Classics Etruscan Art
by
Alexandra Carpino
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0122

Introduction

Although Etruscan art has never been accorded the same value or respect given to the material remains of the Greeks or Romans, especially in the English-speaking world, it represents the most important evidence we have for understanding their civilization and its place in the ancient Mediterranean world. From the 8th century BCE on, a wide variety of local and immigrant artists and craftsmen created homes, temples, tombs, paintings, sculptures, vases, jewelry, mirrors, and more for individuals eager to communicate statements about their wealth, their families, their beliefs, and their cultural traditions. Today, the view that denigrated Etruscan art as either culturally inferior to Greek art or a poor imitation of it has been set aside, as has the idea of one-way (i.e., Greece to Etruria) trade. Foreign influences—whether from the Near East and the Aegean during the late 8th and 7th centuries, or from Attica during the 6th through 4th centuries—remain undeniable, but their appropriation is no longer considered indicative of a lack of local creativity. In addition, the Etruscans’ active contributions to and interactions with a multitude of Mediterranean communities, along with regional artistic diversity within Etruria itself, are not only better understood but also more openly acknowledged, with the Etruscans now viewed as technological and/or artistic pioneers in a variety of media. Nevertheless, because so much Etruscan art comes from tombs or sanctuaries, many of which were not carefully excavated, assessments of both context and meaning remain challenging. The study of Etruscan art is further compounded by the absence of surviving literature and historiography, and the strong anti-Etruscan bias in the few Greek and Roman texts whose writers comment on their culture. These lacunae make iconographical and iconological studies especially difficult and sometimes lead to fanciful speculations with respect to the ancient meaning or significance of individual works.

General Overviews

There are very few comprehensive surveys that focus exclusively on Etruscan art, and although it is now out of date, Brendel 1995 is the most valuable of these. Far more frequent than art historical texts are books on Etruscan culture in general which use a series of canonical monuments, along with a variety of artifacts and new discoveries, to chart its history and interpret the characteristics of its civilization (Borrelli and Targia 2004, Haynes 2000, Richardson 1976, Riva 2010, and Small 2008) or to demonstrate its influences outside its borders (Bonfante 2011, Camporeale 2004). These studies make use of a wide variety of interdisciplinary methods, from the archaeological and art historical to theories borrowed from a variety of other disciplines, including anthropology, visual culture studies, and gender studies.

  • Bonfante, Larissa. 2011. The Etruscans: Mediators between northern barbarians and classical civilization. In The barbarians of ancient Europe: Realities and interactions. Edited by Larissa Bonfante, 233–281. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This chapter analyzes Etruscan material culture for what it tells us about their contacts with their northern neighbors; it also considers the Etruscans’ role in disseminating elements of the classical tradition to communities and cultures in Northern and Western Europe. Suitable for undergraduate students.

  • Borrelli, Federica, and Maria Cristina Targia. 2004. The Etruscans: Art, architecture, and history. Translated by Thomas M. Hartmann. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.

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    A short and well-illustrated guide to Etruscan masterpieces, organized chronologically and thematically.

  • Brendel, Otto. 1995. Etruscan art, 2d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    The first comprehensive art historical analysis of Etruscan art written in the English language, initially published in 1978 and then reissued, with revisions and a valuable updated bibliography by Francesca R. Serra Ridgway, in 1995. Despite Brendel’s frequent judgment of Etruscan art against the standard of the “higher civilization” of ancient Greece, the book remains a classic because of its large scope, clear categorization of the material, formal and iconographic analyses, and focus on historical context.

  • Camporeale, Giovannangelo, ed. 2004. The Etruscans outside Etruria. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.

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    A well-illustrated, object-oriented account of Etruscan civilization, focusing on their presence in and influence on a variety of cultures located outside their borders (e.g., in Campania, Apulia, Sardinia, as well as further afield in Gaul, Greece, etc.).

  • Haynes, Sybille. 2000. Etruscan civilization: A cultural history. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.

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    Although this is a cultural history, the author’s approach is primarily art historical, with canonical works of art and new discoveries analyzed for their contributions to Etruscan civilization. The text includes a great deal of information gathered from social and anthropological studies and is especially important for new insights the author provides about the status of Etruscan women from the Villanovan period on. Suitable for both undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Richardson, Emeline. 1976. The Etruscans: Their art and civilization, rev. ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    One of the first well-researched introductions to the Etruscans written in English, by an experienced archaeologist with direct knowledge of her material. First published in 1964.

  • Riva, Corinna. 2010. The urbanisation of Etruria: Funerary practices and social change, 700–600 BC. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    An important study about the emergence of urbanism in central Italy that focuses on transformations visible in the Etruscans’ material culture; challenges the importance usually given to outside influences from the East. Suitable for advanced undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Small, Jocelyn Penny. 2008. Looking at Etruscan art in the Meadows Museum. In From the temple and the tomb: Etruscan treasures from Tuscany. Edited by P. Gregory Warden, 40–65. Dallas, TX: Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University.

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    An excellent and well-illustrated overview of consistent trends in Etruscan art from the point of view of the Etruscans.

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