The Italian peninsula did not emerge into the light of history until
fairly late. The Bronze Age, which dawned first in Mesopotamia about
4000 B.C.. came to an end
in the Italian peninsula only in the eighth century B.C.. about the time
the earliest Greeks began to settle along the southern shores of Italy
and in Sicily. Even earlier, if we are to believe the Classical Greek
historian Herodotus, another great migration had taken place. The
Etruscans had left their homeland of Lydia in Asia Minor and settled in
the area between Florence and Rome, which to this day is known as
Tuscany, the country of the Tusci or Etrusci. Who were the Etruscans?
Did they really come from Asia Minor? Herodotus' claim is still the
subject of lively debate among scholars. We know that the Etruscans
borrowed their alphabet from the Greeks toward the end of the eighth
century, but their language, of which our understanding is still very
limited, has no kin among any known tongues.
Culturally and artistically, the Etruscans are strongly linked with
Asia Minor and the ancient Near East, yet they also show many traits for
which no parallels can be found anywhere. Might they not, then, be a
people whose presence on Italian soil goes back to before the
Indo-European migrations of about 2000-1200
B.C. that brought the Mycenaeans and the Dorian
tribes to Greece and the ancestors of the Romans to Italy? If so, the
sudden flowering of Etruscan civilization from about
700 B.C. onward could have
resulted from a fusion of this prehistoric Italian stock with small but
powerful groups of seafaring invaders from Lydia in the course of the
eighth century. Interestingly enough, such a hypothesis comes very close
to the legendary origin of Rome. The Romans believed that their city had
been founded in 753 B.C.
by the descendants of refugees from Troy in Asia Minor. Was this perhaps
an Etruscan story which the Romans later made their own, along with a
great many other things they took from their predecessors?
Human-headed cinerary urn.
Museo Etrusco, Chiusi, Italy
What the Etruscans themselves believed about their origin
we do not know. The only Etruscan writings that have come
down to us are brief funerary inscriptions and a few
somewhat longer texts relating to religious ritual, though
Roman authors tell us that a rich Etruscan literature once
existed. We would, in fact, know practically nothing about
the Etruscans at first hand were it not for their elaborate
tombs. They were not molested when the Romans destroyed or
rebuilt Etruscan cities and therefore have survived intact
until modern times.
Italian Bronze Age burials had been of the modest sort
found elsewhere in prehistoric Europe. The remains of the
deceased, contained in a pottery vessel or urn, were placed
in a simple pit along with the equipment they required in
afterlife: weapons for men, jewelry and household tools for
women. In Mycenaean Greece, this primitive cult of the dead
had been elaborated under Egyptian influence, as shown by
the monumental beehive tombs. Something very similar
happened eight centuries later in Tuscany. Toward
700 B.C., Etruscan
tombs began to imitate, in stone, the interiors of actual
dwellings, covered by great conical mounds of earth. They
could be roofed by vaults or domes built of horizontal,
overlapping courses of stone blocks, as was the Treasury of
Atreus at Mycenae (see fig.
132). At the same time, the
pottery urns gradually took on human shape. The lid grew
into the head of the deceased, and body markings appeared on
the vessel itself, which could be placed on a sort of throne
to indicate high rank (fig.
226). Alongside the modest
beginnings of funerary sculpture, we find sudden evidence of
great wealth in the form of exquisite goldsmiths' work
decorated with motifs familiar from the Orientalizing Greek
vases of the same period (see fig.
intermingled with precious objects imported from the ancient
The seventh and sixth centuries B.C. saw the Etruscans at
the height of their power. Their cities rivaled those of the
Greeks; their fleet dominated the western Mediterranean and
protected a vast commercial empire competing with the Greeks
and Phoenicians; and their territory extended as far as
Naples in the south and the lower Po Valley in the north.
