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Etruscans and the Art of the Roman Republic and Empire Essay

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The Etruscan culture surfaced in Italy ca. 800 B.C. Etruscan culture is characterized by its various art forms and architecture which have influenced Roman art and architecture. It is distinguished by a proliferation of burial types, extensive use of the corbeled arch and vault, the growth of cities, the development of sophisticated metallurgy, and evidence of extensive trade with other cultures (Infinity 1). At the time of Rome’s foundation the highest civilizations in Italy were those of the Greek in southern, and of the Etruscans in central, Italy. Etruscan art is strikingly displayed in the museums of Florence and Rome. The Romans admit that many of the arts of civilization were acquired from the Etruscans.

The first temple on the Capitoline Hill was Etruscan, and terracotta figures made after the Greek pattern by an Etruscan stood on the roof. The Etruscans were the close neighbors of the Romans, who were Latins, who, in turn, resembled the Etruscans in their tastes and lives. There is much to show that Rome, under the Etruscan influence, was in the sixth century B.C., one of the chief centers of artistic development north of Magna. The Etruscans also held Greek influences in their works of art that were passed on to later Roman art and architecture as well.

Historical Background

When Rome first knew the Etruscans, the main seat of power was in Etruria or Tuscany (Dudley 15). Historically, the Etruscans had occupied Rome from c.616 B.C., but in c.510 B.C. they were driven out by the Romans. Rome’s last three kings sprang from the Etruscan ruling dynasty; the mother of the first was a royal Etruscan prophet. Their absolute power in Rome lasted 106 years. In the early 4th cent., after Etruria had been weakened by Gallic invasions, the Romans attempted to beat the Etruscans back. Beginning with Veii (c.396 B.C.) one Etruscan city after another fell to the Romans, and civil war further weakened Etruscan power.

The material remains of Etruscan civilization can be seen at Italian sites as Caere, Tarquinii, and Vulci, with their great cemeteries and richly decorated tombs. The museums which are especially rich in the objects from Etruscan tombs are those of the Vatican at Rome and of Florence, while many others are in the Louvre at Paris and in the British Museum (Goodyear 29). Among the most famous excavated early Etruscan tombs at the “ReguliniGalassi” tomb at Cervetri and the “Polledrara” tomb at Vulci (Goodyear 30).

Etruscan Art

The Etruscans were themselves great workers in metal, at first under oriental tutelage, and consequently using oriental patterns in the pieces of earlier date. Large bronze shields and vessels of their make can be seen in the British Museum (Goodyear 30). Etruscan art had certain characteristics that included the grotesque and the supernatural. The same gifts caused it to excel in portraiture of a highly realistic kind (Britova et al 1).

Etruscan art depicts vividly a life of luxury and pleasure on the earth, of gloom and punishment beyond the grave. Like other ancient nations the Etruscans believed in a life after death, and, like other ancient nations, they actually believed that the utensils, ornaments, and surroundings of this life were available for the use of the deceased (Goodyear 28) in the spirit world. Hence the practice of burying in the tombs so many various objects of daily life, which, as excavated in the last two centuries, now enable us to reconstruct a picture of an ancient civilization.

The Etruscans were especially famous for their skill in working terra-cotta (baked clay), of which many examples survive. In gem-cutting they even excelled the Greeks, as far as actual skill in execution is concerned. Their bronze utensils were in high demand even in Athens. The two most noted existing works of Etruscan art are the life-size bronze wolf of the Capitol Museum in Rome and the large bronze Chimaera in Florence (Goodyear 35). Their sculptured stone sarcophagi and stone cists (for the ashes of cremated bodies) are quite numerous in several museums, but the decorative reliefs and surmounting reclining figures of these works are generally of rather inferior art and execution.

Capitol Hill

The most sacred place in early Rome was Capitol Hill. On the Capitol, the acropolis of Rome has enshrined the great Etruscan trinity of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (Dudley 18). Certainly, it was under the Etruscan influence, perhaps with an Etruscan king as founder, that the ritual inauguration of the city of Rome took place. A union of Latin, Sabine, and Etruscan elements provided the Capitol with a fortress and a center for common worship.

