Etruscan Art


Etruscan, Chimera of Arezzo, c. 400 BCE (photo by By Lucarelli (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Etruscans were a culture located in central Italy from c. 1000-100 BCE. They were the dominant trading force in the western Mediterranean for much of that period, and borrowed many aspects of their culture from the other cultures around the Mediterranean, including the Greeks, Egyptians, and Near Eastern cultures. They did have a written language, which  resembles none other known, and has not been fully translated.etruscan_civilization_map

What is known of the Etruscan culture comes from a few archaeological sites and the writings of some later Roman authors, including Vitruvius, who included Etruscan temples in his volume on architecture in the 1st century CE. The prototypical Etruscan temple is based on the Temple of Minerva at Veii, which is a temple on a high podium, with a colonnaded front portico, a 2 room cella, and solid walls. The foundation was stone, but the walls were wattle and daub, and there was a Greek-style pediment at the front and rear with a number of terra cotta sculptures on the roof line.

Temple of Minerva at Veii, c. 500-490 BCE, plan, model, and site today

Apollo of Veii and Leto Carrying Young Apollo, c. 515-490 BCE

Although the sculptures have some Greek characteristics, such as the hair, the archaic smile, and the emphasis on naturalism, the Etruscan sculptures are more dynamic than Greek ones of the same period, emphasizing motion and emotion more strongly. The pieces are also molded in such a way that the drapery reveals the forms beneath, prefiguring the Late Classical Greek wet drapery style. Many of the Etruscan cast bronze sculptures also reveal this emotion and dynamism, as well as an interest in the natural form, such as the Chimera of Arezzo pictured above and the Mars of Todi pictured below.


Mars of Todi,  late 5th century BCE, (photo by Sailko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the other interesting characteristics of Etruscan art, and by extension, Etruscan culture, is the place and status of women. Uniquely in the Mediterranean world, women are shown participating in public life to a high degree, and seem to have held higher positions than women in Greece. Etruscan women were even allowed to participate in banquets, unlike their Greek counterparts, who were generally confined primarily to the house. Artists frequently depicted women as dominant over men, either through age, divinity, or power. Many of these scenes come either from sarcophagi or from hand mirrors, which had scenes engraved into the back of them.


Drawing of Hand Mirror showing Hercules Sucking from Juno

Much of the known Etruscan art comes from the funerary art produced for the culture. This is partially because of the obvious belief in the importance of an afterlife, and partially because most Etruscan cities and settlements were covered over by later Roman and Italian buildings. The Etruscans primarily cremated their dead, and buried them in cinerary urns, which became more elaborate as the civilization progressed. More wealthy individuals used sarcophagi as well. The urns in the early period resemble human-headed forms, similar to Egyptian ba statues, or small huts. As Etruscan civilization progressed, urns were created in the image of the deceased; or that resembled Etruscan houses; or as an image of the Mater Matuta, the goddess associated with birth and the spring, and by extension, rebirth.

Etruscan Cinerary Urns, 10th-7th centuries BCE

Etruscan Cinerary Urns, 3rd-2nd centuries BCE


Etruscan Cinerary Urn in the form of Mater Matuta, 460-440 BCE


Sarcophagus of the Married Couple, c. 520-510 BCE

In sarcophagi, like the one above, the deceased both acted out a favorite activity from life, in this case a banquet, and also expression the Etruscan belief in the afterlife and rebirth. One or both of the figures probably held eggs, which were symbols of rebirth. Notice also that the woman is the same size as the man, and seems to have the same status.

These sacrophagi were placed into elaborate tombs within necropli, or cities of the dead, presumed to be built to resemble the cities and towns of the living. The necropoli had wide avenues to walk on, lined with tombs on both sides. The tombs were laid out like houses, often with reliefs of furniture and other objects needed for the afterlife, and would have had offerings placed within them. Often there were elaborate paintings within the tombs as well, reflecting scenes of banqueting, wrestling, augurs and priests, and false doors, another possible link to the Egyptian conception of an afterlife.

Etruscan necropolis of Cevertrai


Tomb of the Reliefs, Cevertari, 5th-3rd centuries BCE

Tomb of Shields and Chairs, Cevertari, c. 550 BCE


Tomb of the Augurs, Tarquinia, c. 510 BCE


Tomb of the Leopards, Tarquinia, c. 470 BCE

Notice, in the tomb above, that the people are holding eggs in their hands, again a symbol of rebirth, and that the women follow the Egyptian and Near Eastern pattern of having much lighter skin than the men. The banquet here also seems to take place both indoors and out at the same time. In the Tomb of the Augurs, also pictured above, the augurs appear on either side of a false door, perhaps a representation of the door to the afterlife.

The Romans would subsume both Etruscan art and culture, and would use portions of it and the art of the Greeks to depict their dominance in the world.


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