The Etruscans -predecessors of 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 BC. 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 BC 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 BC the Etruscans were only occupying the region they first conquered, but this territory would fall also 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 BC), Rome dominated the Etruscan people who quickly adopted Roman government and customs.
Etruria was always a maritime civilization intensely devoted to 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.
Etruscan tombs were of various types but those carved into the rock were dominant. Others were externally shaped as mounds on a high circular base. This was a type of tomb that will perpetuate till roman times. 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 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, 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 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 Etruscan civilization there was also a variant of a funerary monument that conformed to the same formula seen in the Roman grave called columbarium.
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 that on their covers was a sculpture of the deceased either lying or, more often, in recumbent position (lying on an elbow and with upright torso).
At first these sarcophagi were made of terracotta, later they were more frequently sculpted in stone. Two of these terracotta sarcophagi from circa 530 BC 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 in their covers married couples are reproduced. 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. But these human figures modeled in clay represent a high degree of skill in funerary sculpture. From the seventh century BC 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).
Other funerary representations found in sarcophagi from after the V century BC 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 the paten containing the offering to pay Charon. Some of these were also accompanied by a female figure of serious expression representing either his wife or an underground divinity.
Beginning in the V century BC the funerary coffin or urn of rectangular shape was adorned with reliefs reproducing dance scenes, funerary banquets, or a ceremony mourning the deceased. These are topics that also appeared often in Etruscan tombs’ mural paintings. From the fourth century BC came some coffins adorned not with reliefs but with paintings like the famous “Sarcophagus of the Amazons” found in Tarquinia and important because includes copies of original Greek paintings.
Religious beliefs and practices of the Etruscans influenced in great part religion and rites of the Romans. They believed in two triads of gods, one earthly and other from the underground. The deities of the first were Tinia (a Jupiter without the absolute power of the Greco-Latin god), Uni (i.e. Juno) and Menrva (Minerva). The infernal deities included: Ceres, Libera (kind of Proserpina) and Lieber (god that shared the characteristics of Bacchus and Pluto). There were also other gods: Aplu (Apollo), Turn (like a Mercury, the messenger god), Turan (similar to Venus), Maris (Mars) and several lasas or geniuses related to the world of the dead including: Charum (Charon) and Vanth (female winged genius of the death). This mythology closely linked the beliefs of Etruscans and Greeks.
For the Etruscans the embodiment of all reputed and important religious ceremony should be preceded by an omen. In order to perform it, according to the rite, a part of the ground and its corresponding space in the sky should be established, this particular “scenario” is what in archaic Latin is called templum. By Greek influence, Etruscans also knew the sanctuary which by extension was also given the name of templum.
The Etruscan sanctuary was an adaptation of the Greek temple. Its floor plan was almost as wide as long and had a wooden colonnaded hall whose number of columns was determined by the presence of the three cellas if the temple was consecrated to a triad. In that case the central cella could be wider. But there were also sanctuaries of smaller size and a single cella as the one in Faleria (now reconstructed in the Museum of Villa Giulia), then the hall had only a couple of columns. The roof was projected outside the building in a third of the total space of the cella or shrine and was built with wood like the columns and the inner roof structure. The roofs were always of double sloped type.
The Etruscan was an architecture built with despicable materials, this explain that the triangles of pediments didn’t have heavy stone sculptures. In the most ancient temples the pediments were smooth or perhaps painted; later from the third century BC the front pediment was adorned with reliefs or even terracotta figures. Otherwise, all the sculptural decoration was in ceramic and was located at the top of the roof: at the vertex of the triangle of the pediment and the antefixes of the sides. From the late sixth century BC these decorative terracotta were mainly antefixes or acroterion or statues that stood inside the building. The antefixes represented maenads or silenus’ heads, or the Gorgon, or pairs of maenads and silenus joined in licentious dance, all themes of clear Ionian and Corinthian influence.
A group of decorative sculptures stands out for their extraordinary merit. It is the polychrome group which crowned the temple of Apollo at Veii. It is a terracotta group representing a dispute between Apollo and Heracles for the possession of a hunted deer. It was composed of several characters almost life-size. The figure of Apollo has been conserved complete but the statues of Hercules, a goddess (perhaps the Etruscan version of Latona), and an expressive head of Hermes are severely damaged. Its author was named Vulca and sculpted it circa 510 BC.
Also found at Veii, and perhaps belonging to the school of Vulca, is a delicate head of a beardless young man preserved in the Museum of Villa Giulia: the so called testa Malavolta from the second half of the V century that offers some striking resemblance to the head of St George by Donatello.
This curious analogy between such chronologically remote works of art, ones by ancient Etruscan sculptors and others by great Tuscan artists of the fifteenth century is often common in several cases. Something like that is observed in a virile portrait of the third century BC and in a beautiful bronze head of a child dating from that same century whose style suggests a similarity between Etruscan art and the art from the Florentine Renaissance.
The great bronze image of Mars a signed work found in Todi from the end of the V century or early IV century shows attic influences and has been attributed to an Etruscan workshop that must have existed in Umbria. His pose is vaguely reminiscent of the Doryphoros by Polykleitos, though here it is not a nude but an armed image which in his left hand, instead of wielding the spear, carries the stone that symbolizes used by the god to fulminate.
From the V and IV centuries there are a number of wonderful small bronzes of nude young athletes. But the great tradition of casted and carved sculpture of masterly technique is a much older affair. Truly capital sculptures are: the famous Chimera of Arezzo perhaps from the fourth century, and with some debate also the much famous Capitoline She Wolf from supposedly around 500 BC. The age and origin of the Capitoline Wolf is now under controversy. The statue was long thought to be Etruscan from ca. V century BC, although the twins Romulus and Remus (the twin brothers, central characters of Rome’s foundation myth) were added during the Renaissance in the late 15th century AD, probably by the sculptor Antonio Pollaiolo. However, radiocarbon dating has found that the statue was possibly made in the 13th century AD though the results have not yet been completely confirmed. We include it here until supporting evidence about its dating is conclusive.
