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October 20-January 13, 2001 at the Bowers Museum, Orange County

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

The Etruscan's remain one of the least understood and mysterious of all the ancient cultures. Overshadowed by their more famous successors--the Romans and the Greeks--the Etruscans remain a shadowy presence upon which these great cultures built. They are among the most under-represented of key ancient civilizations in museums today.

Thus it is an important opportunity to be able to view a substantial body of Etruscan art without having to travel to Italy (which was recently host to an extraordinary but unrelated exhibition on the Etruscans at the Palazzo Grazzi in Venice) . This superb traveling exhibition, organized by the Museum of Archaeology in Florence, contains almost three hundred artworks, sufficient in terms of both quantity and quality to give the visitor an understanding of the craftsmanship for which they were justifiably renowned.

The Etruscans have never been given proper credit for all of their numerous accomplishments. Emerging out of the earlier Villanovan culture between the 9th- and 10th-centuries BC, they were the dominant peoples stretching across Italy from coast to coast, including Tuscany, until being finally conquered by the Romans during the second century BC. Their extraordinary civilization was highly urbanized, wealthy, and women had rights unknown to most civilizations until the twentieth century. Art played a critical role in Etruscan culture. Yet today, scholars cannot agree on their origins.

But our debt to them is clear. The Romans owe them their knowledge of road building, hydraulics, and surveying. They are credited with being the first society to sculpt figures in clay with human features, the first to sculpt statues in marble, and the first to develop modeling in clay. Furthermore, many scholars credit them with first developing the style of temple architecture which was made famous by both the Greeks and Romans.

Economically they were for centuries one of the dominant societies in the Mediterranean. Not only famed as traders with a vast merchant fleet, their expansion of the agricultural production of wine and olive oil set the trend for the country’s economic prosperity. They were leaders in the ancient world's trade in wine. Yet they were renowned for two divergent traits: as ferocious pirates, and lovers of luxurious objects. Their skill as seamen kept rivals away, while the love of beautifully crafted art works has left us some of the most extraordinary artifacts of the ancient world.
The Greeks condemned their love of luxury. The emphasis that they placed on the beauty and craftsman-ship of the objects that accompanied the dead on their journey to the underworld was transferred to their everyday life. The quality of life and accumulation of wealth was a critical aspect of Etruscan society. Even slaves were allowed to own homes and fill them with beautiful objects. A pair of gold earrings from seventh century BC give us a hint of the exquisite detail that the artists were able to achieve. From the delicate clips that fasten the golden jewels to the ears to the fine raised circular designs on the surface, one is amazed at the virtuoso skills of which these ancient artisans were capable.

The seventh century bronze helmet is another stunning artwork. Here we turn from intimate detail of personal artifacts to a large and imposing helmet. The patina of the aged bronze adds a rich range of colors and texture to the helmet's surface. The dark triangular slits for the eyes add a haunting and menacing aura to the object. We are reminded that very often what we in the twenty-first century call art once had a more practical use--here in the art of war. One shudders when remembering that the Etruscans were also known for their cruelty throughout the ancient world.

The World of the Etruscans offers an insightful and stimulating glance into one of the most fascinating cultures from the past.

Terra cotta head,
Etruscan, approx. 460 BC.

Bronze helmet, Etruscan,
bronze, 7th century, BC.

Pair of gold earrings, Etruscan,
gold, 7th century, BC.

Sarcophagus, Etruscan,
2nd century BC.

Terra cotta woman's head,
Etruscan, approx. 460 BC.