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 well; Euripides, for one, assumes that we recognize the cliff-dwelling creature, her seven dog’s heads poised to snatch sailors from their ships, as nothing more than a fanciful version of the Etruscan garrisons who guarded those same straits against all comers.
Whether an exploring Greek would have run into Etruscan marauders as early as the twelfth century BC is an open question; by the time Homer’s poems about the Trojan War came into being, circa 750 BC, the Tyrrhenian Sea had fully earned its name, held in thrall by the systematic maneuvering of Etruscan ships. From the eighth century through the fifth, Etruria maintained its corner of the western Mediterranean against Greeks and Phoenicians alike, staving off the Greeks at the Bay of Naples and the Phoenicians at the east coast of Sardinia.
In those days, Etruscan bronze trumpets were prized as the best in the Mediterranean. The sailors and metalworkers of Etruria swapped bronze and iron for Greek pottery, Egyptian trinkets, and the African gold they beat and pulled into shapes of fantastic intricacy. They plied their wares in deep-bottomed cargo ships, but protected their waters with light, needle-nosed galleys propelled by banks of rowers. Etruscan pirates were fearless, said to have waylaid no less a personage than Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, and taken him hostage. (With a god’s resourcefulness, he transformed the mast of his captors’ ship into a grapevine, the pirates themselves into dolphins, and sailed merrily off across the wine-dark sea.) Etruscan women enjoyed a degree of emancipation that disconcerted their neighbors; decked out in a profusion of jewelry, they reclined alongside their husbands at dinner (and are shown doing so on many a sarcophagus outfitted for the unending banquet of the afterlife).
For most of their history, the Etruscans seem to have maintained a loose federation of independent cities; the only known attempt at political unity on a larger scale was mounted toward the end of the sixth century by Lars Porsena, a warlord from the wealthy inland town of Clusium (modern Chiusi, halfway between Florence and Rome). In a century rife with self-made tyrants, Porsena snatched a sizeable chunk of northern Etruria for himself before moving on Rome circa 509 BC. Later Roman historians debated what happened next; some suggest that the Etruscans held power over the city for some twenty years. Livy, and Macaulay after him, have told the more popular story: Porsena’s army never got across the Tiber, for their way was blocked by a lone Roman, Horatius Cocles, who staved off the Etruscan forces at the Sublician Bridge while his comrades hacked the wooden span to pieces under his feet. Weighted down in full armor, Macaulay’s Horatius cries out from his tottering perch:
“Oh, Tiber! father Tiber!
To whom the Romans pray,
A Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms
Take thou in charge this day!”
So he spake, and speaking sheathed
The good sword by his side,
And with his harness on his back,
Plunged headlong in the tide….
“Heaven help him!” quoth Lars Porsena
“And bring him safe to shore;
For such a gallant feat of arms
Was never seen before.”
And how he feels the bottom;
Now on dry earth he stands;
Now round him throng the Fathers
To press his gory hands…
With weeping and with laughter
Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.4
Pliny the Elder described Porsena’s mausoleum at Clusium as a triumph of human vainglory, replete with labyrinth, pyramids, and a bronze canopy jingling with wind chimes, but for the most part Roman historians portray him, like Macaulay, as an adversary of rare nobility. It may have been Lars Porsena, after all, who gave the brand-new Roman Republic its taste for overrunning the neighbors.
In any case, Porsena was the last and greatest of Etruscan warlords. Etruscan sea power began to decline in the early fifth century BC, jarred first in 474, when the Greek navy bested an Etruscan fleet off Cumae, just north of the Bay of Naples. Land power eroded more gradually, checked by a battle with Cumaean Greeks at Aricia in 506, then progressively crowded out by the expansion of Rome. The first outright Roman conquest of an Etruscan neighbor occurred in 396, when Furius Camillus sacked the city of Veii. The site, hauntingly desolate today, was never rebuilt; what the Roman poet Sextus Propertius described circa 16 BC still holds true:
Woe to you, ancient Veii! Once you, too, were a kingdom.
Once your forum, too, boasted a golden throne.
Now within your walls the languid pipe of a shepherd
Sings, and amid your bones they’re harvesting the fields.5
Most of what we now know about the Etruscans comes either from the written records of Greece and Rome or from the contents of Etruscan tombs, because the hilltop citadels on which they lived are by and large still thriving towns, places like Fiesole, Orvieto (where Etruscan streets can be seen in a church basement), Cortona, Bolsena, Volterra, Chiusi, Perugia, and Viterbo, all with still-standing traces preserved of their Etruscan walls. Graveyards, however, always lay outside the Etruscan cities, miniature cities of the dead carved into soft volcanic stone or built up of earth and masonry where settlement met countryside. Etruscan industry has also left its accessible traces: kilns, smelting pits, slag heaps, along with some stupendous waterworks.
