Etruscan Art
Etruscan Art; drawing by David Levine

The Italians have a word, etruscheria, with the same slightly mocking overtone as in chinoiserie, and we are apparently in the midst of another floodtide. When even a first-rate professional of many year’s experience, Axel Boethius, can close his lively account of “The Etruscan Centuries of Italy” in the Swedish volume with these words,

…never to forget that Etruria was the homeland of renaissance. It was the land which…hidden, inscrutable, inner sources of strength has decreed to be the mother earth for the greatest rejuvenation of our western culture since fifth-century Athens.

it is obvious that this is a field for the tough-minded alone. With Professor Boethius this sort of thing is no more than an occasional lapse. But when Dr. Vaughan tells us that “life for the Etruscan was not thought; it was something that was meant to be lived, and lived to the fullest, through the sense and the imagination.” we are being asked to take leave of thought ourselves.

The Etruscan “mystery” has been expounded once for all by D. H. Lawrence.

Myself, the first time I consciously saw Etruscan things…I was instinctively attracted to them. And it seems to be that way. Either there is instant sympathy, or instant contempt and indifference.

My instinct is to react sharply the other way. But Lawrence was a genius, and he did not pretend to be a scholar or to be writing history. If I want his kind of reaction, I go back to him every time. There is no need to do it again, badly.

To most people, of course, the great “mystery” of the Etruscans is that of their language. Has it been deciphered? The answer is both no and yes. No one has succeeded in finding a key, as champollion found the key to Egyptian hieroglyphics or Michael Ventris to the Linear B script of Create and Mycenae. Yet a large number of Etruscan texts can be read with certainty, and there is no paradox. To begin with, the alphabet of twenty-six letters was borrowed from the Greek and has never been a problem, apart from two or three letters. Of the more than 10,000 texts now known, all but a tiny number are brief, easily apprehended formulas: “I am the jug of Enotenus”; “Memarche Velchana dedicated me” (on a vase dedicated to a deity); “Vel Partunu, son of Velthur and of Ramtha Satlnei, died aged 28.” Other words (especially names of gods and titles of officials) were either taken over from Greek or Latin or entered the Latin vocabulary from Etruscan. By painstaking manipulation of such elements, Etruscologists progress inchwise. Unless further excavation produces a large bilingual text, which is not unthinkable but becomes increasingly improbable with the years, that is the only road to further advance, and the only tempo.

Not everyone has the patience, however, and despite the fact that the history of Etruscan studies is littered with the wreckage of nine-day wonders of decipherment, we have not seen the end of them. Professor Pallattino, the leading authority on the subject today, rightly complained in The Etruscans (which Penguin Books have unfortunately allowed to go out of print) that the long stream of amateur puzzle-solvers “has brought in its wake the…disorientation of all those interested in the Etruscan language,” encouraging cynics to “look upon the problem of Etruscan as the favorite playground of cranks or the ‘comic’ section of linguistic science.” Less than a decade after he wrote that, still another claimant has appeared in Dr. Mayani, and it is a joyless duty to report that there is nothing to his decipherment via illyrian and modern Albanian, nor, a fortiori, in the helter skelter assortment of ideas and explanations he offers on the basis of his translations. (It is perhaps worth noting that Dr. Vaughan draws a good deal on this book, with only the mildest of warnings: “one feels at times that some interpretations are a trifle farfetched.”)

Fortunately our knowledge of the Etruscans is not restricted to their own writing or there would be little even for the most sensitively attuned romancer to say about them. There are, after all, vast quantities of Etruscan products, ranging from large murals and statues to artifacts down to plain junk (rusted chariot-wheels, broken bits of pottery, spearheads, discarded bobby-pins). And there is a considerable body of information, onesided and uneven in reliability, scattered in Roman writers (and a little among the Greeks too). Mix the ingredients one way and the result is etruscheria; combine them properly and you end with more question than answers, but at least they will be the right questions.

The Etruscans themselves believed that they had come to Italy from western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Greek and Roman writers, from Herodotus on, accepted that tradition, with scarcely an exception. So do modern authorities, also with few exceptions, one of whom, it is only fair to record, is Professor Pallottino. In Italy they found a mixed population, scattered and disunited, unlettered and quite primitive in comparison with the civilizations further east. By about 700 B.C. much of the region now called Tuscany and Umbria and some parts of Latium had become Etruscan—“become,” not just “ruled by,” for the Etruscan language was spoken in all classes of society, and their culture was Etruscan too. From that base, Etruscan influence, colonization, and political domination spread north to the Po Valley, south as far as Pompeii. In the course of the sixth century, when the Etruscans attained their apogee, they controlled Rome and it was then that some of the institutions were formed, or transformed, which subsequently helped build Rome into the greatest world power. Yet, so far as the very sparse evidence goes, the Etruscans themselves never united into a single state.


