Etruscan Art Ridgway.
The Western Greeks
Etruscan art still seems to fall into the category of slightly reprehensible tastes, one of those childish things to put away in due time, to make room for the sober sophistication of the Greeks. Yet D.H. Lawrence, for one, made no bones about preferring Etruscan immediacy to Hellenic cultivation.
Myself, the first time I consciously saw Etruscan things, in the museum at Perugia, I was instinctively attracted to them. And it seems to be that way. Either there is instant sympathy, or instant contempt and indifference. Most people despise anything BC that isn’t Greek, for the good reason that it ought to be Greek if it isn’t. So Etruscan things are put down as a feeble Graeco-Roman imitation….
For me, I get more pleasure out of these [works] than out of—I had almost said, the Parthenon frieze. One wearies of the aesthetic quality—a quality which takes the edge off everything and makes it seem “boiled down.” A great deal of pure Greek beauty has this boiled-down effect. It is too much cooked in the artistic consciousness.1
The Etruscans, as Lawrence intimates, have never quite fit into the well-oiled historical machinery of the Greco-Roman world. Both Greeks and Romans argued about the origins of the people they called Tyrrhenians, Tuscans, or Etruscans, disputing whether they had migrated from Asia Minor or had inhabited their Etruria since time immemorial. The Etruscans, meanwhile, referred to themselves as Rasna, and whatever their origins, their culture came with the territory they have now occupied for well over two millennia and perhaps much longer than that. Bounded by two rivers, the Tiber to the south and east, the Arno to the north, the region of Tuscany, facing onto its Tyrrhenian Sea, remains Etruscan in more than name. DNA tests of villagers outside Siena have recently proven that these modern Tuscans, at least, descend fairly directly from the occupants of nearby Etruscan tombs.2 (A look at the passengers on a local train from Chiusi or the bus to Volterra will prompt the same conclusion on mere visual evidence.) Despite the loss of their language, the Etruscans never went away. They were simply absorbed, like many other peoples, into the great conglomerate called Rome.
The Roman historian Livy claimed that the Etruscans dominated the whole Italian peninsula by the end of the Trojan War (traditionally dated 1183 BC). Much of Livy’s early history is made up, and this Greater Etruria has usually figured among the suspect passages in his books; but contemporary Egyptian documents report that Tursha or Teresh, “Tyrrhenians,” were fighting as mercenaries in pharaoh’s army.3 When Homer’s Odysseus, another Bronze Age fighter, navigated between the twin monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, readers both ancient and modern have always known that the whirlpools of Charybdis referred to a real place—the famously shifty tides that roil up four times a day where the Straits of Messina divide Sicily from the toe of the Italian boot. But ancient readers understood Scylla as…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.