In the eighth century BC, the Etruscans borrowed the same Phoenician alphabet as their Greek neighbors, adapting the Semitic symbols to write their own, radically distinct language. That language itself is no longer entirely understood, but it contributed some crucial words to Latin, “letter” (littera) among them. (Other Etruscan loan words include “person,” “histrionic,” and, possibly, “lasagna.”) Many early Roman religious books were written in the Etruscan language, from right to left, on bolts of linen. These cloth books and their sacred lore, the “disciplina Etrusca,” continued in use throughout the Roman era; they were still consulted in the fifth century AD. Remarkably, part of one such linen book still survives, a schedule of spring and summer sacrifices; for reasons utterly mysterious, an Egyptian of the Roman period used it to wrap a mummy and the desert air preserved it intact.
Although Roman authors assure us that there was once an extensive Etruscan literature, including tragedies as well as cloth books on prophecy and divination, nearly all the sixteen-thousand-odd remaining Etruscan texts are simple epitaphs: “Arnth Sauturinies, son of Larth and Fulni, 38 years,” “Larthi Cracnei, 75.” These we can read with fair comprehension because of their formulaic content and restricted vocabulary, but the very few longer inscriptions remain largely opaque; there is nothing to compare them with, so the meanings of words and the intricacies of grammar elude us.
Except for religious texts, written Etruscan seems to have given way to Latin in the first century BC. Rome’s dominion by then extended far beyond the Italian peninsula. Politics may have played a part as well: after the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC, Etruscan cities like Perusia (modern Perugia) had sided with Marc Antony in the ensuing struggle for power. In 40 BC, Caesar’s adopted son Octavian captured Perusia after a brutal siege; he is said to have marked the Ides of March that year by sacrificing three hundred Perusine citizens, most or all of them Etruscans, on the altar of the deified Julius Caesar. It would take Octavian nine more years to put Antony and Cleopatra to their final rout (at Actium, in 31 BC) and four years more to obtain the title “Augustus” from the Roman Senate, but the conquest of Perusia served notice that the fate of Etruria and of traditional Italy as a whole would be bound up ever after with the house of Caesar.
Despite Octavian’s best efforts, there was no question of eradicating Etruscan influence in early Imperial Rome, but only of controlling it. Etruria had shaped the very beginnings of the younger Roman culture, providing the patterns for Roman religious and civic life, including, among other things, temple architecture, togas, and the ceremonial trappings of magistrates, the general’s camp chair or sella curulis, and the bundle of rods and axe called fasces, symbolic of the consul’s power over life and limb. Rome counted three Etruscans among its seven traditional kings, and sent its young men to Etruria in order to put the final finish on their education. Indeed, the most conspicuous literary patron of Augustus’ reign, Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, traced his own ancestry to Etruscan royalty. But Maecenas wrote in Latin, not Etruscan, and gave money to poets who did the same, Virgil, Horace, Propertius notable among them. He encouraged them, moreover, to make Rome their Muse.
Propertius, at least, did not convince easily. He had lost a member of his family when the Romans attacked Perusia, and his first book of poetry, circulated in 29 or early 28 BC, recalled that atrocity in a bitter little verse:
If you’re aware of the graves of
Perusia, of my homeland
Of the funerals during Italy’s difficult times
When Roman discord bore forcibly down on the people—
Then let Etruscan dust be my particular pain;
(You it was who suffered the scattered limbs of my kinsman
With no portion of earth you covered the poor man’s bones….)6
As Propertius’ reference to “Italy’s difficult times” makes clear, however, the Rome of the Caesars offered its iron stability as an antidote to civil war. Most of the Italian peninsula was willing to subordinate “particular pain” to Pax Augusta, an “Augustan Peace,” however exacting its price. By the time of the emperor Claudius, a scant generation later, the Etruscan language may have been the exclusive province of urbane antiquarians and diehard peasants on remote Tuscan farms.
