The Ancient Art of the Etruscans: The Social and Cultural Influences on Etruscan Art

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Ancient Etruscan "aryballoi" terracotta vessels unearthed in the 1860s at Bolzhaya Bliznitsa tumulus near Phanagoria, South Russia (then part of the Bosporan Kingdom of Cimmerian Bosporus); on exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

Etruscan art included sculpture, pottery, metal work and painting. Whilst the Greeks influenced techniques and style, much of the impetuous was uniquely Etruscan.

Etruscan art was an integral part of the development of Etruscan society. Starting from the 8th century until the second century BC, it passes through four main phases: the Orientalising era, the Archaic era, the classical era and finally the Hellenistic era.

As the names of the eras suggest, Greek culture heavily influenced Etruscan art, with Greek customs passing as well as artistic styles passing into Etruscan society. Yet Etruscan art also contains many unique features of its own, in terms of style and content.

Etruscan Bronze Ware

Few examples of Etruscan bronze ware survive, probably because much of it was melted down for coinage as the various Etruscan cities were conquered by the Romans.

From what examples remain, it is possible to see the Greek influence on early pieces. Surviving figures of bronze warriors and helmets from the sixth century BC look distinctly archaic Greek in style.

Time altered this. Later examples of Etruscan bronzes, especially statues and facial portraits such as the first century BC statue The Orator, demonstrated a less archaic more individual look. The Etruscans also began to use bronze as a medium for creating incised scenes from their own mythology.

Such was the Etruscan’s skill in working with bronze, that they were held in high regard by their original mentors, with the playwright Athanaeus praising the quality of Etruscan bronze work in his ‘Symposium’. Even into the Roman period, Etruscan cities such as Clusium and Arretium continued to manufacture high quality bronzes.

Etruscan Pottery and Sculpture

Etruscan pottery closely modelled itself on Greek styles such as black and red figure ware and Greek style craters and drinking vessels. They also used developed their own style of pottery known as Black Bucchero pottery, a black styled pot incised rather than painted.

Although pots may have been typically Greek, the Etruscan’s put their skills with the kiln to use in creating pottery products that indirectly tells us much about Etruscan society. Most of these examples come from funerary remains. Terracotta hut urns which were used for cremated remains were styled on the typical Etruscan dwellings of round wattle and daub huts. Terracotta was also used in decorative panels, not only in tombs but in houses, as a recently excavated Etruscan villa in Murlo demonstrates. Large painted terracotta panels were used to decorate the building entrances, set with figures in relief.

Hollow, kiln fired terracotta figures were also used to decorate Etruscan temple roofs. Arranged on the tiles at the roof edge and down the ridge, the bases of these statues were shaped to fit their exact position on the roof. The figurines were painted and became a distinct feature of Etruscan temple decoration.

Most surviving examples of Etruscan sculpture are of funerary art such as sarcophagi and are mainly made of clay or terracotta. As with early Etruscan bronzes, they begin stylistically resembling archaic Greek figures before developing a more assured and natural style, acting as portraits of individuals rather than Greek copies.

Even when they copy Greek style, Etruscan sculpture retained a uniquely Etruscan element. The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, a sixth century BC archaic style terracotta tomb depicts a married couple reclining together on a dining couch. This sarcophagus informs on the differences in the public and private roles of the sexes in Etruscan and Greek society. Greek men and women dined separately. Clearly, the case was different in ancient Etruria.

Etruscan Frescos

Most Etruscan frescos survive in tomb art. Paintings are two dimensional, use an array of bright colours and show animated action. Whilst they often show Greek stylistic influence, they also retain a uniquely Etruscan flavour.

Some tombs show signs of Greek influences on Etruscan life. Frescos are shown to depict Greek style wrestling and elements of Greek mythology. Yet when Greek figures appear, they are portrayed in a uniquely Etruscan way. The fourth century BC Tomb of Orcus in the town of Tarquinia includes underworld scenes featuring a figure based on the Greek Charon. Whilst the Greek Charon is a ferryman, the Etruscan version is altogether more frightening. Carrying a hammer rather than an oar, he is accompanied by monsters and his flesh is the colour of a decomposing corpse. The Greek figure has been portrayed according to the Etruscan view of the underworld.

Many religious elements are completely uniquely Etruscan. The Tomb of the Augers shows a man with a curved staff, interpreted as an auger, a non greek religious figure. Many other frescos feature funeral feasts and death rites that are not Greek in style, such as scenes interpreted as gladiatorial contests in portraits of Etruscan funeral games.

Etruscan tombs also give a general overview of Etruscan life. Frescos also show scenes from daily life-fishermen about their work, banquet scenes and dancing, with birds and animals intermingling with human figures showing the importance of nature in day to day life. As with pottery and statues, many funeral scenes again show both sexes dining together.