Who the Etruscans Were and Why Their Art is Important
D.H. Lawrence, in his witty essay Etruscan Places written in 1929, explains that “the Etruscans, as everyone knows, were the people who occupied the middle of Italy in early Roman days, and whom the Romans, in their usual neighborly fashion, wiped out entirely.”
Etruscan art before D.H. Lawrence’s essay had generally been viewed as a debased form of Greek art. Lawrence described the general feeling toward Etruscan art: “most people despise everything BC that isn’t Greek, for the good reason that it ought to be Greek even if it isn’t.” The truth is that Etruscan art was and is extremely important for the influence it had over Roman art and architecture.
We know the Etruscans settled in the area of Italy still known as Tuscany today, but we do not know where they originated. It is still a great mystery to scholars, and in the past they even disagreed on their origins: Herodotus claimed that they cam from Lydia in Asia Minor, but Dionysius of Halicarnassus claimed that they were native Italians. The Etruscans were skilled seafarers and traded widely.
This tomb was named after its excavators and is located at Cerveteri. It belongs to a woman from a wealthy Etruscan family, who lived in the middle of the seventh century BC. It was filled with bronze cauldrons and gold jewelry, made by the Etruscans, but with a style known as “orientalizing,” with evident hints at Greek and Eastern Mediterranean art. This was visible especially on part of the jewellery’s decorations. The tomb consisted of two burial chambers, in which two individuals, a man and a woman, were buried. Its content, which also included a chariot, was initially secured by general Galassi in his own palace, but was eventually sold to the Vatican.
Unfortunately, no temples of the Etruscan era is still extant. Vestiges of their foundations and Vitruvius’ descriptions of them are the only elements we can rely upon to get an idea of how they looked like. We can assume the Etruscans built their temples with gable roofs, just as the Greeks would do, and the Romans after them. Unlike the Greeks and the Romans (in later times, of course), they did not use stone for their construction, but wood and sun-dried bricks, with terracotta decorations. The Etruscan temple had columns only on one side, which created a porch-like entrance, which set this side off as the temple’s front. This differed greatly from Greek temple architecture, where columns would be placed around the entire perimeter of the building.
The Etruscan temple was mainly used to house statues of Etruscan Gods. Statues made of terracotta were also placed on the peak of the Etruscan temple roof.
Etruscan statues show some of the best examples of the energy and excitement that characterize Etruscan art. Bright paint, swelling contours, animated faces, and gesticulations distinguish them. Terracotta and bronze were the favored materials for their creation. Sculptures were used especially with a religious or funerary intent. As mentioned, statues of divinities were placed in and by temples, whereas sarcophagi and funerary urns were often decorated with large terracotta statues representing the deceased.
Mythological figures are extremely uncommon in murals found in Etruscan tombs. The most common theme is of banqueting couples with servants serving the meal and musicians playing. The people in the murals usually make exaggerated gestures. The next most common theme is that of Etruscans enjoying nature. One mural depicts youthful hunters aiming slingshots at colorful birds.
Etruscan pottery followed closely the style of Greek pottery, even though it was decorated with more lively figures. One type of pottery that seems to be unique to Etruscans is bucchero (BOO-ker-oh). It became common between the seventh and fifth century BC and it was used to produce all types of pottery ware. Black in color, bucchero has a very shiny surface created by polishing. The black color was obtained by firing in an atmosphere charged with carbon monoxide instead of oxygen. Many people believe that bucchero was created to make pots that looked like silver for those who could not afford the real thing. This does not convince everybody, as it seems bucchero was, in fact, almost as expensive.
The Etruscans were the masters of bronze sculpture and were praised by the Greeks and Romans for their skill. Sadly we have only a few examples of it because, after Rome occupied the area, many of the bronze statues were sent to Rome to be melted down and made into bronze coins. The statues like much of Etruscan art, are characterized by their lively features. One vivid example of the Etruscans’ artistry is the Chimera of Arezzo. The Chimera is a Greek monster with a lion’s head and body and a serpent’s tail. A second head of a goat grows out of the left side of the body. This statue is made in the action of attack, the skin is stretched tightly over the muscles and it looks up into the face of an unseen adversary.