Some of this somber tale of doom and assimilation seems to have been written by the Etruscans themselves. From the time their territorial power began to wane in the fourth century BC, Etruscan funerary art, formerly devoted to dancing, music, sports, and banquets, acquired a lurid set of death demons. In Etruscan Art, the excellent survey of the subject by the late Otto Brendel, we see tomb paintings with blue-skinned, hook-nosed men armed with hammers to deal the deceased a supernatural coup de grâce. Some were winged, with snakes for hair; some looked more nearly human, like the figure from a tomb in Vulci, labeled as Charun, an Etruscan version of the Greek ferryman who plied the River Styx. Another blue demon from Tarquinia, with snake hair and a bird’s beak, bears the pure Etruscan name of Tuchulcha. In the same funereal vein, torch-bearing Vanth spirits, winged women in short skirts held up by cross-the-heart suspenders, are present in sculpted reliefs at the side of those about to die, hostesses assigned to the threshold of the underworld.
Art of this kind mirrored a corresponding apocalyptic strain in Etruscan religion. According to Roman writers, the Etruscans expected to last for only ten of the extended centuries they called saecula, periods they marked by sounding one of their famous brazen trumpets. Conveniently enough for Rome’s own agenda, the tenth Etruscan saeculum would have witnessed the apogee of the Roman Empire. In 17 BC, Augustus declared a Roman saeculum of his own and asked Horace to write a hymn, the Carmen Saeculare, for the occasion.
Because the Etruscans existed in such proximity to the Greeks and Romans, it has been tempting to supply the gaps in our knowledge about them with Greek and Roman history, customs, and political theory. Roman historians claimed that Etruria was governed by a loosely federated “Etruscan League” comprising twelve autonomous city-states. Scholars, for lack of readable Etruscan evidence, have tended to equate these cities, for analytical purposes, with the ancient Greek polis; it gives them something to read on the subject, like Aristotle or Thucydides, and something, however misleading, to talk about. But an Etruscan å«spura, a community apparently composed of clans or extended families, never attained the abstract civic identity of the Greek polis. Archaeological evidence now tells us that the patterns of settlement that defined the two types of city were utterly distinct. While the Etruscans kept to their citadels, the Greeks spread houses, farms, and temples out over the countryside.7
The silence of Etruscan records prompted the patriotic Tuscans responsible for the Italian Renaissance to make exuberant claims for their forebears. Fifteenth-century Florence identified with the Etruscan city-states as a bastion of republican liberty, thumbing its nose at the imperial pomp of papal Rome. The Florentine writer and architect Leone Battista Alberti declared that city walls, statues, and Doric temples had all been invented by Etruscans and only borrowed by the Greeks. Sixteenth-century Tuscans argued for the superiority of their vernacular tongue over Latin by singling out Italian words of putative Etruscan origin. In the seventeenth century, a teen-age forger from Volterra tried to muster his fake Etruscan artifacts to prove that Galileo Galilei’s exploits with the telescope followed in a long tradition of Etruscan astronomy.
Twentieth-century scholars have tailored their own fables about Etruria, speculating that an original aristocratic, clan-based Etruscan society was overthrown by merchant entrepreneurs (including Lars Porsena), a view taken by some Marxists as well as other scholars, but for which the evidence is fragmentary. For a dying D.H. Lawrence, visiting Tuscany for the last time, the Etruscans stood for life, pure, simple, and infinitely dear. Looking at the underground tomb paintings of Tarquinia, he reflected:
This sense of vigorous, strong-bodied liveliness is characteristic of the Etruscans and is somehow beyond art. You cannot think of art, but only of life itself, as if this were the very life of the Etruscans, dancing in their colored wraps with massive yet exuberant naked limbs, ruddy from the air and the sea-light, dancing and fluting along through the little olive trees, out in the fresh day.
Lawrence had a point. Etruscan art plays by its own rules and has its own distinctive power, although like the Romans after them, the Etruscans looked closely at the Greeks with whom they kept up a vigorous trade. They brought Greek pottery for their tombs, and engraved Greek myths on the backs of ladies’ mirrors, adjusting the foreign names to Etruscan euphony: Heracles shortened to Hercle, Polydeukes to Pultuce (and then to the Latin Pollux), Ganymede to Catmite (whence the English “catamite”). They imported Greek dress and Greek artistic styles, especially from the nearby Greek settlements in Sicily and southern Italy, but also direct from Ionia on the coast of Asia Minor. Some Greek artists and merchants emigrated outright. A few Etruscan epitaphs commemorate characters like Hipucrate of Tarquinia, an erstwhile Hippocrates who apparently found a new life—and death—in Etruria. But the Etruscans never fully adopted Greek styles and Greek stories. As Lawrence says of the alabaster cinerary urns in Volterra:
These “Greek” ash-chests are about as Grecian as Timon of Athens is. The Greeks would have done them so much “better.”
