By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Much of Roman culture actually comes from the often overlooked Etruscans. Not only did they give us the toga, but they also left behind some of ancient antiquity’s finest jewelry, sculpture, and painted tombs. Recently restored Etruscan paintings are showing details for the first time.
The Etruscans contributed more to Mediterranean culture than most people realize, such as transporting Greek culture to the West and having once ruled over almost all of Italy. They founded what would become Rome, Pisa, and Pompeii, before eventually being turned back by an expanding Roman populace.
Recently, some of their paintings, which had been worn down over thousands of years, were restored using a new extrapolation technique that processes images taken of various light waves along the spectrum. The paintings revealed subjects and scenes not viewed for thousands of years.
Paintings weren’t the Etruscans’ only contribution to culture though. In his video series The Mysterious Etruscans, Dr. Steven L. Tuck, Professor of Classics at Miami University, said the Etruscans were also accomplished potters, jewelers, and sculptors.
Working with What You’ve Got
Dr. Tuck said that much of the Etruscans’ successful endeavors in art depended upon their ability to use the natural resources around them, including minerals in the Etruscan heartland.
“The Etruscans were superb at exploiting these resources, and it’s very possible that they divided the territory of their city-states, at least partially, based on mineral resources,” Dr. Tuck said. “The Etruscans were experienced and skilled metalworkers, with a long history of bronze work, particularly.”
Dr. Tuck said that the city of Orvieto, which stood in modern-day Umbria, was known for the scale and quality of its bronze workshops, and that when the Romans captured Orvieto in 264 BCE, they took with them some 2,000 bronze statues. Before this, in the 5th century BCE, Etruscan metallurgy was so highly regarded that bronze objects like tripods, candelabra, and containers were desired in the most upper-class Greek homes.
“The most common technique for creating objects was casting,” he said. “The Etruscans used both direct casting, that is pouring molten metal into a mold, and and lost wax casting, during which a wax model of the final form is encased in a mold, which is heated to remove the wax, so it can be replaced with molten metal.”
He Went to Etruria
Etruscan artisans also excelled in using precious metals, especially in their jewelry.
“Their jewelry shows the most advanced metallurgical techniques found in the ancient Mediterranean,” Dr. Tuck said. “I’m not a jeweler, but I’ve read that [it] cannot be duplicated even today, notably their granulation work. Granulation is a technique in which a surface area of an artwork is covered in granules, or small spheres, of precious metal, which are then fused to the background material to create patterns.”
He said that one of the most intriguing elements of terra-cotta and metalworking is where the two intersect. This is often seen in material known as “skeuomorphism,” which Dr. Tuck defined as “the manufacture of works in one material designed to evoke the appearance of works made in another.” It’s most commonly seen in seen in Etruscan vessels in which terra-cotta substitutes for more expensive metals like bronze, silver, or gold.
But how do we find metal based on ceramics where no parallel works survive?
“The answer is from metal shapes and workmanship in terra-cotta,” Dr. Tuck said. “Fluting, engraving, divisions of shape, decoration, solid handles versus hollow feet, and fake rivet heads. Not all of these features are necessary for a pot, but preserve the original in metal transferred to a terra-cotta object—generally, vases.”
By using techniques like skeuomorphism and granulation, the Etruscans developed a signature style for their culture.