BMCR 1994.04.13

1994.04.13, Nicholls, Corpus Speculorum Etruscorum

, , , , , Corpus speculorum Etruscorum. Great Britain.. Cambridge: British Museum Press, 1993-2001. volumes 1-2 : illustrations ; 34 cm. ISBN 9780521433808. $95.00.

The words written by Sir John Beazley to describe the realm of the Etruscan mirror can aptly be applied to collections of such objects the world over: “… great variety of subject and style. There is much repetition, but much also that is individual, and in our experience unique; great difference of quality, but not a little beauty. Where there is no beauty, there is at least information to be had.”1 In this corpus of Etruscan mirrors in Cambridge, England one finds subjects ranging from a single Lasa to a multi-figured Judgment of Paris, variations in style from “skilful and sensitive” to “particularly gross”, two unusual images of Herakles with a horse, as well as highly individualized engraving on the part of the newly named Lewis Master, whose name-piece may tell us something about oracular practices in ancient Praeneste.

This second corpus in the British series (the first for London is not yet published) contains twenty bronze hand-mirrors, two lidded folding mirrors, two bronze and two bone handles. They are conveniently brought together in this volume, although in actuality they are dispersed among four University collections in Cambridge: Corpus Christi College, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the Museum of Classical Archaeology. As in all corpora in this series (abbreviated CSE) which began publication in 1981, the mirrors here are reproduced on a 1:1 scale in both black-and-white photographs and drawings. The drawings also provide a cross-section, and an arrow showing the location where the samples were taken for metallurgical analysis. A handy diagram (p. 7) shows the English terms used in describing different parts of the mirrors and their edge profiles.

The most interesting mirrors are those bequeathed to Corpus Christi in 1891 by the fellow and librarian of the college, Samuel Lewis. Two engraved mirrors show different versions of Herakles with a horse, a theme rare in classical art since the hero is usually shown as a pedestrian. On the first example (no. 1) a youth labeled Herkle is riding a horse which is not winged but is labeled Pakste, a term taken to be a variant of the more usual Etruscan name for Pegasos, Pecse. On the second (no. 5) Herakles, identifiable by his attributes scattered on the ground (lionskin, club, bow and arrow) restrains a winged stallion which is not labeled. Contrary to inscriptional and iconographical evidence, N. takes the horse in both instances to be Areion, the offspring of Poseidon and Demeter which was eventually given by Herakles to Adrastos who escaped on it when his comrades were killed in the attack of the Seven against Thebes. These mirrors demonstrate how the Etruscans could be somewhat cavalier with names and attributes, especially wings which can even appear on the goddess Athena.

One of the handsomest mirrors in the Corpus Christi collection (no. 4) shows the popular motif of the Judgment of Paris. Here the deck is definitely stacked in favor of Turan (Aphrodite) who dominates the center in full frontal nudity, with her attendant Lasa hovering above, and a pudgy Eros playing with a dove below. The fully dressed Uni (Hera) and Menrva (Athena) do not stand a chance against this goddess and her entourage. Another engraved and fully inscribed mirror (no. 6) shows embracing lovers ( Mexio and Fasia) flanked by a nude woman and a handmaid labeled Acila (= ancilla). Since the maidservant with a mirror is a stock type, the scene has usually been taken to be one from contemporary Praenestine life, and the long inscription at the left, a dedication of one Iunios Setios to Ceisia Loucilia. N. offers another suggestion, namely that the nude woman is Ceisia Loucilia, and that she is telling the fates ( fata in the inscription) of the lovers, along with the maid who, with her mirror, might be practicing some form of cathreptomancy. The lapdog-like animal perched on a plinth in the background then becomes, in N.’s scenario, a sacrificial victim for Hekate. N.’s attempt to interpret a problematical inscription results in a somewhat contrived reading of the visual evidence, but this mirror, the name-piece of the Lewis Master, does present interesting, and as yet unsolved, challenges.

One of the more intriguing mirrors at Corpus Christi is the folding mirror with relief decoration (no. 3) or klappspiegel, a type usually associated with fourth-century Greece. The Etruscans began to produce this type of mirror at the end of the fourth century, but used a matrix for shaping the bronze sheets unlike the Greeks who hammered it freehand. Thus one often finds duplicates among the extant Etruscan examples. The Corpus Christi example, for instance, is one of sixteen which bear identical applique decoration consisting of Dionysos leaning on Eros accompanied by a Muse playing the kithara. This “mixed” thiasos, which is clearly modeled on scenes of the unsteady god of wine in the company of satyrs, brings in extraneous elements which properly belong with other deities, namely Aphrodite and Apollo. N. sees the combination as symbolic of love, music and wine, and the garlanded figures as allusions to the Bacchanalia, “a suitable subject for a lady’s mirror because of the leading role played by women in these rites” (p. 18). Surprisingly this mirror, and another like it now in Marseilles, are said to be from Corinth. N. explains this unusual provenance by suggesting that they were Etruscan imports buried in Corinthian graves before the city’s destruction in 146 BC, or, less likely it seems to me, they were heirlooms brought by Roman colonists in 44 BC.

Mirrors in the Fitzwilliam Museum reflect the Etruscans’ predilection for the Theban cycle and the Odyssey. One from Vulci (no. 8) shows three of the famous Seven (Adrastos, Tydeus and Amphiaraos) in consultation, the last with his hand to his mouth as if foreseeing the tragic outcome. This mirror was once in the collection of the great topographer of ancient Greece, William Martin Leake (1777-1860). A highly classicizing mirror with a double palmette border (no. 11) shows Odysseus and Elpenor threatening a seated Circe, her hands raised in a gesture of helplessness. Although the figures are not labeled, we know them from an inscribed version of the same scene on the earliest recorded Etruscan mirror, discovered in a tomb in Tuscany in 1507 and illustrated in the Codex Pighianus in Tübingen. 2

Forgeries of Etruscan art are notorious, and mirrors are no exception. The authenticity of two of the Fitzwilliam’s mirrors (nos 13 and 14) is suspected and the evidence pro and con is openly presented in this corpus, alas with no definitive conclusions. The rare type of mirror with solid cast relief figures apparently could not have been replicated in antiquity, but as N. states, “modern forgers have sometimes attempted to make good the omission” (p. 35). This lead relief with Apollo, Zeus and Hermes (no. 13) belongs to a series of nineteenth-century fakes produced in Italy of which five other replicas are known. The high lead content and the fact that the engraving fails to fill the disc’s entire surface strongly indicate that no. 14 is also a modern forgery.

The mirrors in the other museums at Cambridge, many of which are undecorated, are of less interest, but nonetheless receive the same meticulous documentation of shape, technique, decoration, style and date accorded every object in this corpus. Since the chronology of Etruscan mirrors is still not well established, the author shuns dates in favor of terms like “Early Hellenistic”, a practice which will prove frustrating to the reader seeking a specific date. The price is high but the uniformly excellent quality of the printing and reproductions justifies the cost. The volume does honor to that pioneering scholar of Etruscan mirrors Eduard Gerhard, who incidently once owned one of the mirrors now in the Fitzwilliam (no. 8).

  • [1] J. D. Beazley, “The World of the Etruscan Mirror,”JHS 69 (1949) 17. [2] See N. T. de Grummond, ed., A Guide to Etruscan Mirrors (Tallahassee, 1982) 1 and fig. 1.