Oliver Gilkes is our guide to an extraordinary collection of Etruscan masterpieces.
What? Go to Florence to visit an archaeological museum? What about the great monuments of the Renaissance, or the museums and galleries stuffed with masterpieces that changed the world? A good question – though if you are in Florence, then I would heartily endorse a visit to one of Italy’s least known great collections of antiquities. Certainly, when I was last there before COVID-19 changed the world in its own way, the queues to visit the Duomo and Uffizi snaked around the city’s historic centre. Walk a short way to the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, where Duke Ferdinand I sits mounted on guard, and you find the rather unassuming 17th-century Palazzo della Crocetta, a cool haven of calm masterpieces.
The collection within is eclectic. The very first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I Medici, assembled a fine collection of representations of Hercules, his own avatar, and was recorded by Giorgio Vasari as arranging these on the shelves of his office. Ludovic II created a very impressive assemblage of Egyptian antiquities in the great collecting years of the early 19th century. This section was opened in 1855, but then massively enlarged to create the national museum, a proud achievement of the Italian Risorgimento in 1871.
While there are impressive artefacts from all periods within, including a fantasy courtyard made from sculptural fragments of Roman Florentia, its glory is really the series of Etruscan antiquities. The territory of Tuscany stretched over much of central Italy, and so there is material here from all over the Etruscan world – from inland hill towns and ‘loot’ from the vast cemeteries of the coastal cities. This actually begins in the museum’s courtyard garden. The large central space has been reworked into a collection of tombs, virtually all the standard Etruscan types, from tumuli to cist graves.
The most spectacular items from the collection are in a room to themselves. Here, off a corridor of tiny bronzes, one encounters the fantastic Chimera of Arezzo. Arezzo has a special place in Etruscan studies. The discovery of fragmentary painted ‘Greek’ ceramics in Arezzo during the building of the walls in the 13th century was the catalyst that first really fired an interest in the Etruscans.
The Chimera was discovered during the rebuilding of the Porta Laurenta in that city and was immediately seized by Cosimo I, who was so taken with his acquisition that he roped in Benvenuto Cellini to advise him on how to restore it. The Chimera was once part of a group including the hero Bellerophon. The foul monster, with a double lion and goat head, and snake-like tail, stands wounded at bay. It is a virtuoso piece of lost-wax bronze casting, a technique the Etruscans mastered, and most likely dates to the later Hellenistic era (the 3rd and 2nd century BC), a time of political decline but continued technical virtuosity. The other sculpture in this room is the famous Orator. Normally taken to be a Roman politician, it is in fact the Etruscan worthy Aulus Metellus. It is similar in date and clearly shows the connection between Etruria and Rome.
One entire gallery is taken up with finds from the greatest cities of the Maremma (the coastal strip of Tuscany). The Etruscans created a loose confederation of 12 cities, developing from the 8th century BC, which eventually clashed with the feisty young Republic in Rome. While mostly abandoned and lost today, these great metropoles were fabulously wealthy: Vetulonia, famed for its goldsmiths; Populonia, where smelting of iron from Elba left huge slag heaps on the beach; Vulci, whose tombs were plundered under the auspices of Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother; and Tarquinia, where the first monumental fresco cycles in the West are to be seen in the Necropolis – all of them enriched by overseas trade. Their culture absorbed many symbols and influences from the worlds of Carthage, Egypt, Phoenicia, and Greece, which are reflected in the goods that were deposited in the great princely burials surrounding each city.
Of course, many finds come from sites outside the traditional borders of the Grand Duchy, and it seems that the Duke’s officers were not averse to acquiring items, one way or the other, from the neighbouring Papal States.
Climbing the steep staircases of the museum (there is a lift) will bring you to a labyrinth of Etruscan sarcophagi, from all the great Tuscan sites. Outstanding here is the large 3rd-century BC terracotta coffin of Larthia Seianti, an Etruscan noblewoman. She reclines on her funeral bed, adorned with jewellery and holding a mirror, an essential accoutrement for a lady of influence. But it is the paint that is most eye-catching here: its original colours remain bright and powerful. The Etruscans were masters of moulding ceramics, the architectural decorations of temples and houses being elaborate and very colourful. While seen in antiquity as rather rustic when compared to the great stone sculptures of Greece, the Etruscan ability to shape clay was supposedly brought by an exiled Greek called Demaratus, who arrived with his atelier in remote Etruscan history. The tradition of moulded sarcophagi runs from masterpieces of the 7th century BC, as seen in the wonderful example of the married couple now in Rome, through the alabaster and stone chests of Volterra and Orvieto to the smaller but no less decorative terracotta cremation caskets of Chiusi.
It is not just ideas that the Etruscans imported, as physical objects large and small are also to be found, and two of the greatest are also here in Florence.
The Sarcophagus of the Amazons is a huge imported painted coffin of white Greek marble of 5th- to 4th-century date. The Etruscans clearly believed you could take it with you, and the long and short sides are covered with wonderfully painted scenes of battles between Greeks and Amazons, a favourite Hellenic myth taken up by the Etruscans. The painting was obviously done before acquisition, perhaps by an emigrant Greek artisan, as rather rudely scratched through the paint is a dedication to two women, Ramtha Huzcnai and Ramtha Zertnai, who were both interred within when it was found at Tarquinia in 1869.
First culture vultures
The very comprehensive, even forbidding, rooms covering the development of ceramics of all sorts, kitchen pots to one-off set-pieces, contain a final virtuoso import.
Of the antiquaries who ‘excavated’ their way through the cemeteries of ancient Etruria during the outbreak of Etruscomania in the 19th century, one of the most fortunate was Alessandro François who discovered this wine crater in a tomb at Chiusi in 1844. It is a massy affair, made in Attica and exported to Italy in the 6th century BC. As the world’s first culture vultures, the Etruscans imported Greek ceramics in huge quantities (most of those Greek vessels that survive are from Etruscan Italy) and indeed this demand may have been responsible for the large-scale production in Athens and Corinth in the first place. This is a back-figure crater, the detail added by use of a burin or graver, rather than the later painted technique of red-figure decoration. A series of bands show mythological scenes: the Calydonian Boar hunt; the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths, a wedding party that got out of hand; the wedding of Peleus and Thetis; the chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus; the ambush of Troilus by Achilles; and appropriate fantastic beasts, griffons, deities, and spirits.
We even have the names of the craftsmen involved: Ergotimos the potter and Kleitias the painter. Athenian workshops tended to be divided into those who made and those who decorated, sometimes with an interesting rivalry. The 5th-century painter Euthymides teased one of his colleagues, the great Euphronius, by writing ‘Euphronius never did anything this good’ on one of his creations. A masterpiece, it shows signs of ancient repairs, a clear marker of how it was valued.
Breakages were not only an issue with great antiquities in the past. The vase has in fact been restored three times: first after discovery, then in 1902, and most recently in 1973 following the catastrophic Florence floods. The 1902 rebuilding came about after a punch-up between two custodians, one of whom flung a wooden stool, which missed its target but smashed the vase. It was painstakingly recreated afterwards (when the opportunity was taken to add some extra missing pieces), and this catastrophe is commemorated by the actual stool in question, carefully labelled and kept nearby. It still works as a stool.
So, if you ever find yourself in a hot, sticky Florence of an afternoon, and need to escape from the Renaissance for some hours, the Museo Nazionale is waiting for you. I recommend you lose yourself in its fresh halls and immerse yourself in a truly different world.
For more details (and updates on opening during the COVID-19 pandemic), see https://museoarcheologiconazionaledifirenze.wordpress.com.