Classical Greek sculpture, as any textbook will remind us, penetrates beneath the surface of drapery and flesh to reveal the body’s organic structure; Greek artists, charged with portraying gods and heroes for public display in temples or sacred precincts, sought for ways to convey qualities that went beyond the anecdotally mortal to indicate a transcendent humanity. By contrast, most surviving Etruscan art comes from tombs and served the more private needs of grieving families; here the artist’s task was to prolong a life by distilling the individual person or perhaps an individual moment. The impossible physical distortions of the sixth-century Etruscan matron sculpted on the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple in Rome’s Villa Giulia hardly detract from the effect she makes with her pointed red shoes and the handsome husband into whose outstretched palm she dribbles perfume; the artist has aimed at our senses of touch and smell rather than our sense of proportion. Although the wife’s shoes and felt cap were also stylish in Ionian Greece, an Ionian woman would never be shown like this, lying next to her husband for all eternity; neither would she take such evident delight in his physical presence.
Some five centuries later, a wrinkled old couple from Volterra were caught in a similar pose, again twisting impossibly yet with quiet dignity. Rather than appealing to the senses, these two strike a thoughtful note, for they have kissed youth and beauty goodbye long ago, but not each other. On a cheap little clay coffin, again from Volterra, a staring-eyed, skinny baby curls up all alone on his thin blanket; unlike the chubby burghers on clay ash-urns from Chiusi, who simply look as if they have been tucked in for a long night’s sleep, this tiny child has looked death in the face, and we can still shudder at his parents’ sense of loss.
Ironically, however, as Lawrence recognized, this Etruscan funerary art is overflowing with the pleasures of the senses and curiously dedicated to creative abandon, and the crazy whims of physical feature that separate particular persons from abstract principles. It has always taken a certain anarchic spirit to give the Etruscans their due, to use, like Lawrence, those derisive quotation marks in saying that the Greeks would have done it so much “better.”
Otto Brendel was such a spirit. In this sense, his Etruscan Art of 1973, newly reissued by Yale University Press, was already an old-fashioned work when it first came out as the posthumous publication of a venerable scholar. But Brendel approached his big treatise on the Etruscans as a sustained inquiry rather than a dogmatic summary, aware, surely, that good questions prove reliably timeless. The volume’s epigraph, taken from Hume, alerts us to the author’s approach:
There is no subject, in which we must proceed with more caution than in tracing the history of the arts and sciences; lest we assign causes which never existed and reduce what is merely contingent to stable and universal principles.
The new edition’s updated bibliography, by Francesca Serra Ridgway, tracks the explosive burgeoning of Etruscan studies since Brendel’s death in 1973, citing four hundred four entries of fairly general interest. Attaining anything like Etruscan Art’s analytical scope today would require digesting logarithmically increasing amounts of information; indeed, the latest general studies of Etruria are virtually all collaborative efforts.8 Some living scholars are capable of taking on Etruscan art singlehanded—Stefan Steingräber of the Max Planck Institut in Mainz and Richard DePuma of the University of Iowa are two of them—but time has not detracted from Otto Brendel’s remarkable ability to make his readers look and think.
Like many of the Etruscans themselves, Brendel was something of a wanderer. His career was far-flung: born in Nuremberg in 1901, educated in Heidelberg, he spent his professional life in Copenhagen, Erlangen, Rome, Newcastle, St. Louis, Bloomington, Indiana, and New York, where he taught for many years at Columbia University. His insistent efforts to grapple with the complexities of the history and spirit of Etruscan art combined intellectual breadth with a quirky individuality. He was a match for Lawrence in his cheerful lack of prejudice yet managed to be both thorough and systematic. Like Lawrence, he reminded his readers insistently that Etruria and Greece were anything but homogeneous cultures; each city differed, each geographical region, each social stratum. He valiantly attempted nonetheless to pin down the quality of the interactions of the Etruscans with two neighboring civilizations. His discussion of a fifth-century terra cotta head from Veii is typical of Brendel’s care and erudition:
Its maker—an artist in his own right—seems to have had Tarentine connections, and he knew Greek art well. Yet he carved from a Classical schema an emphatically nonconformist, personal face. The boy whom he portrayed, or whose countenance he invented, looks at us wistfully; there is in his expression a tinge of melancholy, which one sometimes notices in the young when they think themselves unobserved. The sharply cut outlines that fashioned this face…. [foreshadow] the crisp individualism of Florentine Quattrocento sculpture, in form and spirit.
