Etruscan Art at Villa Giulia in Rome

As far back as my survey art history courses, I had a particular preference for Etruscan art. So one day during my visit to Rome, I set off to enjoy a couple of hours at the National Etruscan Museum, which is housed in the elegant Villa Giulia, named for a pope and its portico decorated with trompe l’eau trellis through which putti playfully peek through.

Etruscan art, which evolved from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE, has a somewhat alien feel, the imagery sinuous and curving, no straight line to be seen unless the artist wants to impress you with his depiction of the pleated folds of a tunic. Otherwise, figures are made completely of snaking contours, shapes—like those of beards, fingers, and penises—ending in delicate points. People and fantastical beasts alike have sharp, elfin ears, and crosses between humans and animals frequently have tails or snouts. Wolf-men snarl, gryfons pose, and satyrs frolic. They stand out dark against the red pottery, the glaze etched cleanly and with confidence, the balance of the compositions harmonious, the various elements melodious, whether centaur rearing its legs, many-headed hydra writhing in its death throes, or lions at hunt or being hunted.

Like elsewhere, representations of women are scarce. They play music, gather water, interact (with other women), and are usually clothed, unlike the men, who often brazenly wield their phalluses in the most ordinary situations. Only in one instance did I find, on the back of a decorated mirror, nude women, cleft of pubis apparent. On closer look at my blurry smartphone snap, it seems she’s with a man—is she a prostitute? Nobody has hair around their genitalia, come to notice. Of course, when the figures are clothed, to a non-expert, it’s difficult to tell who is male and who is female. And the Etruscan Athena, or Menrva, could be either, or both at one time, or one posing as the other, an ancient symbol of gender fluidity.

So many images are striking for different reasons: the riders seen head-on instead of sidelong, the horses gripping their bits in their teeth, turning their heads; four warriors on horseback, the second horse from the right stark white, standing out against the other three pitch-black beasts; a series of sheep with men clinging to their underbellies—a reference to Odysseus escaping the cyclops; hairy creatures, from which a woman runs, crouching behind a palm tree. And more: round asses, articulated abs, and elongated fingers. 

I visited the Etruscan Museum in February, which meant I almost had the entire museum—all two floors of it—to myself. This allowed for lengthy contemplation and appreciation. The exhibit takes visitors through Etruscan art chronologically, so you see how it evolves with changing fashions and influences. Besides pottery pieces, visitors can see what remains of bronze jewelry, sculptured figures, and personal objects. The Sarcophagus of the Spouses can also be found here, which represents a man and a woman united in death as they were in life. This approximately life-size sculpture is rich in detail and though its features are in that otherworldly Etruscan style down to the pointed shoes the woman wears, it is also touching in the way the two figures interact in their position of repose.

Unfortunately, the main object of my visit, the Euphronios Krater, legendary for not only its masterfully presented scene depicting the death of Sarpedon by the famous painter Euphronios, but its role in bringing attention to the problem of looted art finding its way into museums by unorthodox means has elevated its position in the art world in other ways.

Villa Giulia is located immediately outside the center of the Rome, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t easy to get to. It’s located on the northern edge of the Villa Borghese Park, which offers the opportunity for a lovely walk along the shaded pathways of the park. The Villa Borghese also has its own small gardens with some surprising elements, such as a loggia which visitors can look down onto a tile mosaic.

The National Etruscan Museum is closed Sunday, open from 9-2 every other day. You can buy your ticket in the bookstore/gift shop, which you will present at reception in exchange for a map of the gardens and museum. The museum takes you naturally through its exhibits and is an enjoyable, curious brush with the past.

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