The Etruscans who became the leading force in Italy were not, except for an irrelevant biological component, the Etruscans who came from Asia Minor (if that tradition is correct). As Pofessor Boethius stresses repeatedly, “If they were immigrants, they merged in town and country with the older population to become an entirely new people.” What we call Etruscan culture was a new creation, fashioned in Italy. If one had to hazard a guess as to what the immigrants from Asia Minor contributed which made the new amalgam so dynamic, mine would be in the first instance their ability to exploit the rich metal-deposits of the region, and then perhaps a social system better fitted for political expansion, aggression, and organization.

At more or less the same time, southern Italy as far north as Naples was being settled by Greeks, beginning about 750 B.C. The Greek sphere marked the southern limit of Etruscan authority, which was overstretched anyway. Rome broke away at the end of the sixth century, the Samnites in Campania half a century later; the Gauls were causing trouble at the Poend; and then the Romans began their steady reversal of roles. Little was left of Etruscan independence by 300 B.C.; nothing, effectively, after 200. Roman conquest also meant gradual Romanization; by 100 B.C. even the Etruscan language was gone except in isolated rural pockets and among antiquarians, while the society in the old Etruscan centers was no longer distinguishable from that of the rest of Italy. Only certain religious practices and notions remained alive, among Romans as much as among people who might still, nostalgically, call themselves Etruscans.

The Greek and Roman literary references we possess to the Etruscans date for the most part after 100 B.C. They look back to a dead past. Although a streak of etruscheria seems to have appeared among the Romans then, the prevailing stress was on two aspects, the gluttony, both gastronomic and sexual, of the Etruscans (and especially the license accorded their women), and the overriding control of religion over their daily lives, including their practice of discovering the will of the gods by examining the livers of animals. Modern writers, almost with unanimity, respond in an odd way: they reject the first aspect as the inevitably false propaganda of the victors defaming the defeated, and they accept the second in toto, even exaggerating it until one wonders when an Etruscan, so busy with the performance of compulsory rituals, could have found time to eat, sleep, and copulate.

As usual, we turn to Pallottino for a note of sanity: “the quantitative assessment of religiosity on the part of different peoples runs the risk of losing all reality” without a consideration of the sources of information and the quality of the experience. Actually we can approximate a quantitative assessent not of Etruscan religiosity (assuming that is ever possible) but of the attention given to Etruscan religion in the surviving Roman writings, which is not the same thing at all (reminiscent of so much western writing about the Hindus), and which is further distorted by the fact that virtually all Etruscan products come from cemeteries and tombs. This last is inescapable, because the Etruscan urban centers have had a continuous history of settlement to our own day and cannot be properly excavated. It really ought to be unnecessary to explain that if all our information about a society is derived from its cemeteries, the religious side is likely to loom very large. But when Mrs. Richardson writers that a stone relief from a tomb “shows one of the rare indecent pictures from Etruria,” someone must remind her that “indecent pictures” are not habitual in the tombs of any culture, and that she should ask why there were any, rather than congratulate the Etruscans on their restraint.

(The Swedish excavations at San Giovenale, southwest of Viterbo, provide a revealing exception to the endless run of funerary materials. This was a village, the ancient name of which is unknown, that was deserted before the end of the Roman era. The excavators have uncovered a housing complex and fortifications, but not a single inscription nor anything which adds a really new dimension to our knowledge of the Etruscans, valuable though their work has been for the specialist. The book under review, originally published in Swedish in 1960, was subsequently re-issued in English as a sumptuous jubilee volume for the King’s eightieth birthday. Apart from the survey of the results at San Giovenale and Professor Boethius’s chapter, it includes a short statement by Professor Einar Gjerstad of his heretical revisions of the traditional history of the Etruscan period in Rome, chapters entitled “Studies and Strolls in Southern Etruria” and “Forest and Soil in Etruria,” and a brief account of Etruscan art by the director of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen. There are some splendid maps, many magnificent illustrations, and a binding which is too weak for a book weighing more than seven pounds.)


On what grounds do Etruscologists dismiss the persistent image of a much freer code of sexual mores for women than either Greeks or Romans could tolerate? I can find none other than the unacceptable one implicit in the choice of the phrase, “indecent pictures.” No doubt one cannot expect conquerors, least of all the Romans, to be respectful or even honest about a people who gave them so much trouble. It does not follow, however, that everything they said is therefore a lie. There is at least some visible support for the overeating charge. From the later centuries we have hundreds of reclining, obviously well-fed, fat Etruscan gentlemen in stone on the lids of cinerary urns and sarcophagi. There may be, as Boethius insists, “good reasons for evaluating impartially the peaceful civic life in Etruria’s beautiful towns brought into disrepute by the Romans,” but we must have the facts right before we evaluate (which, in this instance, means “judge,” a dubious activity anyway). Among the many tens of thousands of Greeks and Romans depicted on pottery, in stone, and in bronze, fat men are very rare and they are always figures of comedy or of contempt. The Etruscans were unlikely to have chosen the coffin as the proper locale for poking fun at its occupant.