Later during the third and first centuries some great portraits were cast in bronze as the already mentioned child’s head from the Archaeological Museum of Florence, the portrait of a man in the Leningrad Museum, the pseudo-Brutus from the Conservators Palace in Rome, and the Speaker (Arringatore) in the Museum of Florence a large signed full body statue of ca. 80 BC. There is no doubt some portraits of this type came from Etruscans who were already living in Rome.
The terracotta sculpture used as artistic coating also experienced great changes from the early Hellenistic period during the third century BC. These sculptures often acquired a refinement influenced by Greek art of the same time which can support the assumption that their authors were Greeks living in Etruria. Notable among these works is the ceramic plate representing two winged horses that was part of a pediment of a temple in Tarquinia from about the year 300.
We will briefly review the Etruscan art of mural painting, an art of great style and originality, which has illustrious examples in the tombs of Caere, Tarquinia, Orvieto, Chiusi and Vulci. To assess the importance of these paintings let’s say that from all that Etruscans painted in antiquity, only have been conserved two vast groups of these paintings: one is composed of wall paintings, the other includes the paintings decorating certain houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum. In the tombs carved into the stone, the paintings were made using the tempera technique directly on the rock wall, while the paintings found in houses were made as frescoes.
The “Tomb of the Bell” offered the most archaic of all these paintings. They appear to date from the seventh century BC and their style which included highly stylized fantastic animals suggests a direct Asian inspiration. The paintings from the “Tomb of the Bulls”, in Tarquinia, are from the mid-sixth century and appear very archaic: in one of its frescoes is Achilles besides a monumental fountain and wearing a Corinthian helmet, he is ready to assault Troilus, the young Trojan prince who appears naked and wielding the pike while riding his horse. From earlier times, also found in Tarquinia, are the paintings from the tomb called “of the Augurs” representing a brilliant celebration of funeral games. Without leaving Tarquinia and from the V century are the paintings from the tombs of “the Lionesses” and of “the Triclinium or Couch” depicting dance scenes with high inventive and bright colors, while the tomb of “the Leopards” represents a feast. All these tombs seem to date from V century as well as other famous tomb called “The Hunting and the Fishing”. In Orvieto, the tombs of the fourth century are more realistic; more “Greek” by the style of its design is the tomb of the “Orc” in Tarquinia from around 300 BC. From the III century is the wonderful group that decorated a very important tomb in Vulci, the “François tomb”, its themes were varied: episodes of the Trojan War and scenes of the fight between Etruscans and Romans.
The Etruscans also excelled as builders of solid walls. Their conception of the city as Acropolis had to help them develop this talent. It is traditionally attributed to the Etruscans several canals and other hydraulic works of the Lazio and even the construction of the Cloaca Maxima and the oldest walls in Rome.
With respect to ceramics, it is undeniable that Greek vases imported in large quantities to Etruria for centuries contributed in turn to the development of an interesting Etruscan decorated ceramic pretending to be a replica of Greek ceramic. Within these imitations it can be appreciated Cypriot or Rhodian influences from the sixth century BC, later the influence is typically Corinthian. Later in the V century, a number of vessels decorated with black figures were the product of several local factories and the same applies to those ceramics with red colored figures on black background whose main production center was apparently located in Faleria.
Etruscan ceramics also imitated Athenian models although the Etruscan character was manifested in such craters, hydrias and variety of cups by a greater expressive force of the drawings and a sharper outlining of the decoration. But besides all this, the Etruscans produced a form of pottery that was entirely its own invention and is typically called bucchero. It includes cups and bowls of extraordinary smoothness. The color of these ceramics is black, more or less intense and lustrous, and their forms mimic brass or silver vessels. There were two varieties, the bucchero sottile with very thin walls and with incised decoration derived from a repertoire of oriental types, and bucchero pesante with thick walls and decorated by stamping using molds.
Equally important are embossed metal vessels. The situla or bucket-shaped vessel used for the lustral water was very popular in Etruria. We know a number of these bronze vessels from the VI and V centuries which were decorated with overlapping areas.
The metal engraving using burin was also very important for the production of cistas or cylindrical boxes with bases and lids. Their handles were groups of little bronze sculptures. Such cistas came from the fourth century onwards and were engraved with mythological themes. Engraving was also used with great brilliance in the ornamentation of circular mirrors.
Etruscan goldsmithing and jewelry are among the brightest of antiquity. From the seventh to fifth century Etruscans used almost constantly an ornamentation method that was their own, and that consisted in decorating the gold lamina already hammered with a combination of filigree and the granulation technique. This technique consisted in reducing gold to tiny spherical balls that by a process that is now ignored were somehow strongly adhered to the gold lamina. With such tiny balls ornaments different figures were made (dogs, birds, sphinxes, lions, etc.). In some of the jewels the contrast between figurative embossed and this type of ornament produced sensational results as seen, for example, in the golden pendant with the face of a bearded and horned god that is part of a famous jewel preserved in the Louvre. However over the years, this technique was lost and was more in used to make jewels with embossed metal pieces that were linked by hinges.
In summary, the Etruscan art didn’t produce monumental works as other civilizations did. They didn’t build colossal temples, neither they left large burials. However, they were strongly influenced by Greek art, particularly the Ionian, and their culture, based mainly on old Eastern traditions, greatly influenced the birth of the art of what will come to be the new mother of peoples: the Roman city.