Art of the Etruscans

Art of the Etruscans

Art of the Etruscans

Art of the Etruscans

Excerpt

FOR Romans of the time of Augustus, the memory of the Etruscan people was already hazy with the mists of legend.

"I have no intention," said Livy, referring to the early history of Italy, "either of accepting or rejecting what is said about the period before the foundation of Rome, things which are based for the most part on poetical fables rather than authentic historical documents."

In those days Etruria was a corner of ancient Italy which had been under the political dominion of Rome for some time. As a Roman colony its language and customs were almost completely Romanized, although some of its cults and strange rituals had survived; also it had a reputation of having been the "mother of all superstitions" and an archaic and picturesque folklore inspired local festivities and celebrations. In the cities and above all in the countryside, the original stock continued to speak a barbarous, harsh-sounding dialect which, by this time, was quite incomprehensible to a cultivated Roman and which was soon to disappear. Etruria was little more than a quaint survival, a land of memories.

Nevertheless Roman intellectuals had a keen sense of the fascination of this region. It lay so near to the intense, bustling life of the world's capital, and yet it was so apart in the closed silence of its dying traditions. They could not forget what in bygone days Etruria had meant in the founding of Roman power and Roman civilization. They knew how much Roman religion and institutions owed to the Etruscans. Ancient chronicles and ruins of ancient buildings spoke to them of a past of splendour and greatness. Maecenas, the wise minister of Augustus, boasted of his descent from the Etruscan kings. Varro, a respected scholar, ascribed to Etruscan hands the earliest paintings in Italy and the great art of terra-cotta sculpture to which the noble statues of the gods, still to be admired in the temples of Rome and other cities, owed their existence.

In the decades of her rapid and miraculous expansion in the Mediterranean, Rome came into contact with the Greek world and oriental civilization. The conquerors must have been astounded and almost intimidated by the marvels of these lands, their glorious traditions, their celebrated works of art, their great sanctuaries of thought and learning. How uncouth they . . .

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