Etruscan art

Last updated
Bronze cista handle with Sleep and Death Carrying off the Slain Sarpedon, 400-380 BC, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Sleep and Death Carrying off the Slain Sarpedon (cista handle), 400-380 BC, Etruscan, bronze - Cleveland Museum of Art - DSC08259.JPG
Bronze cista handle with Sleep and Death Carrying off the Slain Sarpedon, 400–380 BC, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland
Fragments from a temple pediment group in terracotta, late period, National Archaeological Museum, Florence Museo archeologico di Firenze, frontone di Luni 2.JPG
Fragments from a temple pediment group in terracotta, late period, National Archaeological Museum, Florence
Cista depicting a Dionysian Revel and Perseus with Medusa's Head from Praeneste 4th century. The complex engraved images are hard to see here. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore Etruscan - Cista Depicting a Dionysian Revel and Perseus with Medusa's Head - Walters 54136.jpg
Cista depicting a Dionysian Revel and Perseus with Medusa's Head from Praeneste 4th century. The complex engraved images are hard to see here. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Etruscan art was produced by the Etruscan civilization in central Italy between the 10th and 1st centuries BC. From around 750 BC it was heavily influenced by Greek art, which was imported by the Etruscans, but always retained distinct characteristics. Particularly strong in this tradition were figurative sculpture in terracotta (especially life-size on sarcophagi or temples), wall-painting and metalworking especially in bronze. Jewellery and engraved gems of high quality were produced. [2]


Etruscan sculpture in cast bronze was famous and widely exported, but relatively few large examples have survived (the material was too valuable, and recycled later). In contrast to terracotta and bronze, there was relatively little Etruscan sculpture in stone, despite the Etruscans controlling fine sources of marble, including Carrara marble, which seems not to have been exploited until the Romans.

The great majority of survivals came from tombs, which were typically crammed with sarcophagi and grave goods, and terracotta fragments of architectural sculpture, mostly around temples. Tombs have produced all the fresco wall-paintings, which show scenes of feasting and some narrative mythological subjects.

Bucchero wares in black were the early and native styles of fine Etruscan pottery. There was also a tradition of elaborate Etruscan vase painting, which sprang from its Greek equivalent; the Etruscans were the main export market for Greek vases. Etruscan temples were heavily decorated with colourfully painted terracotta antefixes and other fittings, which survive in large numbers where the wooden superstructure has vanished. Etruscan art was strongly connected to religion; the afterlife was of major importance in Etruscan art. [3]


Relief mirror-back with "Herekele" (Hercules) seizing Mlacuch (500-475 BC) Etruscan antiquities in the British Museum DSCF0012 02.JPG
Relief mirror-back with "Herekele" (Hercules) seizing Mlacuch (500–475 BC)

The Etruscans emerged from the Villanovan culture. Due to the proximity and/or commercial contact to Etruria, other ancient cultures influenced Etruscan art during the Orientalizing period, such as Greece, Phoenicia, Egypt, Assyria and the Middle East. The Romans would later come to absorb the Etruscan culture into theirs but would also be greatly influenced by them and their art.


Etruscan art is usually divided into a number of periods:


Terracotta head of a youth MET DP119670.jpg
Terracotta head of a youth MET DP254649.jpg
Terracotta heads of Etruscan male youths, with one bare-headed and the other wearing a helmet, 3rd–2nd centuries BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The Etruscans were very accomplished sculptors, with many surviving examples in terracotta, both small-scale and monumental, bronze, and alabaster. However, there is very little in stone, in contrast to the Greeks and Romans. Terracotta sculptures from temples have nearly all had to be reconstructed from a mass of fragments, but sculptures from tombs, including the distinctive form of sarcophagus tops with near life-size reclining figures, have usually survived in good condition, although the painting on them has usually suffered. Small bronze pieces, often including sculptural decoration, became an important industry in later periods, exported to the Romans and others. See the "Metalwork" section below for these, and "Funerary art" for tomb art.

