The Etruscan city of Veii plays a central role in the history of ancient Italy, and its foremost temple, the so-called Portonaccio temple, figures prominently in most books on ancient Etruscan art and architecture. In addition to the architectural remains of the temple, often used as an example of the plan of a ‘canonical’ Etruscan temple, a group of large terracotta ridgepole sculptures depicting Apollo, Herakles, Hermes, and other deities illustrates the Etruscan excellence in this art form and an interest in Greek-related mythology.
Today the terracotta statue of Apollo and some of the other finds from the Portonaccio temple greet the visitor in one of the rooms of the Villa Giulia museum in Rome. To fully understand the majesty of these statues, one should consult the first publication by G. Q. Giglioli in Notizie degli Scavi for 1916 which illustrates their extraordinary discovery, re-emerging as it were from the pit where they had been buried, standing upright.
The exploration of the area of the altar at the Portonaccio temple was no less dramatic. As a young Inspector of the Soprintendenza alle Antichità di Roma, Massimo Pallottino conducted excavations here in 1939 and 1940 and presented the results at the Sixth International Congress for Archaeology held in Berlin 1939. Because of the time in history and Pallottino’s responsibilities as Professor at the University of Rome, attention to the objects from his excavation was concentrated on two terracotta statues, a male torso, and a woman holding a child (Tavola ἰ, and to some important inscriptions.
In the introduction to the volume discussed here, Giovanni Colonna gives a masterfully understated account of the many roadblocks that prevented Pallottino and his collaborators from publishing the excavations at the altar in the form that they had envisaged. While acknowledging the passing of time, Colonna recognizes the work done through the years by colleagues and students, which led to a detailed presentation of all the available evidence. In spite of incomplete written documentation, Colonna describes and illustrates the careful notes taken by Pallottino, supplemented with notes (‘biglietti’) from the sherd boxes.
Pallottino’s explorations of the altar area continued those of E. Stefani in 1920, and his notes from April 1939 record the discovery of votive bucchero, Protocorinthian, and Corinthian pottery. Because of the water channels adjoining the altar proper, the excavation was done in small sections and at different depths depending on the soil condition. Finds of special importance (such as a sherd with the inscription Avile Vipiiennas) were noted on the site plan, and, as the work continued around the altar, fragments of the terracotta male torso and the female statue were found.
Due to lack of funding Pallottino was not able to continue the work in 1940 in as much detail as he had planned. Thanks to the discovery, however, of the head belonging to the female statue, he was granted some additional funding to allow him to continue to excavate underneath the altar proper.
As Colonna rightly indicates, it is difficult to give a clear overview of the altar and surrounding area because of lack of documentation from the Stefani excavations of 1918-1920 and the excavations of the Roman road to the immediate north of the area, conducted by M. Santangelo in 1944-1949. All the same, thanks to Pallottino’s soundings down to bedrock, it is possible to follow the use of the area from the Eneolithic period. Remains of hut foundations from underneath the altar suggest that the location was sacred already in 900 B.C. (phase ἰ, followed by the first construction in stone of a terrace wall and perhaps a small sacellum dating from the end of the 7th century B.C (phase II). The third phase, in the 6th century B.C., introduced a sacellum measuring ca. 6.20 x 9 m. and oriented west/southwest, and an altar and bothros, later incorporated in the subsequent altar and surrounding pavement. The final pre-Roman phase (ι dating from 450-350 B.C., consisted of a new altar, measuring 5.40 x 4.40 m., with two steps, and two porticoes, which replaced the sacellum. The chronological sequence of the architectural remains corresponds with that of the small finds, including votive figurines and pottery, establishing the peak of the sanctuary in the 6th century B.C.
The altar and surrounding area continued to be used in the Roman period of Veii’s history (phase V), beginning in the 4th century B.C. New features include a cistern/fountain and a long cuniculus. After the end of the cult activities in the mid-second century B.C., a paved Roman road was constructed to the north of the temenos area and was frequented during the first two centuries of the Empire (phase VI).
