Etruscan Art
Origins, History, Characteristics of Early Tuscan Villanovan Culture.

Pin it

The Capitoline Wolf (c.450 BCE)
Museo Nuovo in the Palazzo dei
Conservatori, Rome.
The date of this sculpture remains
uncertain although it is regarded as
an Etruscan bronze of the 5th century
BCE, with the twins Romulus and
Remus being added by the sculptor
Antonio Pollaiolo in the 15th century.

For a review of primitive art forms
including painting, sculpture and
decorative arts, see: Ancient Art.

Etruscan Art (c.700-90 BCE): Summary


Guide to Etruscan Culture
Villanovan Culture: Forerunner of Etruscan Civilization
Role of the Tomb and the Afterlife in Etruscan Art
Styles of Art in Etruria
Etruscan Architecture
Etruscan Temple Art
Etruscan Sculpture: Reliefs, Statues
Etruscan Painting
Etruscan Minor Arts
Etruscan Pottery
Etruscan Metalworking
Etruscan Decorative Artifacts
Legacy of Etruscan Art

Chimera of Arezzo (c.400 BCE)
Etruscan bronze statue,
Archaeological Museum, Florence.
A beautiful piece of precious
metalwork from the late Etruscan era.


The Etruscans were a people who lived in Etruria in Italy during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Etruscan civilization and culture reached its peak during the sixth century BCE when their city-states controlled central Italy. Etruscan arts were strongly influenced by their trading relationship with Greece, although (like the Egyptians but unlike the Greeks) they believed in an after-life. This led to the employment of many Etruscan painters and sculptors by the nobility who commissioned tomb paintings (eg. "Tomb of the Leopards" c.480 BCE) and sometimes an ornate sarcophagus (eg. "Sarcophagus dei Sposi" c.550 BCE) to celebrate their passage into the after-life.

For definitions, meanings and
explanations of different arts,
see Types of Art.

For the chronology of Prehistoric art
including dates and events, please
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For a guide to later works, please
see: History of Art Timeline.


Etruscans were also noted for their figurative sculpture made from stone, terracotta, such as the "Apollo of Velo" (c.500 BCE), as well as bronze sculpture like the "Capitoline Wolf" (c.500 BCE), "Chariot" (c.550-525 BCE) and the "Chimera of Arezzo" (c.450 BCE).

For rich Etruscans, art became a feature of every day life. Reconstruction of a seventh century Etruscan villa, in Murlo, revealed large painted terracotta panels adorning the entrances, as well as a number of fresco wall-paintings. Etruscan paintings and murals often convey a clear sense of joi de vivre, in the form of dancing couples or other human figures looking strong and healthy and full of life. In this sense, Etruscan art captured human emotion much better than the more stylized Greek art.

Etruria was also known for its goldsmiths: their artistry in gold being highly prized in Italy and Greece during the first millennium BCE. Examples include the significant cache of gold jewellery in the Regolini Galassi tomb, Cerveteri, which was unearthed in the nineteenth-century.

Etruscan civilization was a strong influence on other cultural developments throughout Antiquity, notably on early Celtic culture, such as the Hallstatt style and La Tene Style of Celtic art.

Sadly, from 396 BCE onwards, the Etruscan city states were overcome by Rome and absorbed into the Roman Empire. In the process, many Etruscan paintings and sculptures were destroyed and valuable bronzes melted down to make bronze coins, a common occurrence in the history of art of the time. And local art was subsumed into Roman art. As a result, the Etruscan artistic legacy is comparatively small. Collections can be seen at the National Etruscan Museum and the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, as well as the Getty Museum Los Angeles, founded by the art collector J Paul Getty (1892-1976).


Historical Guide to Etruscan Culture

The Etruscans inhabited the region of Italy bounded to the north by the valley of the Arno, to the east and south by the Tiber, and on the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea. In Antiquity it was called Etruria and contained great forests and rich potential for agriculture and mining. The ethnic and linguistic affinities of the Etruscans are not clear. According to a tradition well known in Antiquity they migrated from western Asia Minor around the 12th century BCE. To date no firm archaeological evidence supports this story but Etruscan is similar to a dialect once spoken on the Aegean island of Lemnos. Both languages may be survivals of an ancient Mediterranean tongue, or the Etruscans may have brought their language to Italy at an early date.

