ALSO SEEN: EXHIBITION: “From the Temple and the Tomb: Etruscan Treasures from Tuscany.” Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. Jan. 24-May 17, 2009
It is somewhat ironic that as one enters an exhibition of Etruscan art, one is confronted by the ravaged face of the Greek hero, Oedipus, staring down from a sculpted pediment. But on further reflection it makes sense. With his arms raised heavenward, his blinded eyes and open mouth, he resembles a seer prophesying to his religious devotees standing before the temple. As the battle of Thebes rages around him and his sons are dying at either side, Oedipus is both a tortured king and a wise prophet. Both roles clearly resonated with the Etruscans, who were ruled by aristocratic principes and who excelled in the arts of divination.
Welcoming the visitor in the large upstairs gallery at the Meadows Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is a striking juxtaposition of this 2nd-century BCE terracotta temple pediment from Talamone framing a large 5th-century BCE cinerary urn in the shape of a woman (the so-called Mater Matuta from Chianciano) — both major icons of Etruscan art. They herald the twin themes of this loan exhibition from Florence, the temple and the tomb. Etruscan funerary art is fairly commonplace, having been uncovered and exhibited in Tuscany since the era of the Medici; objects of a religious nature are rarer, but significantly more important since they reveal a great deal about the less well documented life-style, as opposed to the death-style, of these pre-Roman inhabitants of Italy. But this stunning exhibit does more than educate the public about Etruscan tombs and temples; it puts on display a vast — over 350 objects in all — array of intriguing works of art of various materials, scales, techniques, types of imagery, andfindspots , many of which have not been on display in Florence for decades. It is the most important show of Etruscan material ever mounted in this hemisphere, and it behooves everyone interested in the classical past to see it before it returns to Italy in May.
The exhibition was co-organized by the Meadows Museum of SMU and the National Archaeological Museum of Florence. The masterminds were Giuseppina Carlotta Cianferoni, director of the museum in Florence, and P. Gregory Warden, an SMU distinguished professor who conducts on-going excavations at the site of Poggio Colla, north of Florence (where this reviewer is a guest scholar). In the ground-floor galleries there is a didactic exhibit of smaller finds from that site, including the reconstruction of a terracotta roof and a votive deposit. The large exhibit was shown earlier in Madrid, but the Dallas version has been expanded with more objects, including the early archaic bronze statues from Brolio, which consist of a frontal draped female surrounded by three stately warriors posed as if in a stylized pyrrhic dance. While they may have functioned as table supports in antiquity, they now are excellent examples of the Etruscan artist’s attention to exquisite detail and obsession with elegant elongation.
The main exhibit follows a chronological order from the impasto hut urns of the ninth century BC from southern Etruria to the second-century BC carved alabaster urns from Volterra. One could trace the evolution of another distinctive Etruscan object, the fibula, from its earliest bronze versions, sometimes enhanced with amber and bone, to seventh-century models in gold and silver with intricate granulation. The installation represents the height of Italian disegno. Objects are displayed in large, square suede-lined cases, which show them off brilliantly but also tend to compartmentalize them such that pieces pertaining to the same votive pit or tomb group are separated. Many striking pieces merit their own case, like a gigantic bronze trident from Populonia complete with its cotter pin on a chain which kept the three forks together.
