BMCR 2005.04.60

Etruscan Dress. Updated edition

, Etruscan dress. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. ix, 261 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 0801874130 $22.00 (pb).

Costume was one of the most important indicators of identity and status in the ancient world, where the rich clothing of the Etruscans certainly distinguished them from their Greek and Italic neighbors, whose accounts alone survive. The mute evidence of artistic representations and rare archaeological finds was shown by Larissa Bonfante, in the original edition of 1975, to provide a wealth of social, technological, and chronological information, much of it surprising to scholars who only knew the literary sources. We friends who importuned the author to see this book restored to print have been rewarded, along with first-time readers, with a fine, affordable paperback version of the 1975 original. The original text is unaltered, but has been updated in a stimulating “Bibliographic Essay” (pp. 213-229). Readers must remember to check both the original set of bibliography and notes and the new references (pp. 222-229); the wide margins will allow them to jot down page references to the supplementary essay.

The basic critiques of the first edition are still applicable; see the reviews by S. Haynes ( Art Bulletin 59, June 1977: 263-265), D. Ridgway ( Antiquity 51, 1977: 166-168), and J.P. Small ( AJA 81, 1977: 254-254). One of the most engaging aspects of the original book was the breadth and depth of the background knowledge shared with readers through cross-references to other cultures and to several ancient languages. These demonstrate the cross-fertilization with other cultures of the Mediterranean and Europe and the survival of Etruscan elements in later costume. It is regrettable that retaining the original text has relegated new tidbits of this tangential information to the final essay (which is not indexed), but the literature has grown so rapidly that references to Greek, Roman and Near Eastern developments by now could fill several more books.1

Costume in art has always been studied as a chronological indicator, but a wealth of recent anthropological and art historical research continues to open perspectives on the symbolism, gender- and social aspects of clothing, as well as the technology, materials and labor issues involved in any society’s process of clothing itself. The study of the survival or revival in medieval/modern times of clothing types from earlier or alien cultures has barely begun to touch upon the wealth of Etruria, as indicated by B.

As shown by Elizabeth Barber’s Prehistoric Textiles, cited by B. (p. 213),2 the study of costume and cloth cannot be separated from language, and this proves especially true for ancient Etruria. Appendix II (pp. 101-104) is a brief summary of the vocabulary of ancient Mediterranean dress and ornament: it is surprising to see how many objects and terms came from Semitic sources, from myrrh and ivory ( elephas) to gold ( chrysos), chiton and sakkos. Even the Romans acknowledged the Etruscan origin of their tunica, laena, lacerna, etc. (They also gave credit for some words that, we now know, are not Etruscan, like balteus, baldric/belt.) See G. Bonfante and L. Bonfante, Etruscan Language (Manchester 2002) 71-73, 186-191, for a bit more on glosses.

The chapters are organized by garment type, analyzed chronologically within each section: fabrics, perizoma and belts, chiton and tunic, mantles, shoes, hats and hairstyles, and finally foreign, local or unusual types. Illustrations from ancient art usually encompass more than one garment, and are grouped in one section at the back. An emblematic photograph heads the margin at the beginning of each chapter: just one of these (p. 11), a terracotta statuette, today poses a potential problem for a naïve reader. This is one of a set of figures of plaid-mantled “mourners” (pp. 158-159 figs. 4-9) once attached to large clay urns that were said to have held cremated human remains and said to be from the region of Chiusi. Examples in Philadelphia and Berlin now have been linked to a phenomenon of forgeries and pastiches that circulated, sometimes replete with “excavation information,” during the late 19th century. This is correctly explained by B., with bibliography, in the new essay (p. 220), but hasty readers might not check there after seeing the illustration.3

At least some of the Etruscans’ distinctive appearance was linked to their environment: in the period ca. 1000-800 BC, Europe and Italy saw a cooler, wetter period that may have prompted intensive use of homespun woolens and tailored clothing (cf. p. 88); by the time Greek fashions were being adopted in the late Archaic and Classical periods, Italy was sunny and warm, and those loose Greek garments were sensible adaptations. If, as the images of the Orientalizing period indicate, real Etruscans did wear plaid (emphasized by B., pp. 12 ff.), might we assume that, as with the Scots to whom she compares them, their plaids may have been read as tartans, indicative of family and regional origins?