Rome itself was ruled by Etruscan kings for about a century,
until the establishing of the Republic in
510 B.C. The kings
threw the first defensive wall around the seven hills,
drained the swampy plain of the Forum, and built the
original temple on the Capitoline Hill, thus making a city
out of what had been little more than a group of villages
But the Etruscans, like the Greeks, never formed a
unified nation. They were no more than a loose federation of
individual city-states given to quarreling among themselves
and slow to unite against a common enemy. During the fifth
and fourth centuries B.C., one Etruscan city after another
succumbed to the Romans. By the end of the third century,
all of them had lost their independence, although many
continued to prosper, if we are to judge by the richness of
their tombs during the period of political decline.
Tombs and Their Decoration
The flowering of Etruscan civilization thus coincides with the
Archaic age in Greece. During this period, especially near the end of
the sixth and early in the fifth century B.C., Etruscan art showed its
greatest vigor. Greek Archaic influence had
Orientalizing tendencies (many of the finest Greek vases have been found
in Etruscan tombs of that time) but Etruscan artists did not simply
imitate their Hellenic models. Working in a very different cultural
setting, they retained their own clear-cut identity.
One might expect to see the Etruscan cult of the dead wane under
Greek influence, but that was by no means the case. On the contrary, the
tombs and their equipment grew more elaborate as the capacities of the
sculptor and painter expanded. The deceased themselves could now be
represented full-length, reclining on the lids of sarcophagi shaped like
couches, as if they were participants in a festive repast, an Archaic
smile about their lips. The monumental example in figures
228 shows a husband and
wife side by side, strangely gay and majestic at the same time. The
entire work is of terracotta and was once painted in bright colors. The
smoothly rounded, elastic forms betray the Etruscan sculptor's
preference for modeling in soft materials, in contrast to the Greek love
of stone carving. There is less formal discipline here but an
extraordinary directness and vivacity characteristic of Etruscan art as
227, 228. Sarcophagus,
from Cerveteri. ñ 520 B.C. Terracotta, length
m). Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome
EARLY FUNERARY BELIEFS.
We do not know precisely what ideas the Archaic Etruscans held about the
afterlife. Effigies such as our reclining couple, which for the first
time in history represent the deceased as thoroughly alive and enjoying
themselves, suggest that they regarded the tomb as an abode not only for
the body but for the soul as well (in contrast to the Egyptians, who
thought of the soul as roaming freely and whose funerary sculpture
therefore remained "inanimate").
Perhaps the Etruscans believed that by filling the tomb with
banquets, dancing, games, and similar pleasures they could induce the
soul to stay put in the city of the dead and therefore not haunt the
realm of the living. How else are we to understand the purpose of the
wonderfully rich array of murals in these funerary chambers? Since
nothing of the sort has survived in Greek territory, they are uniquely
important, not only as an Etruscan achievement but also as a possible
reflection of Greek wall painting.
TOMB OF HUNTING AND FISHING.
Perhaps the most astonishing murals are found in the Tomb of Hunting and
Fishing at Tarquinia of about 520
B.C. Figure 229
shows the great marine panorama at one end of the
low chamber: a vast, continuous expanse of water and sky in which the
fishermen and the hunter with his slingshot play only an incidental
part. The free, rhythmic movement of birds and dolphins is strangely
reminiscent of Minoan painting of a thousand years earlier (see fig.
122), but the
weightless, floating quality of Cretan art is absent. We might also
recall Exekias' Dionysus in a boat (see fig.
145) as the closest Greek
counterpart to our scene. The differences, however, are as revealing as
the similarities, and one wonders if any Greek Archaic artist knew how
to place human figures in a natural setting as effectively as the
Etruscan painter did. Could the mural have been inspired by Egyptian
scenes of hunting in the marshes, such as the one in figure
70? They seem the most convincing
precedent for the general conception of our subject. If so, the Etruscan
artist has brought the scene to life, just as the reclining couple in
figure 228 has
been brought to life compared with Egyptian funerary statues.
TOMB OF THE LIONESSES.
A somewhat later example from another tomb in Tarquinia (fig.
