A new exhibition at the University of Sydney
offers insight into a once dominant but enigmatic ancient Italian civilisation.
The Etruscans based in what is now known as Tuscany were the most powerful Mediterranean people in the 6th century BC before being conquered by the Romans and incorporated into the Roman Republic. Their empire was built on mineral wealth, enabling the development of elaborate cities and a powerful oligarchy which greatly influenced the Roman Empire.
While the Etruscans early dominance is undisputed, little is known about who they were and where they came from. There language is like no other spoken then, or since, in Europe. No Etruscan literature or major buildings survive, and much Etruscan art mostly made from stone, wood and terracotta - was summarily destroyed by the Romans.
The Nicholson Museums The Etruscans: A Classical Fantasy sheds light on what little is known about the Etruscan people, their history and their lifestyle. It features sculpture, jewellery, bronzes, pottery, terracotta figurines and body parts, and funerary urns. The urns, date to the 2nd century BC, offering some of the best available clues about life in Etruria.
Now, we know nothing about the Etruscans except what we find in their tombs, wrote D.H. Lawrence in Etruscan Places, published in 1932. There are references to them in Latin writers. But of first-hand knowledge we have nothing except what the tombs offer. So to the tombs we must go: or the museums containing the things that have been rifled from the tombs.
The Etruscans curator Michael Turner says present day fascination with the Etruscans in part derives from the magnificent painted tombs which, being underground, survived the worst excesses of the Romans.
The Etruscans built cities of the dead outside the walls of their cities of the living in the Tuscan hills, he says. Within these cities family tombs were built into mounds, carved into hills or cut into bedrock. They were painted and decorated as if inhabited and filled, for instance, with dining and drinking accoutrements. Illustrated imagery reflected the important rituals of life: dancing, feasting, games, sex and death.
Several urns on display in The Etruscans: A Classical Fantasy feature customised lids depicting the deceased, with writing on the front giving the dead persons name and family.