Etruscan tombs in the necropolis of Cerveteri, northern Lazio, in the province of Rome.

The Etruscans -predecessors of the modern Tuscans- did not belong to any of the old known Italian races, but it is certain that came to the Italian peninsula by sea through the Tyrrhenian Sea (part of the Mediterranean Sea off the western coast of Italy) in the ninth century BCE.  After traveling many places they settled in the coast of modern Tuscany to which later, through conquests, added Umbria.  Subsequently, they spread southward across much of Lazio occupying the entire western of this part of Italy from the Arno to the Tiber.  Around 550 BCE they reached Campania and then founded colonies by the Northeast and East from Milan to Bologna.  Then, at this point, was when its incipient empire began to crumble.  Thus in the early fourth century BCE the Etruscans were only occupying the region they first conquered, but this territory would also fall into the hands of Romans during the course of the next two centuries: one by one the great Etruscan cities (Caere, Tarquinia, Vulci) were conquered by Rome.  Finally, during the last century of the Republic (year 82 BCE), Rome dominated the Etruscan people who quickly adopted Roman government and customs.

Etruria was always a maritime civilization intensely devoted to sea trade, especially with the East, which explains the cultural link with Greece during the entire course of its history.  The Etruscan civilization was always influenced by the Ionian Greek culture.  This was manifested in its typical way of burial with sarcophagi, though in its early stages they also used funerary urns.

Floor plan of the Volunni tomb in Perugia.

The Etruscan tombs were of various types although those carved into the rock were the dominant type.  Other tombs were shaped as mounds on a high circular base.  This was a type of tomb that will perpetuate till roman times.  The Etruscan tombs were arranged as a burial chamber sometimes radially distributed in several chambers, which could be accessed through a hall or gallery, and were externally covered by a conical mound.  Internally, their appearance was that of a house whose roof retained the typical structure of the wooden Etruscan houses.  These hypogean tombs allowed elucidating quite clearly how the Etruscan houses should be.  Thus, the layout of some of these Etruscan tombs allowed to conclude that in the typical Etruscan house there was an element that will remain much later as an essential part of the Roman house: the atrium or central space as a patio which in these hypogea was indicated as a rectangular excavation centrally located and bounded by four or more pillars, and that in the opposite side to the access of the tomb had a kind of chamber or bedroom that came to represent an element of the Roman house later known by the name of tablinum*.  Sometimes this tablinum was rather complex in these tombs.  Other tombs had a circular plan with a single pillar in its center, superimposed on the wall around the entire chamber they had some urns thus coinciding with other type of Roman mausoleum typical of the early years of the Empire.  Towards the end of the history of the Etruscan civilization there was also a variant of a funerary monument that conformed to the same formula seen in the Roman grave called columbarium*.

The Etruscan sarcophagi were placed alone or in groups inside the tomb’s chambers.  These sarcophagi are one of the most brilliant examples of the Etruscan sculptural production.  In both large and small sarcophagi, the most striking feature was their cover: a sculpture of the deceased either lying or, more often, in recumbent position (lying on an elbow and with upright torso).

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, ca. late 6th century BCE. (National Etruscan Museum, Rome).
Stele from Travignoli, also known as Fiesole stele, ca. 5th century BCE. (Fiesole, Municipal Archaeological Museum, Tuscany, Italy).

At first these sarcophagi were made of terracotta, later they were more frequently sculpted in stone.  Two of these terracotta sarcophagi from circa 530 BCE found in the necropolis of Cerveteri are of particular importance.  One is preserved in the Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome and the other is in the Louvre Museum.  Both are shaped as a sofa or couch in pure Ionic style and topped with sculptures of married couples.  In both examples husband and wife are recumbent as if they were resting in their own home, the wife is in the foreground and behind her is the husband who places his right arm on the shoulder of his wife in a tender marital gesture.  These smiling couples seem to be talking while attending the funeral banquet in their honor (if they aren’t already participating in the blessings of the afterlife).  The husbands are tall and slender in both sarcophagi.  They have a pointed beard which reinforces the sharpness of their chins.  These human figures modeled in clay represent a high degree of skill in funerary sculpture.  From the seventh century BCE and even from earlier dates there were more rudimentary human figures carved on steles with reliefs representing armed warriors with loose hair (see the famous Fiesole stele).

The Sarcophagus of Larthia Seianti, 2nd century BCE. (Florence Archaeological Museum).
Etruscan funerary urn (British Museum).

Other funerary representations found in sarcophagi from after the Vth century BCE showed a very different human type from the one we mentioned before: obese men crowned with thick headbands and showing their bare chests and round bellies with large necklaces of sempervivum (houseleeks) usually hanging over these parts of their bodies.  These fat Etruscans often hold in their left hand a small plate containing Charon’s obol*.  Some of these were also accompanied by a female figure of serious expression representing either his wife or an underground divinity. Continue reading “ETRUSCAN ART”