The better Roman writers, Livy for example, emphasized that the Etruscans had undergone considerable degeneration after their great age, and that brings us to a central weakness of current etruscheria. “Derivative, often downright bad, Etruscan art was always triumphantly Etruscan and never simply uninspired imitation.” That sentence from the opening page of Mrs. Richardson’s central and longest section, on art, typifies the false start from which it is impossible to recover. Imitation is never just imitation; that is a truism which by itself does not advance understanding. What is the specifically Etruscan quality which makes even bad art “Etruscan,” let alone “triumphantly” that? We must get our time-scales right. The period 700-100 B.C. is considerably longer than the history of the Americas since Columbus. Are we to believe that there was something fixed and omnipotent, uniquely “Etruscan,” working unchanged and always revealing itself through all those centuries? No one believes that, of course. But if “Etruscan” is a quality which is fluid, then we may no longer dismiss out of hand the Roman insistence that there had been change for the worse; nor may we reserve the Etruscan label solely for the better (a judgment which invariably rests on our standards, not theirs). Read, say, “German” for “Etruscan” and it becomes painfully apparent how pernicious an approach this is. And that is without adding the further, more difficult, complication of trying to distinguish between purely external differences (such as can be found in equal abundance between the products of one Etruscan center and another) and something which one can defend as being qualitative, as revealing national character or specifically Etruscan concepts.

When the Etruscans met the Greeks in southern Italy about 700 B.C., there began a cultural invasion of a scale, intensity, and duration for which I cannot think of a parallel. The Etruscan capacity to consume Greek pottery and sculpture, and to make their own in imitation, was boundless. It was also alive, responding to new developments among the Greeks, at times almost instantaneously. Great masses of the stuff made in Etruria were effectively “uninspired imitation” and little else. It is perverse to deny a phenomenon which every student is only too familiar with, though it is unnecessary to go all the way with Berenson’s brutal “Only through the originality of incompetence can [Etruscan art] be distinguished from the art of the Greeks.” It would be equally perverse to deny that there were also departures from the Greek models, and sometimes rejection. Two questions then present themselves urgently. First, why this passionate addiction to the Greeks, which went so far that the Etruscans preferred to illustrate Greek myths rather than their own on painted pottery and in stone reliefs? Second, what meaning are we to assign to the departures, small or large, whenever it is clear that they were not just the result of technical incompetence? These are the questions that must always be answered about cultural borrowings. Diffusion has to have a recipient as well as a donor; there must be a need to be met, a function to be performed. Too much writing about influences concentrates on the easy half, on the question, whence?

For the other half we are, in my opinion, blocked with respect to the Etruscans. That is the penalty of having to lean so heavily on art and artifacts. Anyone can read meanings into Etruscan paintings and reliefs, and nearly everyone does, but whose meanings are they as soon as the interpreter steps beyond mere cataloguing? Whose conceptual world, given the alien-ness of Etruscan life and thinking? The lion was long a favorite subject in Etruscan art. Few if any Etruscan artists ever saw a live lion, and that may explain certain crude blunders, such as their adorning lionesses with the full mane of a lion and with the teats of a bitch, mistakes which their Asiatic prototypes never made. But what explains either the persistence of the lion motif or the transformations the Etruscans imposed on their models? As Llewellyn Brown wrote in his splendid book on the subject, “Throughout this period…Etruscan artists were working in highly formalized traditions in which the essential features of the subjects portrayed were reduced to conventional formulae or stylizations, often of pattern-like quality.” This applies not only to lions, but to Apollos and fat men and sarcophagi and hairdos. Nearly everywhere we turn we are confronted by this wall of formalism and stylization, and we lack the conceptual key with which to begin an explanation.

That is equally true of politics. We know, for example, that in the earliest period there were kings. But what we know about them is strictly external, that they wore a crown, carried a scepter, and so on. For their functions and powers, in Pallottino’s words, “all we may do, is put forward certain suppositions based on analogy with what little is known…of the Roman monarchy.” The starting-point must be Italy, or sometimes the broader Mediterranean complex, not the obsession with the “triumphantly Etruscan,” and everything must be considered within its time. There is no place in this subject for eternal verities. Peculiarities will emerge, in what they refused to adopt or adapt as well as in what they took over, sometimes hardly changed, sometimes considerably reshaped. Occasionally we can suggest the historical circumstances which may help to explain what happened. But always by analogy and therefore tentatively, until the day when the Etruscans speak to us in their own words—if such a day ever comes.

This Issue

November 5, 1964