BMCR 2007.08.54

Abundance of Life: Etruscan Wall Painting. Translated by Russell Stockman

, Abundance of Life: Etruscan Wall Painting. Translated by Russell Stockman. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006. 328; b/w ills. 17, color ills. 269, maps 3. $125.00.

Table of Contents

This splendid volume will delight both scholars and armchair archaeologists. Indeed, anyone interested in the Etruscans or ancient painting will find it an informative and attractive substitute for an extended tour of Italian sites and museums featuring Etruscan frescoes. Stephan Steingräber (henceforth S.), a leading authority on Etruscan and Lucanian painting, continues to contribute to our understanding of this perhaps most familiar but complex field. More than twenty years ago, during the “Year of the Etruscans,” S. edited a monumental catalogue on this subject.1 That volume remains a source of excellent photographs, descriptive information about each room in every painted tomb then known, with plans and extensive bibliographies as well as a general survey of the topic. This new book not only brings us up-to-date on the latest discoveries, but also provides an even more careful review of the present state of our knowledge about this important area of Etruscan studies. It attempts to view Etruscan frescoes in the broader context of ancient Mediterranean painting.

Arguably, Etruscan painting is the most familiar remnant of this major classical civilization. The point is especially ironic given that the paintings were never intended to be viewed by large numbers of people. In fact, they were often only visible on those infrequent occasions when family members and priests reopened a subterranean tomb to deposit another body. Furthermore, this would have been done by the fitful light of lamps or torches. The paintings were intended more for the deceased than the living (p. 29). Thus, in contrast to the Greek and Roman worlds, with their rich literary sources identifying artists and stylistic schools, we know almost nothing about the individual painters who decorated these tombs. As is almost always the case with Etruscan culture, we are forced to examine more carefully the remaining objects or classes of objects, hoping to glean from them some shred of useful information. S. demonstrates how recent scientific and technological methods are enhancing what we know about ancient painting.

An important feature of any book on ancient painting is the quality of the illustrations. In this case, author and production team deserve accolades because the illustrations are superb. The format is generous (11 x 13 inches) with many examples extending over two pages. Many figures are printed on a special paper (“Tintoretto” paper, made in France). Its tactile quality enhances the impression that we are looking at the original rough surfaces on which the paintings were executed. In addition, there are numerous details and informative juxtapositions. For example, S. sometimes shows the present state of a fresco with the comparable color tracing made in the 19th century (e.g., pp. 98, 101, 103, 121, 136-139, 214). We thus see how much a given wall painting has faded or disappeared over the years. (These 19th century tracings, or lucidi, are among our most valuable sources of information for many tombs now damaged or destroyed. They have been the subject of several independent studies.2) In addition, there are some computer-generated reconstructions of poorly preserved paintings (e.g., Tomba degli Hescanas, Orvieto, p. 214).

In his Introduction (pp. 9-26) S. stresses the significance of Etruscan tomb paintings for our understanding of ancient painting in general. Three explicit purposes of the book are given (p. 10): “…to retrace the history of Etruscan wall painting…to present the various possible interpretations of it, and to place it in the larger context of the history of painting in antiquity.” There are brief discussions of Greek monumental painting, frescoes from Southern Italy and Macedonia, as well as connections in Etruscan art that may indicate the presence of Greek artisans. S. also offers a concise history of archaeological exploration in Etruria beginning as early as the fifteenth century (not the “fifth” as appears mistakenly on p. 12) with Annio da Viterbo. A major section of the Introduction is devoted to Tarquinia (pp. 14-26) because this site has about 80 percent of the extant paintings, albeit this accounts for fewer than three percent of the more than 6,000 chamber tombs known in its vast cemeteries (pp.15-16).

The next section, also a concise introduction, presents “The History of Etruscan Wall Painting: Style, Workshops, Chronology, Iconography, and ‘Ideology'” (pp. 27-29). Here S. summarizes recent work that now has determined more precisely the span of Etruscan tomb painting. It begins ca. 675-650 B.C. and ends ca. 230-200 B.C. This section also begins to tackle two major problems: that very few Etruscan painted tombs are found intact and that the iconography is more difficult to interpret than previously believed.