In fact, large numbers of Iron Age Italian fibulae have been identified in the Greek international sanctuaries at Delphi, Olympia and Samos, and some are of types associated in Etruria with women. While the Villanovan armor dedicated at these shrines could have been taken as trophies, small items are likely to represent the gifts of Etruscan travelers/pilgrims, and were probably attached to garments when donated — a display of “national costume” as it were.4

It is not always possible to apply hard rules for appraising the reality of costume through the filter of ancient art, since Etruscan artists would sometimes copy directly from an imported object, rather than a life-model. Here, B. maintains a healthy criticism of sources throughout, so the book is eminently suitable for novice and student readers as well as experts. By analyzing clothing, costume and materials, we not only enrich our visual background of Etruscan culture but may trace trends of commerce and social diversity, and also historical paradoxes. The symbolic significance of garments, so important for toga-clad Romans, has deeper origins in the Etruscan Iron Age; the careful portrayal of Greek himation, Etruscan tebenna and Roman toga emphasizes the use of clothing to formally differentiate public and private activities, rulers as compared to citizens, and military in contrast to civilians.5 During the period following the invasion and settling of Gauls in Italy during the 4th century, a sort of military chic appeared, best recognized in Celtic-style torques worn by Etruscan women (p. 78), and probably also in the fashion of bronze “Samnite belts” adapted from the panoply of 5th-4th century Italic warriors (p.165 fig. 26 is actually one of these). While arms and armor are not normally fashion items, they are of intense interest here for the evaluation of Etruscan commerce and social development: several works by Peter F. Stary now provide chronological analysis and illustrations.6 For that matter, nudity as a costume is another field of enquiry, treated at length by B. in other articles — see bibliography p. 225. Sybille Haynes, the expert on the Isis Tomb from Vulci, has maintained that the bronze female bust found there is nude above her belt ( Art Bulletin 59:263), although B. (p. 218 note 31) still seems to disagree.

The archaic Etruscan portrayal of women and goddesses in travel-appropriate calf-length dresses and sturdy boots would have marked a deep social divide between them and their Greek sisters (see p. 89). The adoption/adaptation of Greek styles illustrates a particularly high level of education coupled with the regular and rapid dissemination of news/fashions during the 5th through 3rd centuries B.C. While in Greece women (and goddesses) did adopt Etruscan platform sandals (see below), the sparser uptake of foreign elements there is surely indicative of radically different social conditions.

The customs that accompanied costume or lack thereof can only be imagined for Etruria; we know from ancient literary references to Greek athletics and from modern ethnography that less clothing usually means more constraints on behavior: Greek boys were to sweep the sand after they sat on it so as not to leave imprints of their bottoms, and Third-World tribesmen respect many taboos on physical contact. By analogy, more coverage (sleeves, long robes, layers etc.) could equate to more freedom of movement and social interchange: if this was a response to the increasing urbanization and diversity of Etruscan society (by the late 8th century BC what else can we learn from the phenomenon about the early history of Italy?7 Does the greater amount of tailoring of clothes imply a broader specialization in trades at the same time? Note the number of needles found at 7th-6th century Poggio Civitate (Murlo), which Gleba has interpreted as professional specialization and the deliberate production of surplus garments for commercial export.8