The favored media of the Etruscans, bronze and clay, are well represented. Shiny black bucchero abounds in an amazing variety of shapes, including a plump bird on wheels. One finds typical bronze utilitarian objects like razors, tweezers, mirrors, fibulae, basins, strainers and a humble grater, but also unique pieces like a meter-long brazier with birds perched on the edge borne along on four wheels. Horses and birds were very much in the repertoire of early bronze workers, and bronze horse trappings and huge chariot wheels from various necropoli exemplify the Etruscans’ fascination with equestrianism. Ivory was also clearly a favorite medium, and some of the most exquisite objects in the exhibit are made of this imported material, e.g., a pair of fan handles decorated with crouching beasts, a unique comb with gilded ivory decoration, a delicate hair pin topped by a griffin, and a Hellenistic-style sculpture of a deformed ithyphallic pygmy who shoulders a dead crane. This piece is appropriately set in a case with an Etruscan red-figure kelebe or krater which shows an earlier moment, a combat of pygmy and crane. Gold jewelry is prevalent, attesting to the great wealth of the Etruscans. One of the most visually spectacular pieces in the show is a gold diadem composed of thin leaves and repousse/ plaques depicting Scylla on a dolphin. A somewhat garish ring from Montepulciano, consisting of a blue and yellow carnelian set into a thick gold frame, recalls those worn by the overfed Etruscans lounging on the tops of their funerary urns. Both pieces are dated to the fourth century, when the Etruscan began to be overtaken by the stolid Romans, who considered them decadent. The only major Etruscan medium missing in this show is wall painting, for the simple reason that these are mostly in situ. However color is supplied by several architectural plaques preserving red and blue pigments, as well as an alabaster cinerary urn, that of Larth Cumersa loaned by the Siena Museum of Archaeology. Here a winged demon or Vanth is interposed between the sons of Oedipus whose wounds are spurting red blood; the painting of the figures’ dark eyes and bright garments gives this relief a vividness and expressive quality lacking in the urns, that have sadly lost all their color.
For those intrigued by the Etruscan language there are a few pieces with inscriptions, including the famous “Magliano Disk” which carries an exceptional long text naming several deities. The names Menvra (Minerva) and Cilens (Selene?) are painted on a large terracotta antefix of the second-century from Bolsena consisting of two animated statuettes of these deities. Some deliberately crushed bronze helmets, found in a cache of 125 near the walls of Vetulonia, are inscribed with the name of a prominent family or clan Haspnas. Bronze hand mirrors, one of the most distinctive Etruscan products, bear incised names as well. The well known masterpiece from Volterra showing Herakles suckling at the breast of Hera, a scene unknown in Greek art, is inscribed Uni and Hercle. And naturally many of the cinerary urns have the names of the deceased carved or painted prominently on the fronts.
Numerous non-Etruscan objects attest to the Etruscans’ vast trade network in the Mediterranean. There is a small bronze model of boat, typical of Sardinia. Corinthian and Attic vases are juxtaposed with Etruscan imitations; only lacking are the Attic imitations of Etruscan shapes like the Nikosthenic amphorae and kyathoi which would have demonstrated how the Greek market responded to their avid Etruscan customers. One vitrine showcases an array of small plastic perfume flasks including a pair of green faience locusts, probably from East Greece.
One of the ironies of this exhibit in light of the recent repatriations to Italy of archaeological materials which were presumably looted from their ancient contexts, is the absence of didactic labels explaining how and where these objects were deposited. As mentioned earlier, because of the design of the installation, many votive deposits or tomb complexes are divvied up among several cases, making it challenging for the average viewer to envision the original complex. Text labels would have helped immensely in this regard, even if they are somewhat distracting from the overall aesthetic appeal of the whole. Fortunately there is an excellent and comprehensive catalogue edited by Warden and published by the Meadows Museum. It is not simply a translation of the Madrid catalogue, as it includes commissioned essays from eminent American scholars: J. P. Small on the aesthetics of Etruscan Art, I. Edlund-Berry on religion, N. de Grummond on women, R. E. Wallace on language and inscriptions, A. Steiner on relations with the Greeks, and P. G. Warden on funerary contexts and what he terms the “social landscape”.
Together with a symposium entitled “Learning from the Past, Partnering for the Future” held on January 24, 2009, which covered various topics relating to American archaeological projects in Italy, this entire venture was an ambitious undertaking for a university museum. SMU and Warden are to be congratulated for bringing the riches of Etruria to central Texas, and in so doing, educating students and the public about this unique culture which flourished for half a millennium in the ancient Mediterranean.