The famous bronze "Capitoline Wolf" in the Capitoline Museum, Rome, was long regarded as Etruscan, its age is now disputed, it may actually date from the 12th century.

The Apollo of Veii is a good example of the mastery with which Etruscan artists produced these large art pieces. It was made, along with others, to adorn the temple at Portanaccio’s roof line. Although its style is reminiscent of the Greek Kroisos Kouros, having statues on the top of the roof was an original Etruscan idea. [11]


Confronted leopards above a banqueting scene in the Tomb of the Leopards, c. 480-450 BC. Tarquinia Tomb of the Leopards.jpg
Confronted leopards above a banqueting scene in the Tomb of the Leopards, c. 480–450 BC.

The Etruscan paintings that have survived are almost all wall frescoes from tombs, mainly located in Tarquinia, and dating from roughly 670 BC to 200 BC, with the peak of production between about 520 and 440 BC. The Greeks very rarely painted their tombs in the equivalent period, with rare exceptions such as the Tomb of the Diver in Paestum and southern Italy, and the Macedonian royal tombs at Vergina. The whole tradition of Greek painting on walls and panels, arguably the form of art that Greek contemporaries considered their greatest, is almost entirely lost, giving the Etruscan tradition, which undoubtedly drew much from Greek examples, an added importance, even if it does not approach the quality and sophistication of the best Greek masters. It is clear from literary sources that temples, houses and other buildings also had wall-paintings, but these have all been lost, like their Greek equivalents. [12]

The Etruscan tombs, which housed the remains of whole lineages, were apparently sites for recurrent family rituals, and the subjects of paintings probably have a more religious character than might at first appear. A few detachable painted terracotta panels have been found in tombs, up to about a metre tall, and fragments in city centres. [13]

The frescoes are created by applying paint on top of fresh plaster, so that when the plaster dries the painting becomes part of the plaster, and consequently an integral part of the wall. Colours were created from ground up minerals of different colours and were then mixed to the paint. Fine brushes were made of animal hair.

From the mid 4th century BC chiaroscuro modelling began to be used to portray depth and volume. [14] Sometimes scenes of everyday life are portrayed, but more often traditional mythological scenes, usually recognisable from Greek mythology, which the Etruscans seem largely to have adopted. Symposium scenes are common, and sport and hunting scenes are found. The depiction of human anatomy never approaches Greek levels. The concept of proportion does not appear in any surviving frescoes and we frequently find portrayals of animals or men out of proportion. Various types of ornament cover much of the surface between figurative scenes.

Vase painting

Water jar with Herakles and the Hydra, c. 525 BC Herakles and the Hydra Water Jar (Etruscan, c. 525 BC) -- Getty Villa - Collection.jpg
Water jar with Herakles and the Hydra, c. 525 BC
Example of Greek-style vase painting in Caere. Eurytus and Heracles in a symposium. Krater of corinthian columns called 'Krater of Eurytus', c. 600 BC Eurytios Krater Louvre E635 n1.jpg
Example of Greek-style vase painting in Caere. Eurytus and Heracles in a symposium. Krater of corinthian columns called 'Krater of Eurytus', c. 600 BC

Etruscan vase painting was produced from the 7th through the 4th centuries BC, and is a major element in Etruscan art. It was strongly influenced by Greek vase painting, followed the main trends in style, especially those of Athens, over the period, but lagging behind by some decades. The Etruscans used the same techniques, and largely the same shapes. Both the black-figure vase painting and the later red-figure vase painting techniques were used. The subjects were also very often drawn from Greek mythology in later periods.

Besides being producers in their own right, the Etruscans were the main export market for Greek pottery outside Greece, and some Greek painters probably moved to Etruria, where richly decorated vases were a standard element of grave inventories. It has been suggested that many or most elaborately painted vases were specifically bought to be used in burials, as a substitute, cheaper and less likely to attract robbers, for the vessels in silver and bronze that the elite would have used in life.

