Articles / blogEtruscan woman: independent, free, modern and beautiful

November 25, 2019by kernus

The Etruscan woman was the freest in ancient societies: refined, elegant, independent, beautiful. Through Etruscan art a fascinating journey into the Etruscan female universe.

When we think of the state of women in ancient civilizations, in our imagination looms the figure of a woman subordinate to man, and whose task is above all to take care of domestic activities, or at least to wait for occupations typically Female. This was not the case for the Etruscan woman: no other woman like the Etruscan woman enjoyed such a high degree of emancipation, freedom and autonomy. “Etruscan women,” wrote the distinguished scholar Jean-Paul Thuillier, “knew how to be custodians of the hearth”, but at the same time were able to “keep at bay the crowd of servants and servants. Simply, unlike Penelope and Andromaca, they were not content to wait patiently at home for the return of the newlyweds, but legitimately took part in all the pleasures of life. The high level of economic well-being of Etruscan society meant that, already in the archaic age (from the sixth century BC), the role of women had begun to undergo changes: if before women were essentially mothers dedicated to the care of the family, to from this time they began to “get out” from the home to participate more and more actively in public life. This is especially true for the area of Etruria proper (Toscana, High Lazio and Umbria), while in the other areas of Italy occupied by the Etruscans this process of emancipation took on much slower contours: for this reason it should be noted that it is improper to speak of an Etruscan woman tout-court: in this article we will therefore use this term to refer to the condition of the woman in Etruria between the sixth and fourth century BC (epoch, the latter, from which, as a result of the increased contacts with the Greeks first and with the Romans then, there will be a regression of the social condition of the woman).

etruscan woman
Arte etrusca, Sarcofago degli sposi da Cerveteri (530-520 a.C.; terracotta; Roma, Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia)

An important first aspect of Etruscan women is that, as many inscriptions attest, they were given their own name: on the contrary, in Rome women were identified exclusively by the name of the gens, or family, to which they belonged (Tullia, Iulia, Cornelia, and so on: in case there were two women in the same family, they were indicated by numerals, as before, secunda, tertia, or with the adjectives Major and minor if there were two). It was not until the late Republican era that Roman women would have started to use the surname (a kind of nickname). Many claims of female names of Etruscan women have survived: Velelia, Anthaia, Thania, Larthia, Tita, Nuzinai, Ramutha, Velthura, Thesathei. And it is the inscriptions found on the objects that tell us a lot about the status of the Etruscan woman. We know that women possessed objects, we know that they were able to read (on some everyday tools appear in fact explanatory indications, perhaps to illustrate a decorative scene, or dedic), and probably in some cases they could also be business owners. A couple examples: at the Gregorian Etruscan Museum, in the Vatican Museums, there is a bucchero ollab (i.e. a small vessel that served to contain food: see the article on Etruscan cuisine) where it reads “mi ramuthas kansinaia”, or “I are from Ramutha Kansinai”, where the owner of the vase, a woman, is identified by her first and last name. And in the Louvre there is a pisside, dated to about 630 BC, on which is the inscription “Kusnailise”, which could be translated with “in the kusnai workshop”, where Kusnai (a woman’s name) is presumably the owner of the business Commercial.

Engraved buccaneer olletta with inscription
Engraved buccaneer olletta with inscription (630-590 BC; ceramic in buccaneer decorated with engraving, height 12 cm; Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Gregorian Etruscan Museum)

What kind of woman can we imagine when we think of the Etruscan woman? It should be specified that we know above all wealthy Etruscan women, those who could afford to be effigy on the frescoes or who could commission the sumptuous sarcophagi artists. The scholar Lidio Gasperini writes that “we see, in Cerveteri as in Tarquinia, Volterra, Closed, Perugia, on painted walls, sarcophagi, cinerial urns, images of brides, usually lying on the convivial bed with rich and refined hairstyles, often of great effect and elegance. Nobility and kindness of dress, which are accompanied by the nobility and kindness of the attitude, the intense and affectionate participation in one of the most collected and intimate moments of the day.” The images and the finds that came to us handed down the image of a proud, refined, kind woman, who liked the worldly pleasures, loved to dress well and wear precious and well-crafted jewels, devoted a lot of time to the care of the body and her own he experimented with elaborate hairstyles, and played an important role both at the family and social level, given “the quantity and wealth, sometimes exceptional, of his ornaments and objects laid in his honor (and in his use)” in the Burials.

