A secret history woven in hair

Etruscan Dress
June 18, 2004

The pictures on the walls of Etruscan painted tombs and the durable accessories buried with their occupants show us that the Etruscans wore more clothes than the Greeks. Larissa Bonfante's Etruscan Dress , first published in 1975, is the only monograph devoted to this fascinating subject. Though it has been out of print for several years, I was surprised to hear of an "updated" edition. True, more examples of many categories have come out of the ground in the past 30 years, but I could think of no major additions or changes that needed to be registered. Happily, this book is an affordable paperback reprint of an established classic that includes a new 12-page essay, seven pictures of new finds and a bibliography of 117 new items (23 by Bonfante herself).

I continue to admire the arrangement of the book by garment rather than chronology. With scrupulous attention to the distinction between real clothes and artistic conventions, Bonfante discusses the Etruscans' short "pants" and belts, tunics, mantles, shoes, and hats (with hair styles and beards). These core chapters are preceded by a sensible one on fabrics and patterns, followed by one on foreign influences and local styles.

Throughout, cross-referencing between the chapters is efficient and revealing. In 1975, I learnt much more about the period covered - 650 to 100BC - than I would have done from a series of chapters on its conventional chronological sub-divisions. The notes on the 164 illustrations are better than the entries in some recent exhibition catalogues, and there are useful back-references to them in the new material.

The new pages survey recent discoveries and developments. The former include a representation of wool-working operations and the remains of spectacular robes woven with thousands of amber, faience and glass-paste beads. Among the new trends, Bonfante describes the relevance of her evidence to current work on broader issues in Etruscan studies and beyond: gender differentiation, status symbols and the relationship between wool, women and writing. We shall hear more about all these, and I hope that we shall eventually have a longer account of Etruscan dress in the period when Rome rose and absorbed Etruria (300 to 100BC).

This is still the only book on its subject. It is aimed at Etruscan specialists, but there is a lot in it for their Greek and Roman counterparts. Many of the artefacts illustrated are informative rather than beautiful, there are no colour pictures, and some of the half-tones are darker than they were in the first edition. No matter. As in her work on the Etruscan language, Bonfante's encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm make the Etruscans accessible to anyone who wants to find out what they were like.

David Ridgway is associate fellow, Institute of Classical Studies, University of London.

Etruscan Dress

Author - Larissa Bonfante
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Pages - 261
Price - £15.50
ISBN - 0 8018 7413 0

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