Villanovan Culture: Forerunner of Etruscan Civilization

Archaeologists call the Iron Age culture of ancient Etruria "Villanovan", reserving the name "Etruscan" for the period after c.700 BCE. This nomenclature stresses a theory, still upheld by some scholars, that the Etruscans only arrived in Italy at this time. But a strong continuity links the 8th and 7th centuries in the region and the Villanovan culture is now generally regarded as the true precursor of Etruscan civilization, though a profound change did occur in Etruria during this time.

Phoenician and Greek merchants and colonists became active in the western Mediterranean in the Geometric period and had made contact with Villanovan villagers by c.800 BCE. Thereafter the Villanovans and their successors, the Etruscans, were gradually drawn into the mainstream of Mediterranean culture. The Greeks founded their first colony in Italy on the island of Ischia before 750 BCE, and by 600 BCE a chain of Greek colonies ran along the shore of southern Italy from Naples to Taranto and round the eastern coasts of Sicily. The Phoenicians held the western tip of the island, opposite Carthage in Africa, and had colonies on Sardinia.

Greek and Roman authors mention some early events in central Italy but the Etruscans only emerge into history during the 6th century BCE. By then, the political system of city-states, with a social and religious structure familiar in later centuries, had crystallized. Etruscan kings ruled Rome; the Etruscans had established colonies in Campania, the lower Po Valley, and Corsica. It was the period of their greatest power, but during the late 6th and early 5th centuries they were expelled from Rome and defeated at sea and on land by their Greek neighbours.

During the 5th and 4th centuries BCE Greek fleets occasionally plundered Etruscan coastal sites. To the south of Etruria the young Roman Republic was growing in strength, while to the north the Gauls had settled in the Po Valley and periodically raided south of the Apennines. Surrounded by these dangers, the Etruscan city-states failed to unite effectively. Veii and other cities fought intermittent but fierce wars with Rome and by 280 BCE they were probably all vassal-allies of the Roman Republic.

Afterwards, the Etruscans continued to enjoy some local self-government but gradually they were assimilated into the Roman world. In 89 BCE they were granted Roman citizenship. By the end of the 1st century BCE their language was obsolete and their culture had merged with that of Imperial Rome.

Traditionally 12 in number, the Etruscan city-states were autonomous. They formed a loose confederation, united by their common language and religion (always a profound influence in Etruria) but often following their own interests. In early times the cities were ruled by kings but by the 5th century BCE power had passed to the wealthy and exclusive class of nobles. This political and social structure had a deep effect upon the development of art in Etruria and upon the type of surviving evidence. The individuality of the city-states generated a fascinating divergence of local art forms. The nobles were gifted patrons of the arts and custom dictated that men and women of great families should be placed in fine tombs, surrounded by prized possessions, some of which have come down to us.

Role of the Tomb and the Afterlife in Etruscan Art

One of the most important characteristics of this civilisation was the leading part played by religious doubt and the concern with the after-life: Their gods were of a mysterious and cryptic nature, and men had a profound dread of the fate awaiting them after death. It would seem that the idea of death was ever present to the Etruscan mind. In this context it is understandable that their art was primarily an art of the tomb. A kind of magic survival had to be secured for the dead in their final resting-place and then, according to later belief, in the shadowy world of Hades. This funerary cult was observed with the minutest attention to detail, and Etruscan art itself seems to have had no other end in view. (See also: Aegean Art (2600-1100 BCE) notably Minoan and Mycenean Art and their tomb culture.)

The portrait immortalised the dead man's features and so wrested him from the powers of darkness. Here we have the reason for the creation and continuing popularity of the Tuscan portrait out of which, in its turn, the Roman portrait was to emerge. On a burial urn from Chiusi we can see that in the earlier period a faithful copy of the dead man's face, in the form of a bronze mask, was affixed to the vessel. Later, the head was carved and took the place of the urn's lid. Eventually this heterogenous creation gave way to a real statue. Similarly, the frescoes which covered the damp walls of the Tuscan hypogea (subterranean burial chambers) are important as religious symbols. They depict the funeral feasts; they also portray the occupations and pleasures of his earthly life, and most of all they give concrete shape to his life in the next world. This clears up the apparent contradiction of a sepulchral art infused with an ardent and vigorous feeling. of life. To the mystic souls of the Etruscans the life of this world merely foreshadowed the more significant and infinitely more permanent destiny awaiting them after death. Consequently they paid less attention to the adornment of their towns than to their tombs which were built of solid stone or hollowed out of the same material - dwelling places intended to defy the onslaught of time. In the necropolises at Tarquinia and Cerveteri, virtual cities of the dead, the setting and very rhythm of Etruscan life is made real for us in an astonishing way.