Tomb of the Bigheass of Tarquini

Reproduction of the left wall of the Tomb of the Bigheass of Tarquinia (1901; oil on canvas, 204 x 516 cm; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts)

So, thinking of the Etruscan woman, we can think, for example, of the images of Larthia Seianti, the lady of the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, dressed in a long tunic at the waist decorated with studs and bearing precious gold jewels, such as a pair of eye-catching disc earrings or an armonire on her bicep, or the young Velia, a bride depicted in a fresco decorating the Tomb of the Orc in Tarquinia, and carrying a rich necklace of amber, a pair of cluster earrings, and has curly hair gathered on the n with a lattice and adorned with a laurel crown, or the beautiful girl preserved at the Metropolitan Museum (one of the most advanced testimonies of Etruscan art, a life-size sculpture), wearing a fitted tunic that highlights, without leave much to the imagination, the forms of the breast, and that brings very elaborate and rich jewels with depictions of deities. The burial kits of Etruscan women include several objects that tell us a lot about their activities: tools for weaving and spinning have been found (hobbies that were also practiced by women of high society, supported by their and then mirrors, jewels, ornaments of various kinds and ointments, a sign that Etruscan women had to spend a lot of time making themselves beautiful, and still horse bites that might suggest the fact that, in ancient Etruria, women moved and traveled in autonomy, without a father or husband to accompany them. The statues and portraits also testify to a great variety of hairstyles that Etruscan women loved to try, although there are some recurring ones: in ancient times (in the sixth century BC) the hairstyle with long braids that hung on the breasts (they could be two, but also more), or with long hair brought backwards so that they fell behind their shoulders. In more recent times, however, the fashion of short hair, or collected, has spread: they were held still with a lattice, as in the case of the aforementioned Velia, or they were combed “melon”, that is, collected in thick strands and pulled back. Beautiful women, refined women, brides of princes but also of rich owners, of magistrates, of politicians, of traders, who did not lead a closed life between the walls of the house, but spent a lot of time in society, participated in worldly events, went out often to attend sports competitions and shows. In other words, as the scholar Jean-Marc Irollo wrote, the Etruscan ladies “did not allow their men to exercise a monopoly on luxury and the joy of living”.

The size of the Etruscan woman was in fact much less “domestic” than that of the Greek woman or the Roman woman: unlike the latter, the Etruscan woman usually took part in public life, as the Latin literary sources attest and as evidenced by the Latin literary sources and as we can also easily see from the works of art. In the frescoes of the tomb of the Bighe (see article on Etruscans and sport) we see, in one of the stands from which spectators attend the sports competitions, in addition to several women of all ages, also a couple, with the woman embracing the man. This gesture, with the woman taking the initiative, was interpreted by the aforementioned Thuillier as a sign that there was a certain equality between men and women (also because, always noted the scholar French, in the performances in which an audience appears, the women often have places in the front rows): it is, in the words of the well-known Etruscanologist, a “very modern gesture”.

If, therefore, the Etruscan woman often took part in shows, games or at any other public events, she also frequently attended banquets. It was a habit that, in Greece and Rome, caused scandal, because outside Etruria, in Greek and Roman society, the only women admitted to the banquets were those who exercised the meretrician: a woman of good family could not take part banquets, since it was deemed disreputable. As a result, the constant presence of women at Etruscan banquets fueled the misconceptions of Greek and Roman writers. Among the most famous passages on Etruscan women is that of the Greek historian Theopompo, who lived in the middle of the fourth century BC and author of a very harsh judgment on Etruscan women, although now branded as a liar by all critics. Theopompo wrote, in what is the longest ancient piece about Etruscan women known to us, that “it was custom among the Etruscans that women were in common: they care a lot about their bodies, doing sports exercises alone or with men; they do not consider it shameful to appear in public naked; they are at the table not close to her husband, but close to the first come of those present and toast to the health of those who want. They are strong drinkers and very nice to see.” And again, on the upbringing of children: “The Tyrrhenians raise all children, ignoring who is the father of each of them; these guys live in the same way as those who keep them, spending part of their time getting drunk and trading with all women indiscriminately.” Theopompo enjoyed the reputation of cursing even in ancient times and, apart from the assertion that Etruscan women were “very beautiful to see” (obvious from sculptures and frescoes), several of his assertions appear completely unfounded: the passage on the fact that they shared the table not with her husband, but with the first that happened, is denied by Aristotle who assures that “the Etruscans eat together with their wives lying under the same mantle”. That Etruscan women attended banquets with their husbands is also well known by Etruscan artistic testimonies. In the banquet scene of the tomb of the Shields in Tarquinia we see a couple, husband and wife, who are eating together on the kléne, the typical banquet bed, but this use is also evident from the sarcophagi that often depict couples lying down as if they were they were attending a dinner party. In this sense, the most famous work is definitely the sarcophagus of the newlyweds of Cerveteri, currently preserved at the Etruscan National Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome: the two newlyweds are lying on a kléne and looking in front of them, embracing tenderly. At a much higher degree of realism comes then the so-called Urn of the Newlyweds preserved at the Guarnacci Museum of Volterra: in this case, it is possible that the features of the two protagonists, a couple of rather advanced age, correspond to the real and obvious ones the intention of the two spouses to keep their memory alive even after the disappearance (the portraits, in fact, were placed directly above the lid of the sarcophagi or the urns).

