Masterpieces of Etruscan Art (May 2019)

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Dream of Italy.

Sarcophagus of the Spouses
National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome

This amazing sarcophagus, the so-called the “Sarcophagus of the Spouses” (sarcofago degli sposi) was discovered during the course of archaeological excavations in 1881 at the Banditaccia necropolis, outside of Cerveteri. The Etruscan Museum at the Villa Giulia in Rome purchased the sarcophagus, which at that time consisted of some 400 fragments that had to be pieced back together! This work stands as a symbol for the festive, fun-loving spirit of the Etruscan culture of the 6th century BCE.

Apollo of Veii
National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome

This life-sized terra-cotta sculpture was part of the roof decoration of the Temple of Apollo in the sanctuary at Veii. The figure is what is known as an acroterion, an ornament placed on a flat base, often used in Etruscan roof decoration. This statue formed a sculptural group that included Apollo’s mother (the goddess Leto) and Hercules. In the Villa Giulia in Rome, where these sculptures are now preserved, the curators have set up the sculptures to give us an idea of how they might have been arranged on the temple rooftop.

Chimera of Arezzo
Archaeological Museum, Florence

This famous bronze was found in 1553, at the height of the Italian Renaissance, when people were captivated by works of antiquity. Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, took the chimera into his personal collection in Florence, where it was carefully studied and celebrated.

The chimera was a fire-breathing monster from Greek mythology who caused all kinds of trouble for the people of Lycia in Asia Minor. That is, until Bellerophon, a hero from the Greek city of Corinth, mounted his winged horse Pegasus and slayed the chimera. The chimera itself is usually represented as a hybrid creature with the head of a lion, a snake-like tail, and a goat emerging from the middle of its back. The Etruscan artist who made the chimera of Arezzo managed to make this fearsome creature beautiful and powerful in its writhing contortions. No doubt this sculpture was meant to be viewed in the round. An Etruscan inscription on the right foreleg indicates that this beast was meant as an offering to the sky god Tinia.

Tomb of the Leopards
Monterozzi Necropolis, Tarquinia

What did the Etruscans believe about the afterlife? Are tomb paintings related to the actual funeral rituals that took place above ground? Or rather, did they believe that that a wonderful afterlife full banquets, dancing, games, and pleasures of the flesh might await them after a life of violence and hardship? All of these questions remain very much alive for Etruscologists who study these matters. Whatever the answers, these colorful, abundant images of frolicking men and women give us a tantalizing view of the vitality of Etruscan culture, as well as the role of women.

Mars of Todi
Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican Museums

This striking warrior, discovered near the town of Todi in 1835, would have worn a helmet and carried a lance in one hand. In the other, he probably carried a patera or libation bowl, probably as a ritual performed before going into battle. There is an inscription written on the skirt below the breastplate. It is written using Etruscan characters, but in the Umbrian language. The inscription tells us that a man called Ahal Truitis—a name that is Celtic in origin—dedicated this sculpture. So, we have an Etruscan object in an Umbrian sanctuary, dedicated by a Celt, giving us a fascinating glimpse into the rich cultural exchanges of the ancient Mediterranean. So interesting!

Some historians believe that this sculpture was ritually buried in a trench outside of Todi after being struck by lightning. As you might imagine, being struck by lightning was a portentous sign for ancient people. No doubt the ritual burial accounted for this particular sculpture’s survival.

Gold Jewelry
Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican Museums

This breathtaking work of gold was discovered in 1836 at the so-called Sorbo necropolis just outside of Cerveteri. The tomb is now known as the Regolini-Galassi tomb, named for two local officials who were involved in the excavation.

When the discoverers opened the tomb, they found a female skeleton, completely covered in gold jewelry. Across her chest, she wore a gold pectoral decorated with hundreds of tiny animals and plants, a symbol of her high status. She wore a belt with a spectacular gold fibula made with repoussé and granulation techniques. She wore two wide gold bracelets decorated with trios of dancing females with long hair and long dresses. She also wore necklaces with beads and amber pendants, gold earrings, rings, and pins. At her feet, the name LARTHIA was inscribed on each piece an 11-piece silver set at her feet. We don’t know whether Larthia was an aristocrat, a queen, or a priestess, but clearly, she was a woman of high status.

–Laura Morelli

Laura Morelli is an art historian and historical novelist with a passion for Italy. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University and has taught college students in the U.S. and in Rome. You can find more about what to bring home from Italy in her guidebook series, including Made in Florence and Made in Italy. Learn more about these books, along with Laura’s Venice-inspired historical novels, The Painter’s Apprentice and The Gondola Maker, at www.lauramorelli.com Laura also offers an online course in Etruscan art, find out more at www.lauramorelli.com/etruscans.