A paragraph has seldom leapt so unobtrusively from Greek aesthetics to adolescent worry to Medicean Florence. In the belief that art often serves simply “to answer the condition of human diversity,” Brendel’s study pays unceasing attention to the ways in which differences of time, place, and social class might affect an artist’s choice of style or form. His sensitivity to all that is distinctive and idiosyncratic extends particularly to youth; he describes a popular type of Etruscan bronze statue as “chubby little boys, usually naked, sitting on the ground, smiling or pensive, playing with some toy or pet, or just thinking things over.” Ancient Greek renderings of children, by contrast, portray tiny adults, not bambini, and certainly not bambini with mental lives of their own. It is the Etruscan willingness to entertain a child’s capacity for thought, in the end, that makes the impact of that dead, staring Volterran baby so devastating as he lies on top of his little clay urn.
What bambino could be more off-putting than the Minotaur, born of a Cretan queen’s infatuation with a bull? Yet an Etruscan red-figure vase of the fourth century shows this dread monster of the Labyrinth as a calf-headed infant perched in his mother’s lap. Brendel remarks:
The absurdity of the maternal idyll serves as a reminder: even the monster was once a dear child. Such readiness to dwell on the less obvious side of a familiar tale—a special sense of the ferocious or the comic—easily comes to the fore when Etruscan art deals with Greek mythology…. Apparently this mood of detached scrutiny was an answer to the imported myths by a society of outsiders.
The Etruscans reserved a similarly independent treatment for the labors of the Greek hero Herakles (whom they called Hercle and seemed to have appreciated as enthusiastically as the Greeks themselves). A sixth-century water jug in the Louvre shows Hercle delivering the three-headed hell-hound Cerberus on a leash to King Eurystheus, but the monarch is too terrified to play the proper host. Instead, he cowers comically in an underground storage jar, hands waving in consternation. On another vase in Vienna of similar date (circa 530 BC), Hercle visits the Egyptian king Busiris, while the artist directs our attention to the variety of physical types to be found among the Egyptians: hook-nosed Berbers mingle with black-skinned Nubians, all scattering like chaff about the musclebound hero. The decorative back of a bronze mirror, now in Florence, shows Hercle’s final introduction into Olympus, where he is ritually suckled by the goddess who first caused him all his trouble, Uni, the Etruscan version of Hera. All is forgiven in a rite that is utterly non-Greek and strangely, affectingly primal.
It may not be suprising, then, to find that it was the Etruscans who gave classical culture both the idea of portraiture and the word for what such portraits conveyed—for from Etruscan phersu came the Latin word persona, originally meaning mask and eventually meaning, as it does for us, person. In the Etruscan world, sculpted faces once peered down from the eaves of houses, the gates of cities, the keystones of arches, as well as staring out from the tombs of ancestors. We can only guess what they signified: tutelary gods, ancestors, warriors. Some of these personae were flatteringly generic, some uncompromisingly realistic, and some, both early and late in the game, take the form of sleek abstractions. But very few of them have anything at all to do with the Greek artistic method of examining human nature from the inside out. In these Etruscan faces, personal identity rides on surface texture, carefully polished and carefully recorded in all its irregularity.
Etruscans and Greeks alike inhabited worlds in which sophisticated literary society coexisted with shepherds and small farmers who simply “wore away the broad breast of the tireless earth with plows,” as Sophocles once put it. From the eighth century onward, Etruscans and Greeks also lived side by side, trading, fighting, marrying, and teaching one another a thing or two. What we know about these ancient peoples and their interactions has changed dramatically during the present century, as archaeologists assemble a growing number of artifacts, many of them utterly surprising. Our systematic understanding of the ancient Mediterranean world has scarcely been able to keep up with it all.
One large view of changing perceptions is now laid out for all to see in a monumental show at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, dedicated to “The Western Greeks.” These are the Greeks who, beginning in the eighth century BC, began to plant colonists in a chain of cities along the coasts of Sicily and southern Italy, displacing the land’s previous inhabitants by violence, or incorporating them through intermarriage, or, most frequently, doing both at once. They stopped expanding their territory only when they ran into the other major forces in the western Mediterranean: the Etruscans to the north and the Phoenicians to the west. Through them, the Etruscans made their closest contact with Hellenic culture, and it was a culture quite distinct from that of Ionia or the Greek mainland.
