Etruscan Art and Architecture


Pre-Roman Italy was inhabited by many peoples of different origins, languages and cultural traditions.  Central Italy — known as Etruria — was inhabited by the Etruscans.  Today the region is known as Tuscany.


The Etruscans were one of the first great civilizations on the Peninsula of Italy.  They had a city-state organization akin to the Greeks.  The cities co-existed, and the peoples were tied together culturally.  At the same time, there was no true political unification of the individual city-states. The The Etruscans were not a unified people and were often warring.




Where did the Etruscans come from? There are several theories:

It's hard to know which is correct (or if all hold a degree of truth) because we’ve never deciphered the Etruscan Language.  We do not have any written evidence to support any of these theories, but we do have archeological evidence.


Thus, we do know that the Etruscans were:

Although we do not have a complete historical record of the Etruscans, we have a lot of material objects from this culture.   Many works of art have been excavated from Etruscan cities of the dead (a necropolis).


Necropolis at Banditaccia in Cerveteri, Italy, 7th to 2nd centuries B.C.



Remember that we first encountered the term "necropolis" when we studied the Egyptians.  The Etruscans usually had two cities — one of the living and one of the dead (which were located on hills).  In the Etruscan culture, a necropolis looked like a series of mounds.  Each mound was a tumulus (singular); when there are many of these mound, they are termed tumuli (plural).  These covered multi-chambered underground tombs which were cut out of the dark local limestone, known as tufa.  The burial mounds were rounded, but the chambers within these mounds were rectangular. 


“Tomb of Reliefs,” Cerveteri, Italy, 3rd Century B.C.



This is one of the tomb chambers. The rooms had niches for bodies and seem to have been designed for several generations of the same family.


We do not know exactly what the Etruscans believed about the dead, but it appears that they believed in some sort of earthly survival of the deceased.  They seemed to be creating rooms for their next life.  The burial places were appointed with all of the elements necessary for the world of the living.  It also appears that the appointments of these tombs these were meant to signal tribute and prestige.  The architecture, furnishing, and appointments all indicated the amount of wealth of the family and the tribute due to their deceased kin (note the huge gold fibula discussed below).


We do not see shelves or cupboards or drawers.  Rather, it appears that the Etruscans hung things on their walls.  Note, here, for example, the rope, jug, knife, hoe, and ax — all done in relief.  The relief sculptures are brightly-colored with paint. Also, we can see that they lived with dogs (notice sculpture on the pillar or pier on the left).  We also see food, a mirror, and cooking equipment.   Ironically, we think that we can learn about the life of the Etruscans by examining how they prepared for their death.


Fibula with Orientalizing Lions, ca 650-640 B.C.



The Etruscans were buried with their clothes, jewels, and arms.  For example, this was a fibula from an Etruscan tomb.  It is about one foot high!  A fibula is a clasp that works like a safety pin.  It was made from gold by Etruscan craftsmen using technique of repoussé and granulation (fusing of small granules to the surface).  It is expensive and excessively large and was clearly intended as a status symbol. 


Tomb of Leopards, banqueters and musicians, Tarquinia, ca. 480-470 B.C.



In Tarquinia, there are also large underground burial chambers cut out of the natural rock, but these do not have tumuli and do not have relief sculpture on the interior that mimic houses and the utensils of daily life. Many of the burial found here have chambers that are fresco painted.  This fresco comes from the “Tomb of the Leopards” — so named because the room appears to be guarded by two painted leopards.


On the far left are two people playing musical instruments -- a double pipe and a lyre, respectively  (note that horns were used before war, so they would not be expected in a scene like this).  The two musicians follow a young man carrying a kylix.  There is a sense of life and action. In addition, the people are placed within a landscape.


On the right are men and women enjoying a banquet.  The women are white and the men are reddish; this is the same convention used by the Minoans, but 1000 years later. The couples recline together on dining couches and are attended to by servants.  The male on the far left holds up an egg, which may be a symbol of regeneration. They also have large eyes.


In these frescos, humans do not dominate the environment, but are one with it.  They are comfortable. There is no hieratic portrayal.  The feet are planted on a ground line.  The clothing is swept back.  Also note that these images are not naturalistic or proportional.  Rather, these Etruscans, created a lively scene that may be a recreation in death of an activity very much enjoyed in life.


Sarcophagus with Reclining Couple, ca. 520 B.C.



This is a sarcophagus (or coffin) from a tomb in Cerveteri.  It was executed in terra cotta — which is hard baked clay.  It was created in four sections, then joined.  It is very different from the Greeks in that this was designed as a coffin.  Recall that the Greeks buried their dead in graves marked by an amphora, kouros, or stele.


Notice that the upper body of these figures is emphasized, while the lower portion is minor, except, perhaps, for the feet.  The Etruscans were not interested in naturalism to the extent that the Greeks were. The man seems massive man.  Both figures have high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes.  Also note the braiding of the long hair.  They are presented to us as a lively, animated couple.


In the Etruscan culture, men and women worked together with equality and freedom.  This is distinctly non-Greek.  In Greece, only the men could participate in a banquet — and never with their wives.  The women who were present were either servants, slave girls, or courtesans.  But this was not so for Etruscan women.  They could dine with a man.  Not only do we have the archeological evidence shown here — but this fact was recorded by a 4th century Greek historian named Theopompus.   Aristotle also commented on this practice.


Etruscan wives were not sequestered away, as were Greek wives.  They attended sporting events with their husbands.  Dedication inscriptions show that women had their own names.   They could legally own things, including property, independent of their husbands.  Because many of the items buried with them were inscribed, it has also been assumed that they were taught to read.



Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, Tarquinia, ca. 530-520 B.C.


This is another fresco from another tomb from Tarquinia — the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing.  One figures dives off of a rocky cliff, as others row across the water in a boat (see your textbook for are larger reproduction).  Birds fly above. 


Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, Tarquinia, ca. 530-520 B.C. Fowling Scene from the Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, ca 1400-1350 B.C.


Here is another detail from the same tomb.  We see men on a boat fishing  and another using a sling shot to bring down birds. 

In its essential elements, this lively naturalistic scene recalls the Egyptian New Kingdom Painting, such as the Tomb of Nebamun of Thebes. It suggests that the Etruscans may have known Egyptian funerary traditions.


In addition to thinking about the dead, Etruscans also used natural events to predict fate.  For example, they believed that the entrails of an animal could be used to predict the future — especially the liver.   Of secondary important were observations from nature —  e.g. lightening, thunder, clouds, migration of birds.


Other Ancient cultures practiced divination, but we have evidence that the Romans thought that the Etruscans were expert practitioners.


From: Linnea H. Wren, Perspectives on Western Art (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 111-12.


Cicero, On Divination


The Science of Divination


There is an ancient belief, handed down to us even from mythical times and firmly established by the general agreement of the Roman people and of all nations, that divination of some kind exists among men; this the Greeks call mantike—that is, the foresight and knowledge of future events. A really splendid and helpful thing it is—if only such a faculty exists—since by its means men may approach very near to the power of gods. . . .

            Now I am aware of no people, however refined and learned or how­ever savage and ignorant, which does not think that signs are given of future events, and that certain persons can recognize those signs and foretell events before they occur. . . .

            Nor is it only one single mode of divination that has been employed in public and in private. For, to say nothing of other nations, how many of our own people have embraced it! In the first place, according to tradi­tion, Romulus, the father of this City, not only founded it in obedience to the auspices, but was himself a most skillful augur. Next, the other Roman kings employed augurs; and, again, after the expulsion of the kings, no public business was ever transacted at home or abroad without first taking the auspices. Furthermore, since our forefathers believed that the soothsay­ers’ art had great efficacy in seeking for omens and advice, as well as in cases where prodigies were to be interpreted and their effects averted, they gradually introduced that art in its entirety from Etruria, lest it should appear that any kind of divination had been disregarded by them.




Model of an Etruscan Temple based on the description of Vitruvius, 6th Century B.C.



The Etruscans did have temples.  Based on excavations, we know that their temples were made of wood and mud-dried bricks.  There is anbvious front.  The plan is axial.  We also see one set of steps. Note the use of the high podium, deep porch and unfluted columns (in the Tuscan order) which were crafted from wood.  The columns were spaced more widely than Greek marble temples because the structure was lighter. These Etruscan temples were not as sculptural.  In fact, the pediment was empty.  Instead, they were decorated on the roof with terracotta sculpture. There is a sharp roof with a tremendous overhang — to protect the building from water.  


Etruscan temples had three cellas — usually one for each of there three major gods:

 These temples were based on Greek design, but were clearly modified by the Etruscans:




Now let's look at an example of Etruscan sculpture that would have ornamented the roofline.


Apollo of Veii, ca. 510-500 B.C.  


The Etruscan Apollo of Veii was approximately contemporary with the Early Classical Kritios Boy!  The Apollo of Veii was a temple decoration located where two wooden beams came together. It was once brightly colored.  It was also once part of a group of terra-cotta roof figures.  Apollo (the sun god) confronted Hercle (equivalent to Herakles) in order to obtain possession of the Ceryneian hind, a mythical beast with golden horns that was sacred to Apollo’s sister Artemis (the goddess of the hunt). 


Why would you not identify this work of art as Greek?

Capitoline Wolf, ca. 500-480 B.C.



Although they used a lot of terra cotta, we also know that the Etruscans knew how to manipulate bronze.  The wolf is a hollow cast bronze — the two children are later additions crafted during the Renaissance. 


This is Etruscan workmanship — but it was crafted for a Roman patron after Rome began to overwhelm and annex Etruscan territory.  The she-wolf was part of Roman mythology.  The twins, Romulus and Remus were abandoned as infants.  They, however, did not die because they were suckled by a she-wolf.  When the twins grew to adulthood, Romulus quarreled and killed Remus.  Romulus went on to found the city of Rome.


Chimera of Arezzo, first half of the 4th century




The Chimera of Arezzo is another lost wax cast, hollow bronze.  It again represents the work of an Etruscan artisan for a Roman patron. 


The Chimera was a Greek mythological figure — a fire-breathing monster.  It usually had a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.  Its source is Homer’s Illiad.


According to the story, Bellerophon was a Greek hero residing in Argus.  The king Proetus had a wife who fell in love with Bellerophon and tried to seduce him.  When he rejected her, she claimed that he had tried to rape her.  Bellerophon, therefore, was sent off to the king’s brother-in-law with a sealed letter saying that he should be killed.  So the brother-in-law sent him off to slay the chimera, thinking that Bellerophon would surely die.  However, Bellerophon obtained possession of Pegasus, the winged horse that was born from the blood of Medusa.  Using Pegasus, Bellerophon killed the chimera with his arrows.


In this composition, the chimera is clearly wounded, but is still full of energy. 


The Etruscan era ultimately came to an end in 89 B.C. when the Romans conferred Roman citizenship to all of the inhabitants of Italy.