Etruscan Art Styles

The Villanovans were capable craftsmen, decorating their pottery and bronzes with geometric designs and occasionally with primitive representational scenes. During the 8th century BCE they began to copy goods obtained from Phoenician and Greek merchants, but traditional Italic forms remained dominant until c.700 BCE.

In the next 100 years the Etruscans achieved a new prosperity, based upon the export of metal ore. Since Greek art was under the influence of the high cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, Greek goods in the Orientalizing style reached Etruria together with exotic objects from Asia Minor, the Phoenician cities, Cyprus, and Egypt. These imports were imitated in Etruria, the craftsmen excelling in the production of decorative objects in the Orientalizing style (c.700-600 BCE) for their princely patrons.

Greek inspiration prevailed in Etruria during the period of the Archaic style (c.600-475 BCE); Corinthian, Ionian, and Attic styles in turn dominated the taste of the Etruscan city-states, where local artistic styles were now very individual. Town-planning was introduced, monumental architecture and large-scale sculpture and painting became firmly established as major art forms. The exuberance of the Archaic style reflects the self-confidence felt by the Etruscans, now at the height of their power.

As the Greeks emerged victorious from the Persian War, the Classical style appeared in Greece. By this time, Etruscan civilization had already begun to decline; there was a recession of trade with Greece and the Etruscans were slow to accept the Classical style (c.475-300 BCE). Archaic forms survived and Etruscan artists were reserved in adopting the severe, idealizing style of Greek early Classical art. The Etruscans responded more fully to the less austere manner of the late Classical style and there was a sporadic revival in Etruria during the 4th century BCE.

After the death of Alexander (323 BCE) the Greek world expanded around the eastern Mediterranean and developed the elegant Hellenistic style (c300-1st century BCE), which strove to express emotion and emphasized dramatic moment. Rome became the capital of the Mediterranean world and increasingly contributed to Hellenistic culture. The Etruscans, no longer politically independent, adopted the style but maintained some regional characteristics.

Throughout the seven centuries of their individual artistic expression the Etruscans were dependent upon foreign inspiration, principally that of the Greeks. Thus the major styles of Etruria are called by the same names as those of Greece. But whereas the Greek styles grew organically, reflecting their historical, social, and intellectual background, the Etruscans accepted outward forms without always assimilating inner content. It is hard to find a parallel in the history of art for the consistent Etruscan borrowing of Greek styles, yet they were not shallow imitators. They were sensitive to the beauty of Greek visual arts and proved themselves most able craftsmen. They used Greek art forms, styles, themes, and even details, but were always selective, adapting them to Etruscan conventions to express Etruscan taste, often in the idiom of a single city-state.

Etruscan Architecture

The Etruscans adopted the grid street-plan used at Greek colonial sites in Italy, but ideal town-planning was difficult to impose on the older cities of Etruria, which had grown from Villanovan villages. An example of an ideal plan is the colonial site of Marzabotto, near Bologna, founded towards the end of the 6th century BCE. A main street ran due north and south and was crossed at right angles by three streets of similar width, all flanked by drains. A grid of smaller streets divided the rest of the town. Buildings for religious observance crowned the nearby hilltop and cemeteries lay outside the habitation area, an Etruscan custom.

Throughout their history the Etruscans were deeply concerned with the afterlife. Many of their cemeteries were veritable cities of the dead. The tombs differ from place to place and from century to century, much depending on whether inhumation or cremation prevailed as the local funerary rite. Some tombs are rock-cut chambers, approached by steps from ground level or entered by a doorway with an architectural facade carved in the cliff face. Others were constructed of stone blocks, either standing above ground or partially buried, like the great tumuli whose molded drums were cut from the rock and had masonry additions. Masonry was used in early times for false vaults, false arches, and false domes, while true barrel vaults were built in the Hellenistic period.

