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Thursday, May 15, 2003

Arts & Letters

Etruscans, Romans, and Greeks

National attention was recently focused on “The Etruscans Revealed,” a symposium held at The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (UPM) on March 28-29. The international gathering celebrated the opening of the Etruscan gallery, which at present is the only extensive exhibition of its kind in the United States. Yet the museum itself correctly emphasized the simultaneous reinstallation and refurbishing of its classical collections, which now form a permanent complex entitled “Worlds Intertwined: Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans.”

Visitors to the UPM are treated to a comprehensive vision of how closely connected these three cultures were during the first millennium BCE, and how pervasive their respective influences were and still are in our everyday life. In keeping with the museum’s mission — studying and understanding human history and diversity — the entire display is meant to inform and explain, not simply to highlight outstanding works of art. Local teachers, from elementary to high school, were consulted to ascertain the primary interests of their pupils, as well as to address the questions most frequently asked by the many thousands of schoolchildren that visit the UPM every year. Moreover, all University of Pennsylvania professors who teach the various branches of archeology and anthropology simultaneously function as curators of the museum’s respective collections.

The UPM was founded in 1887, and its earliest classical galleries opened in 1899. They immediately attracted a great deal of attention, primarily for their outstanding Greek vases. Criteria for display have varied considerably since those days, and a permanent layout for the Greek material was only decided upon in 1994. Now the Greek gallery, in conjunction with the newly opened sections, has been renovated, with the necessary funds raised through the amazingly prompt response and generosity of the Greek American community of the Delaware Valley, including the Hellenic University Clubs of Philadelphia and Wilmington and the Karabots Foundation, as well as the contribution of the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation.

The Greek gallery is dedicated to Rodney S. Young, professor and curator of the Mediterranean section from 1948 until his premature death in 1974; he is justly famous for directing the museum’s excavations at Gordion (in ancient Phrygia, today’s Turkey), which uncovered the legendary King Midas’ tomb. Less well-known, but equally important in a Greek context, is the fact that, in 1940, he was instrumental in providing a fully equipped ambulance for the Greek Red Cross, which he drove on the Albanian front during the Second World War until seriously wounded.

A tour of the new installation ideally begins at the third-floor entrance, where the visitor is confronted with a marble statue — a seated Dionysus flanked by a lion — that perfectly exemplifies the intertwining of cultures. It was carved during the Roman imperial period, but in a style imitative of classical Greece, as appropriate to a divinity sacred to both cultures. A wall case to the right of the sculpture contains samples of Aegean artifacts from prehistoric times (Minoan, Mycenaean, Cypriot), in tantalizing preview of what eventually will be a full display of the considerable UPM holdings.

In this introductory section, cases explain how knowledge of the classical past is gained. One vitrine includes a fragment of a papyrus from Oxyrhynchos (Egypt) inscribed in the late second/early third century CE with a passage of The Odyssey. A second one suggests clues for identifying Heracles and Dionysus on sherds, entire vases, and in figurines. The most spectacular item in this section, however, is a huge map of the ancient world providing a timeline (ca. 3100 BCE to 500 CE), not only for the three major cultures under consideration, but also (in abbreviated form) for other contemporaneous civilizations, such as those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mexico.

The Etruscan gallery proper — named in honor of Kyle M. Phillips, Jr., the excavator of Murlo, an important ancient center near Siena — begins with the early Etruscan phases, exemplified by objects from the Villanovan and Orientalizing periods. A major contribution of the museum is the fact that, from the very beginning, it acquired the entire contents of Italic tombs, not simply the most spectacular finds; thus, context can be emphasized over the exceptional. The exhibits are thematically organized: warriors and weavers; pottery; stonework; technology and commerce; metalwork; daily life and other subjects.

