History Travels with Nancy Padgett: Seeing History
Etruscan Art, Culture, Language, and Religion 
Etruscan Sarcophagus of the Spouses, Villa Giulia, RomeThe Sarcophagus of the Spouses. Etruscan, 550 BC, painted terracotta. Found at Cerveteri, now in the Villa Giulia Museum, Rome.

A couple happily reposes, perhaps at a wine banquet called a "symposium,"  or perhaps in the afterlife. This violent Etruscan society produced beautiful art.

Slideshow of Etruscan Art in Berlin

Slideshow of Etruscan Art in U.S. Museums


The strange world of Etruscan art, culture, language, and religion.

The Etruscans

--blissed-out on wine, banquets, exquisite gold jewelry for men and for women, Greek vases, and tiny figurines.

--were addicted to brutal, ferocious sports and burial rites.

--cooked up arcane rules for divining the will of the gods.

 A culture of extremes, even by the standards of the ancient world.


Etruscan Culture: Antiquity for Beginners

Diving into Etruscan history is easy, since so little is known about them. We cannot locate the grave of even a single Etruscan king.

No narrative writings by Etruscans have survived. No histories, biographies, tell-alls, literature.  No poems or racy stories, no epic adventures. No Homer graced their culture. The Romans eventually broke away from Greek authors and literature and developed their own--Horace, for example-- but not the Etruscans. Only inscriptions. The Etruscan language is truly a dead language, though not entirely indecipherable.

But if written evidence is puny, the visuals for their culture are not.

The Etruscans were the finest goldsmiths of the ancient world. Brilliant, intricate designs, carried out by techniques we still cannot replicate.

Most Etruscan art and artifacts are connected with religion--funerals or rituals. We modern viewers are subjected to endless numbers of funerary urns, sarcophagi, tombs and their objects, and the like. The Etruscans were an unusually "religious" culture, with little separation between sacred and secular.
  Man on Horseback. Etruscan bronze, 500 BC
Man on Horseback
Etruscan 500 BC, Bronze. Gregoriano Etrusco Vatican Museum.

Etruscan Art

Etruscan art objects are intense, whether superbly intricate, or simplicity itself.  Their tension vibrates through the air.

Patrons favored expressive, figurative art that looked "natural." To this naturalism, Etruscan artists added a good deal of  abstract design.

Even so, specific individuals remain in the fog. Nobody "famous" is in evidence.

Look closely at our euphoric pair, the "Happy Spouses". This sculpture depicts a type, like an angel in a garden, not identifiable people.

An upturned smile, signifying vitality, was often used, though it was not unique to the Etruscans.

One point the sculpture underlines: Etruscan wives went out in public. Wives were considered an integral part of their sophisticated banquets. The Etruscans' cultural counterpart, the Greeks, kept wives at home and isolated.

Greek art influenced Etruscan artists, and Etruscans collected Greek vases by the ton. But soon the Etruscans surpassed the Greeks in portraiture, jewelry, metalwork, and a sense of motion in their art.

Learn more: Nigel Spivey, Etruscan Art (1997) and Greek Art (1997)

Richard de Puma, Etruscan Art in the Metropolitan Museum (2013)
  Etruscan Sarcophagus of the Spouses, Louvre Paris
he Sarcophagus of the Spouses. Etruscan, 550 BC. Painted terracotta. Louvre Museum, Paris.

Etruscan gold bracelet, 7th C BC, Vatican MuseumsBracelet. Etruscan, c 650 BC. Gold.  Gregoriano Etrusco Vatican Museum.

The Etruscan Good Life: Wearable Art

Vases and tomb frescoes depict a culture of earthy sensuality. Some Etruscan tomb frescoes would earn an "X" rating in Hollywood.

Both men and women wore gold, gilded and bejeweled bracelets, armbands, necklaces, and tiaras. The artisan would heat the gold and affix it by the technique of "granulation" into patterns on a gold base. Unfortunately, since no kilns or goldsmith workshops have been found, modern archeologists cannot entirely recover these Etruscan techniques.

Women wore earrings and  rare and costly amber, imported from the Baltic Sea communities. The amber was perhaps a fertility symbol.

Men and women of the wealthy upper classes dressed alike: both donned a long tebanna, precursor to the Roman toga, and mantles, with shoes curved upward in points at the toes.

