temples were much smaller than the great Doric structures of the Greeks but very much more richly decorated - with figurative acroteria on the pediments, antefixes along the eaves, as well as statues on the roof ridge. Painted terracotta was extensively used both to protect the impermanent

 

building materials and for ornamental effect.

Symmetrical planning and rich decoration similarly marked their domestic architecture. Our knowledge comes mainly from tombs, which were conceived as habitations for the dead (like those of ancient Egypt) and reproduce the interior architecture and even the furniture and furnishings of the now vanished cities. The wooden columns, door-posts, lintels and decorative details of Etruscan houses are simulated in roughly carved tufa (4,72). Foundations show that the larger houses, though built only of mud-brick and timber, had spacious rooms and often a central courtyard or atrium open to the sky. By Athenian standards they were luxurious. Figurative paintings on the tomb walls, larger than any that survive from Greece, similarly reflect their interior decoration. The earliest known, in a tomb at Veii, date from the second quarter of the seventh century BC and are of ducks painted directly on the tufa without a prepared ground. They were followed slightly later by paintings of creatures from the semi-fabulous bestiary of'Orientalizing' art. Shortly after the mid-sixth century BC human figures made their appearance in the tombs of Tarquinia, painted on a prepared ground of clay plaster. (Most of the surviving tomb paintings are at Tarquinia.)

The Archaic Greek style of these Tarquinian tomb paintings is so similar to that of recently discovered paintings of about the same date in Asia Minor (notably at Gordion and in Lycian tombs) that there can be little doubt of its having been introduced by Ionian artists. Subjects include hunting and fishing scenes, athletic contests, riding exercises, wild ecstatic dancing and occasional illustrations of Greek myths and legends. A decorative scheme or program, often repeated from about 500 BC, shows banqueters reclining on one wall of a tomb chamber and, on the other three, musicians and dancers in an outdoor setting amongst trees and birds (4,73). Whether these depict funeral banquets, as in Egypt, is hard to say. Much in Etruscan tomb paintings is foreign to Italy. But as indications of the wealth of the families who commissioned them they are certainly effective. They vividly reflect the worldly pleasures of members of a moneyed upper class, who loll on their couches listening to the music of lyre and pipes while watching the elegant motions and postures of dancers and the contortions of acrobats. The Etruscans appear, in fact, as spectators and not as participants in the Dionysiac dances and athletic sports with which the Greeks honoured the gods.

It seems likely that Greek art had in Etruria the value of what would now be called a status symbol. This may partly account for the persistence there of the Archaic Greek style, which had been introduced when the Etruscan cities were at the height of their wealth and power. Schematically drawn figures in a limited number of poses, with heads and legs in profile and frontally rendered torsos, went on being painted on the walls of Etruscan tombs long after they had been superseded by more naturalistic representations on Greek pottery. Often they have great linear grace and convey a sense of exuberant, rhythmical movement. The youthful lyre-player illustrated here is a good example, his body drawn nude, partly covered with the drapery that Etruscans demanded and the outline then filled in with bright color without any modelling (4,73). No attemptseems to have been made to follow the Greeks along the path towards greater naturalism. Indeed, any departure from well-established conventions seems to have met with disapproval from Etruscan patrons. Similarly in architec-ture, once the form of the temple (adapted from Greece, as we have seen) was established it remained unchanged until Etruria was swallowed up by Rome.

In sculpture, too, the Greek Archaic style lived on, barely influenced by fifth-century developments in Greece. The closest approximation to the Classical style is seen in the famous life-size statue known as the Mars ofTodi (4,74); but this is in every way an exceptional work, the only surviving large-scale bronze of Etruscan workmanship dating from before the second century BC. It was found, carefully buried in a sarcophagus, in the ruins of a temple at Todi, just outside the territory of the Etruscan cities. An inscription written in a mixture of Etruscan and Latin characters records that it was dedicated by a man named AhalTrutitis. As on many Greek bronze statues, the lips were originally inlaid with copper and the eyes filled with colored material (a helmet, which is lost, was cast separately and attached to the head). In craftsmanship it is as skilful as the best Hellenic work of the same late fifth- or early fourth-century date. Yet it could hardly be mistaken for a Greek statue. The slightly awkward pose as well as the armour which conceals the torso set the Mars of Todi apart. His features are idealized, but according to an ideal altogether different from that of the Greeks: burly rather than athletic, with an expression of blunt assertion rather than inward self-confidence. There is, furthermore, a disturbing incongruity between the delicacy of the hands, the feet and the undergarment (especially its ruffled collar) and the lack of articulation in the thick neck and gross, swollen, rather than muscular, thighs. As in so many other Etruscan works, the naked flesh is treated summarily without any hint of that obsessive attention to the underlying structure of bone and muscle which marks the art of Greece. Nudity is rare in Etruscan art, in sculpture as in painting, where it usually indicates the inferior status of paid performers, servants or slaves. Etruscan art was focused less on images of the gods orof men displaying godlike physique with the bloom of eternal youth than on mortals. Even in the tomb the emphasis was on the here and now (at any rate until a late period). Their funerary art is, therefore, baffiingly paradoxical. The dead were normally cremated and cremation suggests a distinction between spirit and body. Yet belief in a material link between the two is implied by the Etruscan practice of providing the dead, whether cremated or buried, with the necessities and luxuries of the living. These apparently contradictory ideas lie behind the peculiar form taken by the containers in which the remains of the dead were placed.

