Review: The Etruscans

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The Etruscans: lost civilizations
Lucy Shipley
Reaktion Books, £15
ISBN 978-1780238326
Reviewed by: Andrew Selkirk

Who were the mysterious Etruscans? Lucy Shipley, who is now one of the whizzkids at Andante Travels, wrote her doctoral thesis on Etruscan pottery, and here, in the latest instalment of Reaktion’s series on ‘Lost Civilizations’, she sets out to provide an answer.

Her bête noire is the influential 18th-century German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who strove to demonstrate the superiority of Greek art over that of the Romans, and in the process trashed Etruscan art. Shipley duly sets out to rehabilitate the Etruscans, pointing out that many of the Greek pots found in Etruria were designed for the Etruscan market, and some were indeed made in the region itself.

It is now accepted that the Etruscans, who established a great civilisation in north-central Italy before the Romans, were not in fact emigrants from the east. Rather, they were the descendants of local Italian peoples who rose to glory between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC, alongside the Greeks and the Phoenicians.

They are best known for their tombs, but where are their towns? The answer is Marzabotto, though this is scarcely a typical settlement, being a colony lying to the north of the Etruscan heartlands and designed very much as a Greek new town. Shipley, however, has been excavating at Poggio Civitate for several years and the book has a very good chapter on this intriguing site, which is possibly some sort of palace with workshops attached (thought to be the largest building in the Mediterranean when it was constructed in the 6th century BC).

Then there is the question of the role of women and relations between the sexes. The Etruscans were notorious for considering their women as being almost on the same level as men, which was fairly unusual compared with other parts of the ancient Mediterranean. Women dined with the men, even when they had guests, and one famous coffin lid shows a man and his wife reclining together (as can be seen on the book’s cover), something that you never find in Greek and Roman sculpture. D H Lawrence famously enthused about the Etruscans as being proto ‘Lady Chatterleys’, which may have overdone it.

The book is cleverly written, because each chapter deals with one problem and then takes one object or place as an example of that problem. Thus there are good chapters on the Etruscan language, which does not seem to be related to any of the usual Indo-European families, and also on the Etruscans’ reputation among Romans of being good fortune-tellers, foreseeing the future by looking at the livers of sacrificed animals.

This is a splendid little book, which brings the Etruscans up to date and does much to strip away the mystery that surrounds this lost civilisation.

This review appeared in CWA 86Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

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