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Chapter 85: Graphic Design in the Lost Civilization of Etruscan

Due to the fact that their literature was deliberately destroyed in the first centuries A.D., the origin of Etruscans is a mystery. They arrived in the ninth century BC on the west coast of Italy that is now Tuscany. They resembled the Phoenicians, and perhaps they were sailing in small groups by sea from Asia Minor. Like Phoenicians they were traders and sailors and founded towns along the coast.They spoke a language unlike any other known European tongue, one hard to read and surviving mostly as limited tomb inscriptions. Scholars profess to have lost interest in pursuing the search for origins, perhaps because past efforts have brought nothing but confused and contradictory speculation.

The "Chimera di Arezzo," a bronze statue in typical Etruscan style

Great navigators, Etruscans are also known for having been among the first to make use of metallurgy and to raise it to an art form. They were very skilled in carving ornaments out of gold, silver, and bronze. The ancient Romans called them the Tusci or Etrusci, which later changed into Tuscany and Etruria. The ancient Greek knew them as as Τυρρηνοὶ (Tyrrhēnoi), earlier Tyrsenoi, from which the Romans derived the names Tyrrhēni (Etruscans), Tyrrhēnia (Etruria), and Mare Tyrrhēnum (Tyrrhenian Sea). The Etruscans called themselves Rasenna, which was syncopated to Rasna or Raśna. The Romans owed more than they ever admitted to the Etruscans.

Sarcophagus from Cerveteri 520 BC (Etruscan) Rome, Villa Giulia

While some 13,000 Etruscan texts exist, most of these are very short, thus almost all the information about their culture is derived from their tombs, as they were obsessed with elaborate burials. The ancient Etruscans prepared extensively for the afterlife, furnishing elaborate tombs and ordering handsome coffins or sarcophagi. Many Etruscan sites, primarily cemeteries and sanctuaries, have been excavated, notably at Veii, Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci, and Vetulonia.

Numerous Etruscan tomb paintings portray in vivid color many different scenes of life, death, and myth. Their interest in elaborate burials  has led researchers to suppose that they may have had an underlying belief, similar to the Egyptians that a part of the soul remained with the body, or at least that the body was important for the afterlife.The passion for games such as the funereal games of the Phersu and other games of skill was very widespread among the Etruscans.

According to Dr. Annette Rathje of the University of Copenhagen excavations at a site called Murlo, on a hill south of Siena, were turning up increasing evidence of large-scale settlement and monumental art, including bold friezes and some of the earliest architectural terra cottas in Italy. The ancient city had an impressive acropolis and an enormous building, the largest in Italy before the sixth century B.C., that appears to have consisted of many smaller structures around a courtyard. Statues of gods or dignitaries and mythical beasts adorned the place.

New research shows Etruscans were a conduit for the introduction of Greek culture and its pantheon of gods to the Romans. The Etruscans developed a version of the Greek alphabet, a step that influenced Roman letters and thereby northern Europe's. They built the first cities in Italy, when the hills of Rome stood barren of promise, and their influence shows up in later Roman works of architecture and engineering.

Romulus and Remus (the mythical founders of Rome) gives an idea of the great skill with which Etruscan artists worked.

The Etruscan culture developed from a prehistoric civilization known as Villanovan (ca. 900–500 B.C.). By the beginning of the seventh century B.C., the Etruscans occupied the central region of Italy between the Arno and Tiber rivers, and eventually settled as far north as the Po River valley and as far south as Campania. Around 540 BC, the Battle of Alalia led to a new distribution of power in the western Mediterranean Sea. Though the battle had no clear winner, Carthage managed to expand its sphere of influence at the expense of the Greeks, and Etruria saw itself relegated to the northern Tyrrhenian Sea with full ownership of Corsica. From the first half of the 5th century BC, the new international political situation meant the beginning of the Etruscan decline after losing their southern provinces.

The parents’ sarcophagus (above, left), carved in a local volcanic stone, shows the more naturalistic character of Etruscan art. The middle-aged man and his wife press close together, their feet poking out beneath the covers. A long relief on the side depicts their wedding procession, with the couple at the center. The son’s sarcophagus (above, right) shows the influence of Greek art and styles in his beard and in his wife’s hairstyle, as well as in their more idealized appearance and pose. The sides of this sarcophagus are carved with less personal scenes, such as Greeks fighting Amazons and horsemen attacking armed men on foot. While some have suggested a Greek artist may have made the sarcophagus for the son and his wife, it is evident that both couples wanted to remain in eternal embrace.

