In Focus

Etruria: Mastery of Metalwork

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Alas, old Veii, you too were once a kingdom, and the throne of gold was set in your marketplace. now, in your walls, the only sound is the shepherd's horn, and they reap the wheatfields over your people's bones.

-Propertius, Elegies

That the Etruscans remain a somewhat enigmatic people in the eyes of the modern world is due in part to the conflicting opinions about their origins; to a less than adequate understanding of their language, religion, and rituals; and to the eclectic style of their art. Hypotheses about the Etruscans were recorded as early as the Etruscans themselves. Herodotus (1.94) and Virgil (Aeneid 8.47.ff.) recounted that the Etruscans derived from ancient Lydia, while Strabo (5.2.4) informs us their origins with the Pelasgians in the eastern Mediterranean. Disregarding these theories, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Antiquitates Romanae 1.30) expressed his belief that the Etruscans were autochthonous, native to Italy from the earliest times. A Renaissance fancy had the Etruscans descended directly from Noah and the twelve tribes of Israel, which were related to the twelve cities of Etruria. In the eighteenth century, the belief was advanced that the Etruscans were related to central European peoples and had mirgrated to central Italy over Alpine passes. Actually, either through stylistic similarities in art forms or cultural practices in burial customs, certain contacts with Anatolian cultures, as well as with central European and Danubian peoples, can be identified, but not necessarily explained with complete satisfaction. What is certain is that by the end of the ninth century BCE a culture in northern Italy-named Villanovan, after a mid-nineteeth-centruy discovery at Villanova near Bologna-began to prosper, grow in population, excel in artistic expression (especially metalwork), establish foreign contacts, and create social distinctions within its settlements as reflected in the cemeteries. The emergence of this society as a major force in the Mediterranean world led to the establishment of Etruscan culture.

The Etruscans-known as Rasenna in Etruscan, Tyrrhenoi in Greek, Turskus to the ancient Umbrians, and Tusci or Etrusci in Latin-grew to prominence in cities primarily in Tuscan on Villanovan sites. Although Etruscan settlements are known along the Po valley to the north and in Campania to the south, the great cities of Etruria are bounded in a triangle by the Arno River, the Tiber River, and the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Etruscans were accomplished engineers, using great walls to enhance naturally defended sites for their cities. They surveyed and cut roads through hills, built bridges over streams, and reclaimed fields through the excavation of subterranean drainage canals. The Etruscans were also successful herdsmen and productive farmers as witnessed in scenes from their earliest examples of figural art. Cultivating olives and grapes imported from Greece, the Etruscans developed their agricultural industries and were able to export olive oil and wine from inland centers such as Chiusi to distant trading partners such as Gaul. Salt was mined near Veii, and the wooded hillsides of Tuscany supplied lumber for construction and fuel. Rich in minerals, the regions around Volterra, Arezzo, the Tolfa Mountains, and the island of Elba across from Populonia provided iron, copper, tin, lead, silver, and alum, all essential elements to the renowned Etruscan metal industry. Flourishing and prosperous in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, Etruria was understandably attractive to migrant peoples of Asia Minor, the Aegean, other parts of Italy, and North Africa. This explains in part the many stylistic features of other Mediterranean art forms reflected in Etruscan crafts and designs. it is also plausible that skilled craftsmen from these foreign lands, many displaced by Assyrian and then Persian conquests, settled in Etruria to continue their trades and become part of the Etruscan ethos, as they certainly came from Corinth and East Greece in the seventh century BCE. The elaborate horse bit (1969.6) exemplifies the often baroque ornamentation of the Etruscan decorative style (as opposed to a more functional design in Greek art), and also exhibits a similarity in form and function to examples in far away Luristan, where horse breeding was a supreme art. In addition, during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, handicraft traits from Egypt, Syria, Phoenicia, Assyria, and Cyprus appeared in Etruscan art, contributing to tits highly eclectic nature. Such Etruscan artworks often appear in tombs side by side with exotic imports such as ivory, ostrich eggs, faience, glass, and amber.

Along with Near Eastern influences, which are readily detectable in early Etruscan art, Greek motifs, techniques, and subjects also appear from a very early stage. Early in the eighth century BCE, Euboean Greeks with Near Eastern peoples among them settled in the Bay of Naples, where they traded with Etruscan coastal towns and provided their hosts with ideas and imagery already formulated in the eastern Mediterranean. It is after this initial period of contact with the Greeks that the geometricized designs of Early Iron Age art in Italy are replaced with figural images, the potter's wheel is introduced, painted decoration appears on Etruscan vases, and Greek pottery appears in Etruscan tombs. The animal style flourished far and wide in Etruscan art; creatures both real and fantastic were especially used as components of ostentatious decoration on objects for the affluent upper class. They are seen devoid of context on vases, inscribed on armor, adorning furniture or vessels, and embedded in the design of other objects. But the Etruscans did not always employ only minor-scale imagery in their art. It is undoubtedly through contacts with greeks, who were establishing colonies in southern Italy and Sicily, that monumental art first emerged in Etruria during the seventh century BCE. Rock-hewn, vaulted tobms became the final resting places for prominent Etruscan families. Large-scale stone and terracotta funerary sculpture occurred near Caere and Vetulonia, while the earliest painted tombs are found at Veii and Caere. Contact with foreign sailors, as well as the export of raw materials, produce, and artworks, created a lively commerce for the Etruscans, whose port towns of Pyrgi, Graviscae, and Regae in the amajor centers of Caere, Tarquinia, and Vulci began to flourish. The Tyrrhenian Sea, at first of great importance to the Phoenicians and the greeks, became an Etruscan domain by the sixth century BCE, and Greek accusations of Etruscan piracy may reflect this shift in maritime power. Evidence for Etruscan commerce beyond its territorial waters is provided by numerous finds of their gleaming black pottery (bucchero) in Greece, north Africa, Spain, and France.