230) shows a pair
of ecstatic dancers. The passionate energy of their movements again
strikes us as uniquely Etruscan rather than Greek in spirit. Of
particular interest is the transparent garment of the woman, which lets
the body shine through. In Greece, this differentiation appears only a
few years earlier, during the final phase of Archaic vase painting. The
contrasting body color of the two figures continues a practice
introduced by the Egyptians more than 2,000
years before (see fig.
229. Tomb of Hunting and Fishing,
Tarquinia, Italy, ñ. 520
230. Musicians and Two Dancers. Detail of a
wall painting, ñ. 480-470
B.C. Tomb of the Lionesses, Tarquinia, Italy
LATER FUNERARY BELIEFS.
During the fifth century, the Etruscan view of the hereafter must have
become a good deal more complex and less festive. We notice the change
immediately if we compare the group in figure
231, a cinerary container
carved of soft local stone soon after 400
B.C., with its predecessor in figure
228. The woman now sits at
the foot of the couch, but she is not the wife of the young man. Her
wings indicate that she is the demon of death, and the scroll in her
left hand records the fate of the deceased. The young man is pointing to
it as if to say, "Behold, my time has come." The thoughtful, melancholy
air of the two figures may be due to some extent to the influence of
Classical Greek art which pervades the style of our group (compare
fig. 200). At
the same time, however, a new mood of uncertainty and regret is felt.
Human destiny is in the hands of inexorable supernatural forces, and
death is now the great divide rather than a continuation, albeit on a
different plane, of life on earth.
In later tombs, the demons of death gain an even more fearful aspect.
Other, more terrifying demons enter the scene, often battling against
benevolent spirits for possession of the soul of the deceased. One of
these demons appears in the center of figure
232, a tomb of the third
century B.C. at Cerveteri, richly decorated with stucco reliefs rather
than paintings. The entire chamber, cut into the live rock, closely
imitates the interior of a house, including the beams of the roof. The
sturdy pilasters (note the capitals, which recall the Aeolian type from
Asia Minor in fig. 178),
as well as the wall surfaces between the niches, are
covered with exact reproductions of weapons, armor, household
implements, small domestic animals, and busts of the deceased. In such a
setting, the snake-legged demon and his three-headed hound (whom we
recognize as Cerberus, the guardian of the infernal regions) seem
Youth and Demon of Death. Cinerary container.
Early 4th century B.C. Stone (pietra fetida), length
47" (119.4 cm).
Musco Archeologico Nazionale, Florence
232. Burial chamber. Tomb of the Reliefs,
Cerveteri. Italy. 3rd
Temples and Their Decoration
Only the stone foundations of Etruscan temples have survived, since
the buildings themselves were built of wood. Apparently the Etruscans,
although they were masters of masonry construction for other purposes,
rejected for religious reasons the use of stone in temple architecture.
The design of their sanctuaries bears a general resemblance to the
simpler Greek temples (fig.
but with several
distinctive features, some of them later perpetuated by the Romans. The
entire structure rests on a tall base, or podium, that is no wider than
the cella and has steps only on the south side; these lead to a deep
porch, supported by two rows of four columns each, and to the cella
beyond. The cella is generally subdivided into three compartments, for
Etruscan religion was dominated by a triad of gods, the predecessors of
the Roman Juno, Jupiter, and Minerva. The Etruscan temple, then, must
have been of a squat, squarish shape compared to the graceful Greek
sanctuaries, and more closely linked with domestic architecture.
Needless to say, it provided no place for stone sculpture. The
decoration usually consisted of terracotta plaques covering the
architrave and the edges of the roof. Only after
B.C. do we occasionally find large-scale terracotta
groups designed to fill the pediment above the porch.
233. Reconstruction of an Etruscan
temple. Museo delle Antichita Etrusche e Italiche, Rome
We know, however, of one earlier attemptand
an astonishingly bold oneto
find a place for monumental sculpture on the exterior of an Etruscan
temple. The so-called Temple of Apollo at Veii, not very far north of
Rome, was a structure of standard type in every other respect, but it
also had four lifesize terracotta statues on the ridge of its roof (seen
also in the reconstruction model, fig.