A lush culture indeed--for the wealthy elite.
  Etruscan gold necklace with Lion motif, 7th c BC, Vatican Museums
Lion Necklace. Etruscan, c 650 BC.
Gold. Gregoriano Etrusco Vatican Museum.

Etruscan Lion necklace detail, Vatican Museums Lion  Necklace Detail

Addiction to Violence

In addition to finding joy in extreme luxury, the Etruscans also found it in extreme violence.

Etruscan funeral rites sometimes included human sacrifice of the owners' slaves. Some slaves had to engage in ritualistic battle until death. These may have been the first "gladiators" of the ancient world.

Etruscan chariot racing drew a ban from the Greek Olympics.
The Etruscan charioteer, unlike the Greek, was sometimes strapped to his chariot with strong leather belts, with the reins tied behind his back. The chariot became a  virtual prison for the driver. Racecourses had steep dips, bumpy hills, and hair-raising curves; fatal accidents were numerous, and probably expected.

Etruscan tomb fresco Chariot Racing, Tarquinia, Italy Chariot racing. Etruscan. Fresco, wall painting. Tomb in Tarquinia, Italy.
The Etruscan Language

What is it?  The Etruscans borrowed the Greek alphabet to write down their own language but the results look like scratches in the sand.

What was this language?  Mostly we know what it is not: not Indo-European like Greek or Latin, nor related to Basque, Hungarian,  Finnish, or other orphan languages. Without an understanding of their language, Etruscan culture is more opaque to us than are other long-ago cultures.

10,000 or so inscriptions have been found in tombs.  The "words" or scratches read right to left, sometimes left to right;  sometimes there are no spaces between the words.

Only a few hundred complete words have been recovered. Only a few "texts" contain more than 30 lines.

The "Mummy of Zagreb" linen shroud has the most.  It's currently in the National Museum of Archeology in Zagreb, Croatia. The shroud was originally a codex book, made of linen. At some point in time, the folded book was cut into strips to use as a shroud for an Eqyptian female mummy. Her name was Nesi-Hensu, wife of a "divine tailor" from Thebes, Paher-Hensu.

The Etruscan letters were written in black ink, and the columns were makred with a thin line of red ink.

How did an Eqyptian mummy enshrouded in one of the few recorded Etruscan documents end up in Zagreb, Croatia? In 1848, many Europeans revolted against the oppressive and authoritarian regimes of their day, much like the American colonists had done a mere 75 years earlier. But these Europeans lost, and one of them, a Croatian nobleman named Mihael Barich, escaped to Eqypt. There he bought the mummy to add to his collection in Vienna. He gave the mummy to the National Museum of Zagreb in 1859. When his bequest arrived, other items had been added, including jewellry and the mummified head of a cat.

Scholars at first thought the writings on the linen were Eqyptian; it took thirty years to decide they were Etruscan, not Eqyptian.

The Etruscan linen book was restored in the 1980's. It survived the Balkan Wars of the 1990's and today has a dedicated room in the National Archeological Museum, Zagreb, Croatia.

National Archeological Museum Zagreb Croatia
National Archeological Museum, Zagreb, Croatia.

Zagreb Mummy sign Archeological Museum Zagreb
On the way to the Zagreb Mummy.
  Inscription over entry to tombTomb entry inscription. Etruscan, 4th c BC, Necropolis of Crocifisso di Tufio, Orvieto, Italy. Photo courtesy Bill Thayer.

Etruscan codex book on sarcophagus
A folded linen codex book on an Etruscan sarcophagus. Rome, the Vatican Museums.
The Mummy of Zagreb
(1) The Zagreb mummy: the Eqyptian female, Nesi-Hensu.

Etruscan linen book strips Zagreb
(2) The Etruscan linen book unfolded (section).
Close up of Etruscan letters on linen book Zagreb
(3)  Close-up of the Etruscan letters on the linen above.
Zagreb Mummy Etruscan letters modern transcription
(4) Transcription of Etruscan letters above by hand.
Zagreb Mummy transcription of Etruscan letters into modern type
(4) Transcription into modern type. From here, scholars are trying to re-establish the Etruscan language.

Etruscan Religious Beliefs

Like  their art, Etruscan religion was not personal. Religious inscriptions were rites for avoiding calamity, not a guide for individual spiritual growth. 


