Notebook, 1993-

The Villanovan and Orientalizing Periods
Introduction -- The Villanovan Style and Geometric Art -- Orientalizing Art in Etruria -- Figurative & Non-Figurative Art --

The Early & Middle Archaic Period
Introduction -- Transitional Reliefs and Wall Paintings -- Literary Aspects of Archaic Art -- Middle Archaic Painting and Metal Reliefs -- The Schools of Tarquinia and Caere --

The Late Archaic Period
Painting and Metalwork

The Classical Era: The Fifth Century
Wall Paintings and Stone Reliefs

[From: Brendel, Otto F. Etruscan Art. New York: Penquin Books. 1978.]

Etruscan Art - Notes

Part Three - The Early & Middle Archaic Period
[Etruscan Art on the Italian Peninsula]

Chapter 14 The Schools of Tarquinia and Caere
[Note: References to plates are included in the text. The plates are not included in this computer document.


Tomb Paintings at Tarquinia
Zonal System of Mural Decoration
Shortly after the middle of the sixth century there appears in the Etruscan tombs, notably of Tarquinia, a new system of painted decoration arranged in superimposed zones round the walls.[1] The change had fundamental importance, because it created entirely new opportunities for representational painting. It introduced into Italian art as the common form of mural composition the principle of continuous horizontal friezes which remained in force from then on until the Roman Empire.

In the older tombs, in the manner of the Campana Tomb [above p. 121 and illustration 77], paintings had been grouped round a door, either real or feigned. Monsters or animals were placed on either side, heraldically; they were the 'guardians' of the door. It appears that this arrangement must be understood quite literally; that a kind of guardian was indeed intended to protect the entrances to the dead, and consequently that this Early Archaic scheme of tomb decoration owed its formal pattern to an idea half real and half magic.[2] Arrangements of this type may be labelled the first style of Etruscan wall decoration. ILt is not yet represented at Taquinia.

On grounds radically different from the Early Archaic reasonings, the new decorative schemes instead incorporated an abstract concept of architectural order in Greek terms. This does not mean that references to the purpose of the tomb are lacking in the new decoration. But they also now draw on a different context of ideas. Obviously thematic changes came about together with the new decorative system which subjected the representations to a different formal rule. The following are the decisive formal features. All round the funeral chambers the walls are divided into consistently defined parts corresponding to two, or more often four, architectural elements: a dado, the wall space proper, a cornice or entablature, and above it, in the triangular spaces created by the pitched roof, the pediments. Not all four elements are always simultaneously present, nor are the same parts always selected for painted representations. Indeed it is our contention here that a chronological sequence can be observed in the shifts of emphasis from one of these architectural divisions to another, not unlike the sequence of varying architectural arrangements which form the four so-called styles of Campanion wall painting. Common to all painted Etruscan tombs after the Middle Archaic period, following the division of the walls by horizontal zones, remained the habit of arranging mural representations in friezes or frieze-like compositions. The formation and evolution of this decorative order can best be followed in the tombs of Tarquinia, where, apparently, it began. The outstanding Middle Archaic examples are the two tombs named 'of the Bulls' and 'of the Augurs', in that order.

Tomb of the Bulls
The new type of frescoed tombs at Targuinia came into being at about the time when Etruscan black-figured vase painting started in nearby Vulci [above, pp. 153 ff.]. Interest in Greek mythology was then on the rise all over Etruria. One can hardly regard it as an accident that the oldest known tomb of this kind, the Tomb of the Bulls, also contains the only mythological painting found so far in any Tarquinian tomb. Even beyond Tarquinia, this work, which represents the story of Troilus, has remained a unique example of Archaic mythological painting on a large scale preserved anywhere [109]. Its date cannot be far removed from the Pontic amphora with the Judgement or Paris in Munich [100, 101], though its style differs, and it may be somewhat later.[3] [p. 165]

If one examines the decoration of the tomb, a degree of indecision becomes apparent both in the thematic choices and in the arrangement of the representations. Obviously the artists could not rely on an already established tradition for the work to which they were assigned, although no doubt they were competent craftsmen. Instead they solved some of their formal problems in a rather experimental and preliminary way. We must conclude that the above described comparatively firm tradition of architectural decoration which characterizes the later tombs of Tarquinia formed itself on the basis of experiments such as this. It was then in a still tentative stage. It follows that the Tomb of the Bulls must be regarded as a truly Archaic work, even by the standards of the special group to which it belongs. Within that group it marks the beginning of a consistent, and in that sense original, local development. It introduces what may well be called the second style of Etruscan wall decoration, but by its emphasis on the door areas it betrays the fact that its character is still transitional.

