The first true Europeans

August 3, 2001

Larissa Bonfante enjoys an eclectic culture spanning 1,200 years.

The Greeks of the international period of the 8th and 7th centuries BC considered the Etruscans, or Tyrrhenians as they called them, a thalassocracy or sea power, either military or piratical as the occasion warranted, and they named after them both the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic Seas - the latter from the Etruscan colony of Adria, not far from Venice.

Etruscan mineral wealth attracted the Greeks westwards, to the people in central Italy, between the Arno and the Tiber rivers, who had begun to form the settlements that would eventually become the great city states of the Etruscans, as diverse and independent as those of Greece: Tarquinia and Cerveteri with their great harbours open to the Mediterranean in the south; Chiusi inland, rich in trade and agriculture; Populonia in the north, where the iron slag, so rich it was later worked over by Mussolini, eventually covered over the chamber tombs; Bologna, ancient Felsina, in the Po Valley.

The coming of the Greeks marks for us a new period of the Etruscans' long history, for we recognise these cities as "Etruscan" in the 8th century BC, when they started to write using the alphabet the Greeks brought to Italy and it becomes clear from remaining inscriptions that they spoke a language different from any other known to us. Yet the Etruscans lived in central Italy from as early as 1200 BC down to the 1st century BC, when the Romans united Italy and Etruscan aristocrats adopted the Latin language.

The Etruscans brought to Rome the alphabet, triumphal symbols of power, Greek images of divinities, heroes and heroines, the arts of divination, the words for "tavern", "letters", "histrionics", craftsmen who built the great temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, and other aspects of the culture of cities. The Romans knew them as the kings who had ruled at Rome: the Tarquins, Tanaquil and other powerful Etruscan queens and princesses, Lars Porsenna of Clusium (Chiusi). Surviving Etruscan inscriptions totalling more than 10,000 show that the Etruscans were a highly literate society. But though some of their literature seems to have been preserved in their mythological representations, we have no Etruscan Homer, Thucydides or Virgil to explain Etruscan history and beliefs; and so our text-driven society considers the Etruscans to be mysterious.

Venice - with its aura of exotic luxury and mystery, whose rulers were once, like the ancient Etruscans, a great sea power in the Mediterranean - was an appropriate venue for a remarkable exhibition of beautiful and curious Etruscan treasures from around the world that has just closed at the city's Palazzo Grassi. A black-figure vase by a 5th-century-BC Etruscan artist from the Toledo Art Museum in Toledo, Ohio, enlivened the section on piracy and trade and illustrated a rare Greek myth: the miracle of Dionysos's transformation of the Tyrrhenian (Etruscan) pirates into dolphins; the vase shows the pirates half transformed, their human legs still visible, as they hurl themselves into the sea, spurred on by the god's power signified by the vine trailing on the vase behind them. From Amsterdam came a 7th-century-BC Etruscan vase decorated with a dignified, mantled female figure, perhaps Medea, taming a triple-headed Hydra-like monster.

The exhibition's general theme was a modern concept: political and cultural power. This is more abstract and less unifying than the themes of other recent Etruscan exhibitions. For example, "The Etruscans and Europe", organised by the late Massimo Pallottino in Paris and Berlin in 1992, saw Etruscan influence as creating the earliest European Union. An exhibition in 2000-01 at Bologna, with dates that overlapped with the Venice show, illustrated the heady days of early Etruscan civilisation and the prestige and economic power of their elite through the wealth found in their princely tombs. It crisply focused on the international, "Orientalising" culture that spread over all the Mediterranean basin and northwards into Europe between 750 and 600 BC, by reconstructing the tombs and palaces of Etruscan and Celtic princes. Smaller exhibitions have presented surprising discoveries: the large-scale stone statues of a monster devouring a warrior who is stabbing it; the earliest Etruscan monumental human figures (also present in Venice); or the remains of some 280 chariots (the largest number ever found from ancient times). Several of these chariots, used by Etruscan aristocrats - men and women - and then buried with them in their graves as showy signs of their rank and power, could be seen in the Venice show.

The historical organisation of the exhibition began with the "formation" of the Etruscan people, introducing models of their huts and grave furnishings in their prehistoric, egalitarian Iron Age period. Many rooms and overarching ideas - such as Greek influence, the economic basis of Etruscan wealth, the opulence of their rituals - documented the rise of the Etruscan cities and aristocratic society, with displays of jewellery, coins, chariots, vases, and other grave goods.