The funerary use at Verucchio, of the only surviving, practically complete woven Etruscan garments (p. 213-215), is evidence of the intensity and complexity of 8th-7th-century social signaling. Some details of patterns in the Verucchio ruler’s lunate cloaks, even when new, could only be seen under close scrutiny, no doubt by another aristocratic weaver able to discern the patterns created by the spin of different threads of the same color. Mantles and other pieces of clothing found folded or displayed in the burials of Verucchio demonstrate that textiles constituted a very important part of a larger funerary ritual.9 They reflected the status and identity of the deceased person and had social significance in life, for there is evidence that these garments had been worn. The recent publication of the textiles found in the 8th-century Tomb 89, a cremation burial of an important man, provided direct confirmation of B.’s descriptions (p. 16). The tomb held not only a spectacular wooden throne with images of cloth-making, but also over 160 textile fragments, two complete mantles and a tunic.10 The mantles are colored brown and red, with decorative borders worked, in blue and purple respectively, by the tablet weaving technique. The mantles, of very fine wool woven in 2/2 twill, are at least 260 cm wide and 70 cm long and apparently conformed to standardized dimensions (compare the Roman toga). Annemarie Stauffer has demonstrated that the warp is the width of each mantle and thus, that the loom on which they were produced must have been very tall, restricting the task to a single worker at a time, and thereby maintaining the exclusive nature of such work. Later cloaks, although still woven to shape, were woven differently, with the warp running length-wise, as demonstrated for the cloak of Aule Metelis.11

From these mantles, the colors of Etruscan clothing, which at the time of the first appearance of Etruscan Dress were known only from later artistic representations (p. 14), can now be reconstructed with much more precision. These textiles must have served as “ceremonial” clothes, with the border’s technique, pattern and color distinguishing them from all others. The Verucchio mantles thus provide the first evidence that bordered mantles did (contra p. 15) have “specialized, symbolic meaning” long before they developed into the Roman bordered mantle types, even though borders would remain common in Etruscan dress for centuries.12 In antiquity, the labor and technique of manufacture would have been perceived as intrinsic parts of the overall significance of clothes.

The Verucchio finds also contribute to our picture of Iron Age exchange currents; one fragmentary cloth is woven in a sumak technique, which is of Near Eastern origin and therefore likely imported.13 Nor do the Verucchio textiles stand alone. A 9th-century boat burial from the Caolino Necropolis at Sasso di Furbara, in coastal southern Etruria, has produced large quantities of cloth fragments analyzed by H. Masurel.14 These textiles, including fishermen’s garments and utilitarian pieces, are also of high quality both technically and aesthetically, illustrate a wide range in terms of fineness and design, and include techniques (e.g. something like terrycloth) not seen in the eastern Mediterranean.

To return to the exchange of fashions across the Mediterranean, on the tyrrhenika (“Etruscan sandals”), more data are now available, but none contradict B.’s concise description (pp. 59-60, 203 fig. 140). It is true that so many Greek women were buried with these hinged, platform-sole sandals that most of the examples in Greece probably were locally-made knock-offs. E. Touloupa illustrates many examples in “‘ Καττύματα τυρρηνικά’ — ‘ Κρηπίδες Ἀττικαί’,” Archaiologikon Deltion 28,1 (1973) 116-137. The pair of genuine tyrrhenika from Vulci now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum are roughly equivalent to an American size 6 Wide; with soles at least 5 cm high, they could be worn only on paved streets (or tiled floors, as yet undocumented in early Etruscan residences), and must have been intended to attract attention by clip-clopping as the wearer walked.15 (Were aristocratic Etruscan girls trained to walk with mincing steps, like Japanese geishas?) Interesting analogies could be made to the platform-shoes of Renaissance Venetian courtesans, but all the Etruscan examples belonged to proper aristocratic matrons. One 19-year old woman whose newborn was buried with her at Norchia wore a pair of tyrrhenika : the soles were made of poplar wood with iron hobnails and leather laces.16