In the struggle for trade and territorial expansion the Etruscans adapted much from Greek military tactics and their technology for production of arms. The DMA's magnificent Corinthian-inspired helmet (1966.8) is a testament to the mastery of the Etruscan metalsmith, as well as a silent commentary on the fact that real power in Etruscan society rested with a warrior aristocracy. This elite class, which supported the arms industry, participated in funerary games and other religious ceremonies in which armor was worn and ultimately placed in tombs to honor the heroic character of those who had pursued a military life. The often violent nature of Etruscan funerary cult, which may originally have included human sacrifice, involved athletic activities in which armed combatants maimed or even killed on another, a practice that is echoed in the gladiatorial events of the Roman arena centuries later.

Women experienced a great deal of social freedom in Etruscan culture, participating in rituals and ceremonies and having substantial influence in public affairs. Such privileged activity was not common in the Mediterranean world and was certainly unlike the secluded lives led by women in Greece. Highborn women are depicted in Etruscan art wearing fine clothes and elaborately wrought jewelry, all made of expensive materials and denoting their aristocratic position. They are sometimes seen with their servants in attendance, assuring their comforts and elite status. Women are present at great banquets and participate side by side with men at symposia. the Etruscans were fond of music and dance, in which both males and females performed, either together or alone. Singing, so much a part of Greek entertainment, was apparently uncommon in Etruria, where it seems to have been a means of expression reserved for priests and prophets. Dance groups were usually led by young women, and Livy (History of Rome 7.2) tells us that they performed with grace to the accompaniment of the pipes. Descriptive scenes such as this literally materialize before our eyes with the elegant dancer and pipe player on the DMA's Etruscan mirror (1966.7). The charm and merriment depicted here is expressive of both women's tastes and their central status in Etruscan society. The wealth placed in their tombs matches that associated with men and even contains objects more often restricted to male burials in outher cultures, such as the trappings for horses and carriages. The family was central to Etruscan society, and men, women, and children are often depicted in domestic settings. It was here in the privacy of their homes that wome utilized the many bronze utensils made for their delight: cista to hold their toilet objects, candelabra to illuminate their quarters, and mirrors for their fancy. Each of these often had elaborate decoration in the form of mortal or mythical characters, sometimes with accompanying inscriptions. The frequent references to characters in greek tragedy indicate that Etruscan women were literate, knowledgeable about theater, and able to appreciate the romantic sagas that were designed to cater to their tastes. There are many instances of women depicted on mirrors holding or reading scrolls or tablets, implying that they were educated.

Artists maintained an elevated status in Etruscan culture. Supported by a wealthy aristocracy at home and appreciated for their technological expertise and ornate craftsmanship abroad, Etruscan artists enjoyed great renown in their own time by people who sought their wares from as far away as Cyprus and the Levant, Greece, the Crimea, central Europe, and the Iberian Peninsula. Whether as bronze workers, coroplasts, goldsmiths, or potters, they combined an acute knowledge of the technological limitations inherent in their materials with an enormous aptitude for adopting or adapting foreign shapes and designs from imports to produce their own works of art. Their acquired wealth and respected status led to the establishment of a strong middle class in Etruscan society. It is little wonder that foreign merchants and craftsmen joined thier number during the prosperous years of the Archaic period. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Antiquitates Romanae 3.46), Livy (History of Rome 1.34), and Pliny (Natural History 35.43.152) inform us of an aristocratic merchant, Demaratus, who was expelled from his native Corinth by the local tyrant Cypselus and setttled with his retinue of craftsmen at Tarquinia in the middle of the seventh century BCE. His marriage to an Etruscan noblewoman produced a son, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (subsequently known as Tarquin), who, upon the urging of his wife, Tanaquil, migrated to Rome and became the founder of a monarchy that lasted a century before Roman rule.

Monumental terracotta sculpture is an Etruscan trademark. Among the major centers of production were Caere and Veii, both close to Greek colonies in the south where inspiration for sculptural form and function was sought. In addition to funerary and cult images, architectural terracottas were crafted by Etruscan coroplasts who decorated temples and shrines with brightly painted pedimental sculpture, ridge figures, and antefixes.