The god Tinia was the Etruscan equivalent to Roman Jupiter and Greek Zeus. Although Tinia was the "supreme"  God,  to the Etruscans a personal relationship between an individual and "a supreme God" did not follow.

Etruscan religion was deterministic. All you could do was find your place in the pre-determined order of things, by interpreting various signs.

  Etruscan god Tinia, Getty Villa, Los Angeles
Tinia. Etruscan. c 450 BC. Bronze. Getty Villa. Tinia is wearing the Etruscan "tebanna."
Many gods

Designating a god as "
supreme" did not  mean "exclusive."   The Etruscans  were an impressive number of gods, with some multi-purpose ones tossed in.

In the Etruscan world, events occurred because they must have a meaning, though meaning was discovered through the kind of reasoning we would find puzzling.  E.g., clouds collide in order to release lightning

The Etruscans looked upward to find this meaning: life was governed by gods in the skies.  They obsessed over clouds, lightning, thunder, the position of the stars, and birds flying over.

  Etruscan goddess Lasa, Getty Villa, Los Angeles 
Lasa, (probably), female divinity. Etruscan. c 350 BC. Bronze. Getty Villa. 

Here Lasa is a tiny, shiny plate holder.
Animal Sacrifice

For important decisions or events, the Etruscan diviner, called a haruspex if male or nethra if female, would sacrifice a sheep according to strict rituals. After examining its entrails, the diviner mapped the surface of its liver to sections of the sky. Perfect alignment was everything.

Etruscan religious specialists  were sought by the Romans for hundreds of years-- Etruscan religious manuals were still used by the Romans until the 1st century AD. And in the AD 408, when Rome was under siege from the Visigoths and its starving inhabitants about to resort to  cannibalism, Etruscan diviners were called in by City officials (and with the approval of the Christian bishop Innocent I.)
  Etruscan Bronze Liver of Piacenza, 3rd c BC, Piacenza, Italy The Bronze Liver of Piacenza. Etruscan. 3rd c BC .Bronze.  Municipal Museum of Piacenza.

A sketch of a sheep's liver is mapped against the regions of the sky. The Bronze was perhaps a teaching tool used by Etruscan diviners.


The Etruscan Dead

Burial Rites

The Etruscans seem to have believed  literally in a "land of the dead," a place, a physical location, for the deceased.  The Etruscan dead were not put into cubbyholes nor buried beneath a tomb-like monument. They had houses.

How did the deceased get to their afterlife houses? Overland by horse-drawn chariot, accompanied by spirits. Vanth was one, usually an attractive female figure. Charu was another, her male partner with a hooked nose and scowling face.

Where exactly was the chariot headed? Toward a tomb in the earth, either sunken or inside a mound.  The tomb door, sometimes painted, became literally the entrance to the "land of the dead."  Vanth was on the right side, carrying a torch to help the deceased descend into the dark afterlife, and Charu, carrying a mallet,  stationed on the left.

What would the deceased "see" inside the tomb? A reconstruction of a complete home, with various rooms.  On the walls might be frescoes of scenes banqueting, games, or dancing.  Bucchero (Etruscan shiny black clay pottery resembling  the more precious 'metal' vases) by the ton-- pouring vessels, plates, and drinking cups.  The Etruscans embraced the drinking party of the ancient world known as "the symposium," and naturally had  the proper plates and vessels for it, even for the dead.

The insides of a few of the tombs at locations such as Tarquinia show large-scale painting, the best that has survived until the excavation at Pompeii. Since we have no evidence of how the Etruscans decorated the insides of their houses,  the tomb paintings might be an acceptable surrogate, at least for the very wealthy.

For those Etruscan communities that cremated their dead, the remains would be placed in terracotta urns. The urns were rarely plain-Jane. Articulated arms, jewelry, wigs, even clothing were part of the urn's form and decoration. On the lid on the urn might perch a (stylized) portrait of the deceased.
  Etruscan Vanth and Charu

Bucchero Vessel
Etruscan Bucchero (black pottery) vessel.
The Getty Villa, Malibu, CA

Etruscan burial urn with man's head, New York Metropolitan Museum of ArtBurial urn. Some Etruscan communities cremated their dead. Discovered in Chiusi. Etruscan. Terracotta. New York Met.
You may contact me, Nancy Padgett, at NJPadgett@gmail.com  . Updated 22 July 2016