Substantive Education

March 13, 2009

Etruscan Art

Filed under: Art,Fine Art,Friday classes,Uncategorized — kbagdanov @ 12:15 am
Tags: , ,

Okay, all of my art students, we have finished Greece and are moving on to Rome, which will coincide nicely with our ancient history study.

The country of Italy is a boot shaped peninsula that juts out into the Mediterranean Sea. Surrounded on three sides by water and on the North by the Alps this peninsula would set the world on fire. We begin our study at about 500 BC and there are several people groups living in Italy in city states similar to those in Greece. Twelve of these city-states, populated by a people group called the Etruscan’s, organized themselves into a loose federation and during the sixth century BC were at the height of their power. The Etruscans controlled the northern and central area of Italy which would become modern day Tuscany.

Through their trading the Etruscans were in contact with the people of Greece and Phonecia. Through this contact they were exposed to ideas, art and culture that expanded their own. This exposure would be reflected in what the Etruscans created, but always with their own unique stamp. They did not merely copy what they observed in these other cultures but they learned, adapted, and made it their own.

The Etruscans laid out their cities on a grid, much like the cities of Greece and Egypt, but with slight variations. They had two main streets, one running north and south, the other east and west dividing the city into quarters. Where the two streets intersected the Etruscans built the towns business center. Their homes were built around a central courtyard or atrium which was open to the sky. This allowed a shallow pool to collect rainwater to be used in the house. Walls were built around the city with large gates.

Porta Augusta, Perugia Italy.  Gate built during 2nd Century BC

Porta Augusta, Perugia Italy. Gate built during 2nd Century BC

The gates of Porta Augusta in Perugla Italy are one of the few examples of Etruscan monumental architecture that survives to taday. Although the arch was used in Greece and other ancient civilizations, it would be the Romans who would make widespread use of this architectural element. Unlike the Corbel arch studied earlier, this arch is made with precisely cut wedge shaped pieces. A decorative element is seen above the arch, resembling the entablature of Greek structures.

The Etruscans and Romans, from early on, incorporated Greek gods and goddesses into their belief systems. Most Etruscan art has been destroyed over time, or by the Romans. What has survived is largely funeral art which can give a skewed impression of a civilization. What survives of Etruscan temples are just the remains of the foundations, we do have a few descriptions, however, to add to our knowledge.


Etruscan Temple - Roman Art

This is a reconstruction of what an Etruscan Temple would look like. It sat on a podium and had a single set of steps leading up to the front porch. The plan was almost square and the interior was often divided up into three spaces. It is believed these would have housed cult statues.

Etruscan temples were made with mud-brick walls. The columns and entablatures were made of wood and sometimes a volcanic rock. The columns and capitals were generally of the Doric or Ionic orders. There was sometimes a frieze above the columns, but often the temple was decorated with dazzling painting rather than the friezes of Greek temples. There were additional terra cotta sculptures placed around the temple and the roof served as the base for large statue groups.

Creating sculptures out of terra-cotta required a great deal of skill and posed significant technical problems. The artist had to know how to construct the figure so that it wouldn’t collapse either from it’s own weight or while going through the firing process. The temperature in the large kiln had to be precisely regulated to avoid damaging the works.

Apollo, from Veii. c.500 BC.  Painted terra-cotta

Apollo, from Veii. c.500 BC. Painted terra-cotta

This sculpture of Apollo was originally part of a four person grouping. Apollo and Hercules were fighting over possession of a deer that was Diana’s. Diana and Mercury were looking on as the two fought. Here Apollo is seen striding forward over a decorative element, this element provided needed stability for the figure.

For those of you familiar with Greek statues you will immediately recognize the Archaic smile. It is evident that the Etruscans were familiar with the Kouroi of Ancient Greece. However, they didn’t copy the Kouroi, they made it their own. The obvious difference is that our Apollo is clothed, where the Koisos were always nudes. We also see that this Apollo is in full motion, where the Greek statues merely hinted at movement. This energy and purposeful movement is characteristic of Etruscan sculpture.

Much of what has survived of Etruscan art is from their tombs. While they practiced

Etruscan cemetery of La Banditaccia

Etruscan cemetery of La Banditaccia

cremation it appears they also thought of their tombs as homes for the dead. In the Etruscan cemetery of La Banditaccia we can see that the cemetery is designed like a town. The tombs were carved out of the ground or bedrock and there were streets tunneling between them. Some of the tombs have

Etruscan burial chamber.

corbel vault roofs that

Etruscan burial chamber.

were then covered in dirt and stone.

As you can see from these indoor pictures some of the tombs resemble the inside of houses. They were painted and decorated and fully funished. There were pots, jugs, robes, axes and other objects hanging off pillars. Most of the objects were simulated in stucco to resemble a needed item. The items were rendered in low relief and then painted.

The coffins or sarcophagi were often made of terra-cotta. This one shows a husband and wife reclining comfortable and

Etruscan Sarcophagus

Etruscan Sarcophagus

enjoying each others company. This is not a sad or somber picture of the dead, but a lively rendering showing significant details. The walls of the tombs were covered with brightly colored paintings of feasting, dancing, and musical performances. Unlike Greek tomb paintings the woman are pictured as active participants in this community life.

In ancient times the skill of the Etruscans with bronze was widely acknowledged. Unfortunately most of the pieces were melted down by the Romans to be used for coins. One of the most famous works which did survive is this She-wolf nursing the twins, Romulus and Remus. Here we have a work retelling part of the story of the founding of Rome. Although there are several versions of the legend I’ll just give a brief recounting here. Two brothers, fugitives from Troy, came to what is now Italy. One was given the kingship, the other control over the treasury. As often happens in these stories the brother in charge of the treasury seized the throne.


Romulus and Remus, Bronze

His greatest fear was that his niece would conceive a child who would be able to claim a right to the throne so he made her a Vestal Virgin. She, however, soon gave birth to twins. Some stories say the boys were the sons of Mars, other that her uncle was the father of her children. Either way, all were condemned to death. The boys were placed in a basket and set in the Tiber river to die of exposure. Instead they were watched over by the goddess of the river. They were found by a she-wolf who cared for the boys as if they were her own cubs.

As adults the boys take revenge upon their uncle…but then fight over who shall be the king. Through a series of events to long to detail here Romulus wins out and we have the birth of Rome.


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