Next to terracotta, bronze was the material crafted most often by Etruscan artists. Mined in the ore-rich regions of central Italy and fired with charcoal made from local forests, bronze was hammered and shaped by specialized craftsmen into statues, statuettes, vessels of various shape and ornament, utensils in abundance, weapons, armor, and jewelry. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, with the latter being less than fifteen percent of the whole. the Etruscans added some lead to the mixture to enhance its pliability. Artists produced many different vessels and armor by col-working the bronze; this technique involves hammering ingots or disks into sheets and shaping them into the desired form. The exquisite DMA helmet was rendered in this manner. Raised relief work was accomplished through the techniques of chasing from above and repoussé from behind the bronze sheet to obtain the desired pattern or image. Different parts of an object were usually attached by hammering overlapping pieces together, known as crimping, or by means of bronze rivets, such ast those that join the crest-mount to the helmet here. Cast bronze works like the charming lion appliqué (1967.6.1-2) were solid and therefore small, for economy of labor and material. Larger works, more than six or seven inches high, were hollow. The intricate horse bit was cast in interlinking parts and testifies to the maker's adroitness with both the material and the design. Molds for solid-cast items could be of wood or clay, but also of stone, as were those for mirrors, to withstand extensive reuse. Hollow-cast objects were created by the lost-wax casting method. a solid core of clay was suspended within the mold and a thin layer of wax was placed between the stwo surfaces. Details were formed in the pliable wax before the outer clay mold was applied. Metal pins held the core and the mold at the desired distance once the wax was heated and drained out through holes, allowing the molten bronze to replace it. For larger objects and statues, this process was generally done in parts. After the outer mold was removed, the exposed bronze surface of the object could be enhanced with images or designs by tracing, engraving, or stamping, and was finally polished with either pumice or cuttlebone.

Etruscan metalsmiths also produced exquisite gold jewelry and decorative pieces, many examples of which adorned their owners in life and ultimately accompanied them to the tomb. Starting in the eighth century BCE Etruscan jewelers crafted several varieties of pins and pendants, earrings, hair spirals, fibulae (latched pins), fine rings, and bracelets, some reflecting Phoenician influence, others simply embellished versions in gold of established Villanovan bronze types. Throughout the Archaic period, Greek influence was the dominant foreign element, although this manifests itself more through adaptations of subsidiary ornament than in outright imitation; thus Etruscan gold work has its own distinctive quality apart from Greek jewelry. of the various techniques employed in crafting ancient jewelry, the Etruscans perfected those of filigree (soldered wire patterns) and its derivative, granulation (soldered beads), beyond that achieved by any other culture. In the finest examples of Etruscan gold work, the individual grains measure less than .15 millimeters in diameter, and thousands of beads were sometimes used to ornament a single piece of jewelry. The complex amalgamation of various types of filigree wire can be appreciated in the magnificent pair of Late Archaic earrings (1968.13.A-B), while granulation is employed to accent other methods of decoration in the stunning pair of Late Classical earrings (1966.25.A-B) with tiny human faces and rosettes. Both examples provide excellent representations of the distinctive and ornate Etruscan style.

Etruscan artists rarely signed their work, and those that did, beginning about 650 BCE, were generally potters. By the end of the eighth century BCE, Euboean colonists in the Bay of Naples had introduced the Greek alphabet to the Etruscans, who modified these letters to devise a system of writing expressive of their own language. The earliest Archaic inscriptions reveal a diversity of letter forms, perhaps indicating different dialects among the Etruscan centers. The oldest graffiti appear on pottery and precious commodities, which suggests that at first only the wealthy upper class was literate. As literacy spread through the social strata, a number of inscriptions emerge, although these are primarily votive or funerary, revealing limited information such as the names of divinities, dedicators, or the deceased- sometimes with references to parentage and rank- and occasionally identification of the object offered. a significant element in the inscriptions, divulging much about the Etruscan social order, is the use of two personal names. The praenomen, or personal name, was followed by the cognomen, or family name, specifying to which group of people the individual was bound, such as Lars Porsenna or Tanaquil Fulnia. The few ritual and legal texts that survive have yet to be fully understood and are only the remnants of a profusion of treatises on Etruscan religion, historical events, and drama that are now lost but alluded to in Roman literature. Etruscan religion, which appears to have permeated nearly every aspect of public and private life, had a profound effect on Roman culture. By the time of Augustus, however, and the establishment of the Roman Empire, the world of the Etruscans had been irreversibly altered and absorbed into the sphere of Rome. The Roman emperor Claudius I was married to a woman of Etruscan blood, Plautia Urgulanilla; had command of the Etruscan language; and, according to Suetonius (Divus Claudius 42.2), wrote a voluminous history of the people. Born out of a sense of nostalgia and antiquarian curiosity, this work, like the Etruscans themselves, has slipped from our grasp. Fortunately, however, Etruscan culture remains mirrored in the accounts of others and is reflected in the lively and intricate creations its people left behind.

Excerpted from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 79-82.