More pedestrian sources have yet to be categorically analyzed for evidence of footwear; for instance, many of the anatomical votive terracottas from sanctuary deposits are molded or painted wearing sandals, and sometimes molds were taken from real feet. On the topic of footwear, reality probably held much more variety than sculpture and painting reveal: the 2nd-century portrait of Larthia Seianti from Chiusi shows her wearing green stockings with her gilded sandals!17 There is still much to be analyzed on the topic of calcei repandi, the pointed-toe shoes that are often linked with import of Ionian Greek fashions to Etruria; as Small noted in her review ( AJA 81: 254), several monuments depicting them, like the Murlo seated acroterial statues, were erected long before the Ionian immigration occurred. (Murlo promises other evidence of shod and bare feet in sets of footprints made by people running for their lives over unfired terracotta tiles on the day the Orientalizing complex was destroyed by fire sometime before 575 B.C.)18

B. offers many intriguing insights: in contrast to the toga, Etruscan men and women of all sorts seem to have worn the tebenna /lunate cloak. Other fashions that were once common for both men and women became the prerogative first only of women, and later, when the style looked archaic, it remained in use for goddesses like Juno Sospita/Lanuvina (p. 88). The haruspex costume, too, deliberately retains elements of perceived archaic days (7th-6th century fibula, sheepskin cloak); it was still worn during the Empire.

Anyone seeking topics for research will find much to consider in Etruscan Dress, and, as B. notes, the Hellenistic period as a whole has yet to be thoroughly analyzed, as does the field of theater and theatrical costumes. There was undoubtedly more complex social information embedded in Etruscan hairstyles: they must have expressed a greater social hierarchy than just long-vs-short to differentiate mistress from slave (cf. pp. 77-79). In fact, the short, wavy, bobbed hairstyles of 4th-century mirrors and painting, like that of the little blonde maidservant in the Tarquinian Tomb of the Shields probably denote personages more important than chattel-slaves.19 (Note that the fan-bearer’s costume is actually very close to that of her mistress, including the same fine red and black boots and linen dress — we are being told that she is not a slave; perhaps she is a distant relation, the daughter of a client, or of another aristocratic family.)

Very minor points: the family name of the founder of the Franois Tomb at Vulci is spelled Vel Saties by most authors, and also by B. herself in The Etruscan Language, but the old spelling Sathies is retained in Etruscan Dress. In 1975, B.’s suggested attributions (pp. 83-84) of some elements to Mycenaean influence were quite plausible, but, although we now have even more evidence of Bronze Age interactions in the Italian archipelago, more weight should probably be assigned to Levantine trade and/or native invention. On flabella /fans (p. 69 note 25): we can trace the use of fans — big ones that can only be wielded by an attendant — into the 8th century BC, in finds from tombs at Veii, Verucchio and elsewhere. This still is in tune with our picture of Levantine traders and technical advisers bringing the trappings of oriental kingship to Italy.20

For its references to Etruscan monuments and ancient literary passages, as much as for the compendium of costumes, Etruscan Dress is a mine of images, references and nuggets of information, in addition to a well-reasoned, critical analysis of dress as an index to the society and chronology of ancient Etruria. B. has introduced us to the complexity and sophistication of Etruscan dress, and this book will remain the anchor for years of future research in all directions.


1. Readers researching parallels, both material and social, to Etruscan costumes will want to consult the many new works on Aegean, Greek and other costumes. G. Vogelsang-Eastwood, Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing (Leiden 1993) is a thorough survey by garment type (cf. pp. 10-71, for background to B.’s chap. 2 on the perizoma.) Also, pls. 31-32 illustrate a bead-net dress comparable to those that survived as disarticulated beads found in the Osteria dell’Osa and Vulci-Isis Tomb female burials (B. pp. 213, 218). For Classical costume, see Ll. Llewellyn-Jones, ed., Women’s Dress in the Ancient Greek World (London 2002); and idem, Aphrodite’s Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece (Swansea 2003). A. Pekridou-Gorecki, Mode im antiken Griechenland. Textile Fertigung und Kleidung (Munich 1989) collects literary references. Critical approaches include: L. Foxhall and K. Stears, “Redressing the Balance: Dedications of Clothing to Artemis and the Order of Life Stages,” in M. Donald and L. Hurcombe, eds., Gender and material culture in historical perspective (New York 2000) pp. 3-16; Mireille M. Lee, “The Peplos and the ‘Dorian Question'” in A.A. Donohue and M.D. Fullerton, eds., Ancient Art and its Historiography (Cambridge 2003) 118-147; also “Constru(ct)ing Gender in the Feminine Greek Peplos,” in M. Harlow and Ll. Llewellyn-Jones, eds., The Dressed Body (forthcoming, Oxbow 2005); and “Deciphering Gender in Minoan Dress,” in A.E. Rautman, ed., Reading the Body: representations and remains in the archaeological record (Philadelphia 2000) 111-123. We thank Mireille Lee for advance bibliographic references.

