Etruria – the Etruscan people of central Italy
Before Rome became an empire, central Italy was dominated by the Etruscan people who lived in present day Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio. The name Tuscany (Toscano) is derived from Etruria.
Etruscans evolved from the Villanovan people around the 9th century BC when Rome was a village on the Tiber River. Etruscan kings ruled for a period from Rome until 509 B.C. They spoke their own language with roots from ancient Greece and Asia Minor.
Etruscans lived predominantly in walled towns on hills between the Apennine mountains running down the spine of Italy and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west. They prospered, spreading north to the Po River Valley and south to Rome, successful in agriculture, mining copper and iron, making weapons, and trading with Greece and Carthage. Their abundant life allowed crafts to emerge so artists could learn to paint, sculpt, make jewelry, and design clothes.
What Etruscan Left Behind
Historians and archeologists have been intrigued by Etruscans from the abundant artifacts they left behind in underground tombs — vases, pottery, statues, sarcophagi, jewelry, coins, and frescoes. Other than these artifacts, little is known about Etruscan history, religion, or philosophy other than inscriptions in their tombs.
Artifacts from some 6000 tombs indicate that there was a hierarchy of wealthy landowners merchants, and traders who lived well and exhibited their status with ostentatious displays in their tombs.
Twenty Etruscan tombs have been excavated, restored and are accessible for viewing outside the walls of the medieval town of Tarquinia 95 kilometers northeast of Rome. Tarquinia was one of the principal cities of Etruria located on a ridge of hills overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. High stone walls still encircle the town; vehicles and pedestrians enter Tarquinia through arched gateways in the ancient walls. The narrow, winding streets of Tarquinia are stone bricks polished black and worn smooth by centuries of wear.
Etruscan tombs honeycomb the hillside of Monterozzi outside Tarquinia. After the necropolis was discovered and excavated, modest cement structures were constructed over them with tiled roofs and a small entrance.
Watch your step!
Viewing the tombs involves climbing down steep stone and metal stairs to a confined spot about 20 feet below ground. Tombs are protected somewhat from the elements behind glass windows and metal doors. Press a button, a light shines on the tomb’s interior for a few moments.
Researchers have determined that the tombs were constructed for aristocratic Etruscan families who had the financial means to build the tombs and pay artists to decorate them. Archeologists discovered colorful frescos, funeral slabs and sarcophagi, jewelry, clothing, and ornaments to take into the next life.
In numerous tombs, false doors were painted on the walls, possibly indicating the passage into the next world. Some tombs have been given name from distinctive features in the frescoes: Tomb of the Bull, Tomb of the Leopards.
Etruscans weren’t shy about celebrating their rich and hedonistic lives. Frescos portray family members and friends seated at banquet tables being entertained by dancers, musicians, athletes, and exotic animals — panthers, lions, bulls, and horses. Restoration preserved some frescos which have faded over the centuries. The predominant colors are pastels of orange, green, yellow, and blue.
Early tombs dating from around 500 BC show Etruscans celebrating the joys of life with little reference to religion. Around 250 BC, frescoes included Greek and Roman gods influenced by Roman influence.
The decline of Etruscan civilization began in the 4th century after Roman armies sacked the Etruscan town of Velii in 396 BC. Within a hundred years, the Roman empire had spread across central Italy and the Etruscan people melded into Roman society. By 100 AD, the Etruscan language had virtually disappeared.
Tarquinian National Museum
The Tarquinian National museum in the renaissance style Palazzo Vitelleschi in Tarquinia exhibits Etruscan art recovered from tombs, principally sarcophagi, colorful plates and vases celebrating mythological life, eroticism, sport, hunting, or battle.
After death, sarcophagi were placed in tombs on stone slabs or benches. When the tombs were discovered and excavated, the sarcophagi were removed to study human remains as well as the objects left in the tombs.
The museum displays Etruscan sarcophagi carved from white terracotta stone. On many sarcophagi, deceased life-sized human figures recline on their side, posing with a goblet of wine, scrolls, or another object. The figures most likely represent husbands and wives of wealthy families. Many sarcophagi are adorned with scenes of celebration, sport, and hunting.
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