Newsletter 50: The Etruscans

“The Etruscans, as everyone knows, were the people who occupied the middle of Italy in early Roman days and whom the Romans, in their usual neighbourly fashion, wiped out entirely to make room for Rome with a very big R.” This is the opening sentence of D.H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places (1932). I’d decided to cite it in this newsletter even before I found it emblazoned at the start of the cupboard-sized display of Etruscan things in the Ashmolean museum here in Oxford.

    The first Learn Italy trip, in late September 2002, was about the Etruscans. Since then whatever knowledge I possessed about them has withdrawn into that large and growing category of ‘stuff I used to know but have now mostly forgotten’. During this hot June in Italy we set off to revisit some of the nearby and not so nearby Etruscan sites – tombs, museums, and structures (not buildings, as there aren’t any), such as the Etruscan arch in Perugia, or the many remaining city walls called ‘cyclopic’, with blocks of stone so huge it was thought they could only be put together by giants. The aim was to rekindle memories, but also, it must be admitted, to luxuriate in the relative bliss of the car’s air-conditioning. Some of our destinations were places we first visited in the Seventies – all but half a century ago.

    To start with: the museums. Small or large, they contain similar collections of objects in rows of vitrines, objects which cover the huge stretch of time from about 1,000 BC to 300 BC. They start with the black cremation urns of the Villanovan period, made of two cones and with a kind of cap as lid. Then there is sometimes a so-called Canopic urn, in which the lid has become a face, or a head. Pendulous ‘blood-sucker’ brooches, or bow fibulae, loom weights and spindles hint at aspects of domestic life. There are always plenty of cups and jugs and vases in bucchero, the often elegant black pottery special to the Etruscans, each defined by unmemorable Greek terms, such as skyphos, kantharos, olpe or kylix. These sit side by side with imported Corinthian pottery objects such as pot-bellied jugs or perfume holders with attractive stylised animal decoration, and Athenian red and black figure vases depicting mythological scenes or sometimes daily life. Both styles were later copied by local artists. Also displayed are lots of bronze bits and pieces, large and small – statuettes, razors, mirrors, candelabra, braziers, weapons. Etruria, with plentiful supplies of iron and copper, was famous for its bronze industry. Some local museums are lucky to have a few delicate gold items of jewellery which haven’t been snaffled by thieves, Napoleon, or more prestigious city museums. Some are decorated with the ‘granulation’ technique – patterns made with tiny blobs of metal. Difficult to think who would do this intricate work; one theory is that it was children, with their perfect eyesight. Finally there may be sarcophagi of many shapes and sizes and different materials, from alabaster to tufa, often with the men and women whom they memorialise lying propped up on one arm, perhaps as if at a banquet, with grim mythical stories told in bas-reliefs around their bases.

    A huge proportion of Greek vases in the world’s museums, perhaps more than eighty per cent, including many of the most famous examples, came from tombs in Italy, and especially Etruria. Indeed until the late eighteenth century it was thought that all the vases that we now know are Greek, were Etruscan. During the nineteenth century it became clear that very many of the vases were manufactured in Athens. In 1769 Josiah Wedgwood opened a factory called Etruria in a Staffordshire village: its motto was Artes Etruriae Renascuntur. (‘The arts of Etruria are reborn’). It produced luxury items, such as imitation Greek urns, and black basalt stoneware not unlike bucchero.

    Exactly why the Etruscans collected so many Greek vases is a source of scholarly debate and conjecture: were they imported for their value and beauty, or were they second-hand items used as ballast in ships? What were they for? It would seem clear that they were highly valued, placed as they were in tombs along with jewellery and armour, presumably for use in the afterlife

    One of several Etruscan sites which are all-but unique in the world of antiquity is to be found on the outskirts of Tarquinia, a city not far from the sea in Lazio, south of Tuscany. Lawrence visited in 1927. The archaeological area is dotted with low brick structures, functional but dull, even if a little mysterious. These hide the entrances to the famous painted tombs. Lawrence was taken down to see the paintings by a local guide equipped with a key and a lamp, and it was much the same for us in the Seventies: we picked a guide up in the town centre, and drove him to the unprepossessing field of huts, where we climbed down into half-a-dozen tombs. Nowadays the place looks just as uninteresting, but there is organisation (you can photograph a little map of the route to take). Twenty-two tombs are available. Under the brick cowl all of them have a steep, dark and narrow steel staircase down to the room-sized crypts. We are no longer allowed inside. The tourist is now cut off from entry by a thick glass pane, often misted up. Disappointing for the viewer, with only the facing wall properly visible; the side walls are seen aslant and a back wall not at all. But good, one hopes, for the preservation of these remarkable works. And in the below-ground, half-lit darkness of the staircase, peering into the vaults provided moments of cool, even chill, on a balefully hot day. There is nothing like the plenitude of these ancient wall paintings anywhere else, and they give rise to all sorts of ideas about the everyday life of the Etruscan aristocracy, depicting men and women, young and old, servants and slaves, at banquets, music-making, dancing, hunting, swimming, fighting, enjoying picnics, and taking part in processions. Their colours are still surprisingly vivid, and the style of painting is loose, lively and expressive.

    However to experience the latest version of Tarquinia’s famous tombs was not particularly pleasant, and had there been lots of people, all having to wait their turn to descend in pairs, it would have been tedious.

    Many of the paintings are now fragmentary, with large patches of bare wall. In the sixties archaeologists took off some paintings and reconstructed them in the local museum, but the results were not successful. So how are they best to be seen? In a book about Etruscan art, I would say, though this may seem heretical. There are lots of such works. Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History, by Sybille Haynes, is a serious archaeological study, but full of photographs.

    I never thought I would be saying this (given a long-standing aversion to D.H.L.), but read Lawrence’s Etruscan Places, especially his account of his visit to the painted tombs of Tarquinia, and also to the wonderfully atmospheric necropolis of Cerveteri. Skip the toshy bits where he sets up the Etruscans as versions of himself, like Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, as opposed to the power-hungry but repressed Romans. His joyful analysis of the human goings-on in the wall pictures goes far beyond what any art historian would allow, but what a thrillingly vivid response it is, bringing to life in language something far more than can be gained from the tombs themselves, or from sober reproductions. The missing and damaged parts of the painting are mentioned but wished away by his imagination, and the stories and actions depicted come to symbolise all that Lawrence wished that the Etruscans might be, for themselves and also for the modern world. Plenty to skim through quickly, when he starts to rhapsodise about ancient religions, divination and death, but even these fantastical arguments have moments of insight. His ideas may have little to do with archaeology or art history, but when Lawrence has his writer’s eye on objects and experiences in the ordinary ‘real’ world, he can be unmatched.

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