There is nothing left of it except, perhaps, a few foundation stones. But the hill today is harmoniously set about with buildings and courtyards (Menen, 26). The cult statues and the terra-cotta decorations of the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol were the work of the Etruscan artist Vulca (Dudley 26). They have swept away in the reconstruction of the temple in the time of Sulla. The discovery in modern times of the superb statues of Veii and Conca however stands as testimony to the Etruscan influence in Roman art (Dudley 26).

Archeological studies show that the temple was large, almost square, and it was built of wood. Columns made up a deep portico and supported a steep roof. It was decorated with a vast profusion of terracotta plates, masks, gargoyles, and floral panels. On the roof stood a quadriga, also of terracotta, and all the decorations were lavishly and brightly painted. It is said that the builders and decorators were brought in from all Etruria (Menen 29).

Examples of Etruscan Influences on Roman Art

The following are some examples of Etruscan influence on Roman art:

  • An antique Etruscan monument depicts the pathos of the human frame: the figures of a dying huntsman on an ash chest in the Museo Gregariano of the Vatican. A young man wounded in the thigh and thus identified as Adonis, lies back in death – the thin wiry legs are restlessly drawn up, the right arm thrown over the side of the couch – the body has a slightly swollen puffy look as in early Tuscan sculptures. Below the couch lies the huntsman’s dog, quietly licking his back. In sarcophagi, the dead man is shown lying at full length with closed eyes. The Etruscan artists anticipated the Christian idea of “eternal rest” so familiar with medieval tombstones – an idea to which Greek sculpture had remained strangely indifferent (Strong 32).
  • The Tomb of the Reliefs at Cerveteri is carved out of living rock. The bodies were placed in the niches visible in this slide and relief carvings decorated the interior with mythological figures such as Cerberus the Greeks’ three-headed dog of the underworld and copies of ordinary household implements.
  • The figural ash urn seen is the simplest type of container for the deceased, a male or female effigy vessel made from clay.
  • Although the Etruscans borrowed Greek vessel types and vase painting techniques, they did invent a whole new kind of ceramic that was to become for them a major export item. It is a lustrous monochromatic blackware called bucchero. This example is a graceful chalice doubtlessly used for drinking one of Etruscan’s favorite beverages, wine.
  • From the proliferation of tomb types, it is safe to assume that the Etruscans were very much interested in the afterlife and providing well for their ancestors. One type of funerary container, the terra cotta sarcophagus was unique to the Etruscan culture. It has on its lid, reclining as though at their own funerary banquet, the husband and wife whose remains were contained within. The style of the couple is Archaic in emulation of Greek Archaic figures, even down to the stylized triangular beard of the husband and the Archaic smiles on both faces.
  • Another sarcophagus, with the realistic treatment of a rather homely, middle-aged couple, is in the Hellenistic style of Etruscan art.
  • Metallurgy was a real forte of the Etruscans. They had extensive mines in Italy and crafted marvelous bronze sculptures. Bronze mirrors had on their back an engraved design based on an episode in Homer’s Iliad.
  • The Chimera was a Greek mythological creature who was killed by the hero Bellerophon. An Etruscan bronze captures the snarling ferocity of the combined animal with its semi-crouching pose, well-fanged mouth, and taught muscles.

Etruscan Architecture

The sacred area (temple) of Rome corresponds in miniature to the temple of the heavens, with the four cardinal points and the four quarters of the sky. Such were the foundation rites. Some archaeologists claim to have traced the lines of cardo and decumanus beneath the foundations of later buildings and to have found their crossing-place appropriately by the ancient Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum. These rites, and the religious ideas behind them, are known to have been Etruscan (Dudley 18).

However, no ruins of Etruscan temples have survived. They are known to have resembled the Greek temples in form and are presumed to have been rather inferior to them in the beauty of detail and of proportions. The Etruscans are credited with devising the cold and formal style of Doric capital which was generally used by the Romans in the time of the empire and which has been known as the “Tuscan” order (Goodyear 36).