Earlier masonry city walls had squared blocks which were set in regular courses; later walls were constructed in the polygonal manner. Hellenistic reliefs show city walls with turrets, castellations, and arched gateways. Such gateways, which are occasionally decorated with human heads carved in relief, and stretches of great city walls are very often the most imposing monuments at Etruscan sites.

Little is known about the external elevations of houses, though tomb facades and representations, especially on cinerary chests, presumably reflect their appearances. Examples show facades each with a porch and columns, and indicate an upper storey. A cinerary chest in the Museo Archeologico, Florence, represents a stone house with fine masonry and arched doorways, flanked by pilasters.

More is known of the ground plans of Etruscan houses. The Villanovans had lived in huts, often oval in layout. At Marzabotto houses were arranged on a rectilinear pattern but had no uniform plan, though several had rooms grouped around a central courtyard with a passage leading in from the street. Contemporary 6th-century tombs echo a more complex house plan with an entrance corridor flanked by a chamber on either side, and a central hall which opened into three back rooms. Later tombs sometimes have rooms on either side of the hall, an arrangement similar to houses at Pompeii. There is also evidence that the hall or atrium on occasion had an opening to the sky, a development known in the Hellenistic period and associated with the Etruscans in Antiquity.

Many internal domestic features are represented in the tombs, which are often painted in gay colours. Beams are supported by columns with capitals in Doric or sometimes Aeolic style, and some ceilings are coffered. Doorways have heavy lintels and inclining jambs, some doors have strong frames with metal studs and handles, and windows are rectangular or arched.


Etruscan Temple Art

Etruscan temple architecture was allied to Greek forms, which the Etruscans modified, principally in their use of materials and the ground plan, to suit their own religious needs. (See also: Roman Architecture.) The Etruscans characteristically only used stone for the base or podium of a temple. The walls were of unfired brick, covered with plaster, and the columns and beams of timber - plentiful in Etruria. The exposed wooden elements of the superstructure were protected by terracotta plaques. Together with the stone substructure, the temple terracottas often survive as our best evidence for the original appearance of Etruscan buildings.

Unlike Greek forms the podium of an ideal Etruscan temple was almost square and approached by a flight of steps from the front alone. The front half of the temple was a deep porch with two lines of four columns. At the back, there were three rooms or cellae, their doors opening onto the spaces between the columns. An alternative arrangement had one cella between two wings, open at the front. The columns were traditionally made of wood, without flutes; the capitals had round cushions and square abaci, resembling the Doric order. The great wooden beams and overhanging eaves gave Tuscan temples a top-heavy appearance. This was emphasized by their brightly painted terracotta decorations. The horizontal beams were covered in terracotta slabs, often with repeating patterns in bas-relief, while the ends of the ridge-pole and roof beams were capped by plaques, sometimes decorated in high relief. Rooves were tiled. Statues or acroteria might be set upon the gable or along the ridge-pole but unlike the Greeks the Etruscans left the pediment open, not filling it with sculpture until Hellenistic times.

The Etruscans also built temples with one cella and two columns; models and tomb facades demonstrate that fluted columns and Ionic capitals were used. Little is yet known of other public buildings in Etruria, though there are extant examples of stone platforms with fine moldings, probably for taking the auspices, and models of arcades and freestanding towers. Early bridges were constructed of wood, set upon stone foundations, while arched stone bridges were built in Hellenistic times.

Etruscan Sculpture: Reliefs, Statues

The Villanovans made models of familiar objects and primitive statuettes from clay and bronze. Their human figures have large heads with ill-defined features and thin, straddling limbs, while their lively animals sometimes recall Greek Geometric types.

During the Orientalizing period objects of glazed ceramic ware, ivory, precious metals, bronze, and pottery from the eastern Mediterranean and Greece reached Etruria. Some of these imports were carved or modelled in the round, others were decorated in bas-relief. Etruscan craftsmen enthusiastically imitated them, making lavishly embellished objects for personal and household use. They portrayed monsters, strange men, and draped female figures, usually presented in compact volume and often with carefully noted details. Foreign repertoires were mingled and Italic themes occasionally added to produce an eclectic Etruscan Orientalizing style.