Popular notions about the Etruscans hold that they were a mysterious people of unknown origin who used an undeciphered script and language; this exhibition tries to demythologize them and show them as the original inhabitants of a specific territory who, under various influences, evolved to reach a peak of prosperity in the late eighth through fifth centuries BCE. Relatively few written texts have survived, but the UPM exhibits six Etruscan inscriptions, whose characters resemble those of the Greek alphabet; they were transmitted to the Romans, who used them in slightly modified form to write Latin. In addition, a list of Etruscan words and their meaning is supplemented by another giving the 10 most common Etruscan names for boys and girls. The occurrence of the name Lars in Scandinavian countries is explained by a fascinating map that documents Etruscan trade patterns from the Black Sea to northern Europe, and reveals the extensive contacts between Greek and Italic centers.

This same point is forcefully made by a vitrine on Greek potters and Etruscan consumers. The kyathos and kantharos, for instance, are Etruscan shapes that Greeks adopted for their own wares; the latter are shown side by side with the models and also (the kantharos) in the hands of a Dionysus on a black-figure vase standing next to an Etruscan imitation of the black-figure technique. Not by chance, the entrance to the Greek gallery flanks this specific display: the Etruscans imported quantities of Greek vases, and most of the spectacular vessels exhibited in the Greek gallery came from Etruscan tombs, where they were preserved in excellent condition. The Greeks, in turn, sought the mineral ores so plentiful within Italic soil, and other items came through as well: the sandals of the chryselephantine Athena Parthenos by Pheidias, for instance, were “Tyrrhenian,” says Pollux (Onomastikon, 7.92), that is, Etruscan.

Yet the Etruscans differed considerably from the Greeks. Their architecture made much more extensive use of wood and terra cotta revetments. A reconstruction of the entablature of an Etruscan temple, with its distinctive antefixes, is a major item of the gallery. Women enjoyed a more prominent social status than their Greek counterparts, although they, too, practiced domestic arts and wore conspicuous jewelry and perfumes, as shown by several artifacts.

Exhibits illustrating the Etruscans’ “final days” (fourth to first centuries BCE), when the Romans assimilated them, lead to the Roman gallery, drenched in a light that recalls the luminous skies of Italy. Here, too, the display is thematic, and is dominated by the centrally located marble stele from Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli): originally carrying a laudatory inscription honoring Domitian, its letters were erased when that emperor was murdered and given the Damnatio Memoriae — the official erasure of memory. Yet the valuable slab was not thrown away; its rear was carved with reliefs of the praetorian guards and incorporated into an arch for the Emperor Trajan. A map shows the original location of the piece, while a nearby display of imperial coins provides a “personified” timeline (ca. 1 to 455-476 CE) by supplying a numismatic portrait of each emperor.

The Puteoli relief is in typical Roman historical style; all other stone carvings in the room, however, exhibit unmistakable traces of Greek style — the headless heroic male figure, probably an emperor, imitating a classical Hermes type, that stands against a dramatic red background; the votive marbles from the Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi, assembled in front of a sunlit mural depicting the lake of the original location; the finds from another UPM excavation, at Colonia Minturnae (modern Minturno); and even, despite their distinctive hairstyles, the collected portraits of Roman women and children displayed against a wall painting duplicating that of a Roman house. Nearby, the large model of a traditional habitation according to Vitruvius includes mosaic pavements, furnishings, pools in open spaces, and tiled roofs. A case contains a veritable tree of lamps, meant to illustrate the lighting of Roman dwellings. A wall cabinet displays bronze nineteenth-century reproductions of household finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum donated to the museum by John Wanamaker.

Throughout the gallery — dedicated to Andrew N. Farnese, a distinguished Philadelphian of Italian extraction, thanks to the many contributions from the Italian American community — connections are established between Romans and Greeks, as well as between Romans and Etruscans. Roman religion is particularly illuminating: from animistic beliefs in divine powers pervading the natural environment, it developed into the worship of a pantheon of deities modeled after those of the Greeks and Etruscans. Funerary customs were also influenced by those cultures; within the thematic display on death and burial, two limestone reliefs from Syrian Palmyra illustrate the spread and commingling of Roman and Eastern trends; a beautifully transparent glass container of funerary ashes is lit from within. It is only one of the many outstanding examples of a glass industry that receives its own attention as part of the sections on economy and slavery, the brick trade, and Roman pottery.

