I entered the Etruscan exhibit expecting to be charmed by the artifacts of a sweet ancient people. So I was surprised but intrigued to be greeted by a large poster entitled Un eroe tra due monde—A Hero Between Two Worlds.
The exhibit, the mission statement said, was part of a larger project dedicated to Hercules who is “the hero of indomitable strength, but with a fragile humanity and extraordinary courage, fiercely challenged by the hardness of living.” In facing his trials, the statement added, Hercules won immortality. And it was for this reason that he has become a symbol of heroic humanity throughout both ancient and modern art.
The Etruscans were a small people—not tall or concerned with matters of empire. Not heroic by the standards of popular American culture. Or by the standards of ancient Rome where virtue was defined by manliness exhibited in war and therefore not an attribute of women who were praised for their modesty.
Near the beginning of the exhibit was the content of a tomb transferred intact. The artifacts reveal modest living, and the figure in the corner is of person who made me look imposing—as my shadow in the class shows.
Now, I know my one visit to an Etruscan museum and the perusal of several books does not make me an expert. Also, my interest in the Etruscans was part of a personal, not an archeological quest. What that personal observation revealed throughout the exhibit of artifacts from 800 to 200 B.C. was a supremely happy, creative, and peaceful people, particularly in the earliest days of the culture. The
only weapons I saw were in pottery paintings depicting the labors of Hercules.
|Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion|
The Etruscans were primarily artisans, builders, and traders in what was then the global marketplace. They were competitive. But not ruthlessly so. Trade was more what the name implies—exchange, not only of goods but of cultural influences, especially with Greece and Carthage, their chief competitors.
But the small sweet traders were not pushovers. They had warships and used them against Greek and Carthaginian pirates. They also teamed up with Carthage against Rome during the Punic wars. Not for land and or power. Rather they wanted autonomy from Rome that was beginning its power sweep across the world. The small sweet people, of course, lost to the empire. Or did they? More specifically, why were they part of the hero project, exemplars of Hercules and heroic humanity…?
The type of goods exchanged was what you might expect of ancient cultures—amulets and beads, pottery for storage and dining, wine and perishable foods, perfumes, precious woods, textiles, exotic animals such as monkeys, and slaves. The Etruscans were a cosmopolitan people who both emigrated and welcomed immigrants. They influenced and were influenced by foreign cultures but seemed to transcend the stylized works of the time.
An image of a Grecian urn like the one immortalized by Keats suggests a theoretical mindset that found beauty in truth, truth in beauty—an abstraction that did not seem to exist in the Etruscan world where the paintings and sculptures showed individuals in motion. The energy leaps off the surface. Birds, fish, oxen have personalities as well the people.
My favorite piece in the entire collection was a six-inch light aqua ceramic container designated for “balsamico”—in the shape of two characters I call Monkey Prince and Big-Mouth Toady. More than six weeks later, just thinking of the duo entertains me.
Standing there enjoying Monkey Prince and Toady, I recalled a lunch several months before at Portland restaurant. The cost was $13 plus tip for a so-called salad that consisted of five wisps of lettuce that served as a bed for three small beets the size of eyeballs. The presentation with some sort of balsamic dressing and a sprinkling of hazel nuts on a bright white plate was elegant and served with that unctuous upscale grace of the waiter awaiting his tip.
I reflected on St. Francis with his one wooden bowl. And then I thought, not without a little scorn, that the current obsession with high-cost food art should not have a place in the world until hunger and chemical-laden foods have been eradicated from the planet and all people have access to a wholesome and affordable diet. I was diverted from any self-examination of my snarly attitude by a hubbub several exhibit cases down.
A camera crew was unpacking and setting up in front the large glass case enclosing one of the, if not the most famous Etruscan work in the world—the sarcophagus in which a husband and wife were buried together. Life-size statues of the couple recline atop their burial box in the dining posture Etruscans adopted from the Greeks. The position of the smiling couple’s arms suggests that at one time they were holding out food or drink to their guests. In death and art, as I’m sure they did in life, the Etruscan couple exude a sublime calm and happiness that radiates still across 2500 years.
A slim dark-haired woman in black who appeared infused with the spirit of every Verdi opera ever produced was in charge of what I gathered was a PR shot for the museum. It was a big production—as everything Italian always is—with camera person, director, actor-visitor couple, big-wig observer all a bundle of nerves that became progressively high-pitched over several takes. The Etruscans appeared to be observing the nerve buzz with sublime bemusement.
At first it seemed odd, if not macabre that so many artifacts of the small sweet people have been recovered from tombs unearthed in the necropolis, city of the dead, or burial grounds found in every Etruscan city. They were so alive. But so were their tombs with friezes and frescos full of the energy and individuality of a fully conscious humanity.
Resisting what would become the Greco-Roman tradition that has informed western civilization, the Etruscans remained individuals gifted with the capacity for a sublime and intimate appreciation of the ordinary in the human and animal realm. This intimacy, I think, is the truest and best gift of being human. I also think finding this humanity within ourselves is the heroic effort that will be required to save ourselves from those who seek to corporatize our food, our schools and churches, our governments, and our planet.
And that is why I fell in love with the Etruscans.
And that is why I fell in love with the Etruscans.