At Chiusi, a contemporary sculptural form probably had local inspiration. The ashes of the dead were often placed in vessels with lids fashioned as schematic human heads, though some examples seek to convey individuality.

Towards the end of the period, large-scale terracotta sculpture appears. See, for instance, the Sarcophagus of the Spouses (late 6th century BCE, National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome), with its seated figures from Cerveteri, delicately modelled in terracotta, are some 20 inches in height. Stone statues crudely carved in the round, reach life-size. Stone funerary stelae have figures in bas-relief or incised, one accompanied by an inscription in Greek letters, adapted for the Etruscan language.

It is important to note the conventional Etruscan choice of materials for sculpture. In contrast to Greek tradition, they usually reserved stone for funerary monuments, mainly using the local stone. Bronze was appreciated and employed for offerings dedicated to the gods, for household goods and personal possessions, which often attain a high artistic standard. Terracotta served for architectural decorations, for sarcophagi, cinerary urns, and votive offerings.

New sculptural forms reached Etruria during the Archaic period and the ability of sculptors developed rapidly. They followed Hellenic styles but local idioms occur. At Tarquinia stone slabs were carved in bas-relief, sometimes illustrating narrative themes. At other centres, stone statues of monsters, animals, and humans were set up outside tombs as guardians. A fine example represents a centaur (Villa Giulia, Rome). The nude male form, derived from the early Archaic style of Greece, has a large head, staring eyes and sturdy limbs, held in motionless frontal pose.

At first Archaic bronze figures were somewhat rigid, with stress on vertical lines but they soon acquired new characterization and vitality. Cast statuettes of recognizable gods appear, and to decorate the increasing number of household bronzes warriors, athletes, dancers, and other types are often shown in vigorous action. The emphasis on expressive detail, such as the head or hands, is characteristic of the Etruscans, while the flowing lines, long heads, and plump bodies indicate Ionian taste.

Sheet bronze was worked in repousse to decorate furniture and wooden objects, for example the magnificent chariot found at Monteleone. Large works were fired in terracotta - outstanding examples are the sarcophagi from Cerveteri, shaped like couches with smiling married couples reclining upon the lids.

Simple temple decorations in terracotta occur about the middle of the Archaic period. Subsequently antefixes of various designs were made in molds; some have heads surrounded by a shell motif, others depict complete figures. The bas-relief friezes repeat groups of gods or men and some lively horsemen. Most celebrated, however, are the compositions in high relief and statues, modelled in the round, which were set upon the roof. The sculptors, inspired by the achievements of the Greek late Archaic style, created naturalistic figures capable of expressing both movement and emotion. Energy is implicit in fighting warriors, their details picked out in colour, from Civitii Castellana, and there is latent menace in the striding Apollo from Veii. The sculpture of Veii was famous in Antiquity and the Romans recalled that Vulca of Veii, the only Etruscan artist known by name, decorated a temple in Rome towards the end of the 6th century BCE.

Works in the Archaic manner were produced at some Etruscan centres well into the 5th century BCE. This is apparent in bas-reliefs on sarcophagi, cinerary chests, and other monuments from the region of Chiusi, or from the stelae of Bologna (Museo Archeologico, Chiusi; Museo Archeologico, Bologna). Their style is lively, their design simple, and they often depict aspects of ordinary life.

The severe style of early Greek Classical sculpture was not so fully assimilated by the Etruscans, though they became more interested in representing human anatomy and accepted a trend towards idealization. A head, which forms the lid of a cinerary urn, demonstrates such impersonal presentation, an example of the association of Greek style with a local art form (Museo Archeologico, Florence). The development of the Classical style in Etruria is shown in a series of votive statuettes in terracotta and bronze. The men are either nude or when clothed they sometimes wear an Etruscan cloak or military equipment, while the dignified women are finely dressed. The Mars of Todi, one of the few surviving large-scale bronze statues, illustrates the later Classical style of Etruria. It is a graceful study of a pensive young soldier, standing in a well-balanced pose with the weight upon one leg (Vatican Museums, Rome). Many contemporary household bronzes are of outstanding quality with their cast components, for example the handles or feet, formed of well-composed groups of figures.