Bucchero ware

More fully characteristic of Etruscan ceramic art are the burnished, unglazed bucchero terracotta wares, rendered black in a reducing kiln deprived of oxygen. This was an Etruscan development based on the pottery techniques of the Villanovan period. Often decorated with white lines, these may have eventually represented a traditional "heritage" style kept in use specially for tomb wares.

Terracotta panels

A few large terracotta pinakes or plaques, much larger than are typical in Greek art, have been found in tombs, some forming a series that creates in effect a portable wall-painting. The "Boccanera" tomb at the Banditaccia necropolis at Cerveteri contained five panels almost a metre high set round the wall, which are now in the British Museum. Three of them form a single scene, apparently the Judgement of Paris, while the other two flanked the inside of the entrance, with sphinxes acting as tomb guardians. They date to about 560 BC. Fragments of similar panels have been found in city centre sites, presumably from temples, elite houses and other buildings, where the subjects include scenes of everyday life. [16]

Monteleone bronze chariot inlaid with ivory (530 BC) WLA metmuseum Bronze chariot inlaid with ivory 3.jpg
Monteleone bronze chariot inlaid with ivory (530 BC)


The Etruscans were masters of bronze-working as shown by the many outstanding examples in museums, and from accounts of the statues sent to Rome after their conquest. [17] According to Pliny, the Romans looted 2,000 bronze statues from the city of Volsinii alone after capturing it. [18]

The Monteleone chariot is one of the finest examples of large bronzework and is the best-preserved and most complete of the surviving works.

The Etruscans had a strong tradition of working in bronze from very early times, and their small bronzes were widely exported. Apart from cast bronze, the Etruscans were also skilled at the engraving of cast pieces with complex linear images, whose lines were filled with a white material to highlight them; in modern museum conditions with this filling lost, and the surface inevitably somewhat degraded, they are often much less striking and harder to read than would have been the case originally. This technique was mostly applied to the roundish backs of polished bronze mirrors and to the sides of cistae. A major centre for cista manufacture was Praeneste, which somewhat like early Rome was an Italic-speaking town in the Etruscan cultural sphere. [19] Some mirrors, or mirror covers (used to protect the mirror's reflective surface) are in a low relief.

Funerary art

Painted terracotta Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa, about 150-130 BCE British Museum Etruscan 8-2.jpg
Painted terracotta Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa, about 150–130 BCE

The Etruscans excelled in portraying humans. Throughout their history they used two sets of burial practices: cremation and inhumation. [20] Cinerary urns (for cremation) and sarcophagi (for inhumation) have been found together in the same tomb showing that throughout generations, both forms were used at the same time. [21] In the 7th century they started depicting human heads on canopic urns and when they started burying their dead in the late 6th century they did so in terracotta sarcophagi. [22] These sarcophagi were decorated with an image of the deceased reclining on the lid alone or sometimes with a spouse. The Etruscans invented the custom of placing figures on the lid which later influenced the Romans to do the same. [22] Funerary urns that were like miniature versions of the sarcophagi, with a reclining figure on the lid, became widely popular in Etruria.

The Hellenistic period funerary urns were generally made in two pieces. The top lid usually depicted a banqueting man or woman (but not always) and the container part was either decorated in relief in the front only or, on more elaborate stone pieces, carved on its sides. [23] During this period, the terracotta urns were being mass-produced using clay in Northern Etruria (specifically in and around Chiusi). [24] Often the scenes decorated in relief on the front of the urn were depicting generic Greek influenced scenes. [25] The production of these urns did not require skilled artists and so what we are left with is often mediocre, unprofessional art, made en masse. [26] However the colour choices on the urns offer evidence as to dating, as colours used changed over time.