After these introductory passages, S. presents a lengthy chronological survey of the extant Etruscan tomb paintings in six chapters: from “The Beginnings” (pp. 31-39) to the “Final Flowering and Conclusion” (pp. 245-279). Each chapter’s text is enhanced with comparative illustrations, and site or tomb plans. Large illustrations of representative tombs are preceded by a page of useful “thumbnails” that allow easy reference. The first section relates discoveries made largely by Alessandro Naso who applied various photographic techniques to reveal almost invisible traces of ancient decorative designs in several early tombs, especially in the Cerveteri area.3 Remember that in these early tombs the paint was applied directly onto the smoothed tufa; only later did painters begin to apply plaster to attain a better surface. In this initial phase there are almost no figural subjects, and when they do appear, they are usually abstract ducks or other water birds (e.g., Tomba delle Anatre, Veii, pp. 34-35, 49). Throughout the book, S. draws connections to painted pottery and illustrates many relevant examples. This feature enhances the utility of the book tremendously. Surprisingly, despite its obvious logic, it has rarely been done so effectively in a book on Etruscan tomb painting.

The Archaic Period (ca. 575-480 B.C.) represents the first brilliant manifestations of Etruscan tomb painting with true megalography. Human activity appears in a wide spectrum of subjects, from banqueting and dancing to athletic events and rituals. There is a strong Greek, especially Ionian influence in both style and subject matter, which prompts S. (and many others) to posit the immigration of Greek artisans, especially vase painters, but also possibly wall painters. Some of the best (i.e., most Greek-looking or technically proficient) tombs might have been painted by these itinerant artists. This is an argument that is likely to continue for many more generations of scholars. S. summarizes the developments of this and the next Classical Period (ca. 480-400 B.C.) with many examples and also gives a brief analysis of two important related types of objects: pinakes (pp. 122-125) and black-figure vases (pp. 125-127).

One problem with the book, seen throughout, but perhaps more annoying here, is that the figures are unnumbered and there are no parenthetical citations to the pages where a relevant figure appears. Thus, for example, a specific Campana pinax is discussed on p. 124, but the illustration of this object appears on p. 62. The eponymous mouse of the Tomba del Topolino is mentioned on p. 90 but illustrated on p. 68. Without the citations one may not even realize that these subjects are illustrated. A similar problem comes up in S.’s excellent stylistic or iconographical summaries. S. is generous with mentions of specific scholars who first proposed various ideas, but these references are given without footnotes or parenthetical citations. With the author’s last name we can locate relevant works in the four-part Bibliography, but it is difficult to find a specific work when there are several entries for one author. In several cases there are tantalizing descriptions of specific scenes in a given tomb, but without any citations we are left to search for possible illustrations. It is clear that S. was working closely with his own 1985 Etruscan Painting book and I wonder why simple parenthetical citations to it (e.g., EP, no. 25 for the Tomba della Scimmia) could not have been added. This would have been especially helpful because in the present book relatively few overall views of tombs are presented, instead we have beautiful details. This means that for those readers not familiar with these tombs, there is little sense of the context of a specific detail.