The best preserved painted decoration is found on the rear wall and pediment of the first chamber, or vestibule, which in general layout already follows the common Targuinian type with pitched roof and imitated rooftree. Two doors, leading into two narrow funeral chambers further back, divide this wall into three sectors of unequal size: two lateral posts and a larger, pillar-like centerpiece. But, different from later custom, the doors do not reach up to the pediment. Instead, a frieze bounded by two striped bands extends above the doors, like an architrave, between wall and pediment. This arrangement provided three distinct areas for decoration: wall, architrave frieze, and pediment [109]. It must soon have failed to satisfy, however. In the Archaic tombs next in order of date we find doors raised to the height of the pediments. As a result only two areas, not three, are set aside for figured decoration: the figured architrave was eliminated, and striped bands took the place of the entablature. Subsequent changes in this decorative scheme will have to concern us later.

In the Tomb of the Bulls the most conspicuous wall space was the central pillar. This is where we find the story of Troilus. Rather schematically designed trees decorate the two lateral posts. The same semi-ornamental motif was carried over to the central field, where, however, the trees had to be subordinated to the main picture and held to a smaller scale. Some are decorated with wreaths and fillets, as for a religious celebration. The figured representation seems to rest on this little grove in a rather precarious manner, giving evidence of a laxity of structural feeling similar to that we encountered previously in Villanovan decoration [p. 35] and shall again observe later, in the Roman Ara Pacis.

In the main painting the precinct of Apollo is represented with its fountain, to which Troilus descended from besieged Troy. The boy is alone. He has just stopped his horse, as if suddenly startled by a noise and seeking cover behind the tree. Achilles leaps forward from his ambush behind the fountain. We would not say that this composition is quite on a level of fluency with the best contemporary mythological scenes discussed in the preceding sections. In order to bring the facts of the story before us, the painter had to battle against a certain rigidity of expression; he was a 'primitive'. But he already adhered to the oncoming Ionian fashions. The horse, as well as Troilus with his slanting forehead and elegantly pointed shoes [calceirepandi [4]], gives evidence of the new trend. Other features appear quite retarded. Achilles seems to wear a loincloth similar to those of the provincial type of skirted kouroi. The high legs of the horse still suggest the stilted animals of the Campana Tomb. Yet there is also a fine display of free-hand drawing, especially in the rear portion of the horse. More important still, we witness the endeavor to develop a monumental style of painting suitable for the decoration of comparatively large spaces; and to achieve such a style almost certainly with the aid only of quite small prototypes such as vase paintings.

The outcome of these contradictory factors is a delightful picture, nevertheless. The figures are not nearly as patterned as one might expect. [p. 166] There is a great deal of fresh observation in them. The comparative rigidity with which their representation was carried out rather helps their expressiveness: it makes them seem frozen in their posture, as if a sudden spell had fallen upon them, and their very breath been arrested. There is a noiseless terror about this scene, enhanced rather than mitigated by the motley objects which set its stage. The palm tree with a crown like a big stylized carnation, the rusty colour of dried blood, is a beautiful piece of folk art. The fountain is represented by a grand structure in the form of an altar, built of blocks painted white, the same dark red as the tree, and a charmingly transparent watercolour blue. Two lions rest on the light blue top; one spouts water into a basin below.