It has been shown, however, by an American archaeologist, that the so-called Tuscan Doric capital is probably the survival of a very simple and undeveloped Doric form, rather than the late corruption and debasement of a better one. The capital in question lacks the fine curve and bold projection of the Parthenon Doric and is also distinguished from the Greek Doric by a projecting fillet at the top of the column. It is probable that the so-called “Composite” order of the Romans originated with the Etruscans (Goodyear 36).

The most famous contribution of the Etruscans to Roman architecture is the use of the arch. That they were the first to use it in Italy is clear and it is also clear that they used it largely, though even the ruins of their work in this line are scanty. The general repugnance of Greek builders to the arch is notorious and its later widespread use throughout the modern world is certainly due to the Etruscans, as the Romans learned its use from them. Etruscan engineering capacity is attested by various drainage constructions, of which the most famous is the Cloaca Maxima, or great sewer, at Rome, dating from the sixth century B. C..(Goodyear 37).

The walls of Falleri, north of Rome, are an example of what may be seen in the way of Etruscan masonry in various quarters. The lower layers of the town walls of Cortona, for instance, date back to the Etruscan period and show a similar construction. In the surviving Italian towns, on sites dating from the ancient days of Latium, there are many remains of similar massive walls and also of town gateways. Of the latter class, there is a fine example at Alatri, south of Rome.

In Rome, there are no traces of the so-called Pelasgic or polygonal style of masonry. The oldest remains, like the walls of the Palatine and of the Capitol, are built-in opus quadratum in the Etruscan style, with the blocks of tufa placed lengthwise in one tier and crosswise in the next. This rule was followed through the Republican period. As early at least as the sixth century B. C. Greek influences are very distinct in Etruscan art and were intact dominant from that time. They are not, however, obvious to an eye accustomed to tile perfected Greek style and to a person unaware how thoroughly oriental in appearance the early Greek art.

An example of Etruscan influence in Roman architecture can be seen in the interior of the tomb at Casal Marittimo which displays a corbelled dome. The exterior was covered with a large earthen mound contained at the base by a stone wall. Such mounded structures are known as tumuli; these structures were typical of Etruscans (Infinity 1). The tombs which are most generally visited by tourists are those of Cervetri and of Corneto, which are in the neighborhood of Rome.

At a tomb in Cervetri, the pillows are carved in stone in the cavity where the body was laid to rest. The capitals of the pilasters are of a primitive Ionic form, illustrating the evolution of the Ionic capital from the Egyptian lotus flower, and also illustrating the way in which such primitive Greek forms are constantly found in Etruscan examples. During the Republican period, Augustus constructed the huge mausoleum for the imperial family, modeled on the burial mounds of Etruscan tradition, but on an enormous scale (Dudley 154). It received the ashes of most of the leading members of the imperial family from Marcellus to Nerva.

Tomb Paintings

The Etruscan influence was paramount in the early part of Rome. In their wall paintings, many of which are still preserved in the splendid tombs of Orvieto and Corneto, the Etruscans showed themselves as masters of the early renaissance. In reliefs such as those of the three beautiful Cippi lately placed in the room of the archaic sculpture in the British Museum, they come very close to a style that is peculiarly Greek (Strong 31). But it was in their great clay sarcophagi surmounted by reclining figures that Etruscan art was manifested in its most individual mood. In the group of a man and his wife on the sarcophagus from Cervetri in the British Museum of about B.C. 500. Etruscan artists exhibited great expressive vitality.

The most beautiful examples come from the city of Tarquinia. During the Archaic period of Etruscan art, the paintings show characteristic Etruscan exuberance and joy of life with many scenes of dancing and revelry. One of the rooms of the Etruscan Museum at Florence has a collection of Etruscan antiquities. On the walls above one can see some copies of the tomb paintings. The apartment is filled mainly with sarcophagi and cists for the ashes of the dead.