2. Barber again made masterful connections between words, foodstuffs / materia medica (including soma) and textiles in her Mummies of Ürümchi (New York 1999); taken with her Women’s Work (1994), also cited by B., these works are essential background for Mediterranean archaeology and Sittengeschichte.

3. Some have been exposed by thermoluminescence testing, see P.G. Warden in IFAR (International Foundation for Art Research) Journal vol. 5 no. 4 (2002-03) 36-42 (this amends the reference of B., p. 229). The use of two-piece molds and the irrationality of the stamped plaid patterns also indicate that they are not ancient (JMT).

4. No textiles have survived to prove this, however. For Etruscan accessories in Greek sanctuaries, see A. Naso, “Etruscan and Italic artifacts from the Aegean,” in D. Ridgway et al., eds., Ancient Italy in Its Mediterranean Setting. Studies in Honor of Ellen Macnamara (Accordia Specialist Studies on the Mediterranean 4. London 193-207. 2001), and F.-W. von Hase, “Presences étrusques et italiques dans les sanctuaires grecs, VIIIe-VIIe siècle av.J.C.,” in F. Gaultier and D. Briquel, eds., Les Étrusques, Les plus religieux des hommes (XIIes Rencontres de l’École du Louvre. Paris 1997) 293-323.

5. Further confirmation comes from terracotta votive figures, such as busts of little boys wearing the toga, dedicated ca. 200 B.C. at Tessennano and Lucera, interpreted by Martin Söderlind ( Late Etruscan Votive Heads from Tessennano [Rome 2002] 187-191, 381) as the deliberate commissions of Roman colonists intended to emphasize their ethnic identity.

6. As if in reply to D. Ridgway’s call ( Antiquity 51: 168): P.F. Stary, Zur eisenzeitlichen Bewaffnung und Kampfesweise in Mittelitalien ca. 9. bis 6. Jh. V. Chr. (Marburger Studien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte 3. Mainz/Rhein 1981); and “Early Iron Age armament and warfare. Near Eastern influences from the Aegean via Etruria to Andalucia,” in D. Ridgway et al., eds., Ancient Italy in Its Mediterranean Setting. Studies in Honor of Ellen Macnamara (Accordia Specialist Studies on the Mediterranean 4. London 2001) 209-220, with further references.

7. The sarcophagus of Ramtha Visnai of Vulci, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, shows her wearing a long-sleeved nightgown in the marriage bed, in contrast to her original funerary portrait (used for the burial of son and daughter-in-law) in which husband and wife are both nude beneath his cloak. Illustration: S. Haynes, Etruscan Civilization (Los Angeles 2000) 288 fig. 232a; L.B. van der Meer, Myths and More on Etruscan Stone Sarcophagi (ca. 350-c. 200 B.C.) (Louvain 2004) 71-74.

8. M. Gleba, “Textile Production at Poggio Civitate Murlo in the 7th c. B.C.,” in D. Cardon, and M. Feugère, eds., Archéologie des textiles des origines au Ve siècle (Actes du colloque de Lattes, Oct. 1999. Montpellier 2000) 77-81.

