The Etruscan House
By Sam Shantz
As I was working on my BA, the Etruscans grabbed my attention and became one of the main focuses of my studies. To paraphrase what you have said in your podcast, one cannot look at the Romans without first looking at the Greeks; I believe that the same thing is true of the Etruscans.
Both the Louvre and Vatican museums have great Etruscan exhibits, but within Rome itself is the Museo Nazionale Etrusco, which houses some of my favourite artefacts. The museum is located in the Villa Gullia, built by Pope Julius II as a place of relaxation. It is not overly large, and is a short distance away from the main tourist attractions near the capitol. As a result, it is somewhat removed from large crowds and is comparatively peaceful; a nice change of pace when compared to the Vatican or the Colosseum.
The gardens, once used for the enjoyment of Pope’s now house a reconstructed Temple. With columns, friezes, and pediments that are so reminiscent of larger Greek and Roman temples, it is not hard to see similarities between all three cultures. Exhibits displaying armaments show an Etruscan army who’s backbone was the Greek hoplite; the rounded shield, bronze greaves, and distinct helmets would not have been out of place at Marathon or Plataea, while an amateur such as myself would be hard pressed to find any differences between the Etruscan pottery on display and the Greek pottery housed in the Vatican.
However, not all the artefacts point to similarities between Etruria and Greece. One of the cornerstones of the museum’s collection is the Apollo of Veii, a terracotta statue of the Etruscan deity Apulu taken from the Etruscan city of Veii, which was only a couple kilometres up the Tiber from Rome. As the name of the statue suggests, Apulu was closely identified with the Greek Apollo in much the same way Jupiter would be identified with Zeus. However, when this statue is compared to the Vatican’s Belvedere Apollo (a Hellenistic copy of a Greek statue from roughly the same period as the Apollo of Veii) the differences are astounding. The Etruscan deity is depicted with eye makeup and dark, braided hair, and reminds one more of a
Nebuchadnezzar than a Pericles. In fact, it is somewhat reminiscent of archaic Greek sculpture, a style that appears to have been influenced by the art of the ancient near-east.
One the most incredible displays is that of the the Pyrgi Plates; three sheets of gold upon which the details of a religious ceremony, where a temple to thechief Etruscan goddess, Uni, was also dedicated to Astarte, the Phoenician goddess of sexuality, fertility, and war. Two of the sheets are written in Etruscan, while the third is a Phoenician translation. Not only are the plates incredibly beautiful, they also point to close ties between Etruria and
Phoenicia, and the possibility that Phoenician culture was more influential in Italy than may have previously been believed.
Etruscan history is still relatively mysterious, as much of their written history has been lost, and their language has not been fully translated. As a result the influence this culture may have had over Rome is still mostly unknown. However, exhibits such as those at the Museo Nazionale Etrusco paint the picture of a unique culture with ties to Greece and the near-east; a civilisation that dominated northern Italy and gave Rome some of its kings. Although the degree of influence remains unknown, a greater understanding of Etruscan society can only deepen one’s understanding of the emergent Roman Republic, a period of history that is shrouded in a degree of mystery itself.
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