In Hellenistic times there was a revival of temple decoration. The most important feature now was the sculpture filling the pediment. Moments of high tension were illustrated and supple figures shown dramatically posed. The bronzes include strange, elongated statuettes, often of priests, muscular males, and elegant women. Some wear fashionable clothes and jewellery but others are nude, their small heads with elaborately dressed hair set upon slender bodies.

Stone sarcophagi were still carved in the region around Tarquinia; the production of cinerary chests was maintained at Chiusi; and at Volterra the local alabaster was used for fine cinerary chests. On many are reliefs showing episodes, often violent, from Greek mythology, or scenes of farewell - the dead setting out on their journey to the underworld. Figures reclining upon lids were sometimes shown with exaggerated features, in the spirit of caricature. Frequently, however, they are genuine portraits, with inscriptions recording the name, family, age, and offices held by Etruscan nobles.


Etruscan Painting

Almost all large-scale Greek paintings have perished but we can trace the development of their drawing, from painted pottery styles. Greek graphic art had a profound influence upon Etruscan polychrome wall-paintings, which form the most numerous group of murals to survive from the pre-Roman Classical world. The Etruscan wall-paintings have come down to us because underground tombs at some Etruscan centres were decorated in fresco. This art form probably had a religious purpose: to perpetuate the efficacy of funerary rites and to recreate the familiar surroundings of life in the dwellings of the dead.

The oldest known painted tomb in Etruria is the Tomb of the Ducks at Veii. On the walls are plain red and yellow zones, divided by horizontal bands of red, yellow, and black, upon which struts a row of birds. The colours and drawing recall 7th-century pottery in the Sub-geometric style. Painted scenes flank an inner doorway of the Campana Tomb, also at Veii; here natural colours and proportions are disregarded and every available space filled with animal or floral motifs.

There were early painted tombs at Cerveteri and painted terracotta plaques have been found in both the necropolis and the living area, demonstrating that buildings, like tombs, had wall-paintings. Two series are outstanding, both painted in black, white, brown, and red/purple on a light background.

Of mid-6th-century date, the five Boccanera slabs show the influence of Corinthian vase-painting. They depict seated sphinxes and figures, standing stiffly, linked only by their gestures (British Museum, London). The more flowing lines of the Campana plaques (Louvre, Paris) suggest Ionian taste. Movement is introduced and figures carefully interrelated. Whether the figures represent gods or men, details of dress and symbolism are Etruscan.

From mid-Archaic to Hellenistic times Tarquinia was the greatest centre of tomb-painting. The fresco technique was generally used - walls of rock-cut tombs were thinly covered in plaster, the outlines of the picture sketched or incised, and the painting filled in while the plaster remained damp. Some of the paintings can be seen in the tombs; others are in the Museo Nazionale, Tarquinia.

The Archaic paintings have a two-dimensional plane, their designs based upon the relationship of figures and colours employed. Heads are drawn in profile, shoulders are frequently full-view, and legs are again in profile. Artists filled in these outlines with a uniform wash, adding some internal details. Blue and green were added to the palette and differing shades of colour were used.

The Etruscans' paintings abound with exuberant life, fully reflecting their confidence at this time. Funerary themes, such as banquets and athletic games, are repeated but other aspects of life appear. Only the back wall of the Tomb of the Bulls, dated 540-530 BCE, is fully decorated. Its principal scene illustrates a Greek epic story but erotic subjects are also shown. On all four walls of the Tomb of the Augurs are themes of funerary ritual and sports, some figures recalling the contemporary style of black-figure vase painting. The Tomb of Hunting and Fishing has carefree outdoor scenes whilst the main person in the Tomb of the Jugglers watches a display in his honour. The Tomb of the Baron illustrates a tranquil moment of worship or greeting.

Some late Archaic and early Classical tombs have banqueting scenes on the end wall, while on the sidewalls accompanying musicians and dancers are shown, representing the performing arts for which the Etruscans were famous in Antiquity. In the Tomb of the Leopards, two figures recline on each of the three couches and naked boys serve wine. The sidewalls of the beautiful Tomb of the Triclinium, c.470 BCE, have fine compositions with a lyre-player, flautist, and energetic dancers, their draperies emphasizing movement. The drawing displays a new competence, familiar from Attic red-figure pottery at the beginning of the Classical period.

