BMCR 2005.02.11

Discs of Splendor. The Relief Mirrors of the Etruscans

Alexandra Ann Carpino, Discs of splendor : the relief mirrors of the Etruscans. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. xvii, 156 pages, 120 pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0299189902 $45.00.

The relief mirrors of the Etruscans are some of the most extraordinary objects to survive from the ancient world. Their technical and aesthetic virtuosity places them in a unique position within ancient art, so it is surprising that until now this class of object has received no extensive treatment. This book is the first comprehensive catalogue of these objects. It presents sixteen mirrors in total (including six dubitanda), arranged chronologically, with rich illustrations and comparanda. The focus of the work is on this narrow group of objects, but the discussion ranges widely and makes the book of interest to more than the specialist alone.

The book is the written-up version of Carpino’s PhD thesis, submitted to the University of Iowa in 1993. After a brief general introduction to Etruscan mirrors, there follow four chapters, on the fifth-, fourth- and third- century mirrors, and on the dubitanda. Each mirror entry contains a select bibliography, a description of the current state of the mirror, measurements, chemical composition (where available), a description of the decoration of the obverse and reverse, and discussions of style and date, workshop, and iconography. This is followed by a conclusion, which draws together the themes that unite the mirrors, and four useful appendices.

Relief mirrors are bronze hand-mirrors that have been decorated with relief work rather than the more common, two-dimensional, engraving. The subjects chosen for this decoration derive from the repertoire of Greek myth. Their manufacture began in the early fifth century BC and they are unique to Etruria. Their level of craftsmanship is exceptionally high, and this combined with their weight (they are consistently heavier than engraved mirrors) suggests that their role as markers of their owners’ status was at least as important as their utilitarian function.

In the detailed discussions of iconography and comparanda that accompany each mirror, C. raises a number of interesting recurrent issues, including:

1) Emphasis on three-dimensionality

As already mentioned, this is the first comprehensive collection of relief mirrors, and as a result, the volume serves to emphasise for the first time the three-dimensional qualities of these objects (e.g. p. 11, 18). This allows us to question the complex relationship between the formal qualities of the mirror and the meanings generated by the scenes: could it be mere coincidence that in the representation of Hercle (Herakles), the ancient strong-man and super-hero, it is his torso and legs that are presented in high relief, “where muscles bulge considerably” (p. 11)? The acknowledgement of the three-dimensional qualities of these mirrors is lacking in other discussions, which, often based on reproductions of the scenes rather than first-hand examination, concentrate on the iconography alone.

2) Artefacts resulting from cross-cultural contact

C. takes the combination of Greek and Etruscan elements in the mirrors as indications of the Etruscan use of foreign mythical elements for their own purposes. This (post-colonial) theoretical position is not explored explicitly in the book but is a recurrent theme in the treatment of the mirrors (e.g. p. 6, 13, 21, 42, 86, 92). C. dismisses the notion that the manipulation and alteration of the Greek prototype is the result of Etruscan incompetence or ignorance; instead, she argues persuasively for the deliberate re-contextualisation of Greek elements to suit Etruscan needs. A parallel realignment of Greek iconography to Etruscan needs has been put forward by de Angelis ( Ostraka 11.1 (2001): 37-73).

3) Identification of figures

Much of the discussion of the iconography of each mirror rests on the identification of the figures represented. While indirectly raising the problems and pitfalls of identification in her extensive discussions, C. never confronts them explicitly (cf. the Introduction to Goldhill and Osborne (eds.) (1994) Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture). Her discussion of the so-called Mlacuch mirror in the British Museum exemplifies this. The eponymous female figure is named in an inscription on the mirror; however, this is the only attestation of the name, and we are otherwise at a loss as to her significance. At first, C. is wary of interpreting the scene too closely, and she proposes a very convincing reading of general beauty, not dissimilar to the kalos inscriptions known from Greek vases (pp. 13-14). However, she then goes on to contest whether the scene shows abduction, and it is here that she runs into most difficulty. Key to her case is whether or not Mlacuch can be said to be struggling in Hercle’s arms, an interpretative issue that has been problematised in the similar case of the depiction of satyrs and maenads in Greek art (Goldhill and Osborne op. cit.). C. is far more convincing when she moves away from the ambiguous representation in the mirror to more general comparative material in her argument that the scene shows rescue rather than abduction (pp. 15-16).

4) Multiplicity of meaning and function

Throughout the book, it is C.’s more general interpretations that are the most convincing. Overall, C. refuses to pin her identifications down to a single meaning, and she acknowledges the diversity of resonances and perspectives that such images can conjure. Again, her method is never discussed explicitly (cf. e.g. Elsner (1995) Art and the Roman Viewer). However, it is implemented most effectively. She acknowledges the associations or allusions that mythical figures can carry from one context to another (e.g. pp. 24, 54) and allows different viewpoints within the scene to lead her to different readings (e.g. p. 58). The same openness is evident in C.’s assignment of function to the mirrors: she is at pains throughout to stress the funerary context of the mirrors, while simultaneously emphasising the personal, political and cultural functions such objects would have had.

Any problems with the book lie largely at the door of the press. The book is not easy to handle: references are in end notes in Harvard style, so that in order to find them, the reader must go from the text to the notes and then to the bibliography. This in itself is not, sadly, unusual, though when combined with plates in two sections (colour and Black and White), which are not numbered independently but in a single sequence (so that colour plate 1 is followed directly by colour plate 26 etc.), the reader needs more than two hands to read the book comfortably. Though the volume is exceptionally well illustrated, one major omission is a line drawing of mirror number 3, whose colour plate is murky, and for which a reproduction of Klügmann and Körter’s V. 142 would have sufficed (see also no. 5, 12). Finally, there is considerable confusion on pp. 46-7 in references to plates.

However, these are minor quibbles, which should neither detract from the usefulness of the volume, nor obscure the importance of the issues it raises for the study of Etruscan mirrors. In addition, because of the particularly acute problems of identification and meaning raised by these objects in their combination of Greek and Etruscan they provide a useful test-bed for the debates in the field of ancient art more widely.