Etruscan Secrets

Gli Etruschi (The Etruscans)

an exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, November 26, 2000–July 1, 2001

The Etruscans

edited by Mario Torelli, translated from the Italian by Rhoda Billingsley et al.
catalog of the exhibition, Rizzoli, 671 pp., $85.00

Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History

by Sybille Haynes
J. Paul Getty Museum, 432 pp., $55.00

One of the most endearing qualities of the dead is their reluctance to talk back to us, and the Etruscans, ancient Italy’s most distinctive and enigmatic people, have been no exception. No outraged Etruscan warrior has ever come knocking at the door like the statue of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, primed to pull an errant archaeologist or a tendentious historian down to Hell for the deceptions they have wrought in the name of scholarship. Instead, constrained to discuss things among ourselves without their help, we strive bravely to reassemble the broken fragments of ancient Etruria into a serviceable past.

Since 1985, a series of ambitious European exhibitions has focused on the Etruscans in ways that reveal as much about the exhibitors and their times as about the Etruscans themselves. Nineteen eighty-five was Italy’s “Year of the Etruscan,” which featured a huge show in multiple venues called Buongiorno Etruschi—“Hello, Etruscans.” Buongiorno Etruschi called attention not only to this ancient nation of traders, whose merchantmen and pirate ships plied the Mediterranean from the time of Homer’s Odyssey to the beginnings of the Roman Empire and exerted a lasting influence on both Roman and Italian culture. In addition, through its bright, high-tech installations, dense catalogs, and gadget-filled gift shops, the gigantic show proclaimed Italy’s new position among the world’s foremost economic powers, spearheaded by the undisputed international supremacy of Italian design. Buongiorno Etruschi tested, and then savored, the newly impressive force of the phrase “Made in Italy” at a time when the value of the lira nearly doubled against that of the American dollar.

The 1992–1993 exhibition mounted in Paris and Berlin as The Etruscans and Europe flew the starry flag of the nascent European Union, pointing out Etruria’s lasting contributions to a broader European culture, including words like “letter” and “person.” Conceived in the flush of optimism that accompanied the Maastricht economic accords, The Etruscans and Europe actually opened in another mood altogether, as the continent once again faced its fractious past, for by 1993 the former Yugoslavia had exploded, and Sarajevo, not Maastricht, was the name to conjure with. Thus the message of diversity within unity that these European Etruscans had been meant to convey could be contrasted with another possible story: the brutal assimilation of Etruria to Rome during four hundred years of unrelenting warfare, from the conquest and devastation in 396 BCE of thriving Veii, Rome’s nearest Etruscan neighbor, to the slaughter of three hundred elders of Etruscan Perusia on the altar of Divine Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 40 BCE, their punishment for having backed Marc Antony in his struggle with the ruthless young man who would eventually be known as Caesar Augustus.

Gli Etruschi, the Etruscan show now on view at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, reflects an Italy that has seen both the economic boom of the 1980s and the sobering disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, a land that borders Italy and has sent more than its share of desperate refugees across their…

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