The Greek gallery, which almost symbolically runs parallel to the Etruscan one (albeit at a slightly higher level), may seem more traditional, with its long and narrow glass cases in facing positions that occupy almost the entire space. Yet it, too, is arranged according to themes. Facing the few steps into the room, a tall marble herm of a bearded god — originally part of a double-headed rendering — seems to guard access. Such human-headed pillars in antiquity were typically set up at crossroads and entrances, as protective devices. Here, the herm functionally divides the gallery into two sections, the shorter providing historical information while the longer addresses concepts and practices.

On the wall of the shorter section, text panels describe excavations by UPM archaeologists since 1901: at Gournia and Vrokastro (Crete); Kourion and Kyrenia (Cyprus); Sybaris and Porticello (Italy); Corinth; Gordion; and Cyrene (Libya). A large map provides topographical guidance for the selected artifacts in two glass cases representing six major historical periods, while important objects are included in each chronological section: a rare Boeotian bronze pin (fibula) with decorated plaque; large Geometric and Corinthian vases; a fragment of a Persian (Achaemenid) relief; East Greek and Laconian vessels; a Lydion; and, in the Hellenistic section, a Roman marble copy of the portrait of the playwright Menander.

In the longer portion of the gallery, chronological sequences are abandoned in favor of thematic gatherings. Highlights of the case illustrating daily life are the fragments of a black-figure vase by the superb painter Exekias, a red-figure lekythos by the Achilles Painter, and a kylix in the same technique by the Penthesilea Painter, to name only the masterpieces. The facing case, on Greek religion, includes depictions of deities and mythological, legendary, and epic heroes. Here, the choicest pieces are a black-figure amphora by Exekias with scenes from The Aethiopis, a red-figure amphora by Psiax signed by the potter Memnon, and a magnificent stamnos by the Kleophrades Painter showing deeds of Heracles and Theseus. On the opposite side of the same vitrine are the huge marble fingers and toes of what must have been a colossal cult image; fragments of votive terra cotta plaques from south Italy (the famous Lokroi pinakes) with scenes of ritual and worship; and an over-lifesize marble head of a goddess that was once part of the Hope Collection in England but must have come from a temple statue made by Greek masters on Italian soil, during the late second/early first century BCE.

From such religious items, the case segues easily to examples of votives and sacrifice, images of athletic contexts, and horse racing, as these took place during the great festivals. Two smaller cases deal with trade and manufacturing, as well as with “the Greek view of death,” as illustrated by white-ground lekythoi and other types of funerary wares, including miniature vessels from children’s burials. Two Hellenistic reliefs from Asia Minor of the so-called Funerary Banquet type show the reclining deceased, usually attended by wife and servants, at a ritual meal. This iconographic formula was used for heroes and gods as well as for mortals, and can give useful information about Hellenistic symbolism and social values, together with material details.

This funerary imagery triumphally defines the end of the room. On a bench stand three carved gravestones, two grave markers in the shape of marble vessels, one terra cotta vase for the bridal bath (loutrophoros) usually erected over the burials of women who had died unmarried, and a white-ground lekythos. The wall behind these funerary items opens up into a painted vista of trees and vegetation that made an ancient Greek cemetery a spot for pleasant rest, reflection, and inspiration. The illusion of being back in time and place is almost complete, even without the help of the text panel on the nearby wall, which describes the Kerameikos, the main burial-ground of Athens, today restored to almost pristine condition with its streets of tombs and family plots.

Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway was born and educated in Italy. She is Rhys Carpenter Professor Emerita of classical and Near Eastern archeology at Bryn Mawr College, where she taught until 1994. She was editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Archaeology from 1977 to 1985 and the author of eight volumes on the various phases of Greek sculpture. In 1988, she received the Gold Medal of the Archaeological Institute of America for distinguished achievement.
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