At this time the custom of tomb-painting had spread inland to Chiusi and other centres. At Tarquinia there are fewer tombs painted in the Classical period but, by the 4th century BCE, decisive developments had taken place in the graphic arts. The drawing style of the painted pottery and engraved bronzes evokes three-dimensional space, in which overlapping figures are presented in integral groups, their heads and bodies sometimes shown in three-quarter poses and with foreshortening. These techniques were also used in large-scale paintings in polychrome, in which shading and highlights were added to express volume: the artists were also concerned to contrast light and dark areas. The scene of a Greek fighting Amazons, on a sarcophagus from Tarquinia (Museo Archeologico, Florence), illustrates late Classical handling of linear perspective and colour tones. It may have been painted by a Greek artist working in Etruria.

As in other Etruscan art forms, a mood of despondency and a preoccupation with death are shown in Hellenistic tomb-paintings. Dreadful demons appear, often escorting the dead to the underworld and an idea of judgment is evident. Strong family feeling prevails, however, in paintings like those in the Tomb of the Shields at Tarquinia, in which successive generations are shown banqueting. The artist has attempted to express individuality and names are written beside the portraits. Occasionally civic pride appears, as in the illustration of the rescue of some famous Etruscan prisoners and the murder of their captors, or a full-length portrait of a nobleman in ceremonial robes from the Francois Tomb at Vulci (Museo Torlonia, Rome). Such scenes remind us of the Etruscans' own recollections of their glorious past and of their contribution to Roman ritual.

Etruscan Minor Arts

In the absence of fine objects of wood, leather, textiles, or other perishable materials, the minor arts of the Etruscans must be judged mainly from their pottery and metalwork. Since both personal possessions and household objects were placed in tombs, they survive in some quantity and provide an eloquent commentary on the major arts.

Traditional Villanovan pottery had forms characteristic of the Italic Iron Age-fired, brown/black, with incised decoration. During the 8th century BCE they also began to copy the shapes, light-coloured fabric, and designs painted in red/brown, of Greek Geometric imports. By 700 BCE, local potters were imitating yellow/buff Corinthian ware, decorating it in dark paint, sometimes depicting monsters, animals, or men from the Orientalizing repertoire.

Etruscan Pottery

The principal form of ancient pottery developed by the Etruscans is a black, glossy ware called bucchero, which appears before the middle of the 7th century BCE. Sometimes Villanovan forms with incised decoration were followed, but Greek pottery shapes became increasingly copied. Modeled embellishments were added, especially on vases imitating metalwork or carved ivory, and repeating patterns were impressed with a roller stamp. In the Archaic period, bucchero became heavy and over-decorated and, during the 5th century BCE, production ceased. See also: Pottery Timeline.

Until about 550 BCE, Corinthian black-figure imports continued to dominate the Etruscan markets. Subsequently Ionian influence is evident and Ionian craftsmen even worked in Etruria. Their most outstanding products are the Caeretan hydriae, a series of water-jars made at Cerveteri. Athenian potters manufactured special exports for Etruria and, as their superb black-figure and red-figure pottery increased in popularity, they monopolized the trade. Meanwhile Etruscan potters produced black-figure vases with Greek forms. The painting is seldom elegant, but is usually bold, with lively figures.

The Etruscans were slow to adopt the true red-figure technique. At first they painted figures in red over a black ground, though they were aware of the development in drawing technique in the early Classical period. By the end of the 5th century BCE fine· red-figure vases, closely following Attic style, were being made, mainly at Vulci and at Civita Castellana. The south Italian schools also influenced Etruscan pottery of the 4th century BCE, when northern cities, including Volterra, were producing red-figure ware. Black-glaze pottery became popular and, during the Hellenistic period sophisticated vase forms, silvered to imitate metal, were manufactured in central Etruria.

Etruscan Metalworking

The Greeks praised Etruscan metalwork, particularly their goldsmithing and bronzes. Bronze was used for a very wide variety of goods, from jewellery to armour, from horse-gear to household furniture. Bronze was hammered, worked in repousse, cast and engraved, the craftsmen following contemporary technical developments and artistic styles.

