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Sarcophagus of the Spouses (Rome)

Sarcophagus of the Spouses (or Sarcophagus with Reclining Couple), from the Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy, c. 520 B.C.E., painted terracotta, 3 feet 9 1/2 inches x 6 feet 7 inches (Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the Etruscan Museum in Rome and we're looking at one of the most important objects ever found in an Etruscan tomb and there were a lot of Etruscan tombs. - [Voiceover] Well this is the primary way we know about Etruscan culture. They left us no literature, no history. But we have a lot of their artwork, which is found in tombs and a lot of those have inscriptions. - [Voiceover] This is the Sarcophagus of the Spouses. There were two well known versions of this: One is in Paris at the Louvre and the other is here in Rome. So this is a large ceramic container and the two figures are essentially a lid that can be lifted off. - [Voiceover] The Etruscans occupied the area of Northern Italy and it's an interesting time because at the same moment there are Romans who are occupying the city of Rome and south of that there are Greek colonies. - [Voiceover] But the Romans were not yet Rome as we know it. They were just beginning and in fact they were ruled by Etruscan kings. - [Voiceover] Right and it wasn't until 509 that the Romans ousted the last Etruscan king. And this dates from slightly earlier than that. - [Voiceover] So let's look at the couple. - [Voiceover] Well they're incredibly life-like and this is surprising because when we think about ancient Greek sculpture from this time, we might think of the Kouros figures, which are very stiff, where the limbs are very close to the body. And here immediately we notice the figures moving out into our space, extending their arms. - [Voiceover] The figures represented in archaic Greek art are also separate. You think of the male Kouros figure or the female Kore. Those are free-standing figures that stand alone and here we have two figures that embrace, that lie next to each other, where there's a tremendous sense of intimacy. - [Voiceover] In ancient Greek culture there are no monumental tombs like the ones we find in Etruscan culture. There are similarities and there are differences between these two cultures that are closely communicating with one another. - [Voiceover] One of the most important differences is that this is made in terracotta, that is this is clay. Whereas the Greeks preferred mostly marble, but increasingly would work in bronze. This would've been modeled as a complete object and then most likely when it had begun to dry, what potters call the leather-hard stage, it's likely that the artist would've burnished the object, that is smoothed it with a hard surface to create a glossy sheen. Then it would have been cut in half, likely because the object is so large, it might not have fit in the kiln. And so this would've been fired in four pieces: both the lid and the base, on both sides. - [Voiceover] So we mention the way that the figures' arms are outstretched and the way the figures move into our space. Likely they were holding objects relating to a banquet. We see banqueting scenes often on the walls in frescoes in Etruscan tombs. - [Voiceover] Or as some art historians have conjectured, it's possible the women was holding a perfume bottle. It's also possible that one of the figures was holding a pomegranate, which is a symbol of the eternal. - [Voiceover] There is a sense of sociability here and it might remind us of scenes we see on Greek pottery, of figures at a banquet, the symposium. And when we see that in Greek pottery, those are male figures. But here we have a couple: He's got his arm around her. But we're not supposed to see these as portraits; this is not the way this man and women look. But instead, like the archaic smile, we have features that are stylized. - [Voiceover] These are clearly not rendered from the observation of a model. So we have found literally thousands of Etruscan tombs. - [Voiceover] This was found in a necropolis, that is a cemetery called Banditaccia, at Cerveteri. - [Voiceover] This was one of the principle cities of the Etruscans. - [Voiceover] It was found, broken into 400 pieces, and reassembled. And you can see when you look closely which pieces have been filled in by conservators and which pieces are original to the sculpture. - [Voiceover] And if you look closely you can see the discs of the pupils are hollows and it's likely that something was originally inlaid there. It's really quite extraordinary how lucky we are to have such an intact object. (light piano music)