In Focus

Etruscan Jewelry

The following is an essay from the 1996 catalog Ancient Gold Jewelry at the Dallas Museum of Art.

The splendor and the technical skill of Etruscan jewelry have attracted admiration since several richly furnished Etruscan graves were discovered in central Italy during the first half of the 19th century. Appreciation of the artistic imagination and craftsmanship of Etruscan goldsmiths is reflected in numerous works by Italian artists, particularly those of the Castellani family, who from about 1820 tried to revive the styles of Etruscan jewelry in Rome and London.

The Etruscans were one of several peoples who inhabited early Italy. The region north of Rome, where they settled in the late 8th and 7th centuries BCE, still preserves their name in the modern word Toscana, or Tuscany. Etruscan civilization succeeded the Iron Age Villanovan culture, a prehistoric civilization named after a site near Bologna which had flourished in northern and central Italy until the 8th century BCE. The transition from the Villanovan culture to the Etruscan civilization was the result of social and economic developments in which the Greek colonization of southern Italy and eastern trade connections played decisive roles. The sources of the Etruscans' wealth - vast deposits of copper, tin, and iron in northern Etruria, as well as excellent agricultural conditions on the coastal plans - attracted foreign trade from early on. Phoenician trading centers were founded in the harbor towns of the Etruscan city-states of Tarquinia and Caere, while contacts with the Greek colony Pithecusae, on the island of Ischia, brought Greek merchants and craftsman to central Italy. Economic, cultural, and artistic ties were established between Etruria and Near Eastern countries as early as about 700 BCE. Syrian, Phoenician, and Assyrian artworks of this date have been found in Etruria. The initial artistic impetus for Etruscan works was probably set off by such imports. The oriental influence became stronger when Near Eastern artists settled in central Italy shortly after 700 BCE. As Greek craftsmen in Pithecusae and Cumae were themselves subject to eastern influences, their presence further strengthened the eastern aspects of early Etruscan art.

By conquest and settlement, the Etruscans soon added Umbria and Latium to their original territory. By about 550 BCE, they extended further south into Campania, and by 500 BCE Etruscan colonies had also been founded in northern Italy. At the same time, the rapid decline of their political and economic power began. While the Romans succeeded the Etruscans in Latium, the Greeks drove them out of southern Italy. By the early 4th century BCE, the Etruscans were reduced to the core of their original territories and these, too, were to be lost to Rome in the course of the next 200 years.

The Etruscans were unable to maintain power over a longer period primarily because of their strong political individualism: the centers of Tarqauinia, Caere, Vulci, Vetulonia, and Populonia were never willing to form more than a short-term confederation. This sense of individuality seems to be reflected in Etruscan gold jewelry. The remarkable differences between 7th-century BCE jewelry from workshops in southern Etruria and pieces created in the northern cities could reflect local preferences, or are the result of influence from eastern merchants and craftsmen of different origins: Phoenician, Assyrian, or Syrian.

The most remarkable feature and hallmark of Etruscan jewelry is a decorative technique called granulation. The term derives from the Latin word granulum, from the root word granum, meaning "grain," and it describes a metalworking process of joining small granules to a base (1991.75.13.a-b). A few Etruscan workshops practiced a pulviscolo, or "fine dust" granulation. In this technique the granules are so small that they cannot form regular patterns but have to be applied at random. Whole areas may be covered with dust granulation, giving a distinct texture to the surface (1968.13.a-b). While goldsmiths in the eastern Mediterranean region had used the technique of granulation since the 3rd millennium B.C.E., and Egyptian, Myceneaean, Phoenician, and Greek goldsmiths made ample use of it, granulation reached its aesthetic peak in 7th and 6th century BCE Etruria. Etruscan craftsmen were not necessarily more skilled than earlier or conttemporary goldsmiths in other parts of the ancient world, but they were more patient with the process of applying the fine gold granules to a base, and they responded to the high demand for the aesthetic effects of granulation.

Adapted from

Barbara Deppert-Lippitz, Ancient Gold Jewelry at the Dallas Museum of Art (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art in association with the University of Washington Press, 1996), 31-39.

Related Multimedia

Symposium in conjunction with Golden Treasures of the Ancient World, May 30–September 5, 1999; "God is Zeus’ Child: Precious Metalwork in the Ancient World", Dr. Bromberg, Anne R., Curator of Ancient and South Asian Art, DMA; "Ur of the Chaldees: Inside Woolley’s Excavations at the Birthplace of the Biblical Patriarch Abraham", Dr. Richard Zettler, curator of the Ur exhibition; Curator in charge of Near Eastern Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; "The Gold of Ur: The Socioeconomic Significance", Dr. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, Professor of Art and Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; "Eriphyle’s Necklace: The Power of Ornament in Ancient Greece", Mary Louise Hart, Assistant Curator of Antiquities, The J. Paul Getty Museum; "Etruscan Jewelry: New Discoveries, Ancient Functions", Dr. Richard De Puma, Professor of Art History , University of Iowa

Web Resources

DMA Canvas
Read a DMA blog post about how Etruscan jewelry is made.