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses 
The Sarcophagus of the Spouses is the name given to this monumental terracotta Etruscan funerary urn, representing two spouses reclining side by side in a typical Etruscan banquet pose. Their ashes or remains were placed in the urn.

In 480 BC, Etruria's ally Carthage was defeated by a coalition of Magna Graecia cities led by Syracuse. A few years later, in 474, Syracuse's tyrant Hiero defeated the Etruscans at the Battle of Cumae. Etruria's influence over the cities of Latium and Campania weakened, and it was taken over by Romans and Samnites. In the 4th century, Etruria saw a Gallic invasion end its influence over the Po valley and the Adriatic coast. Meanwhile, Rome had started annexing Etruscan cities. This led to the loss of the Northern Etruscan provinces. Etruria was conquered by Rome in the 3rd century BC.

Even after they were subjugated and then annexed by the Roman Republic, the Etruscans and their influence never entirely disappeared. They were assimilated. They lost their language to Latin, and yet their legacy has endured in surprising ways, beyond any part they had in spreading the Greek alphabet. Their achievements in engineering impacted Roman aqueducts and basilicas. The tombs of the emperors Augustus and Hadrian deliberately imitated Etruscan ones from seven centuries before. The artists of the Renaissance also built upon Etruscan foundations, as seen in the palaces of Florence, the sculpture of Pisa and the painting of Siena. Painting frescoes on wet plaster had been an Etruscan talent.

The Tomb of the Leopards is a charming, cosy little room, and the paintings on the walls have not been so very much damaged. All the tombs are ruined to some degree by weather and vulgar vandalism, having been left and neglected like common holes, when they had been broken open again and rifled to the last gasp. But still the paintings are fresh and alive: the ochre-reds and blacks and blues and blue-greens are curiously alive and harmonious on the creamy yellow walls. Most of the tomb walls have had a thin coat of stucco, but it is of the same paste as the living rock, which is fine and yellow, and weathers to a lovely, creamy gold, a beautiful colour for a background. Etruscan Places by D. H. Lawrence
The commemoration of an affectionate marriage for eternity reflects a major difference between ancient Greek and Etruscan societies—namely, the more equal participation of women in Etruscan rituals and life.

The Tomb of The Augurs
   The two characters with their hands extended upwards at each side of the door are generally interpreted as augurs, but others interpret them as relatives of the deceased. The name written on the wall is Apastanasar which contains the root apa (father).

Two wrestlers are depicted, possibly part of the funerary games.

This scene is also probably part of the funerary games,   depicting a masked figure holding a rope in his hand. The rope is attached to the collar of a dog. When the Phersu (masked person) pulls on the rope, a nail on the dog's collar bites into its neck, enraging the animal and causing it to attack a tethered man, possibly a condemned criminal.

The Tomb of the Bulls, Tomba dei Tori, Approximately 560 BC

The frescos on the Tomb of the Bulls are characterized by yet undecipherable fertility symbols. The panel on the left depicts a heterosexual scene while the scene on the right depicts a homosexual one. The bulls have human faces, and some have noted that the bull on the right has an aggressive pose, whereas the bull on the left is serene, perhaps implying a disapproval of homosexuality.

A dancing woman depicted in a fresco on the Tomb of The Lionesses, Tomba delle Leonesse, around 520 BC

The Tomb of The Baron, Tomba del Barone Period, 510-500BC

A fishing scene on a fresco on the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, Tomba caccia e Pesca, end of the six century BC

A typical banquet scene, with two guests on each cline, slaves, an auletos and a cithara player on a fresco on the Tomb of The Ship, Tomba della, Nave, Mid Fifth century BC
An enchanting dancing scene on a fresco on the Tomb of the Triclinium,Tomba del Triclinio Period, 470 BC
The Tomb of the Shields, Tarquinia, end of the 4th Century BC

Chariot, late 6th century B.C. Etruscan; From Monteleone, Italy Bronze

The main subjects on the three parts of this chariot box perhaps refer to the life of  Achilles. In the center, Achilles receives armor from Thetis, his mother. On one side, he engages in combat with another hero, possibly Memnon; on the other side, he appears in a chariot drawn by winged horses. While the style and subject of the reliefs look to Greek art and myth, the treatment of the scenes is thoroughly Etruscan.

