Etruscan Sarcophagi: A Forgotten Tragedy Told in Death
Two of the most famous and powerful groups of people to ever live were arguably the Greeks and the Romans. In fact, they were so impressive that the small cities in Northern Italy inhabited by the Etruscans during the same time as the Greeks go virtually unnoticed. The Greeks and their idealistic and veritably perfect art influenced the Romans and still influence Western culture today. Their impressive art and architecture, from the Acropolis to Venus De Milo, rose and fell from roughly 900 BCE to 30 BCE and was easily matched in innovation and skill by the Romans until about 337 CE and the rise of early Christianity.
These two ancient civilizations appear at first to overshadow the stories and works of the Etruscans. The dramatic artwork and engineering marvels that constitute Roman and Greek architecture seem to far outpace that of the Etruscan's. However, the story of the Etruscans is just as fascinating as that of the Greeks or Romans and the tale of the tragedy of the Etruscans that can be traced in their sarcophagi is breathtaking.
History of the Etruscans: The Beginning
The Etruscans, who referred to themselves as the Rasenna, were a mysterious people and much of their culture is still shrouded in debate. Their exact origins are unknown, but scholars believe they may have come from Lydia, in Asia Minor, and others believe they were perhaps native Italians all along. The Greeks called them Tyrrhenians and largely left them to their own devices since they posed no threat. Unbounded, the Etruscans peacefully made their homes north of modern day Rome, in hills that still bear the name Tuscany. For the most part, the people of Tusci were seafarers and dealt in prosperous trade, each Etruscan city cooperating with one another, despite the lack of any political leader. Connection to one another was based primarily on beliefs and a common language.
Period One: Peace
There are two noticeable periods when considering Etruscan art and sculpture. At first, Etruscan life was peaceful and the people lived and died in harmony. Their lives were celebrated and they went to their graves in intricate sarcophagi. Their afterlife was a place of riches and further happiness. Unlike other societies of the same day, the Etruscans provided the same freedoms to women as to men. Etruscan women joined their husbands at banquets and public functions and could own property. The sarcophagus to the right is one of the most famed demonstrations of this peaceful period in Etruscan history, and also gives insight into how Etruscan's lived.
Called the Sarcophagus with Reclining Couple (names vary slightly), this large terracotta structure showcases a married couple enjoying a few quiet moments together on a couch. Terracotta was arguably the most popular medium used by the Etruscans, forming the majority of their statues and sculptures. Found in Cerveteri in Italy, this sarcophagus displays the Etruscan love of gestures and emotion. Unlike the less emotional Greek art that was being produced at the time, Etruscan's focused on facial expressions above correct proportions, which was incredibly important to Greeks. The man can be seen smiling and reaching a loving arm up to his wife's hair while she examines what archaeologists believe was once an egg or other similar present from her husband.
The Greeks were a bit shocked by the Etruscans, and it's not hard to see why. Greek culture allowed many fewer freedoms to women, and the idea of a women joining her husband at a banquet was distasteful as prostitutes and slaves were the only women who were allowed to attend Grecian banquets. Greeks were also very adamant about their canon, a set of mathematical proportions used in sculpture and architecture that created some of the most famed works today and influenced the Romans. They found the unnaturally shaped lower torso's of the reclining couple to be distasteful and the couple's oriental-influenced hair and eyes to be unattractive. However, the Greeks were the least of the Etruscan's worries.
Period Two: Tragedy
Etruscan history is sadly very short and concise. What was once a prosperous, peaceful community began to vanish rapidly after only a few hundred years. Some cities fought back, and were crushed. Others were peacefully annexed, but the Etruscans did not accept this happily. The animated, pleasant artwork of before was replaced by sculpture and sarcophagi with distinctly dark, fatalistic and somber moods. They could not physically protest the loss of their culture and lands, but they could show their sense of loss and mourning in their works.
The sarcophagus at top right is startlingly devoid of the same warmth and happiness displayed in the sarcophagus from the first period. The Etruscan vision of the afterlife had changed as the end of their people loomed closer. The afterlife was not a place to enjoy hunting or fishing or time with family members anymore. The figures on sarcophagi began to appear alone during the second period, as Romans wiped the Etruscans out. Now, the silent terracotta figures clung to their worldly possessions, often displaying scrolls desperately proclaiming their works on earth, as seen in the Sarcophagus of Lars Pulena (not pictured here). Decorating the bottoms of the sarcophagi were angry reliefs, showing the deceased being beaten mercilessly by demonic creatures in the afterlife. The once positive outlook of the Etruscans was gone.
The Urn of the Married Couple, seen bottom right, is one of the few sarcophagi still produced with a married couple. The two are together still, but carefree moments are no longer captured. Instead the two are weathered and the art of the Etruscans is shown to have aged tremendously. The wife looks to her husband anxiously, perhaps angrily, as if for guidance and reassurance, but he cannot meet her gaze, as he too is plagued by the same doubts and fears. The emotions of the fading civilization are apparent in the sarcophagi from the second period.
The End of the Etruscans
The last breath of the Etruscans was one filled with resignation and poignant sadness. They had either been killed, or annexed by Rome. Their culture and way of life had ended, and they had quietly slipped into history, trapped in between the Greeks and the Greek-loving Romans. This last sarcophagus is reminiscent of the first period in Etruscan history. The emotion and intimacy between this married couple is evident in the way they hold each other tenderly, quietly lost in thought. Perhaps the sculptor wanted to call attention to the quiet acceptance of the Etruscan fate, or perhaps those who would one day be cremated and inhabit the sarcophagus had requisitioned it specially, recognizing that their end was near and all they could do was hold each other and enjoy their last vestiges of comfort.
Whatever the intention, this sarcophagus is incredibly moving and elegantly simple as sums up the end of the Etruscan culture. The Romans moved on in their conquests, and the beautiful stories that can be seen in the Etruscan sarcophagi lay largely forgotten until now. With further discovery and understanding of the Etruscans, comes a new appreciation for their unique artistic talents and a new place in history for the lost Rasenna.