Chariots, and thrones with curved backs made of bronze, terracotta or wood, were related to ancestor cults and the importance of women, whose graves often contain both of these symbols of prestige and power. A large room with model ships and bronze armour, devoted to trade and piracy, echoed with the clash of Etruscan swords on shields and helmets in an imaginative attempt to reconstruct an experience of the past. Wall paintings from the Francois Tomb, rarely seen outside picture books, and the portrait of the triumphant general Vel Saties consulting the bird omens, illustrated the Etruscan "decline" following the conflict with Rome. Wall panels and handouts explained the stated themes of divination, slave uprisings, nostalgia and survivals.

New to visiting scholars as well as to the general public were objects rarely or never before exhibited: a large man's wooden head, once finished with gold leaf and inlaid eyes; the Tomb of the Bronze Chariot, a chariot burial found at Vulci with all its rich furnishings intact, including two pairs of bronze hands, perhaps once attached to human images; a shiny black bucchero vase, discovered in Cerveteri in 1988, incised with the figures of Metaia (Medea), a winged Taitale (Daedalus), and youths carrying a long fringed object labelled Kanna ("cana", "gift"), perhaps the Golden Fleece; and the bronze Cortona tablet with its long inscription, already the subject of three books. The remains of a parasol and a cheese grater added a human touch, while familiar Etruscan images were on hand: the bronze statue of the wounded chimera enclosed in a Renaissance niche greeted visitors at the top of the stairway; ancient visitors to the sanctuary where it was dedicated would have marvelled at the magnificence of the original group, with the hero Bellerophon riding down from above on Pegasus. At the exit, the life-size bronze image of a proud Etruscan saluted visitors: "The Orator", Arringatore, his Etruscan honorary inscription written on his Roman toga.

The beautifully illustrated catalogue, edited by Mario Torelli, contains essays on aspects of Etruscan society, crafts and writing, and on their relations with neighbouring peoples in Italy, in the Mediterranean, and the north - constituting a standard work for the study of the Etruscans today. Especially noteworthy are Helmut Rix's synthesis on the language, and Giovanni Colonna's survey, "The original features of the Etruscan people", which relates the archaeological realities to fragmentary ancient Greek and Roman literary references to the Etruscans and the characteristics that made them recognisable in the ancient world of their time. The Etruscans were much more than a people who tried to be Greek and eventually became Roman.

A stimulating, sensitive account of how archaeological discoveries and research form our view of Etruscan civilisation comes from the pen of the distinguished scholar, Sybille Haynes, whose single voice and the close connection between text and carefully chosen illustrations contrast with the separate sections of Torelli's multi-authored catalogue. The historical organisation of the Venice exhibition, and many of the objects on show there that are reproduced in the catalogue, also appear in Haynes's book. Her intimate familiarity with the objects - she has written extensively on Etruscan bronzes - makes the Etruscans come alive as men and women as she recreates their beliefs, rituals and customs. In particular, her keen awareness of the objects' original state, discovery and provenance reflects a recent concern with context. This concern has led museums, exhibitions and books to emphasise excavated material (as against unprovenanced objects), and the original condition and context of the monuments: the Capitoline Wolf in its Etruscan state, without the twins, was the subject of a small exhibit in the refurbished Capitoline Museum.

Both books address another recent subject of interest - the lives and status of Etruscan women - but neither deals directly with an even more distinctive aspect of Etruscan civilisation. I refer to the persistent Etruscan motif of the married couple, which constit-uted the basic element of their aristocratic society, in contrast to the male citizen in the Athenian democracy and the male head of the extended family, the pater familias , in oligarchic Rome. Numerous images show this aspect of Etruscan art and life, such as the newly restored, colourful sarcophagus showing a bride and groom in the Louvre, and the equally colourfully dressed terracotta figures, three men and two women, seated together in the Tomb of the Five Chairs from Cerveteri (wrongly restored as five males in Venice). The married couple, in which the wife's family was as important as that of the husband, guaranteed the power of the aristocratic families and the continuity of their generations.

These two volumes bring us face to face with the fact that the Etruscans are much more interesting than their earlier mysterious image led the world to believe. They were a real power in their own time, not merely a pale shadow of Greece and Rome; and they are still with us - in their homeland in Tuscany and in museums and exhibitions in the far reaches of our modern world.

Larissa Bonfante is professor of classics, New York University, United States.

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