AP®︎/College Art History
- The Etruscans, an introduction
- Sarcophagus of the Spouses (Rome)
- Sarcophagus of the Spouses (Rome)
- Temple of Minerva and the sculpture of Apollo (Veii)
- Apulu (Apollo of Veii)
- Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia (from UNESCO/NHK)
- Tomb of the Triclinium
The Etruscans, an introduction
Before the small village of Rome became “Rome” with a capital R (to paraphrase D.H. Lawrence), a brilliant civilization once controlled almost the entire peninsula we now call Italy. This was the Etruscan civilization, a vanished culture whose achievements set the stage not only for the development of ancient Roman art and culture but for the Italian Renaissance as well.
Etruscan civilization map (CC BY-SA 3.0), NormanEinstein - Based on a map from The National Geographic Magazine Vol.173 No.6 June 1988.
Though you may not have heard of them, the Etruscans were the first "superpower" of the Western Mediterranean who, alongside the Greeks, developed the earliest true cities in Europe. They were so successful, in fact, that the most important cities in modern Tuscany (Florence, Pisa, and Siena to name a few) were first established by the Etruscans and have been continuously inhabited since then.
Yet the labels ‘mysterious’ or ‘enigmatic’ are often attached to the Etruscans since none of their own histories or literature survives. This is particularly ironic as it was the Etruscans who were responsible for teaching the Romans the alphabet and for spreading literacy throughout the Italian peninsula.
The influence on ancient Rome
Etruscan influence on ancient Roman culture was profound and it was from the Etruscans that the Romans inherited many of their own cultural and artistic traditions, from the spectacle of gladiatorial combat, to hydraulic engineering, temple design, and religious ritual, among many other things. In fact, hundreds of years after the Etruscans had been conquered by the Romans and absorbed into their empire, the Romans still maintained an Etruscan priesthood in Rome (which they thought necessary to consult when under attack from invading ‘barbarians’).
We even derive our very common word ‘person’ from the Etruscan mythological figure ‘Phersu’-- the frightful, masked figure you see in this Early Etruscan tomb painting who would engage his victims in a dreadful ‘game’ of blood letting in order to appease the soul of the deceased (the original gladiatorial games, according to the Romans!).
Phersu and his victim, Tomb of the Augurs, late 6th century B.C.E., Tarquinia
Early on the Etruscans developed a vibrant artistic and architectural culture, one that was often in dialogue with other Mediterranean civilizations. Trading of the many natural mineral resources found in Tuscany, the center of ancient Etruria, caused them to bump up against Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians in the Mediterranean. With these other Mediterranean cultures, they exchanged goods, ideas and, often, a shared artistic vocabulary.
Etruscan hut urn (c. 800 B.C.E.), impasto (Vatican Museums)
Etruscan art and the afterlife
Unlike with the Greeks, however, the majority of our knowledge about Etruscan art comes largely from their burials. (Since most Etruscan cities are still inhabited, they hide their Etruscan art and architecture under Roman, Medieval and Renaissance layers). Fortunately, though, the Etruscans cared very much about equipping their dead with everything necessary for the afterlife—from lively tomb paintings to sculpture to pottery that they could use in the next world.
From their extensive cemeteries, we can look at the "world of the dead" and begin to understand some about the "world of the living." During the early phases of Etruscan civilization, they conceived of the afterlife in terms of life as they knew it. When someone died, he or she would be cremated and provided with another ‘home’ for the afterlife.
This type of hut urn, made of an unrefined clay known as impasto, would be used to house the cremated remains of the deceased. Not coincidentally, it shows us in miniature form what a typical Etruscan house would have looked like in Iron Age Etruria (900-750 B.C.E.)—oval with a timber roof and a smoke hole for an internal hearth.
More opulent tombs
Later on, houses for the dead became much more elaborate. During the Orientalizing period (750-575 BCE), when the Etruscans began to trade their natural resources with other Mediterranean cultures and became staggeringly wealthy as a result, their tombs became more and more opulent.
