Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Etruscan Art

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  • The Etruscans were an ancient Italic culture linguistically identifiable by about 700 B.C. Their culture developed from a prehistoric civilization known as Villanovan (ca. 900–500 B.C.). By the beginning of the seventh century B.C., the Etruscans occupied the central region of Italy between the Arno and Tiber rivers, and eventually settled as far north as the Po River valley and as far south as Campania. They flourished until the end of the second century B.C., when they were fully subsumed into Roman culture. While some 13,000 Etruscan texts exist, most of these are very short. Consequently, much of what we know about the Etruscans comes not from historical evidence, but from their art and the archaeological record. Many Etruscan sites, primarily cemeteries and sanctuaries, have been excavated, notably at Veii, Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci, and Vetulonia. Numerous Etruscan tomb paintings portray in vivid color many different scenes of life, death, and myth.


    Much of what we know about the Etruscans comes not from historical evidence, but from their art and the archaeological record.

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    From very early on, the Etruscans were in contact with the Greek colonies in southern Italy. Greek potters and their works influenced the development of Etruscan fine painted wares (1975.363), and, consequently, new types of Etruscan pottery were created during the Orientalizing period (ca. 750–575 B.C.) and subsequent Archaic period (ca. 575–490 B.C.). The most successful of these pottery styles is known as Bucchero (24.97.21a,b), characterized by its shiny black surface and preponderance of shapes that emulate metal prototypes (2009.316). An Etruscan dedication at the Greek sanctuary of Delphi attests to the close interaction between the Greeks and the Etruscans in the Archaic period. The Etruscans particularly prized finely painted Greek vases, which they collected in great numbers. Likewise, their interest in Greek art and culture is manifest in works by Etruscan artists. However, the adaptation of Greek iconography to Etruscan art is complex and difficult to interpret.

    Etruria, the region occupied by the Etruscans, was rich in metals, particularly copper and iron. The Etruscans were master bronze smiths who exported their finished products all over the Mediterranean. Finely worked bronzes, such as thrones and chariots decorated with exquisite hammered reliefs (03.23.1), cast statues and statuettes (17.190.2066), as well as ornate vessels (2008.332), mirrors, and stands, attest to the high quality achieved by Etruscan artists, particularly in the Archaic and Classical (ca. 490–300 B.C.) periods. Opulent jewelry of gold and semi-precious stones (40.11.7-.18) exemplifies eastern Greek and Levantine forms adapted to Etruscan taste. Extensive trade in the Mediterranean during this period supplied artists with exotic materials such as ivory, amber (17.190.2067), ostrich eggs, and semi-precious stones, all of which fostered the development of Etruscan gem engraving and other arts. The Etruscans were also well known for their terracotta freestanding sculpture and architectural reliefs. Etruscan funerary works, particularly sarcophagi and cinerary urns (96.9.225a,b), often carved in high relief, comprise an especially rich source of evidence for artistic achievement during the Late Classical and Hellenistic periods.

    Colette Hemingway
    Independent Scholar

    Seán Hemingway
    Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art