The great Sicilian archaeologist, Biagio Pace, was one of the first to point out that scholarly attitudes to Western Greece mirrored European attitudes to America: allegedly inhabited by somewhat vulgar rich emigrants who lived across bodies of water to the west, both places were barely to be credited with the finer points of civility. In assembling over fifteen hundred objects and publishing an extensive catalog, the organizers of the Palazzo Grassi exhibit argue cogently that however we view it, Western Greece is too consequential to be ignored. The superb catalog is intended less as a guidebook to the show than as a freestanding scholarly work. Appropriately, both the Etruscans and the Phoenicians merit special essays, from Mario Torelli and Giovanni Garbini respectively.
Within a century or so after the first colonial expeditions, Western Greece had become brash and rich. The soil was fertile and the trade was good. Plato tells of continuing prosperity in his Seventh Letter, written in the fourth century BC, about his disappointments with the brashest and richest city of them all, Syracuse:
When I arrived I found nothing whatever to please me in the tastes of a society devoted to Italian and Syracusan cookery, where happiness was held to consist in filling oneself full twice a day, never sleeping alone at night, and indulging in all the other pursuits that go with such a way of living. Brought up from boyhood in such an environment no man under heaven could become wise.9
What Plato would have made of Etruria can only be imagined.
The immensity of the Palazzo Grassi show and its catalog are eminently appropriate to their subject.10 The scale of the Western Greek world was colossal by mainland standards. Enormous stone temples staked out the edges of cities whose foursquare street patterns caught the landscape in a relentless net of identical blocks. Doric architecture may have been invented here as a cocky challenge to Egypt’s feats of stone; certainly some of the biggest, craziest temples of all the Greek world rose along the coasts of Sicily as testimony to the ambitions of competing tyrants: Theron and Phalaris of Akragas, Hieron and Dionysius of Syracuse. The careful strictures of the classical orders, enshrined by the first-century Roman architect and writer Vitruvius, fail to apply in this bold infancy of big Greek architecture: Doric and Ionic elements are mixed with abandon.
Acknowledging this distinctive Western Greek aesthetic is essential to understanding Etruscan art, which shows a still stronger propensity to employ Greek formal elements with impetuous caprice, topping a Doric frieze with Ionic moldings, juxtaposing tiny columns and giant rosettes. Roman art, too, would eventually approach Greek style with an Etruscan sense of latitude. Accepting the heady, iconoclastic qualities of Western Greek architecture as a tradition unto itself may narrow the artistic distance between Greece and Etruria and may help to clarify a complex set of transactions between two distinct societies. The real issue at stake is one of provincialism, a word that has been all too freely applied both to Etruria and to Western Greece. Why call Etruscan portraiture or Sicilian Doric architecture “provincial” when they may be the originals?
Furthermore, brashness and luxury, so undeniably present both in Western Greece and in Etruria, surely reflected more than an abundance of wealth. These trading nations built of necessity on a deep sense of the precariousness of life. It may be no wonder, then, that they both seem to have shown life so sharp an appreciation.
September 19, 1996
D.H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places, from D.H. Lawrence and Italy (Penguin, 1985), pp. 1, 106-107. ↩
Steve Jones, The Language of Genes: Solving the Mysteries of Our Genetic Past, Present, and Future (Anchor/ Doubleday, 1994), pp. 145-146. ↩
During the reign of Merneptah (1212-1203 BC); see Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 19-21, 59-60, and passim; Giovanni Garbini, “The Phoenicians in the Western Mediterranean (through to the Fifth Century BC),” in The Western Greeks, p. 121. ↩
Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Horatius at the Bridge,” from Lays of Ancient Rome. ↩
Propertius IV.10. Author’s translation. ↩
Propertius I.22. Author’s translation. ↩
See Ingrid E. M. Edlund[-Berry], The Gods and the Place: The Location and Function of Sanctuaries in the Countryside of Etruria and Magna Graecia (700-400 B.C.) (Stockholm: Swedish Institute in Rome, 1987). ↩
See, for example, Giovanni Pugliese Carratelli, editor, Rasenna: Storia e civiltà degli Etruschi (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1986), and, on a smaller scale in English, Larissa Bonfante, editor, Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies (Wayne State University Press, 1986). ↩
Plato, Seventh Letter, å¤326, from Plato: Phaedrus & Letters VII and VIII, edited by Walter Hamilton, (Penguin, 1973), p. 116. ↩
See the review of the exhibition by Jasper Griffin, The New York Review of Books, June 20, 1996. ↩