Etruscan Women in Art

The Etruscans, the ancient inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, created a sophisticated culture long before the Romans. The Etruscans passed down to the Romans many elements of their art, architecture, engineering, and religious ritual. Their story though has mystified scholars for centuries. Since no Etruscan literature survives, our sources of information about them come primarily from archaeological finds and from the surviving texts by Greek and Roman authors. These authors, however, give us a distorted image of the Etruscans. The rebellious Romans had to fight to establish their republic and overthrow the Etruscan monarchs. The Romans, therefore, depicted the Etruscan kings as evil and nefarious tyrants. In the end, as we all know, the Romans, were victorious, and as the victors, they got to pass down their side of the story as history. The Etruscans faced the ultimate defeat, losing their identity as they seem to have disappeared, engulfed by Roman culture.
 
It thus becomes particularly challenging to reconstruct Etruscan identity. The Greek and Roman accounts of Etruscan life and customs are tainted by their overall disdain for Etruscan culture, especially when it comes to women. One aspect of Etruscan culture that seemed to shock the Greek and Latin authors was the status of women in Etruscan society. Etruscan women had more social and economic independence than Roman women and were far more emancipated than their Greek counterparts.
 
One everyday life scene frequently depicted in art, the banquet, is a testament to one of the many privileges women enjoyed in Etruscan society. Etruscan women, unlike Greek or Roman women, participated in banquets. There are many examples of murals, reliefs, and engravings depicting women reclining alongside men at banquets. The Greeks and Romans saw this custom not only as strange but outright barbaric. In ancient Greek society, the only women who took part in banquets were prostitutes, so the inclusion of women in banquets was seen as immoral.
 
The banquet is a recurring theme in funerary art. It was customary to depict the deceased living it up in a happy afterlife, enjoying the pleasures of a paradisiacal banquet. A fine example is the sarcophagus of Larthia Seianthi at the National Archaeological Museum in Florence. This terracotta sarcophagus was found in Chiusi in southern Tuscany and dates back to the 2nd century BC. It depicts the deceased lying in the banquet position reclining on her left side. With her right hand, she pulls back her veil to admire her reflection in the mirror she holds in her left hand. While her elaborate costume, fine jewels, and mirror denote her social status and wealth, it is interesting to note that her name is carved along the rim of the sarcophagus below the lid. This gives us a glimpse of another luxury upper-class Etruscan women enjoyed, their own identities. The inscription bears her individual name and family name, or noble lineage. Unlike Roman women who were usually identified with their noble titles or family name, Etruscan women seem to have kept their own individual identities. This becomes a crucial aspect if we consider that Etruscan women were able to enjoy ownership of their own possessions, manage economic activities, and leave wills ‒ all things the ancient Greeks would have surely considered preposterous.
 
In the end, we can see these depictions of Etruscan women in art as a means through which these individuals achieved a certain sense of immortality with their identities through time, but this can also be seen as a way for the Etruscans themselves, as a cultural entity distinct from the Romans or Greeks, regaining their identity and place in history that was lost by the Roman conquest.
 
Join me at the Archeological Museum in Florence to discover more about the Etruscan and the Roman heritage of Florence.

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