Most important recent discoveries of Etruscan tomb painting are included in this book. The Tomba dei Demoni Azzuri (p. 163), discovered in 1985 at Tarquinia, is carefully described and interpreted. Dating from the late fifth century B.C., it is now our earliest certain example showing underworld demons. S. posits influences from Athens, via Spina and Etruria Padana (p. 182). Another discovery, from ca. 1998, is Tomb 13 in the Palazzina necropolis near Sarteano. S. describes this briefly (p. 122) but does not include any photographs.4 Perhaps the most significant recent discovery is the Tomba della Quadriga infernale (pp. 215-218). This tomb, found in 2003, is in the Pianacce necropolis near Sarteano and probably dates to the last third of the fourth century B.C.5 It presents several unique features, including various underworld monsters that have close connections with painted pottery such as the Vanth Group at Orvieto. (Captions for this tomb on pp. 215-216 are reversed.) The recently revealed “Tomb of the Roaring Lions” at Veii was only publicly announced in May, 2006, too late to be included. It shows some highly abstracted quadrupeds, possibly lions, with aquatic birds flying above them. According to several archaeologists, it dates ca. 690-680 B.C. It is thus earlier than the Tomba delle Anatre, making it the oldest Etruscan painted tomb with figural ornament so far discovered.

S. strives valiantly to summarize and synthesize an enormous amount of information about his subject. We are often treated to fascinating details concerning technique, iconography or style, and there are numerous references to relevant parallels in other media, especially vase painting. Often the history of various arguments concerning the date of a given tomb is explained and the latest consensus presented. The last chapter’s title tells us exactly what to expect: “From Asia Minor to Magna Graecia, from Thrace to Alexandria: The ‘Koine’ and the Place of Etruscan Painting in the Art of the Ancient Mediterranean” (pp. 281-303). Interestingly, this is the only section that has endnotes, but all eighteen of them appear in two paragraphs (p. 284). Many scholars have pointed out specific parallels between Etruscan tomb paintings and non-Etruscan works in other media, but this is one of the best syntheses of such connections taking into account relevant works from the Black Sea to Southern Italy. The important tombs near Elmali in ancient Lycia are briefly described and their excavator is mentioned (p. 282), but strangely omitted from the Bibliography.6 Like many Etruscan tombs, these Lycian examples combine both Greek and Asian elements.

S. has achieved the three goals stated in his Introduction. The text is a careful synthesis of much scholarship and long familiarity with the subject. Illustrations are uniformly excellent and up to the high standards of Getty publications. There are relatively few typographical errors or omissions. This book is a welcome addition to any library.


1. Etruscan Painting. Catalogue Raisonné of Etruscan Wall Painting. English-language edition edited by David and Francesca R. Ridgway. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1986. The Italian version, Catalogo ragionato della pittura etrusca (Editoriale Jaca Book, Milan) appeared in 1985, the “Year of the Etruscans.”

2. Pittura Etrusca: Disegni e documenti del XIX secolo dall’archivio dell’Istituto Archeologico Germanico = Studi di Archeologia 2 (Rome, 1986); H. Blanck and C. Weber-Lehmann (eds.), Malerei der Etrusker in Zeichnungen des 19. Jahrhunderts (Mainz, 1987); C. Weber-Lehmann, “Die Dokumentation der etruskischen Grabmalerei aus dem Nachlass Alessandro Moranis,” OpRom 18 (1991) 159-187; M. Moltesen and C. Weber-Lehmann, Catalogue of the Copies of Etruscan Tomb Paintings in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (Copenhagen, 1991) with larger German edition, Etruskische Grabmalerei: Faksimiles und Aquarelle (Mainz, 1992).

3. Architetture dipinte. Decorazioni parietali non figurante nelle tombe a camera dell’Etruria meridionale (VII-V sec. a C.) (Rome, 1996). A recent article that might be added here is F. Napolitano, “Some Considerations on the Making and Use of Colours in Etruria during the Middle Orientalising Period,” Etruscan Studies 10 (2004-07) 11-25.

4. See A. Rastrelli, “La tomba dipinta della necropoli della Palazzina di Sarteano” in A. Minetti (ed.), Pittura etrusca: problemi e prospettive (Siena, 2003) 94-99.

5. Add A. Minetti, “La tomba della quadriga infernale di Sarteano,” Studi Etruschi 70 (2004) 135-159, pls. XXV-XXXII.

6. M. Mellink, Kizilbel: An Archaic Painted Tomb Chamber in Northern Lycia (Philadelphia, 1998). The final publication of the Karaburun tomb is awaited.