Surprising in this composition is the equal importance accorded to the human and the nonhuman elements. The mute things matter as much as the people who move about them; they form a world deemed worthy of attention, as in a landscape painting. Theirs is an art world to be sure, and quite fantastic. Yet by attitude, if not by scientific knowledge, the painter should be called a naturalist. Hence the originality of his approach, however limited his artistic vocabulary may seem to us. In the scenery which he built, man and objects meet as equals. We seem to witness the first step towards the concept of a world in which man is contained as a part of nature.

Immediately above this picture the frieze remained empty, but further to the sides over each door one finds a small erotic group, each time associated with an image of cattle. The latter are usually held to be bulls [from which the tomb was named], although only the one to the right, which has a bearded face in the oriental tradition, can qualify for the specification. With horns lowered he seems to charge the pair before him; the lovers stay quite unruffled. The recumbent animal on the other side takes no heed of the corresponding group nearby, with which [p. 167] it has no visible connection. Still higher, the pediment is filled with an antithetical composition of a kind which became typical of many Archaic tombs at Tarquinia. It centres in a voluted object with concave outlines, perhaps a painted reminiscence of the kingpost which in this place should support the rooftree. Towards the left side of this object a winged lion and sphinx are facing; to the right, another bull chases a man on horseback.

There is an odd sense of threat, peril and flight about much of this imagery. But a more precise connection between it and the tomb which it decorates can hardly be established.[5] More likely we are dealing here with disconnected images in the Archaic manner, each of which must carry its meaning in itself. As far as we can judge there was no connecting system--no more than among the small representations which we found encased in the square frames of the Targuinia door slabs. In fact the erotic scene over the right-hand door is quite similar to a group in one of these slabs. The small size of these pictures, which make no attempt to fill the height of the frieze, probably indicates that they were taken from prototypes on an entirely different scale, and inserted in their present places rather unconcernedly, like marginals alongside the written columns of an illustrated book. Similarly, the choice of the Troilus episode for a funeral decoration must be considered a tentative one. Whether or not a connection was felt between the myth and the purpose for which it was here used, we cannot say. But undoubtedly there was a need for a definite and meaningful iconography as the frescoed tombs became more frequent in Tarquinia. As it turned out, myth did not fill that end. To our knowledge the experiment of the Tomb of the Bulls was not repeated.

Tomb of the Augurs
The answers to both problems, of iconography and of architectural order, appear fully worked out in the Tomb of the Augurs [110, 111].[6]

This tomb offers one of the best preserved examples of Archaic painting, and one of the finest. Obviously it was the work of a leading artist. The decoration is continuous all round the single funeral chamber. It consists of four distinct parts: a dado painted black; the wall frieze of large figures moving along on a reddish base line; the striped cornice taking the place of an entablature; and the pediments. From now on we may call this the standard arrangement of the Archaic tombs, here for the first time fully developed as an articulate architectural order. The second style of Etruscan wall decoration is now an accomplished fact. The figured friezes to which has been given the greater part of the wall stand out clearly, in well drawn contours, against the lighter buff colour of the ground. Possibly this choice of background was influenced by contemporary ceramics such as the Caeretan hydriae [below, pp. 171 ff.] or the similarly coloured terracotta slabs. At any rate the colour scheme is severely limited. Black, various shades of red, and yellow constitute its dominant triad. Blue was used for the leaves of the stylized trees, and green for the middle band in the striped cornice.

The imagery has turned away from both myth and magic. Instead we are confronted with a set of themes entirely on the level of human actuality. The paintings in the Tomb of the Augurs represent events in honour of the dead: a thematic choice which from then on became standard in the painted tombs of Tarquinia. The large door in the rear wall probably represents the entrance to the tomb. It thus symbolically transforms the funeral chamber into a place in front of the tomb, as if the dead were still part of the world outside, where all the events are staged, designed to please them. Placed on either side like the one-time guardians, two professional mourners now face each other. Then follow the games which form part of the funeral: boxers, wrestlers, runners. Metal vessels--precious prizes--are stacked between the athletes to reward the winner. An umpire to the left of the wrestlers carries a crooked staff; it is the latter insignia which earned him the title of 'augur' from the early discoverers, probably erroneously. Most interesting are the two masked men who play their sinister pranks, [p. 168] much like clowns in a modern circus, as a sideshow between the athletic contests. Their inscribed designation, 'Phersu', suggests that originally they represented characters from the nether world, spooks on the loose as it were, though how literally the idea was then still taken we cannot know. One directs the cruel fight between a blindfolded man and a fierce dog, holding [p. 169] both on a leash; the other seems to deride the runner who cannot catch up with him. At any rate both Phersu are real people; they only wear the masks of demons. But to the popular fiesta which is in progress around the tomb, they add a sombre and savage touch. In the pediments above, beasts of prey devour peaceful animals.

