BMCR 2010.11.20

La tomba Bruschi di Tarquinia. Materiali del Museo archeologico nazionale di Tarquinia 17

, La tomba Bruschi di Tarquinia. Materiali del Museo archeologico nazionale di Tarquinia 17. Roma: Giorgio Bretschneider, 2009. xi, 190; 23 p. of plates. ISBN 9788876892356. €190.00 (pb).

The Tomba Bruschi was discovered in 1864 in the area of Calvario, not far from the later walls of medieval Tarquinia, and was excavated by the standards of the day, which is to say not very well and with not enough of the careful documentation that we would expect today. It is, however, a very impressive tomb of an important Tarquinian family, the gens apunas. The late Etruscan tomb included some fine sarcophagi, but more important are the wall paintings; they garnered immediate attention at the time of the discovery. Two sections of paintings were removed from the walls at that time and the entire ensemble was reproduced by Mariani that same year. These reproductions are invaluable, for the paintings have suffered. The tomb was newly excavated in 1963 only after it came to the attention of authorities that it was being exploited by clandestini. Remarkably, it was not immediately recognized as the Tomba Bruschi1 and was still full of the sarcophagi that had not been considered important enough to be removed in the nineteenth century. Even more remarkably there was no publication of the 1963 campaign and no trace of an excavation account can be found in any of the archives. Even the full inventory of sarcophagi found in the tomb in 1963 cannot be reconstructed given that no careful documentary account has survived. Archival photographs of the 1963 campaign, however, have been preserved. All in all, the twentieth-century methodology does not seem to have been much improved over what was practiced in 1864, with the exception that photography replaced drawings, and the remaining frescoes were removed and only restored by the Soprintendenza at the beginning of this millennium. The frescoes have lost much of their vibrancy, and the desiccated whole makes the quality and importance of the paintings difficult to appreciate. The paintings, however, along with some of the sarcophagi, were recently reassembled for the 2008-2009 exhibit on cities of southern Etruria at the Palazzo dell’Esposizioni in Rome.2 The ensemble is reproduced in color in plate 9 of this volume.

Valentina Vincenti does an excellent job of assembling and documenting all the evidence that pertains to this particular monument. The volume has its origins in a thesis written under the supervision of Mario Torelli, who is also in charge of this series of publications on the Materiali del Museo Archeologico di Tarquinia, and its strength is the attention to detail and comprehensive coverage that one expects from a thesis supervised by a noted scholar in the field. Some of the detail, for instance the full reproduction in the appendices of every archival document that pertains to this particular tomb is perhaps not necessary, but given the staggering prices that this publisher charges for his volumes, we might as well ask for it all. And we get it all, in a volume the size of a trade paperback, with largish font, uncluttered layout, and decent illustrations. It is a book that might have cost one quarter the price if published by an editor willing to condense the appendices and give a good, stiff editing to the text, which is sometimes repetitive—as one might expect from a thesis. However, as a reference work, a single place to find anything to do with this monument, the volume is useful, and the inclusion of color photographs of details of the paintings is much appreciated,

The structure of the book follows exactly what one might expect from a thesis: an introduction to the issues along with historiography and summary of the literature. We then move on to the tomb itself, the physical space and its decoration, including a careful description of the frescoes that analyses the present remains and compares them with Mariani’s 1864 reconstruction, pointing out occasionally some problems with Mariani’s drawings. A section on iconography and iconology follows; this is perhaps the weakest part of the book. It is descriptive and overly antiquarian in interest, focusing more on chronology than meaning, although the antiquarian details may admittedly turn out to be useful for dating the tomb. A useful section on the sarcophagi pulls together the relevant evidence, and the chapter that follows on the inscriptions of the gens apunas in the tomb, in Tarquinia, and elsewhere helps to bring this elite Etruscan family to life. Yet more discussion of style and chronology serves as the concluding chapter. As is typical of the publication of Tarquinian tombs, there is no mention of skeletal remains. This is no fault of the author but results from the rather shocking fact that until very recently skeletal remains were not important enough to be saved by the professional archaeologists who worked at the site.3