233). They formed a dramatic group of the
sort we might expect in Greek pedimental sculpture: the contest of
Hercules and Apollo for the sacred hind, in the presence of other
deities. The best preserved of these figures is the Apollo (fig.
acknowledged to be the masterpiece of Etruscan Archaic sculpture. His
massive body, completely revealed beneath the ornamental striations of
the drapery; the sinewy, muscular legs; the hurried, purposeful strideall
these betray an expressive power that has no counterpart in
free-standing Greek statues of the same date.
from Veii. ñ. 510
B.C. Terracotta, height
69" (175.3 cm).
Museo N'azionale di Villa Giulia, Rome
That Veii was indeed a sculptural center at the end of the sixth
century seems to be confirmed by the Roman tradition that the last of
the Etruscan rulers of the city called on a master from Veii to make the
terracotta image of Jupiter for the temple on the Capitoline Hill. This
image has disappeared, but an even more famous symbol of Rome, the
bronze figure of the she-wolf, that nourished Romulus and Remus, is
still in existence (fig. 235).
The two babes are Renaissance additions, and the
early history of the statue is obscure; some scholars, therefore, have
even suspected it of being a medieval work. Nevertheless, it is almost
surely an Etruscan Archaic original, for the wonderful ferocity of
expression, the latent physical power of the body and legs, have the
same awesome quality we sense in the Apollo from Veii. In any
event, the she-wolf as the totemic animal of Rome has the strongest
links with Etruscan mythology, in which wolves seem to have played an
important part from very early times.
She-Wolf, ñ. 500 B.C.
Bronze, height ÇÇ1/2"
Musco Capitolino, Rome
Portraiture and Metalwork
The Etruscan concern with effigies of the deceased might lead us to
expect an early interest in individual portraiture. Yet the features of
such funerary images as those in figures
are entirely impersonal, and it was only toward
300 B.C., under the influence of
Greek portraiture, that individual likenesses began to appear in
Etruscan sculpture. The finest of them are not funerary portraits, which
tend to be rather crude and perfunctory, but the heads of bronze
statues. Portrait of a Boy (fig.
is a real masterpiece of its kind. The
firmness of modeling lends a special poignancy to the sensitive mouth
and the gentle, melancholy eyes.
No less impressive is the very high quality of the casting and
finishing, which bears out the ancient fame of the Etruscans as master
craftsmen in metal. Their ability in this respect was of long standing,
for the wealth of Etruria was founded on the exploitation of copper and
iron deposits. From the sixth century on, they produced large quantities
of bronze statuettes, mirrors, and such, both for export and domestic
consumption. The charm of these small pieces is well displayed by the
engraved design on the back of a mirror done soon after
B.C. (fig. 237).
Within an undulating wreath of vines, we see a
winged old man, identified as Chalchas, examining a roundish object. The
draftsmanship is so beautifully balanced and assured that we are tempted
to assume that Classical Greek art was the direct source of inspiration.
of a Box. Early 3rd
century B.C. Bronze, height
9" (23 cm). Museo
Archeologico Nazionale, Florence
back of a mirror, ñ 400
B.C. Bronze, diameter 6" (15.3
cm). Vatican Museums, Rome
So far as the style of our piece is concerned, this may well be the
case, but the subject is uniquely Etruscan, for the winged genius is
gazing at the liver of a sacrificial animal.
We are witnessing a practice that loomed as large in the lives of the
Etruscans as the care of the dead: the search for omens or portents. The
Etruscans believed that the will of the gods manifested itself through
signs in the natural world, such as thunderstorms or the flight of
birds, and that by reading them people could find out whether the gods
smiled or frowned upon their enterprises. The priests who knew the
secret language of these signs enjoyed enormous prestige. Even the
Romans were in the habit of consulting them before any major public or
private event. Divination (as the Romans called the art of interpreting
omens) can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia, and the practice was
not unknown in Greece, but the Etruscans carried it further than any of
their predecessors. They put especial trust in the livers of sacrificial
animals, on which, they thought, the gods had inscribed the hoped-for
divine message. In fact, they viewed the liver as a sort of microcosm,
divided into regions that corresponded, in their minds, to the regions
of the sky.