Art and religion

5th to 4th century BC necklace in gold 5th-4th century BCE Etruscan necklace by Mary Harrsch.jpg
5th to 4th century BC necklace in gold

Etruscan art was often religious in character and, hence, strongly connected to the requirements of Etruscan religion. The Etruscan afterlife was negative, in contrast to the positive view in ancient Egypt where it was but a continuation of earthly life, or the confident relations with the gods as in ancient Greece.[ citation needed ] Roman interest in Etruscan religion centred on their methods of divination and propitiating and discovering the will of the gods, rather than the gods themselves, which may have distorted the information that has come down to us. [27] Most remains of Etruscan funerary art have been found in excavations of cemeteries (as at Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Populonia, Orvieto, Vetulonia, Norchia), meaning that what we see of Etruscan art is primarily dominated by depictions of religion and in particular the funerary cult, whether or not that is a true reflection of Etruscan art as a whole.


Etruscan tombs were heavily looted from early on, initially for precious metals. From the Renaissance onwards Etruscan objects, especially painted vases and sarcophagi, were keenly collected. Many were exported before this was forbidden, and most major museum collections of classical art around the world have good selections. But the major collections remain in Italian museums in Rome, Florence, and other cities in areas that were formerly Etruscan, which include the results of modern archaeology.

Major collections in Italy include the National Etruscan Museum (Italian : Museo Nazionale Etrusco) in the Villa Giulia in Rome, National Archaeological Museum in Florence, Vatican Museums, Tarquinia National Museum, and the Archeological Civic Museum in Bologna, as well as more local collections near important sites such as Cerveteri, Orvieto and Perugia. Some painted tombs, now emptied of their contents, can be viewed at necropoli such as Cerveteri.

From September 2021 to June 2022, a major exhibition of Etruscan art is on show at the MARQ Archaeological Museum of Alicante, Spain. [28] The exhibition, Etruscans: The Dawn of Rome, features a large number of items on loan from the National Archaeological Museum, Florence and the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum in Volterra. [29]

See also


  1. "Cista Depicting a Dionysian Revel and Perseus with Medusa's Head". The Walters Art Museum.
  2. Boardman, 350–351
  3. Spivey, Nigel (1997). Etruscan Art. London: Thames and Hudson.
  4. Grove, 2 (i)
  5. Grove, 2 (ii); Boardman, 349
  6. de Grummond, Nancy Thomson (2014). "Ethnicity and the Etruscans". Companion to Ethnicity in the Ancient Mediterranean. Chichester, Uk: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 413–414. The facial features, however, are not likely to constitute a true portrait, but rather partake of a formula for representing the male in Etruria in Archaic art. It has been observed that the formula used—with the face in profile, showing almond-shaped eyes, a large nose, and a domed up profile of the top of the head—has its parallels in images from the eastern Mediterranean. But these features may show only artistic conventions and are therefore of limited value for determining ethnicity.
  7. Bianchi Bandinelli, Ranuccio (1984). "Il problema del ritratto". L'arte classica (in Italian). Roma: Editori Riuniti.
  8. Grove, 2 (iii)
  9. Grove, 2 (iv)
  10. Grove, 2 (v)
  11. (Ramage 2009: 46)
  12. Steingräber, 9
  13. Williams, 243; Vermeule, 157–162
  14. Boardman, 352
  15. "Terracotta focolare (offering tray), c. 550–500 BC, Etruscan" Metropolitan
  16. Williams, 242–243
  17. Ancient Rome as a Museum: Power, Identity, and the Culture of Collecting, Steven Rutledge, OUP Oxford, 2012 ISBN   0199573239
  18. Pliny: Historia Naturalis xxxiv.16
  19. Boardman, 351–352
  20. (Turfa 2005: 55)
  21. (Richter 1940: 56, note 1)
  22. 1 2 (Ramage 2009:51)
  23. (Maggiani 1985: 34)
  24. (Maggiani 1985: 100)
  25. (Nielsen 1995:328)
  26. (Richter 1940: 50)
  27. Grove, 3
  28. "Opening hours". MARQ Alicante. Retrieved 14 March 2022.
  29. "The MARQ brings to Alicante the largest exhibition on the Etruscans seen in Spain in the last 15 years". Digis Mak. 20 May 2021.

Related Research Articles

Aita Etruscan underworld deity

Aita is the name of the Etruscan equivalent to the Greek Hades, the god of the underworld.