Here for the first time we find monumental wall painting, understood and demonstrated as a special task of art, involving particular conditions. Every care has been taken to make all shapes appear large and important, and to balance them against one another so that they neither crowd each other nor become lost in the surrounding space. Figures standing upright reach from the base line to the upper cornice. If models on a smaller scale have at all been used here, as one suspects was true of the Tomb of the Bulls, they left no mark on the style of representation. All around, in an even and measured pace, one sees the walls covered with broad, flat forms enclosed in rhythmically curving outlines, enlivened by contrasts of solid colour which result from details such as garments and hair. One may find that this aggregation of somewhat stocky men lacks something of the airy charm conveyed by the naively appreciated world of nature in the Tomb of the Bulls, but it also has outgrown the uncertainties of the later, and on the whole the advantages far outweigh the loss. The same awareness of the needs of formal order expresses itself in the groupings, which lean towards an antithetical, and even symmetrical, arrangement of figures along each wall.

This style can well be matched with that of the Loeb tripods, especially the intermediary specimen [above, p. 163]. It was consequently not limited to wall paintings, though it may well have originated in that branch of art for which it is eminently suited. Comparable tendencies appear in vase paintings, both among the later Pontic amphorae and the Caertan hydrae.[7] Moreover, parallels can be found outside Italy. There exist definite relations between the Tomb of the Augurs on the one hand, and the fragments of Archaic wall paintings discovered in the Lydian city of Gordion on the other.[8] Even more interesting, perhaps, proves the comparison with the reliefs from the Pillar Tomb of Belenkli, the ancient Isinda, in Lycia, for in this instance the correspondence is not limited to points of style: it extends to the iconography as well, which in the Lycian tomb not only includes athletic games, boxers, wrestlers, and musicians, quite similar to those represented in the Tomb of the Augurs, but also the theme of the hunt, likewise known from Etruscan tombs.[9] Since direct connections between these widely distant monuments can hardly be assumed, the existing similarities are best explained as the symptoms of an international style which from a Greek Ionian centre radiated to northern Asia Minor in the east, Italy in the west. While the original centre as yet cannot be identified, the evidence being too fragmentary, it still does not seem unlikely that this rather erratic appearance of related stylistic and perhaps cultural traditions in outlying provinces of the ancient Mediterranean came to pass in the wake of enforced migrations such as the evacuation of Phocaea, earlier in the century. In central Italy, Caere may have functioned as the regional centre of distribution, but the new style must have spread rapidly, since its manifestations occur in quite different points of Etruria. The often noted relation between the master of the Tomb of the Augurs and the workshop of the Caeretan hydriae may be so explained.

The date and duration of this stylistic vogue are difficult to determine. In this connection the topological differences already mentioned between the Tomb of the Bulls and that of the Augurs assume added importance, for a certain lapse of time must almost certainly be allowed for the progress from the tentative and experimental decorative system in the Tomb of the Bulls to the fully developed, completely rational arrangement of the decorative elements in the Tomb of the Augurs. The Tomb of the Bulls, where the connections with the past are still so much in evidence, may have been painted around 540. The Tomb of the Augurs followed, perhaps a decade later.[10] The Greek manner of rendering the folds of garments by stylized zigzag patterns apparently was then in its beginning [p. 170] stages. The artist has tried the new device in two places, rather cautiously: in the chitons of the umpire [the 'augur'] next to the wrestlers and of the flute player on the wall opposite.


[Brendel, Otto F. Etruscan Art. New York: Penquin Books. 1978.]



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