2009 Archives

Etruscan Treasures From Tuscany


The following is from the March 31, 2009, edition of The Wall Street Journal. Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English in SMU's Dedman College.

April 1, 2009


While the rest of the country sinks into recession and anxiety, some cranes still fly on the Dallas skyline and things proceed apace. The former president and Mrs. Bush have returned, and the locals are giddy with anticipation of running into them at the local watering holes. It's true that George Steel has decamped for New York City Opera after five months at the Dallas Opera, but we are looking forward to the opening of the Winspear Opera House in October. Both the Nasher Sculpture Center and Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum have announced the appointment of new directors after several years of searching.

True to form, the Lone Star State manages to defy ordinary expectations. And in the midst of it all, a spectacular and unpredictable show, "From the Temple and the Tomb: Etruscan Treasures from Tuscany" (until May 17), has just opened at Southern Methodist University's Meadows Museum. It bills itself as the largest such exhibition of Etruscan art and artifacts in the U.S. Why a museum based on the Spanish paintings collected and loved by its eponymous founder, a Texas petro-millionaire who died in 1978, should be sponsoring such an enterprise remains something of a mystery. But it's no more mysterious than much about Texas ways or, more important, about the Etruscans themselves, of whom we know very little.

An eccentric colleague of mine once remarked, "My life is an open book . . . written in Etruscan." In other words, the mirror is dark. And so is much of the space that holds the 400 objects, most of them from the National Museum of Archaeology in Florence. From the outside, the Meadows Museum looks like a faux-Georgian mausoleum (with fake pillars and pilasters, and very little glass) perched atop a parking garage. There's an ironic appropriateness here, since the Etruscans tended to build their columned temples on top of large podia, with stairs taking worshipers to the top.

But inside the museum, the spacious, high-ceilinged rooms, quiet as a tomb except when a docent leads a tour, work wonders for the display. On three sides of the perimeter enclosing a large central room, glass vitrines display various objects, lighted from above, in black cabinets and on steel-gray felt blocks. Only modest tags identify the objects -- type, date and origin -- and that's that. Seven more-inclusive wall labels describe the different periods of the Etruscan civilization (roughly from the ninth to the second centuries B.C.). But to take the full measure of the meaning of the works on display, you have to buy the catalog.

Whether intentional or not, the relative paucity of information is fitting. We know little about the civilization that flourished in central Italy, from the Po to the Tiber, until it was finally both destroyed and absorbed by the Romans of Latium. The Etruscan language is all but ciphers to us. The Etruscans themselves enjoyed trade and commerce with the Greeks and the Phoenicians, and their art both soaked up and reflected foreign influences. But they were also their own masters, artistic as well as otherwise. Religion dominated the culture. Temples and tombs -- also the items found in them -- constitute the bulk of the Etruscan remains. Hence the title of the show at the Meadows, the sole venue for these works.

The objects in the vitrines are of many sorts, and of many materials: a gorgeous late-fourth-century diadem of beaten gold; earrings with gold granulation so fine as to be barely visible; handcrafted gold pendants and incense burners; silver jewelry; a trident and horse bits made of bronze; decorative ivory plaques; pairs of eyes, and dice, made of bone and ivory. Also, a tiny ivory pygmy, plus lots of beautiful fibulae (pins) -- some bronze, others rock crystal and gold. Some cabinets contain military paraphernalia: helmets, swords, shinguards. From tombs we have artifacts both naturalistic and abstract, useful and merely decorative. Other items for ritual or everyday use -- vases, cups and other drinking vessels, bronze furniture, bowls and cooking vessels, a grater, incense burners, candelabra and mirrors -- give a sense of the lives of the Etruscans.

But it was death, not life, that brought out the best of their energies. The central room contains sarcophagi, urns and statuary in marble, alabaster, porous tufa and other kinds of stone, and clay. Men and women share the spotlight equally. Figures recline, taking their ease on the lids of burial boxes, at the base of which we see scenes from Greek and Italian mythology and history.

Alone among their neighbors (and scandalizing the Greeks and the Romans), the Etruscans seemed to afford women unusual status and freedom. Women owned property. They participated at social functions. The so-called Mater Matuta (fifth century B.C.), a mother and child seated on a throne whose sides are winged angels, comes to the U.S. for the first time. The stern mother is an imposing figure.

One stone sarcophagus depicts a lounging pot-bellied fellow of the sort that became synonymous with "Etruscan": The Roman poet Catullus in the first century B.C. referred to the type as "obesus Etruscus." Like his fellow deathly loungers, this guy looks as though he has never been a warrior prince. Romans of the Republican era thought of these people as lazy, decadent and certainly un-Roman. To us, whatever else we can figure out about them, they look as though they were enjoying themselves, back in the good old days.

Mr. Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University.

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