Ancient art Art by advanced cultures of ancient societies

Ancient art refers to the many types of art produced by the advanced cultures of ancient societies with some form of writing, such as those of ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The art of pre-literate societies is normally referred to as Prehistoric art and is not covered here. Although some Pre-Columbian cultures developed writing during the centuries before the arrival of Europeans, on grounds of dating these are covered at Pre-Columbian art, and articles such as Maya art and Aztec art. Olmec art is mentioned below.

Roman art Arts made in Ancient Rome in the territories of Rome

The art of Ancient Rome, its Republic and later Empire includes architecture, painting, sculpture and mosaic work. Luxury objects in metal-work, gem engraving, ivory carvings, and glass are sometimes considered to be minor forms of Roman art, although they were not considered as such at the time. Sculpture was perhaps considered as the highest form of art by Romans, but figure painting was also highly regarded. A very large body of sculpture has survived from about the 1st century BC onward, though very little from before, but very little painting remains, and probably nothing that a contemporary would have considered to be of the highest quality.

Tarquinia Town in Lazio, Italy

Tarquinia, formerly Corneto, is an old city in the province of Viterbo, Lazio, Central Italy, known chiefly for its ancient Etruscan tombs in the widespread necropoleis, or cemeteries, for which it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.

Cerveteri Comune in Lazio, Italy

Cerveteri is a town and comune of northern Lazio in the region of the Metropolitan City of Rome. Known by the ancient Romans as Caere, and previously by the Etruscans as Caisra or Cisra, and as Agylla by the Greeks, its modern name derives from Caere Vetus used in the 13th century to distinguish it from Caere Novum.


Caere is the Latin name given by the Romans to one of the larger cities of southern Etruria, the modern Cerveteri, approximately 50–60 kilometres north-northwest of Rome. To the Etruscans it was known as Cisra, to the Greeks as Agylla and to the Phoenicians as Kyšryʼ.

Vulci Etruscan city near Rome

Vulci or Volci was a rich Etruscan city in what is now northern Lazio, central Italy.

Roman sculpture Sculpture of ancient Rome

The study of Roman sculpture is complicated by its relation to Greek sculpture. Many examples of even the most famous Greek sculptures, such as the Apollo Belvedere and Barberini Faun, are known only from Roman Imperial or Hellenistic "copies". At one time, this imitation was taken by art historians as indicating a narrowness of the Roman artistic imagination, but, in the late 20th century, Roman art began to be reevaluated on its own terms: some impressions of the nature of Greek sculpture may in fact be based on Roman artistry.

Tomb of the Roaring Lions Historic site in Veii, Italy

The Tomb of the Roaring Lions is an archaeological site at the ancient city of Veii, Italy. It is best known for its well-preserved fresco paintings of four feline-like creatures, believed by archaeologists to depict lions. The tomb is believed to be one of the oldest painted tombs in the western Mediterranean, dating back to 690 BCE. The discovery of the Tomb allowed archaeologists a greater insight into funerary practices amongst the Etruscan people, while providing insight into art movements around this period of time. The fresco paintings on the wall of the tomb are a product of advances in trade that allowed artists in Veii to be exposed to art making practices and styles of drawing originating from different cultures, in particular geometric art movements in Greece. The lions were originally assumed to be caricatures of lions – created by artists who had most likely never seen the real animal in flesh before.

<i>Sarcophagus of the Spouses</i>

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses is considered one of the great masterpieces of Etruscan art. The Etruscans lived in Italy between two main rivers, the Arno and the Tiber, and were in contact with the Ancient Greeks through trade, mainly during the Orientalizing and Archaic Period. The Etruscans were well known for their terracotta sculptures and their funerary art, such as sarcophagi and urns. This sarcophagus is a late sixth-century BC Etruscan anthropoid sarcophagus that was found at the Banditaccia necropolis in Caere and is now located in the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia, Rome.

