Written by Mary Flanagan Tuesday, November 29 2011
|Facsimile by Gregorio Mariani|
Tomba del Triclinio
470 B.C. (fresco)/1895 A.D. (oil painting)
Their unique position in history – the Etruscans lived from 1000 B.C. until the first century A.D. – is the focus of an extraordinary exhibition on Etruscan women organized by the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden or RMO) in Leiden and running from Oct. 14 until March 18, 2012.
“Tomb paintings are the most important source of information about Etruscan women,” according to Patricia Lulof, professor of Mediterranean archaeology at the University of Amsterdam and chief editor of the Etruscan exhibition catalog.
The frescos Professor Lulof is talking about show aristocratic Etruscan women moving freely in public places, including attending sporting events, banquets, and theater productions.
|Gold brooch with ruby|
Roots, algae, and clumsy tomb raiders have totally destroyed some of the colorful frescos decorating Etruscan tombs. Details on other Etruscan frescos would have been lost forever as well if it were not for drawings done by archaeologists in the 19th century.
On display in Leiden is an 1895 A.D. oil painting of a 470 B.C. fresco from the back wall of the Tomba del Triclinio in the city of Cerveteri. The scene shows dignified Etruscan women relaxing on couches with their husbands. The women were equal participants at the lavish banquet. In Greece during that same period, the only women attending banquets were prostitutes and servants. Consequently, some Greek writers blatantly condemned the morals of Etruscan women.
The Etruscans had their own language, but few examples of Etruscan text have survived – only some 11,000 short inscriptions. Nevertheless, it is likely that aristocratic Etruscan women could read and write. Among the possessions buried with affluent Etruscan women were personal grooming aids, including engraved mirrors and perfume bottles.
“The presence of inscriptions on typically feminine objects, such as mirrors, implies that women could read them,” according to Tanja van der Zon, project manager of the exhibition at the RMO.
The exhibition clearly shows that affluent Etruscan women, like contemporary Italian women, were very style conscious, especially when it came to footwear. Bronze votive statues found in graves as well as the tomb paintings reveal the popularity of gracefully pointed boots in black or red leather that hit mid-calf. The well-heeled Etruscan women’s dresses were long tunics fastened by ornamental brooches. Hairstyles were as varied as nowadays, and some women bleached their hair blond. Fashion accessories included bracelets, necklaces, hairpins, and ribbons. The Etruscan women’s appreciation of skilled craftsmanship is evident by the pieces of fine gold jewelry that they carried with them to their graves.
|Bronze statue of Etruscan woman|
In 1836 the archaeologists Archbishop Alessandro Regolini and General Vincenzo Galassi uncovered an intact tomb of a high-ranking Etruscan woman. Following the discovery of the tomb’s spectacular treasures, which included hundreds of pieces of jewelry, all things Etruscan became fashionable in Europe. Italian goldsmiths, masters in the techniques of granulation and filigree work, developed neo-Etruscan style jewelry. Goldsmiths all over Europe copied their designs, and the Etruscan style remained in vogue until the end of the century. In the RMO’s exhibition cases, golden artifacts from the Regolini-Galassi tomb are displayed as well as gold bracelets, earrings, and brooches dating from the 1800s.
Also fascinated by the Etruscans, the English author and artist D.H. Lawrence wrote about his 1927 explorations of various Etruscan tombs. Various quotes from his book, Etruscan Places, decorate the walls of the exhibition. Lawrence brings the Etruscans alive with his firsthand account of the fresco from the Cerveteri tomb, which is now on display at the RMO:
The show at the RMO in Leiden is half of the double exhibition entitled “Etruscans: Eminent Women, Powerful Men.” The other half, a show highlighting the lifestyle of Etruscan men, is running concurrently at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam.
Supplementing the Dutch museums own Etruscan collections, objects are on loan from the National Archaeological Museum (Florence); Villa Giula (Rome); the Capitoline Museum (Rome); Vatican Museum (Vatican City); Archaeological Museum of Bologna; Archaeological Museum of Verrocchio; the British Museum (London); the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket (Copenhagen); and Royal Museum for Art and History (Brussels).
The illustrated catalog of the double exhibition, “Etruscans: Eminent Women, Powerful Men,” is available at both museums, in English and Dutch.
Websites for the museums: www.rmo.nl and www.allardpiersonmuseum.nl
Mary Flanagan was born in Fairfield, Conn., and has a degree in archeology from the University of Arizona. She has been working as a journalist, editor, and translator in Amsterdam, Holland, for the past 20 years. Most recently she has translated two historical novels by Dutch author Ivo Knottnerus, The Life of the Renaissance Painter Paolo Veronese and Saint Helena's Pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem, which have just been published as e-books via Amazon.com.