Obelisk Art History
Ancient World

The Etruscans
A mysteriously happy people at the fringes of the classical world

The Etruscans, Ancient WorldChimera of Arezzo

From before the birth of Athens to the founding of the Roman empire, a mysterious culture lived on the fringes of the classical world. The Greeks called them Tyrrhenians and believed them to be cannibals. The Romans called them Etruscans, and whispered stories of piracy and witchcraft.

Today, much of our knowledge of the Etruscans history and culture is speculation. Only in the past 150 years have we begun to uncover remains of their civilization in western Italy, at sites in Veii, Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci, and Vetulonia. And while more than 13,000 samples of Ertruscan texts have been discovered, most are short memorial messages found on funerary erns, and no major works of religious, historical or narrative literature have yet been found.

So what can we surmise about these mysterious seafaring people from their art? Like many ancient cultures, much of the art that remains is funerary: catacombs and necropoleis full of urns and sarcophagi. The first thing we see is humor — these are smiling people, often immortalized in a moment of relaxation. It’s been suggested that women were equals in this society, since they share the same space and scale as their male partners in memorial sculptures. Among the few discovered frescos, we see banquets and wine. The Etruscan civilization lasted 1000 years, and never built an empire — maybe they were just having too much fun.

Reed Enger, "The Etruscans, A mysteriously happy people at the fringes of the classical world," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 26, 2015; last modified July 20, 2019, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/the-ancient-world/etruscan-art/.

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Circular “pilgrim” Flask, The Etruscans

Circular “pilgrim” Flask 750BCE

Pair of Hands, The Etruscans

Pair of Hands 700BCE

Gold Pectoral of Cerveteri, The Etruscans

Gold Pectoral of Cerveteri 675BCE

Large Wall Fibula, The Etruscans

Large Wall Fibula 675BCE

Pyxis and Lid with Sphinx-Shaped Handle, The Etruscans

Pyxis and Lid with Sphinx-Shaped Handle 650BCE

Bronze Etruscan Woman, The Etruscans

Bronze Etruscan Woman 600BCE

Canopic Urn, The Etruscans

Canopic Urn 600BCE

Apollo of Veii, The Etruscans

Apollo of Veii 550 – 520BCE

Etruscan Mirror, The Etruscans

Etruscan Mirror 500BCE

Mars de Todi, The Etruscans

Mars de Todi 500BCE

Chimera of Arezzo, The Etruscans

Chimera of Arezzo 400BCE

Cista Depicting a Dionysian Revel and Perseus with Medusa's Head, The Etruscans

Cista Depicting a Dionysian Revel and Perseus with Medusa's Head 400BCE

Etruscan Mirror, The Etruscans

Etruscan Mirror 350BCE

Etruscan Woman, The Etruscans

Etruscan Woman 300BCE

Jug in the Form of a Woman's Head (Oinochoe), The Etruscans

Jug in the Form of a Woman's Head (Oinochoe) 300BCE

Ombra Della Sera, The Etruscans

Ombra Della Sera 300BCE

Terracotta Votive Statuette of Two Draped Females, The Etruscans

Terracotta Votive Statuette of Two Draped Females 300BCE

Alabaster Cinerary Urn, The Etruscans

Alabaster Cinerary Urn 300 – 200BCE

Head of Etruscan Woman, The Etruscans

Head of Etruscan Woman 200BCE

Liver of Piacenza, The Etruscans

Liver of Piacenza 200BCE

Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa, The Etruscans

Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa 140BCE

The Orator, The Etruscans

The Orator 90BCE

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