9. In the recent publication of tombs excavated in the Rocca Malatestina Necropolis, G.V. Gentili, Verucchio Villanoviana. Il sepolcreto in località Le Pegge e la necropoli al piede dellla Rocca Malatestiana ( Monumenti Antichi VI. Rome 2003), reports that traces or actual textiles have been found in sixteen tombs.

10. A. Stauffer, “I tessuti,” in P. von Eles, ed., Guerriero e sacerdote. Autorità e comunità nell’età del ferro a Verucchio. La Tomba del Trono (Florence 2002) 192-220; and L. Rder Knudsen, “La tessitura con le tavolette nella tomba 89,” ibid., 220-234. Textiles from other Verucchio tombs are currently being studied by Stauffer. The cremation process sometimes preserves textiles by charring and hardening them against further decomposition: their form may be studied although their chemical composition may have been altered.

11. See H. Granger-Taylor, “Weaving Clothes to Shape in the Ancient World: The Tunic and Toga of the Arringatore,” Textile History 13,1 (1982) 3-25.

12. The purple border of the Roman toga praetexta, the descendant of the Verucchio mantles, was also woven into the garment — a technique that was labor-intensive but nowhere near as extravagant as in the case of our Iron Age examples.

13. Stauffer (see note 10) 2002:213. What did Adriatic Italy offer to the 8th-7th-century traders/diplomats?

14. H. Masurel, “Les vestiges textiles retrouvés dans l’embarkation,” Origini 11 (1977-82) 381-414; L. Mamez and H. Masurel, “Étude complémentaire des vestiges textiles trouvés dans l’embarcation de la nécropole du Caolino à Sasso di Furbara”, Origini 14 (1992) 295-310.

15. J. M. Turfa, Catalogue of the Etruscan Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Philadelphia 2005) 163-165 no. 143.

16.G. Barbieri and M.J. Becker, “Tomba della donna con i sandali,” Notizie degli Scavi 1996-97: 343-355, 347 fig. 26 (ca. 275-250 B.C.) Unlike those described by Pollux (7.22, 92f), the straps were not gilded.

17. The catalogue description of M. D. Gentili, I sarcophagi etruschi in terracotta di età recente (Rome 1994) 66 no. A66 does not note this detail, which is signaled by J. Swaddling in J. Swaddling and J. Prag, Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa. The Story of an Etruscan Noblewoman (London 2002) 5 (see BMCR 2005.01.03).

18. The footprints have only been preliminarily published by E. Nielsen, “Preliminary Thoughts on Old and New Terracottas,” Opuscula Romana 16 (1987) 91-119, barefoot prints illustrated 93 figs. 5-7. On the dating of the early complex at Murlo, see J. Berkin, The Orientalizing Bucchero from the Lower Building at Poggio Civitate (Murlo) (Philadelphia 2003) 25-26.

19. For illustrations: S. Haynes, Etruscan Civilization 310 fig. 249; S. Steingräber, ed., Etruscan Painting. Catalogue Raisonné of Etruscan Wall Paintings (English eds. D. Ridgway and F. R. Serra Ridgway, New York 1986) pl. 146.

20. See P. Guldager Bilde, “Ritual and power: the fan as a sign of rank in central Italian society,” ARID 22 (1994) 7-34. For early versions and social/commercial aspects, see: A. Bedini, “Abitato protostorico in località Acqua Acetosa Laurentina,” in M. R. Di Mino and M. Bertinetti, eds., Archeologia a Roma. La materiale e la tecnica nell’arte antica (Rome 1990) 48-64; pl. XXV no. 20; also G. Bartoloni, F. Delpino, C. Morigi Govi, and G. Sassatelli, eds., Principi etruschi tra Mediterraneo ed Europa (Bologna 2000) 242-243 nos. 282-284 (Verucchio). A fan from Narce tomb 19M (ca. 680 B.C.) is so large that it must have been carried by an attendant: Turfa (see note 15): 123-124 no. 67.