The six phases of the architectural remains from the altar area (900 B.C.-A.D. 200) are indicated on color-coded plans in the text, in addition to black-and-white photographs of individual features. Brief accounts of the history of the sanctuary as a whole can also be found in G. Colonna, Santuari d’Etruria (Milan 1985) 98-102 and Veio, Cerveteri, Vulci (ed. A. M. Moretti Sgubini; Rome 2001) 37-44. Because of their find contexts, fragments of terracotta statues are closely linked to the history of the altar complex. A more detailed analysis of these statues is found in M. P. Baglione, “Considerazioni sui santuari di Pyrgi e di Veio-Portonaccio,” Anathema 1989-1990, 651-667 and G. Colonna, “Il maestro dell’Ercole e della Minerva: nuova luce sull’attività dell’officina veiente,” OpRom 16 (1987) 7-45. The second section of the volume is a catalogue of over 1,200 objects, arranged by category. Each object or fragment is identified by an inventory number preceded by VTP (Veio Tempio Portonaccio), find context, a brief description, illustrations (black-and-white photographs assembled as plates at the end and line drawings in the text), comparanda, and bibliography.
As might be expected, the largest categories include bucchero pottery (nos. 25-338), Etrusco-Corinthian pottery (nos. 347-443), votive figurines and anatomical votives (nos. 593-714), and small objects of bronze, bone, ivory, amber, and glass paste (nos. 842-994). As indicated by Laura M. Michetti in section three, both individual pieces and groups illustrate the long and rich life of the sanctuary. Imported pottery (Laconian, Attic) is rare; the bucchero vases are for the most part of high quality and of ‘middle’ (‘medio’) thickness, that is, neither ‘sottile’ nor ‘pesante’; the dates range from the late seventh through the sixth century B.C. with parallels from both votive deposits and funerary contexts from Rome and southern Etruscan sites or, in the case of the kantharoi, from Latium, Campania, and other areas of the Mediterranean. Of the Etrusco-Corinthian pottery, the majority can be attributed to workshops at Vulci, of the so-called ‘third generation’. In addition to aryballoi and alabastra, there is a group of twenty-three ‘plastic’ vases, of which the largest group portrays seated monkeys, some with their young in their arms.
The votive terracottas are particularly important for our understanding of the cults practiced at the Portonaccio sanctuary. Fragments of large statues, dated to the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., have parallels from Veii as well as from Lavinium. Mold-made figurines of seated enthroned females, couples, and individuals presenting offerings suggest a cult connected with fertility and birth, attributable to Minerva. The goddess is also represented by small helmeted heads (nos. 686-690); other fragments portray Apollo as lyre player (nos. 691-697). Included in the group of votive animals (nos. 711-714) is a tortoise, connected in the Greek world with female deities, and in the Etruscan context with sanctuaries as well as burials.
Of the statuettes of bronze, ivory, and bone, four kouroi and one kore date from the sixth century B.C. Parallels for the kouroi come from Rome, Latium, the Faliscan territory, and Viterbo. A bronze warrior of sixth century B.C. date may reflect Minerva’s function as protector of the youth.
Decorative objects include jewelry, of which the scarabs (nos. 819-836) are of particular interest because of their Egyptianizing style, bullae (nos. 923-944), and fibulae (nos. 995-1038). Of the utensils, small containers (unguentari) of glass paste (nos. 1044-1055) are given a Phoenician origin.
Section four contains the conclusions by Laura M. Michetti. As indicated by the votive material, the main cult at the Portonaccio altar concerned Minerva in her role as war goddess but also as nurturer and with an oracular function. Other female deities documented through the votive offerings (and inscriptions) are Turan, Aritimi and Venai (interpreted by Colonna as Venilia, mother of Turnus). The importance of Apollo and Hercules, displayed so prominently as ridgepole statues on the Portonaccio temple, is not supported by the votive material from the altar.
As for the types of votives, the relative scarcity of imported pottery and the abundance of bucchero pottery are paralleled by deposits from Rome and Latium, especially from S. Omobono.
Two appendices provide useful additional material. The first is a brief inventory of objects from the storerooms at the Villa Giulia Museum and at Isola Farnese. The second presents the inscriptions from Pallottino’s 1939-1940 excavations, some of which are often referred to in general discussions of Etruscan culture and history (no. 82 Avile Vipiiennas; no. 210 Karcuna Tulumnes; no. 349 menarv[as ?]).
This volume shows the dedication of many scholars who have fulfilled an obligation to publish such very important material in spite of obvious lacunae. As Colonna points out in Veio, Cerveteri, Vulci, 37-44, the complexity of the Portonaccio sanctuary in terms of its location, cult continuity, wealth and variety of buildings, including the famous temple, and of votive offerings, including inscriptions, serves to illustrate its importance in antiquity but also the difficulty of exploration and interpretation. Thanks to this publication, the Portonaccio sanctuary and its important altar have now become accessible for continued research and interpretation.