Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.29

Francesco De Angelis, Miti greci in tombe etrusche : le urne cinerarie di Chiusi. Monumenti antichi. Serie monografica, 8.   Roma:  Giorgio Bretschneider, 2015.  Pp. 455; 182 p. of plates.  ISBN 9788876892905.  €395,00 (hb).  


Reviewed by Lisa C. Pieraccini, The University of California, Berkeley (lisap@berkeley.edu)

Miti greci: le urne cinerarie di Chiusi offers the best, most up-to-date and well researched assessment of Chiusine stone relief cinerary urns yet produced. The decorative containers represent a class of objects analyzed in several publications from the last century dedicated to various aspects of their décor, use and function—but only now have these stone (predominately alabaster) urns been fully assessed through detailed analyses and keen observations about the historical and social contexts of their production. There is much to celebrate in what De Angelis brings to the forefront in his tome, including a fresh theoretical approach applied to the visual rhetoric of the decorative programs (both conventional and obscure) that adorn this class of monuments.

Miti greci is dedicated to relief urns from a specific place—Chiusi—and time—the third to second centuries BCE. The center of the author’s discourse, as stated in the title, are Greek myths and their significant role as visual language on the objects that served as the final resting place for the ashes of their patrons. In the Preface, De Angelis sets out his two fundamental objectives: first, to examine, through the lens of the urns, the artistic dynamics of the third and second centuries BCE, and second, to look at the function of the images as they relate to an individual, a community and Etruscan culture as a whole. The intricate minutiae of the ever-challenging reading of these “Etruscanized” myths is at the heart of De Angelis’ inquiry and analysis. He addresses the relationship between the Etruscans and Greek myths by looking at how the Etruscans negotiate Greek myth into an Etruscan funerary context. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the urns where the Etruscan appropriation of Greek myth is often made into an Etruscan narrative (even if simply by inserting Etruscan Underworld guides such as Vanth or Charun into the composition). De Angelis thus engages in a broad and delicate conversation about myth and cultural identity, fleshing out the discourse with historical context.

The book opens with a brief Introduction (Introduzione, urne, miti e identità culturale) that provides background information about Etruscan urns, myths and cultural identity from the Hellenistic period in Chiusi, Volterra and Perugia, and sets the stage for a deeper dialogue that reflects the heart of De Angelis’ argument and prepares the reader for the following two chapters (Chapter I, Le urne etrusche e la tradizione iconografica del mito; Chapter II, Le urne Chiusine: cronologia e contesto storico). The Introduction also frames the period under consideration—a time when Etruria had already been engaging for centuries with Greek myths as “cultural products” (p. 55) even as they were losing their cultural “identity” to the ever-increasing power that was Rome. Chapter I explores the Greek myths as they are envisioned, formed and executed on Chiusine urns, and here De Angelis supplies a rich assortment of comparanda for his visual comparisons (e.g. bronze mirrors, terracotta relief sculptures, painted vases, and stone sarcophagi). As for the “Etruscan-ness” of Greek myths, the iconography of the urns from Hellenistic Chiusi reveals much about the funerary beliefs and anxieties of the city’s inhabitants. With respect to the issue of the reliefs as expressions of identity, De Angelis argues for a consideration of the concept within the framework of a broader – that is, “globalized” – Mediterranean koine (p. 102). Analyzing iconography makes sense only when we realize the “fluidity and elasticity” of the how Etruscans used Greek myths in their funerary iconography (p. 102). De Angelis’ analysis of how the Etruscans used Greek myths in Hellenistic Chiusi moves beyond object analysis towards fluent visual literacy.

Chapter II is dedicated exclusively to the chronology and historical context of Chiusine urns, along with stylistic groupings. We learn that even though the number of urns is probably greater at Volterra than at Chiusi, the workshops at the latter produced receptacles with a more complex visual palette and rich inscriptions, elements that add more depth to our understanding of the leading Chiusine families and their intricate social relations (p. 103). In the second half of the third century BCE these urns were produced in extraordinary numbers – a clear sign that there was an “artisanal koine,” as De Angelis explains (p. 147). It is not surprising that the early stylistic impulse for the scenes came directly from southern Etruria (p. 146), while towards the end of their production Roman influences began to take hold. But De Angelis goes beyond Etruria and Rome in discussing stylistic engagement when he looks at the metopes of Taranto in Magna Graecia as a source for stylistic comparanda, citing one of the “last connections in the long history of southern Italy and Etruria” (p. 148). Exposing this network of artistic exchange (beyond Etruria and Rome) makes this contribution to the field of Etruscan funerary art all the more valuable.

Chapters III-VI focus on the stock narratives of Greek myths, such as battles (Le scene di battaglia) which make up a large part of the imagery, brotherly conflict and friendship (Conflitti tra fratelli e amicizia fraterna), youth at risk (La giovanezza a rischio), and family, power and other themes (La famiglia, il potere e altri temi sulle urne Chiusine). This useful grouping is beneficial both for the features examined on the urns and also for the comparanda cited by De Angelis, among them themes painted on the walls of the François Tomb at Vulci which also appear on the Chiusine urns. The Theban fratricide of Polynices and Eteocles (included in the François Tomb), for instance, was a very popular motif on Chiusine urns for over a century. Such examples not only help illustrate the rich artistic exchanges that occurred within Etruscan city states, but also, as De Angelis has noted, the strong northward movement of artistic impulses from southern Etruria, especially Vulci.

The concluding chapter, the tour de force of the book, dives into the relationship between the mythic images and the culture which produced them. It looks at the aristocratic ideology of Chiusi from the third to second centuries BCE and the themes of battles, brotherly conflict and friendship, youth at risk, the hunt, and violation of sacred space within a broader context (i.e., by looking at Hellenistic Chiusi and the role these decorative funerary urns held in Chiusine society). De Angelis also explores how these urns collectively expressed pathos, emotions and sentiments (p. 302), all vital aspects of Etruscan funerary art.

The Conclusion is followed by a comprehensive Index (Schede) where each Chiusine urn is grouped within the iconographic divisions laid out in the book. Each urn is listed with vital information such as material, provenience, location (often urns and lids are not in the same place today), measurements, description, date and a full bibliography with a list of published illustrations, all of which is very helpful. The format of the work as a whole is tightly organized, with a vast bibliography and many very clear black and white photos as well as line drawings of mirrors and urns, in addition to some color photos at the end.

With all the detailed analysis that De Angelis brings forth, this book will be a template for future studies on Etruscan funerary art in general and other aspects of Chiusine urns, such as comparing the Etruscans featured on the lids with the iconography and inscriptional evidence below. Likewise, looking at the Etruscan inserts, such as Vanth and Charu, in the Greek myths certainly promises a rich understanding of how the Etruscans made Greek myths work in their own funerary narratives. All in all, the weight of the book, not just literally (it is very large), but also metaphorically, is considerable. To be sure, De Angelis has filled a significant gap in Chiusine history, art and culture and for this alone the book should be celebrated. The considerable cost of the book makes it predominantly available to libraries and research institutes –the investment will be worthwhile. There are few tomes that offer such depth and scope as Miti greci in tombe etrusche—De Angelis raises the bar in the study of Etruscan funerary art for years to come.

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