National Etruscan Museum

The National Etruscan Museum is a museum of the Etruscan civilization, housed in the Villa Giulia in Rome, Italy.


In the modern study of the culture of ancient Greece and Magna Graecia, a pinax (πίναξ), meaning "board", is a votive tablet of painted wood, or terracotta, marble or bronze relief that served as a votive object deposited in a sanctuary or as a memorial affixed within a burial chamber. Such pinakes feature in the classical collections of most comprehensive museums.


Bucchero is a class of ceramics produced in central Italy by the region's pre-Roman Etruscan population. This Italian word is derived from the Latin poculum, a drinking-vessel, perhaps through the Spanish búcaro, or the Portuguese púcaro.

Funerary art Art associated with a repository for the remains of the dead

Funerary art is any work of art forming, or placed in, a repository for the remains of the dead. The term encompasses a wide variety of forms, including cenotaphs, tomb-like monuments which do not contain human remains, and communal memorials to the dead, such as war memorials, which may or may not contain remains, and a range of prehistoric megalithic constructs. Funerary art may serve many cultural functions. It can play a role in burial rites, serve as an article for use by the dead in the afterlife, and celebrate the life and accomplishments of the dead, whether as part of kinship-centred practices of ancestor veneration or as a publicly directed dynastic display. It can also function as a reminder of the mortality of humankind, as an expression of cultural values and roles, and help to propitiate the spirits of the dead, maintaining their benevolence and preventing their unwelcome intrusion into the lives of the living.

Monterozzi necropolis Etruscan necropolis in Lazio, Italy

The Monterozzi necropolis is an Etruscan necropolis on a hill east of Tarquinia in Lazio, Italy. The necropolis has about 6,000 graves, the oldest of which dates to the 7th century BC. About 200 of the tomb chambers are decorated with frescos.

Tarquinia National Museum Archaeological museum in Lazio, Italy

The Tarquinia National Museum is an archaeological museum dedicated to the Etruscan civilization in Tarquinia, Italy. Its collection consists primarily of the artifacts which were excavated from the Necropolis of Monterozzi to the east of the city. It is housed in the Palazzo Vitelleschi.

Ancient Greek art Art of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek art stands out among that of other ancient cultures for its development of naturalistic but idealized depictions of the human body, in which largely nude male figures were generally the focus of innovation. The rate of stylistic development between about 750 and 300 BC was remarkable by ancient standards, and in surviving works is best seen in sculpture. There were important innovations in painting, which have to be essentially reconstructed due to the lack of original survivals of quality, other than the distinct field of painted pottery.

Etruscan architecture Architecture of the Etruscan civilization

Etruscan architecture was created between about 900 BC and 27 BC, when the expanding civilization of ancient Rome finally absorbed Etruscan civilization. The Etruscans were considerable builders in stone, wood and other materials of temples, houses, tombs and city walls, as well as bridges and roads. The only structures remaining in quantity in anything like their original condition are tombs and walls, but through archaeology and other sources we have a good deal of information on what once existed.

Roman Republican art

Roman Republican art is the artistic production that took place in Roman territory during the period of the Republic, conventionally from 509 BC to 27 BC.

Etruscan sculpture Etruscan ceramics and sculpture

Etruscan sculpture was one of the most important artistic expressions of the Etruscan people, who inhabited the region of northern and central Italy between about 9th century BC and 1st century BC. Its art was largely a derivation of Greek art, although developed with many characteristics of its own. Given the almost total lack of Etruscan written documents, a problem compounded by the paucity of information on their language—still largely undeciphered—it is in their art that the keys to the reconstruction of their history are to be found, although Greek and Roman chronicles are also of great help. Like its culture in general, Etruscan sculpture has many obscure aspects for scholars, being the subject of controversy and forcing them to propose their interpretations always tentatively, but the consensus is that it was part of the most important and original legacy of Italian art and even contributed significantly to the initial formation of the artistic traditions of ancient Rome. The view of Etruscan sculpture as a homogeneous whole is erroneous, there being important variations, both regional and temporal.


Further reading