Cinerary urns of the seventh century BC, found mainly in the cemetery of Clusium (modern Chiusi), have covers in the form of heads, sometimes with torsos and arms as well. They seem to have been evolved by a process of reification - the opposite of abstraction - from urns with helmet-shaped lids made for ashes by the early Iron Age people who preceded the Etruscans in north-central Italy (called Villanovans after an archeological site near Bologna). The impassive countenances with tightly closed lips and, usually, lowered eyelids are too alike to be described as portraits, although they were presumably intended as representations of the dead. In the tombs they were placed on chairs and later the whole urn was sometimes fashioned like an enthroned figure. For bodies which were inhumed, rather than cremated, a type of sarcophagus was developed in the sixth century BC in the form of a rectangular couch, on which a figure (or a couple) reclines (4,75). This was probably inspired by Carthaginian sarcophagi, which combined the mummy-case of ancient Egypt with the rectangular coffin of the Near East. The same general form was adopted also for cinerary urns. Stylistically the figures derive from Archaic Greece and, as we have already seen, at least one of them is a distant relative of the warriors from Aegina.

What is new and distinctive about Etruscan sarcophagi and urns is that the figures are shown alive and apparently enjoying the pleasures of the table. From the fourth century onwards they were also modelled with almost caricatured individuality as if to preserve their physical identity. Curiously, however, the introduction of this more realistic style of representation coincided with a sharp increase in references to a terrifying dark afterworld - in tombpaintings as well as in sarcophagi and urns. Two figures with strongly characterized faces and attenuated bodies on an urn from Velathri (modern Volterra) may represent either a none too happily married couple or a man accompanied by a demon of death.

A similar, if more restrained, naturalism is apparent in bronze heads. The finest, probably from a whole-length statue, is that traditionally said to portray Lucius Junius Brutus (fl. 509 BC), the supposed founder of the republic, who roused his fellow Romans to expel the last Etruscan king, TarquiniusSuperbus, from their city (4,76). Whether or not the identification is correct, this rugged face with piercing eyes, aquiline nose and sternly set jaw surely records an individual, and one with an unbending sense of purpose. Hair and short beard are rendered with all the accomplishment for which Etruscan bronze-workers were renowned. As an example of skill in casting and chasing, it surpasses the She-Wolf of the Capitol (4,63) and confirms the survival of these skills into a later period. (The drapery below the neck is part of a later, probably sixteenth-century, addition.)

The Etruscans, although they had shown themselves so strangely impervious to later developments of the Greek Classical style, were drawn into the cultural orbit of the Hellenistic world towards the end of the fourth century BC. So, too, were the Romans, soon to become the dominant power in the Italian peninsula. One by one the cities of Etruria fell to Rome and by the beginning of the first century BC the Etruscans had been absorbed into the composite population of Italy. Before long, the Roman poet Propertius was to write his famous lament:

Veii, thou hadst a royal crown of old, And in thy jorum stood a throne ojgold.

Thy walls now echo but the shepherd's horn,

And o'er thine ashes waves the summer corn. (Propertius IV, X, 27.tr. G. Dennis)

But enough survived above ground for other Roman writers, notably the architectural theorist Vitruvius, to record and discuss. One Etruscan temple built about 500 BC, with a cult statue of Jupiter by Vulca of Veii, the only named Etruscan sculptor, survived in the heart of Rome itself until 83 BC. It was then burnt down. Only the plan was preserved in the rebuilding. Otherwise the new temple was completely Hellenistic in style. It neatly illustrates the complementary legacies of Etruscan and Hellenistic culture in the formation of the art of the Roman empire.

 


Date: 2015-02-28; view: 749


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