Amphora (Jar) with Lid, 3rd quarter of the 6th century B.C. Etruscan,

The Etruscans were interested in sea creatures and birds. On one side the shoulder panel of this jar shows two mermen, on the other two belligerent dogs. Below, six metopes deployed fairly regularly around the circumference contain water birds, each somewhat different.

This colorful and unusual work represents one enterprising Etruscan artist's response to an originally Greek shape and type of decoration. The form of the amphora, the inclusion of a lid, the two-part handles, the pendant lotus buds in the shoulder panels, the rays at the base of the body, and the echinus foot derive from Athenian prototypes of the mid-sixth century B.C. 

Etruscan Kalpis, 6th B.C
The thousands of Greek vases imported into Etruria beginning about 600 B.C. significantly influenced local pottery production. These imports also introduced the black-figure technique, with the use of incision and added color for details. The local admixture is most evident in the subject matter and its placement.

Globular cup with two handles, last quarter of 6th century B.C. Etruscan Terracotta

During the Late Archaic period (ca. 520–480 B.C.), the phallos-bird was a popular motif for vase painters in Athens, where it had obvious erotic connotations and was frequently associated with young women or satyrs in a Dionysian milieu. The specific meaning of this symbol in Etruscan art is not clear. The main scene on each side of the body represents a phallos-bird with spread wings among black birds.

Many Greek and Roman authors including Theopompus of Chios and Plato referred to the Etruscans as immoral. During later Roman times, the word Etruscan was almost synonomous with prostitute, and Livy's histories moralise about the rape of Lucretia, where Roman women are seen as virtuous model wives in comparison to their liberated Etruscan counterparts. According to Timaeus (4th Century BC): "
Among the Etruscans who had become extravagantly luxurious, it is customary for the slave girls to wait on the men naked...."
The distinctive form of this cup was influenced by metal prototypes and is also known in Etruscan Bucchero. It belongs to a select group of black-figure vases, termed Pontic ware, that were produced in Etruria by an artist known as the Paris Painter and his followers in the second half of the sixth century B.C. From the black-figure technique, the iconography, and other features, it is apparent that this globular cup was made to emulate East Greek and Athenian painted vases that were desirable to Etruscan collectors. 

Ring, late 6th–early 5th century B.C. Etruscan

At the end of the Archaic period a complex artistic interconnection was prevalent.  In this ring the  bezel is in the form of a cartouche, a shape ultimately of Egyptian origin that the Phoenicians disseminated in the western Mediterranean. The three mythological creatures that decorate it — winged lion, siren, and scarab beetle — came from the East as well. Rich Etruscan tombs of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. yielded luxury objects such as ostrich eggs and works in faience that indicate the taste for, and means to acquire, such exotica.

Baule earring, 6th century B.C. Etruscan Gold and enamel; Diam.
The exceptionally elaborate embellishment of this earring with its curved body consisting of two metopes, both containing floral ornaments, the flower at the top and the more stylized motif below is markedly architectonic, a typical feature of Etruscan jewelry.

Etruscan jewellery (ear stud) found in the Regolini-Galassi tomb (unknown-Jastrow/wikimedia)

Apollo from Veii 510 BC (Etruscan) Rome, Villa Giulia

Lasa (patera support), 300-280 BC, Etruscan, bronze with silver inlays - Cleveland Museum of Art
Detail of an Etruscan Bronze Cista from Praeneste, mid-4th century B.C. Italic Bronze; The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

In the Etruscan world, women, unlike their contemporaries in Greek civilization, enjoyed great freedom. The Greek authors disapproved of this fact and spread malicious comments about the moral customs of Etruscan women.

 While Greek women lived in a position of submission to their husbands and spent most of their time shut up in their homes, Etruscan women were entitled to take part in all public events, at banquets they sat next to their men on convivial couches, they could dress unconventionally and they were educated. 

 Evidence of this prominent role includes the custom of identifying people by their mother's name alongside that of their father. In the last phase of Etruscan history, when Greek cultural influence made itself felt more strongly in the arts and in customs, Etruscan women lost part of their independence.
Etruscan Terracotta duck-askos (flask with spout and handle) Late Classical, ca. 350–325 B.C.
Terracotta Four-Handled Amphora (jar) Etruscan, Italo-Corinthian, ca. 675-650 BC

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