Sarcophagus by Larthia Seianti
Sarcophagus by Larthia Seianti

Still, on the subject of Theopompo’s accusations: on nudity there have not been scenes of banquets in which naked women appear intent on sharing the moment of conviviality with men, while on the accusation of being heavy drinkers the only since we can to point out that, in many women’s grave kits, chalices, jugs and anything else have been found to suggest that women, in Etruria (as, moreover, also in Greece and Rome), loved wine. Finally, with regard to the upbringing of children, Theopompo probably did not like the fact that Etruscan women, unlike Greek women, were not placed under the protection of their father or husband, and therefore enjoyed greater freedom. Moreover, perhaps his judgment reflected the legal condition of mothers who could probably educate their children regardless of their father’s status, as opposed to what was happening in Greece and Rome, where it was the father who decided fate. children, and women were excluded from any decision-making role.

Even in art, Etruscans had a different approach to their mothers than to Greek art. The Greeks avoided depicting mothers in the act of breastfeeding their children: “this gesture”, explains Etruscan Larissa Bonfante, “was part of the world of the Furies, the Eumenids, the world of blood, the almost animal nature of man”, reason for the which the Greeks refused to admit within their figurative repertoire referring to the “normal world”. One of the main masterpieces of Etruscan art preserved at the National Archaeological Museum in Florence is a mother breastfeeding a child: it is Mater Matuta, the Italian goddess of the morning and the aurora, and consequently protector of fertility, motherhood and birth. It was found in a necropolis near Chianciano Terme, and had the function of a large cinerary urn (the head is in fact mobile): the work impresses the observer for its monumentality that however does not affect the degree of realism that the sculptor managed to give the Mater Matuta (observe the naturalness of the movement of the hands that hold the child, but also the folds of the drapery). In the Italian territory, the cult of the mother goddess was very ingrained in ancient italy, as opposed to what was happening in Greece, where the practice of breastfeeding children was also much less widespread (Greek women of high social background entrusted the task to the balie). This also explains why we have received some depictions of mothers with children in Etruscan sculpture: interesting examples are the so-called kourotrophos (“she who feeds the child”) from Veio, a votive statuette now preserved in the deposits of the Superintendent for the metropolitan area of Rome, the province of Viterbo and the southern Etruria, or a bronze kept in the Louvre with a mother holding her son’s hand, or the large statue, also from Veio, of Latona, mother of Apollo, caught in the act of cradling the little god. The votive statues could also represent newborns, and were intended to obtain protection for the little ones from the deities: interesting examples are those preserved at the Etruscan National Museum of Arezzo.

Although the role of the Etruscan woman in the family context was important, the hypothesis that Etruscan society had a matriarchal implant was denied by scholars. According to the most recent studies, women in Etruria did not play a dominant role within the family: the fact that in the inscriptions the names of fathers prevail (although sometimes the mother’s could appear) has brought almost the whole community to reject the hypothesis that it was the woman’s main position. It is true, however, as was said in the opening, that Etruscan women enjoyed a freedom that was not known in other ancient societies. A freedom that, however, would have experienced heavy downsizing by the time the Etruscans came into contact with the Romans. And that was lost when the Etruscan civilization was “incorporated” into the Roman one.