Weird and irrational as they were, these practices became part of our
cultural heritage, and echoes of them persist to this day. True, we no
longer try to tell the future by watching the flight of birds or
examining animal livers, but tea leaves and horoscopes are still
prophetic to many people. And ,we speak of auspicious events, that is,
of events indicating a favorable future, unaware that "auspicious"
originally referred to a favorable flight of birds. Perhaps we do not
believe very seriously that four-leaf clovers bring good luck and black
cats bad luck, yet a surprising number of us admit to being
The Architecture of Cities
According to Roman writers, the Etruscans were masters of
architectural engineering, and of town planning and surveying. That the
Romans learned a good deal from them can hardly be doubted, but exactly
how much the Etruscans contributed to Roman architecture is difficult to
say, since very little Etruscan or early Roman architecture remains
standing above ground. Roman temples certainly retained many Etruscan
features, and the atrium, the central hall of the Roman house (see
likewise originated in Etruria. In town planning and surveying, too, the
Etruscans have a good claim to priority over the Greeks. The original
homeland of the Etruscans, Tuscany, was too hilly to encourage geometric
schemes. However, when they colonized the flatlands south of Rome in the
sixth century, they laid out their newly founded cities as a network of
streets centering on the intersection of two main thoroughfares, the
cardo (which ran north and south) and the decumanus (which
ran east and west). The four quarters thus obtained could be further
subdivided or expanded, according to need. This system, which the Romans
adopted for the new cities they were to found throughout Italy, western
Europe, and North Africa, may have been derived from the plan of
Etruscan military camps. Yet it also seems to reflect the religious
beliefs that made the Etruscans divide the sky into regions according to
the points of the compass and place their temples along a north-south
The Etruscans must also have taught the Romans how to build
fortifications, bridges, drainage systems, and aqueducts, but hardly
anything remains of their enterprises in these fields. The only
impressive surviving monument is the Porta Augusta in Perugia, a
fortified city gate of the second century B.C. (fig.
The gate itself, recessed between two massive towers, is
not just an entry but a true architectural facade. The tall opening is
spanned by a semicircular arch framed by a molding. Above is a
balustrade of dwarf pilasters alternating with round shields, a pattern
derived from the triglyphs and metopes of the Doric frieze. This
ensemble supports a second arched opening (now filled in) flanked by two
238. Porta Augusta, Perugia.
2nd century B.C.
The arches here are true, which means they are constructed of
wedge-shaped blocks, called voussoirs, each pointing toward the center
of the semicircular opening (see fig.
239). Such an arch is strong and
self-sustaining, in contrast to the "false" arch composed of horizontal
courses of masonry or brickwork (like the opening above the lintel of
the Lion Gate at Mycenae, fig. 137).
The true arch, and its extension, the barrel
vault, had been discovered in Egypt as early as about
2700 B.C., but the Egyptians had
used it mainly in underground tomb structures and in utilitarian
buildings (see fig. 79),
never in temples. Apparently they thought it unsuited to
monumental architecture. In Mesopotamia, the true arch was used for city
gates (see fig. 103)
and perhaps elsewhere as well;
to what extent we cannot determine for lack of preserved examples.
The Greeks knew the principle from the fifth century on, but they
confined the use of the true arch to underground structures or to simple
gateways, refusing to combine it with the elements of the architectural
orders. And herein lies the importance of the Porta Augusta: it is the
first instance we know in which arches were integrated with the
vocabulary of the Greek orders into a monumental whole. The Romans were
to develop this combination in a thousand ways, but the merit of having
invented it, of having made the arch respectable, as it were, seems to
belong to the Etruscans.