The distinctive qualities of Etruscan painting, sculpture and metalwork have provided continuous inspiration for artists of later periods.
One of the 13th century’s greatest artistic triumphs, the Gothic Baptistery at Pisa, shows an unmistakable Etruscan touch: The sculpted heads that adorn the filigreed arcades of its facade recall the arched opening of an Etruscan gate in nearby Volterra, which still sports the battered stone heads of three figures, possibly divine guardians of the city.
Similarly, huge stone creatures—a lion and a sea monster—crouch along the roofline of a ninth-century Romanesque church in Viterbo, just as life-size sculptures of humans and beasts once studded the ridgepoles of Etruscan temples.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Renaissance sculptors like Antonio del Pollaiuolo and Michelangelo paid close attention to small bronze Etruscan statues that farmers wrested from the Tuscan soil and sold to collectors. The liveliness of Etruscan modeling shaped important aspects of the Florentine sculptural style, from the springy elasticity and wiry physiques of Pollaiuolo’s small bronzes to the edgy alertness of Michelangelo’s grand marble David.
Images of the Virgin Mary—like Nicola Pisano’s gracefully reclining medieval relief in Pisa or Michelangelo’s fully Renaissance Madonna in Bruges, Belgium—clearly resemble the women on Etruscan cinerary urns, such as those from the old Medici collection now housed in the Florence Archaeological Museum.
Nor were the terrifying aspects of Etruscan art lost on Tuscan artists. There is no biblical precedent, for example, for the scene known as the Pietà, which depicts Jesus removed from the cross and splayed across his mother’s lap in an encounter of the deepest human pathos (above). The scene, however, can be traced to Roman sarcophagi depicting the death of the Greek hero Meleager. The designs of these Meleager sarcophagi in turn hark back to Etruscan cinerary urns on which the living are shown bearing up the dead (the urn shown below was once owned by Michelangelo).
Botticelli’s famous portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery places the young Florentine, murdered in 1478, before a partly opened door—an old Etruscan funerary motif and one eminently appropriate to the brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent, founder of the world’s first Etruscan museum.
The Neoclassical movement of the 18th and 19th centuries ushered in a preference for Greek style, which led many artists and critics to decry the Etruscans as primitive, or at best as clumsy imitators of Hellenic perfection. After visiting the tombs of Etruria in the 1920s, however, D.H. Lawrence became a staunch defender of Etruscan art—one of only a few partisans in what remained a largely hostile aesthetic climate: “I get more pleasure out of these 035Volterran ash-chests,” he writes in Etruscan Places, “than out of—I had almost said, the Parthenon frieze. One wearies of the aesthetic quality—a quality which takes the edge off everything and makes it seem ’boiled down.’ A great deal of pure Greek beauty has this boiled-down effect. It is too much cooked in the artistic consciousness.”
Not long after Lawrence praised the Etruscan version of beauty, the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti began sculpting his haunting and expressive “thin man” bronzes, hallmarks of surrealist art (a detail from A Forest, Seven Figures and a Head is shown below). Among his important inspirations were the rod-like, elongate bronze figures sometimes found in Etruscan tombs (above). If the Greeks tried to imitate in their statuary the exact, lifelike proportions of the human figure, the Etruscans seem not to have bothered with anything of the sort. They knew, as did Lawrence and Giacometti, that by exaggerating certain details, like the length of a subject’s torso and legs, artists can make us look at those details in new and epiphanic ways; their art transcends the ordinary and becomes revelation.
Early in this century, Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio gave the most famous of all Etruscan elongate statues the evocative title “Evening Shade” (Ombra della Sera). It is now in the Museo Guarnacci in Volterra. In tribute to the poignant statue, outstanding benefactors of the city of Volterra are inducted into a knighthood named after the city’s most elegant ghost.