The well-known Regolini-Galassi tomb from the city of Cerveteri shows how this new wealth transformed the modest hut to an extravagant house for the dead. Built for a woman clearly of high rank, the massive stone tomb contains a long corridor with lateral, oval rooms leading to a main chamber.
Fibula from Regolini Galassi tomb in Cerveteri, gold, mid-seventh century B.C.E. (Vatican Museums)
A stroll through the Etruscan rooms in the Vatican museum where the tomb artifacts are now housed presents a mind boggling view of the enormous wealth of the period.
Found near the woman were objects of various precious materials intended for personal adornment in the afterlife—a gold pectoral, gold bracelets, a gold brooch (or fibula) of outsized proportions, among other objects—as well as silver and bronze vessels and numerous other grave goods and furniture.
Bronze bed and carriage, Regolini-Galassi Tomb, (c. 650 B.C.E.), Cerveteri (Vatican Museums)
A bronze bed
Of course, this important woman might also need her four-wheeled bronze-sheathed carriage in the afterlife as well as an incense burner, jewelry of amber and ivory, and, touchingly, her bronze bed around which thirty-three figurines, all in various gestures of mourning, were arranged.
Though later periods in Etruscan history are not characterized by such wealth, the Etruscans were, nevertheless, extremely powerful and influential and left a lasting imprint on the city of Rome and other parts of Italy.
Essay by Dr. Laurel Taylor
Want to join the conversation?
- Are the Etruscan burial chamber similar to the Egyptian burial chamber, if so what part, objects, or beliefs are similar?(8 votes)
- When did Rome overthrow the Etruscans?(7 votes)
- It seems to me that they weren't so much overthrown as assimilated or absorbed into Roman culture.(3 votes)
- Why are the Etruscans called etruscans?(2 votes)
- I believe the name Etruscan is from the name the Romans used for this culture, and not the name they themselves used. Interestingly, we still call their region Tuscany.(5 votes)
- hello i have a question i have a project on greek and roman art my piece is a amphora with spiked handles it was made around 700-675 BC I need information on this piece but I am unable to find anything(4 votes)
- Do you have any info on an Etruscan Key? I am planning to mosaic it on the front of my home, and I want to make sure I wasn't casting a spell on my family (haha) or something! Seriously, if the key means something, I'd like to know it. If there is more than one, I'm interested in the one that looks like a diamond pattern if you look closely.(3 votes)
- The "Greek key" or Greek fret refers to the pattern known as the Meander, a continuous line that becomes a repeated motif.(2 votes)
- nice thanks this was helpful for school.(3 votes)
- Ok so this is prety cool and I didn't get half of this?(2 votes)
- From the author:Maybe you should read it again. If there are specific issues that don't make sense, this is a good place to pose questions.(2 votes)
- Thank you so much for your most informative segment on THE ETRUSCANS ~.~(2 votes)
- One of the great things about Khan Academy is the "Tips and Thanks" tab, where comments like yours, when posted there, are seen by the authorities at Khan Academy, who have the job of rewarding people whose work is appreciated by students with things like pay raises and promotions. Help our teachers by posting your thanks there.(2 votes)
- Where did they go? As far as I know, they weren't destroyed or anything by Roman. In fact, the complete opposite actually happened meaning Romans learned Etruscan as it was considered a classical language for them. Even emperors bothered to learn Etruscan... it was THAT honorable.
Suddenly... the language died and so did they for no specific reason.(0 votes)
- For the most part, Romans were not commonly learning to speak the Etruscan language. We know that the Roman emperor Claudius did know Etruscan and wrote a now-lost history of the Etruscans. The Etruscan language, along with its distinct culture, is gradually subsumed into the growing Roman empire and the inhabitants of Etruria become less culturally distinct, at least on a superficial level. This was happening all around the Mediterranean - from the fourth century BCE, many people were adopting a "Hellenisitc" style of living, such that lifeways at the local level become more homogeneous in terms to material culture (objects made and used in daily life). The persistence of local languages is not uncommon, but in the case of the Etruscan language, it gradually died out. The fact that Etruscan is a not an Indo-European language contributed to its decline.(6 votes)
- ummm where is the thing about art the surplus food(1 vote)