The issue of chronology permeates this study, and this interest may be understandable given that the tomb has been variously dated, from firmly in the fourth century to as late as the second century BCE, and anywhere in between. Vincenti summarizes the various theories in her historiographic summary, and it is true that if the tomb does date to as early as the third quarter of the fourth century, then it is an important reference for the changes that took place in Tarquinian funerary representation. Vincenti points out that the Tomba Bruschi is thus the earliest coherent representation of a processus magistratualis, a suspiciously Roman kind of representation that not coincidentally appears in the period of expanding Roman dominion. The chronology, however, remains tricky, and Vicenti’s early dating of the tomb, although argued cogently and with fervor, may have to remain an open question. But whatever the date, the painted walls are of great interest for the changing currents of south Etruscan pictorial decoration from the fourth to the second centuries BCE, for the use of inscriptions along with images, and for some arresting iconographical details, most especially the remarkable scene of a (young?) elite female, identified by inscription as larthi ursm(nai), gazing at her image in a mirror held by a younger female attendant, a scene that graces the cover of the book. Vincenti has a good eye and her diligent observations guide the reader through the decorative cycle, which despite the predations of time still has a lot to offer.

There is much to discover in this volume, and many interesting findings, unfortunately not indexed, result from the author’s careful analysis of the material remains. Particularly interesting is the long use of the tomb chamber itself. Two niches that Vincenti suggests may have originally held cremation burials seem to have been walled up. The large tomb chamber was already in use when the decision was made to decorate the walls of the tomb, judging by the way that the pictorial cycle is painted around sarcophagi that were set against the wall (in these areas the socle was left unpainted). There is also evidence, according to Vincenti (p. 135) that material from earlier tombs was moved here, a kind of ceremonial parentatio where remains of ancestors would have been moved and reinterred within the new tomb; evidence for this kind of ritual from the Francois Tomb at Vulci is cited. The paintings themselves remain elusive because of their preservation. What is certain is the late Etruscan interest in showing the status of the family in new ways, in processions that stress the rank of family members. The use of hierarchical scale, an essentially non-classical mode of representation that seems especially Roman—or perhaps central Italic if we were to use Bianchi Bandinelli’s terminology—is found repeatedly in the pictorial cycle of the tomb, and there are stylistic differences in the rendering of family members (for instance the use of chiaroscuro) that also indicate their higher status. The emphasis on status is nothing new in Etruscan funerary settings, but earlier it was done in different ways, through tomb paraphernalia or by modes of representation that were more self assured, not nearly as overtly self conscious and self displaying. Now status is depicted through processions where the elites are displayed to a viewer who is acknowledged in a new way, at least metaphorically as a participant of the spectacle. It is not too farfetched to suspect that this kind of insecurity, a self-conscious awareness of one’s status as perceived by others, results from troubled times, and that it may reflect the insecurity of an old order confronted with the power of that parvenu, Rome. And it is in this vein that, if terms like iconology are going to be used as section headings, we might expect more than observation, antiquarian considerations, and chronology. For instance the overt sense of spectacle of the processus magistratualis is mirrored, and I use this word advisedly, by the elite female looking at her reflection in the mirror held by an attendant. Male and female types of spectacle are deliberately juxtaposed in ways that include the elites, their attendants, and us. Not only is the scale of the figures hierarchical but so is the spatial rhetoric of the tomb. The fundamental question of course, is who are we, the viewers? Who is meant to view and perceive these nuanced and sophisticated programmatic displays? It is the type of fascinating question that we will be able to consider better thanks to the thorough documentation provided in this volume.

La scoperta
II. L’architettura ed il sistema decorativo
III. L’iconografia e l’iconologia
IV. I sarcofagi
V. Le iscrizioni
VI. Lo stile e la cronologia
Appendice I
Documenti conservati presso l’Istituto Archeologico Germanico di Roma
Documenti dall’archivio della Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici per l’Etruria Meridionale
Articolo dalla Cronaca di Roma del “Il Tempo” 13 febbraio 1963
Documenti dall’archivio del Ministero per I Beni e le Attività Culturali
Documenti dall’Istituto Centrale del Restauro
Appendice II
Tecniche e materiali utilizzati per lo strappo degli affreschi della Tomba Bruschi
Referenze fotografiche


1. The complex was only recognized in 1987 as the Tomba Bruschi by Blanck: H. Blanck and C. Weber Lehman, eds., Malerei der Etrusker in Zeichnungen des 19. Jahrhunderts Mainz: von Zabern, 1987. 189-196.

2. Not cited in the Vincenti’s bibliography: M. Torelli and A.M. Moretti Sgubini, Etruschi. Le antiche metropoli del Lazio. Verona: Electa, 2008. See 243-4, figs. 151.1-151.5.

3. For this issue in other publications of tombs at Tarquinia: P.G. Warden, review of L.C. Vanoni, Tombe tarquiniesi di età ellenistica Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1996. AJA 103 (1999) 568-569. With regards to the Tomba Bruschi, see M. Becker’s review of Vincenti.