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Etruscan art

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Etruscan art

Fresco of an Etruscan musician with a barbiton, Tomb of the Triclinium, Tarquinia

Etruscan art was the form of figurative art produced by the Etruscan civilization in central Italy between the 9th and 2nd centuries BC. Particularly strong in this tradition were figurative sculpture in terracotta (particularly life-size on sarcophagi or temples) and cast bronze, wall-painting and metalworking (especially engraved bronze mirrors and situlae).


Cista Depicting a Dionysian Revel and Perseus with Medusa's Head[1] The Walters Art Museum.

The origins of the Etruscans, and consequently of their artistic style, dates back to the people who inhabited or were expelled from Asia Minor during the Bronze Age and Iron Age (See the Villanovan culture). Due to the proximity and/or commercial contact to Etruria, other ancient cultures influenced Etruscan art, such as Greece, Phoenicia, Egypt, Assyria and the Middle East. The apparent simple character in the Hellenistic era conceals an innovative,and unique style whose pinnacle coincided with the Greek archaic period. The Romans would later come to absorb the Etruscan culture into theirs but would also be greatly influenced by them and their art.


  • 800-650 BC - "Oriental" or "Orientalising" period. Due to cultural exchanges amongst Mediterranean civilizations at this time, especially with Ancient Greece, a figurative tradition appeared in Etruscan art that was based on Greek models.
  • 650-500 BC - Archaic period - Ionic and Corinthian influences. Due to more and more exchanges and due to the structure of Etruscan society, new artistic techniques emerged. Painting became highly developed in this period, as did painted sculpture in terracotta and vase-painting.
  • 500-300 BC - Classical period - Peak; still marked by Greek influence; less and less art produced due to internal and external political and military crises, with the exception of the bronzes from Vulci.
  • 300-100 BC - late phase; absorbed into Roman culture.

Art and religion

An ancient Etruscan necklace (University of Pennsylvania Museum)

Etruscan art was often religious in character and, hence, strongly connected to the requirements of Etruscan religion. The Etruscan afterlife was negative, in contrast to the positive view in ancient Egypt where it was but a continuation of earthly life, or the confident relations with the gods as in ancient Greece. The Etruscan gods were hostile and tended to bring misfortune, and so Etruscan religion was centered on interpreting their will and accepting or satisfying it. On the other hand, most remains of Etruscan funerary art have been found in excavations of cemeteries (as at Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Populonia, Orvieto, Vetulonia, Norchia), meaning that what we see of Etruscan art is primarily dominated by depictions of religion and in particular the funerary cult, whether or not that is a true reflection of Etruscan art as a whole.

Etruscan sculpture

Etruscan - Lion (bronze)
(Walters Art Museum)

The Etruscans were very accomplished sculptors. Though the renowned "Capitoline Wolf" (now at the Capitoline Museum of Rome) is now suggested to have been manufactured in the 13th century AD [1] surviving examples in terracotta and bronze are testimony to this. Some of the more famous examples include:

The Apollo of Veii is a good example of the mastery with which Etruscan artist produced these large art pieces. He was made, along with others, to adorn the temple at Portanaccio’s roof line. Although his style is reminiscent of the Greek Kroisos Kouros, the notion of having statues on the top of the roof is entirely an Etruscan derivation.[2]

Etruscan funerary art

Painted terracotta sarcophagus of Seainti Hanunia Tlesnasa, about 150-130 BCE

The Etruscans excelled in portraying humans. Throughout their history they used two sets of burial practices: cremation and inhumation.[3] Cinerary urns (for cremation) and sarcophagi (for inhumation) have been found together in the same tomb showing that throughout generations, both forms were used at the same time.[4] In the 7th century they started depicting human heads on canopic urns and when they started burying their dead in the late 6th century they did so in terracotta sarcophagi.[5] These sarcophagi were decorated with an image of the deceased reclining on the lid alone or sometimes with a spouse. The Etruscans invented the custom of placing figures on the lid which later influenced the Romans to do the same.[6]

The Hellenistic period funerary urns were generally made in two pieces. The top lid usually depicted a banqueting man or woman (but not always) and the container part was either decorated in relief in the front only or, on more elaborate stone pieces, carved on its sides.[7] During this period, the terracotta urns were being mass-produced using moulds in Northern Etruria (specifically in and around Chiusi).[8] Often the scenes decorated in relief on the front of the urn were depicting generic Greek influenced scenes.[9] The production of these urns did not require skilled artists and so what we are left with is often mediocre, unprofessional art, made en mass.[10]

Etruscan painting

The best preserved Etruscan paintings that have survived to modern times are mostly wall frescoes from graves, and mainly from Tarquinia. These are the most important example of pre-Roman figurative art in Italy known to scholars.

The frescoes are created by applying paint on top of fresh plaster, so that when the plaster dries the painting becomes part of the plaster, and consequently an integral part of the wall. Colours were created from ground up stones and minerals of different colours and were then mixed to the paint. Fine brushes were made of animal hair (even the best brushes can be produced with ox hair).

From the mid 4th century BC chiaroscuro began to be used to portray depth and volume. Sometimes scenes of everyday life are portrayed, but more often traditional mythological scenes. The concept of proportion does not appear in any surviving frescoes and we frequently find portrayals of animals or men out of proportion. One of the best-known Etruscan frescoes is that of Tomb of the Lioness at Tarquinia.

See also


  1. ^ "Cista Depicting a Dionysian Revel and Perseus with Medusa's Head".  
  2. ^ (Ramage 2009: 46)
  3. ^ (Turfa 2005: 55)
  4. ^ (Richter 1940: 56, note 1)
  5. ^ (Ramage 2009:51)
  6. ^ (Ramage 2009:51)
  7. ^ (Maggiani 1985: 34)
  8. ^ (Maggiani 1985: 100)
  9. ^ (Nielsen 1995:328)
  10. ^ (Richter 1940: 50)


  • Brendel, Otto (1978). Etruscan Art. Harmondsworth: Pelican. 
  • Maggiani, Adriano (1985). Artistic crafts: Northern Etruria in Hellenistic Rome. Italy: Electra. 
  • Ramage, Nancy H. & Andrew (2009). Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice-Hall. 
  • Richter, Gisela M. A. (1940). The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Handbook of the Etruscan Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
  • Spivey, Nigel (1997). Etruscan Art. London: Thames and Hudson. 
  • Turfa, Jean Macintosh (2005). Catalogue of the Etruscan Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

External links

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