Pottery forms, especially those used for serving wine, were reproduced in bronze. Ladles, strainers, candelabra, incense-burners, braziers with their equipment, and other types of household goods were made of bronze and often finely decorated. Personal possessions include men's helmets, shields, armor, and beautiful toilet articles for women. Among these are caskets, in which combs, carved powder boxes, delicate perfume bottles, and the accompanying perfume pins and oil flasks were kept, and the wonderful series of hand mirrors with mythological and genre scenes engraved upon the backs.

Etruscan Decorative Artifacts

Among luxury goods, amber and ivory were carved, the former used mainly for jewellery and the latter for chalices, combs, and boxes. Multicoloured glass served for beads, brooches, and perfume-bottles. Semi-precious stones were cut and employed in rings and other jewelry. Gold and silver were used for cups and jugs and, above all, for jewellery. Etruscan jewelry is celebrated for its craftsmanship, particularly for goldwork using the technique of granulation. In the 7th century BCE Italic forms and Orientalizing designs were mingled in Etruscan jewellery but later Hellenic taste was followed. Brooches, pins, finger-rings, bracelets, earrings, hair-bands, buckles, and other pieces were exquisitely worked in the contemporary artistic style, a reminder of both the good taste and the ostentation of Etruscan nobles in the centuries of their prosperity.

The Legacy of Etruscan Art

Modern art historians have reached different conclusions about the achievements of the Etruscans in the visual arts. Some have considered them mere plagiarists, adopting Greek forms with little originality and indifferent ability. Indeed, for many years the question of Etruscan art's proper position among all the other Mediterranean arts has given rise to heated discussion. In 1879, J. Martha wrote: "The one great misfortune of Etruscan art was that it never had time to take shape." Modern critics have reached the conclusion that this art shows a complete lack of originality and represents nothing more than a totally provincial output, a mere reflection of Greek art on which it modelled itself. But see also: Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30).

Another equally extremist point of view maintains, just as confidently, the complete independence of the art of ancient Tuscany. Both attitudes go too far, and so in many ways are quite mistaken. If we are to get at the truth we must take a less extreme and dogmatic view. It is quite true that Etruscan art was continually and beneficially influenced by artists from Greece and Magna Graecia. Unless the profound effect of the Greek workshops is taken into account, Etruscan art cannot begin to be understood. But the work of the Etruscans was not merely a slavish imitation without a genuine identity of its own. It was the outcome of the abilities, taste and spirit which were the individual characteristics of this people who, from the 7th century down to the beginning of the Christian era, were able to develop an original civilisation in Tuscany.

Some truth lies at both extremes. Without a substantial Italic tradition in the visual arts, the Etruscans were inspired by Hellenic styles in all seven centuries of their independent artistic development. Yet lacking the historic and intellectual background of Greek art, Etruscan artists sometimes failed to respond to Greek ideals and were capable of producing poor-quality work unacceptable in the Greek world. Etruscan art cannot claim to rank with that of Greece but its merit distinguishes it from contemporary Italic cultures and requires that it be judged by Greek standards. The Etruscans were always selective in their choice of Greek artistic precedents but, when their artists carefully followed them, they came close to the Hellenic models. When they took Greek forms and styles but adapted them to Etruscan conventions and taste, they subtly transformed them into their own, and even contributed new art forms.

The Etruscans must also take their place in the history of the visual arts as vital intermediaries between the Greeks and Romans. Profiting from the rich resources of their homeland, the Etruscans welcomed the civilization of their Greek contemporaries. During Rome's early development the neighbouring Etruscans were an acknowledged source of culture (especially for Celtic artists of the Hallstatt and La Tene styles), and introduced many Hellenic forms to Rome. A natural talent for draughtsmanship shines out of Etruscan achievements in the minor arts and especially in engraving on precious metals and bronze. It was probably in the field of plate and jewellery that the Etruscans exploited their technical skill and decorative taste to the utmost. Treasures from the tombs of the 'Orientalised' period have a characteristic richness and elaboration, and some Etruscan jewellery of the 7th and 6th centuries truly represents a high-water mark of art.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from "A History of Art": General Editor Sir Lawrence Gowling (1995), an outstanding work of reference which we highly recommend to all art lovers.

• For the main index, see: Homepage.

Art Movements | Art Questions | Art Glossary | Visual Artists, Greatest | Best Art Museums
Sitemap: International Art
© All rights reserved.