As apparent in the varying sizes of these objects, both ordinary burial and cremation were practiced. The two large sarcophagi belong to a class that is not very numerous and the much larger number of cists for ashes shows that cremation was the habitual custom.

There is an even larger number of these cists in the Museum of Volterra, from which museum we have selected a characteristic example for the relief style of later date to contrast with the relief from Chiusi. The size of these cists is generally about two feet in length. The subjects of the reliefs with which the front and sides of the cists are decorated are mainly taken from Greek mythology and very frequently from Homer (Goodyear 41).

The reliefs of these cists are the best possible illustration of the manner in which Italian art became saturated with Greek influences and of the conditions under which Roman art developed. The reclining figures which are represented on the covers of the cist are invariable of a more hurried and ruder art than the reliefs on the body of the object and seem to have been made by an inferior class of artists. They represent the deceased in a conventional way and generally without effort at exact portraiture. These reclining figures always hold a patera, or dish for the receipt of the funeral offerings of food and drink (Goodyear 42).

In a tomb at Corvette, there is a picture showing two shields, a sword, a helmet, a staff, a drinking cup, a frying pan, and two necklaces, carved in relief on the walls of the tomb. Corneto in the locality most remarkable for tombs whose walls are decorated by frescoes. An illustration from Corneto shows a banquet scene and musicians. The style of drawing seems to fit the fifth century B. C. The animals, which are facing a shrub and which resemble leopards, are originally lions and are copied from lions facing a “sacred tree,” such as are common in early Greek art under the oriental influence.

Etruscan Art in Museums

Among the Etruscan treasures at the Museum of Perugia, there is a terra-cotta head of the Medusa, a terra-cotta cist decorated with a mask of the Medusa, and two griffins, and a silver mirror-case with a relief of Bacchus riding on the Panther—all of which have a Greek connotation. The small museum at Cortona boasts a bronze lamp with apertures for sixteen wicks, which was found suspended in a tomb, and is on account of its decorative relief designs the most remarkable object of its class in Europe. In the Museum of Chiusi, one can find a large amount of pottery, many cinerary cists, and some statuary.

The museum at Corneto (Tarquinii) has as its most remarkable possession a set of false teeth. This reminds of an exception to the Roman law forbidding the burial of gold objects at funerals, in favor of the gold filling of the teeth of the deceased.

Greek influence on Etruscan Art

The early Etruscan surface design paintings, known from tomb frescoes and reliefs, exhibit a general dependence on Greek art (Goodyear 33). In the relief from Chiusi, the exaggeration and contortion of the attitudes are distinctively Etruscan, although the general conception of the art shows Greek traditions. The museums have many ladies’ bronze mirrors which are decorated on the back with subjects of Greek myth (Goodyear 34).

The most palpable indication of the Greek influences in Etruscan, and therefore in Italian, art is the very large number of imported Greek painted pottery vases found in the tombs. In fact, they are so many in number that they are generally called “Etruscan vases” despite their Greek origin (Goodyear 35). These Greek influences were carried through to the Republican and Empire periods of Rome.


Thus, a study of Roman art and architecture would show that it carries the influence of Etruscan art and along with it, traces of Greek art that touched Etruscan art. Knowledge of Etruscan art is in reality not only a means of visualizing what the early Roman art was, but it is also a means of knowing what the Roman art became during the later periods in history.


Britova, N.N.; Loseva, N. M.; and Sidorova, N. A. (1975). The Roman Sculptural Portrait. “Art”. 1975. Web.

Dudley, R. Donald (1960). The Civilization of Rome. New American Library Publishers. New York.

Goodyear, W. H. (1897). Roman and Medieval Art. Grosset & Dunlap Publishers. New York.

Infinity (2008). Unit IV Review: Etruscan and Roman Art. Web.

Menen, Aubrey (1960). Rome for Ourselves. McGraw-Hill Publishers. New York.

Strong, Sellers Eugenie (1969). Roman Sculpture from Augustus to Constantine. Ayer Publishing.

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