BMCR 2005.02.08

The Etruscans. Art, Architecture and History

, , , , The Etruscans : art, architecture, and history. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 143 pages : illustrations (chiefly color), maps (some color) ; 21 cm. ISBN 0892367539 $19.95.

In this volume (first published in Milan in 2003), Federica Borrelli and Maria Cristina Targia lead us — from an artistic and archeological perspective — into the largely forgotten world of the Etruscan society. From its title it is possible to perceive the holistic, comprehensive perspective of this work, which is basically an art book. The subtitle, “Art, architecture and history”, perhaps suggests that these three disciplines are granted a similar weight, but the volume focuses particularly on the artistic manifestations and decides to leave aside a deeper introspection into the Etruscans’ historical development. It is essentially a very complete collection of pictures that contains a briefly comment on different aspects of the Etruscan life framed by hundreds of photographs that depict the character of this particular community.

Without a doubt, this book is very welcome, particularly if we consider how scattered and relatively infrequent are the papers on this fascinating culture. The Etruscans are a mysterious civilization, whom we know primarily through their legacy to other great societies, such as the Romans. Their history is mostly derived from architectural remains, paintings and pottery. Even their origins are filled with conjectures: Herodotus’ theory makes them a foreign people, while Dionysius Halikarnassos considers them autochthonous, but little is known for sure and there are rather scarce evidence to prove their accuracy.

The book is divided in four parts that correspond to four historical periods (the orientalizing period, the archaic period, the classical period and Hellenism and Romanization). Each of these sections includes three great inner divisions that go through the structure of the whole volume: masterpieces of art, art and architecture and historical and artistic background. A different color is given to each of these divisions so it is possible to skim through each segment and find quite easily the information that is looked for. The aim of this design, as the “Browsing guide” itself declares, is to allow each reader to choose freely how and in what order to look through the pages.

Presentation of images is one of the best points of the book. These are lively, varied and accompanied with a brief explanation, which, though sufficient for amateur readers, might prove to be a little scanty for the scholar. Most of the essential Etruscan masterpieces are included, and it is always useful and refreshing to find them all in one place. From the orientalizing period, it is worth mentioning the ivory chalice and the silver gilt Lebes (both 675 BC from the Barberini tomb in Palestrina), along with grave goods that belong to women’s daily life and hundreds of items in gold, ivory, stone, bronze and images of the ancestors, a tradition that survived in archaic Rome. In addition, a whole section is dedicated to objects containing inscriptions in Etruscan, which turn out to be extremely important, particularly if we consider that their language is only known through sporadic words cited in Greek and Latin authors. Concerning the archaic period, we should highlight the architectural challenges materialized in wonderful palaces and temples and the funerary creations such as the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple and the painted tombs of Tarquinia. In the Classical Period, during which the Greek influence was even more important, we find the Pyrgi tablets, an essential element for the advancement in the study of the Etruscan language. These gold sheets, written in both Etruscan and Phoenician, which even if not a literal translation, allow deciphering through comparison with an already known language. Finally, the reader will come across the Hellenistic influence and the Roman conquest of Veii that was the first blow to Etruscan hegemony.

The last pages are dedicated to a set of appendixes, which are varied and useful for the reader who wants to dig deeper into other aspects of the subject: a map of the Etruscans in pre-Roman Italy, a glossary of proper names, a list of the Etruscan art in the world and another of the Etruscan archaeological sites.

To summarize, it is a good book though limited in some aspects and a little elementary for certain readers. However, it turns out well-documented and quite interesting for those who are beginning their study of Etruscan society.