Etruscan Art: Stylistic Innovations in Ancient Italy

Frescoes, Mirrors, and Jewelry of Archaic Period Italy

Etruscan art styles are relatively unfamiliar to modern readers, compared to Greek and Roman art, for a number of reasons. Etruscan art forms are classed as Archaic period, their earliest forms roughly similar in period to the Geometric period in Greece (900-700 BC). The few surviving examples of Etruscan language are written in Greek letters, and most of what we know of them are epitaphs; in fact, most of what we know of Etruscan civilization at all is from funerary contexts rather than domestic or religious buildings.

But Etruscan art is vigorous and lively, and quite distinct from that of Archaic Greece, with flavors of its origins.

Who Were the Etruscans?

The ancestors of the Etruscans landed on the west coast of the Italian peninsula perhaps as early as the Final Bronze Age, 12th-10th century BC (called Protovillanovan culture), and they likely came as traders from the eastern Mediterranean. What scholars identify as Etruscan culture begins during the Iron Age, about 850 BC.

In the sixth century, for 3 generations, the Etruscans governed Rome through the Tarquin kings; it was the zenith of their commercial and military power. By the 5th century BC they had colonized most of Italy; and by then they were a federation of 12 great cities. The Romans captured Veii in 396 BC and the Etruscans lost power after that; by 100 BC, Rome had conquered or absorbed most of the Etruscan cities, although their religion, art, and language continued to influence Rome for many years.

An Art Chronology

The art history chronology of the Etruscans is slightly different from the economic and political chronology, described elsewhere.

Phase 1: Archaic or Villanova Period, 850-700 BC. The most distinctive Etruscan style is in the human form, people with broad shoulders, wasp-like waists, and muscular calves. They have oval heads, sloping eyes, sharp noses, and upturned corners of the mouths. Their arms are attached to sides and the feet shown parallel to one another, as Egyptian art does. Horses and water birds were popular motifs; soldiers had high helmets with horsehair crests, and often objects are decorated with geometric dots, zigzags and circles, spirals, cross-hatches, egg patterns, and meanders. The distinctive pottery style of the period is a grayish black ware called impasto italico.

Phase 2: Middle Etruscan or "orientalizing period", 700-650 BC. The lion and griffin replace horses and water birds, and there are often two-headed animals. Humans are illustrated with a detailed articulation of muscles, their hair is often arranged in bands. Pottery is bucchero nero, grayish impasto clay with a deep black color.

Phase 3: Late Etruscan, 650-300 BC. An influx of Greek ideas and perhaps craftsmen affected the art styles, and by the end of this period, there was a slow loss of Etruscan styles under Roman rule. Most bronze mirrors were made during this period; more bronze mirrors were made by the Etruscans than the Greeks. The defining Etruscan pottery style is idria ceretane, similar to Attic pottery.

Etruscan Wall Frescoes

Etruscan musicians, reporduction of a 5th century BC fresco in the Tomb of the Leopard at Tarquinia
Etruscan musicians, reproduction of a 5th century BC fresco in the Tomb of the Leopard at Tarquinia. Getty Images / Private Collection

The most information we have about Etruscan society comes from brilliantly painted frescoes inside of rock-cut tombs dated between the 7th-2nd centuries BC. Some of the finest examples are in Tarquinia, Praeneste in Latium (the Barberini and Bernardini tombs), Caere on the Etruscan coast (the Regolini-Galassi tomb), and the rich circle graves of Vetulonia. The polychrome wall paintings were sometimes made on rectangular terracotta panels, measuring about 50 centimeters (21 inches) wide and 1.-1.2 meters (3.3-4 feet) high. These panels were found in elite tombs at the necropolis of Cerveteri (Caere), in rooms that are thought to be imitations of the deceased's home.

Engraved Mirrors

Bronze Etruscan mirror depicting seated Meleager surrounded by Menelaus, Castor and Pollux. 330-320 BC. 18 cm. Museum of Archaeology, inv. 604, Florence, Italy
Bronze Etruscan mirror depicting seated Meleager surrounded by Menelaus, Castor and Pollux. 330-320 BC. 18 cm. Museum of Archaeology, inv. 604, Florence, Italy. Getty Images / Leemage / Corbin

One important element of Etruscan art was the engraved mirror: the Greeks also had mirrors but they were much fewer and only rarely engraved. More than 3,500 Etruscan mirrors have been found in funerary contexts dated to the 4th century BC or later; most of them are engraved with complicated scenes of humans and plant life. The subject matter often is from Greek mythology, but the treatment, iconography, and style, are strictly Etruscan.

The backs of the mirrors were made out of bronze, in a shape of a round box or flat with a handle. The reflecting side was typically made of a combination of tin and copper, but there is an increasing percentage of lead over time. Those made or intended for funerals are marked with the Etruscan word su Θina, sometimes on the reflecting side rendering it useless as a mirror. Some mirrors were also purposefully cracked or broken before they were placed in the tombs.

Processions

Etruscan terracotta neck-amphora (jar), ca. 575-550 BC, black-figure. Upper frieze, procession of centaurs; lower frieze, procession of lions.
Etruscan terracotta neck-amphora (jar), ca. 575-550 BC, black-figure. Upper frieze, procession of centaurs; lower frieze, procession of lions. The Met Mueum / Rogers Fund, 1955

One iconic feature of Etruscan art is a procession--a line of people or animals walking along in the same direction. These are found painted on frescoes and carved into the bases of sarcophagi. The procession is a ceremony that signifies solemnity and serves to distinguish the ritual from the mundane. The order of the people in the procession likely represents individuals at varying levels of social and political importance. The ones in front are anonymous attendants carrying ritual objects; the one at the end is often a figure of the magistrate. In funerary art, processions represent preparations for banquets and games, the presentation of tomb offerings for the deceased, sacrifices to the spirits of the dead, or the deceased trip to the underworld.

The trips to the underworld motif appear as on stelae, tomb paintings, sarcophagi, and urns, and the idea probably originated in the Po valley in the late 6th century BC, then spread outward. By the late 5th-early 4th century BC, the deceased is portrayed as a magistrate. The earliest underworld journeys took place on foot, some Middle Etruscan period journeys are illustrated with chariots, and the latest are a full-out quasi-triumphal procession.

Bronze Workmanship and Jewelry

Gold ring. Etruscan civilization, 6th Century BC.
Gold ring. Etruscan civilization, 6th Century BC. DEA / G. NIMATALLAH / Getty Images

Greek art definitely had a strong impact on Etruscan art, but one distinctive and thoroughly original Etruscan art is that of thousands of bronze objects (horse bits, swords, and helmets, belts and cauldrons) which show considerable aesthetic and technical sophistication. Jewelry was a focus for Etruscans, including Egyptian-type scarabs—carved beetles, used as religious symbol and personal ornamentation. Elaborately detailed rings and pendants, as well as gold ornaments sewed into clothing, often were decorated with intaglio designs. Some of the jewelry was of granular gold, tiny gems created by soldering minute gold dots onto gold backgrounds.

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