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Depictions of Death in Etruscan Art

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  • 0:01 Death in Etruscan Art
  • 0:40 Etruscan Tombs
  • 2:29 Art in Etruscan Tombs
  • 3:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the ways that the Etruscans dealt with death through their artwork, which was primarily preserved in tombs. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Death in Etruscan Art

So, are you ready to learn about how the Etruscans depicted death in their art? It's actually pretty simple - they didn't! There we go; lesson over! Okay, it's not quite that simple. The Etruscans had a very interesting perspective on death. In their tombs, where death is omnipresent, the Etruscans focused not on death but on life. Throughout Etruscan art, death is rarely actually shown: no death, no treatment of the body, no scenes of the spirit's journey through the afterlife. Rather, they created a parallel between the life of the body and the life of the spirit, building up Etruscan tombs as homes of the dead.

Etruscan Tombs

When an Etruscan person died, their spirit was seen as transitioning into its new life. And that is evident through the artwork associated with death. This is an urn that held the cremated remains of Etruscans dating back to about 800 BCE, before large tombs became popular:

Etruscan Urn
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Notice anything interesting about its shape? It's a house! This urn was literally a little house for the cremated body and presumably the spirit of the deceased.

Within the next century or so, the Etruscans began relying more on a large underground necropolis, or an elaborate cemetery with multiple tombs in local stone, called tufa. But the theme of the home was not lost. If anything, it intensified. This is the plan of an Etruscan tomb:

Plan of Etruscan Tomb
plan of Etruscan tomb

It is almost identical to the plan of an Etruscan home and is complete with beds, couches, and a banquet hall.

Most of these tombs were filled with pottery and other useful grave goods that would be found in a normal home. Now, you don't build a large, home-shaped tomb just for a small urn. So, the Etruscans placed the ashes in large sarcophagi made of terracotta, or baked clay.

Sarcophagi
sarcophagi made of terra-cotta

The lid of these featured a life-sized terracotta portrait of the deceased, reclining on a banquet couch.

In ancient Italy, this is how people ate at banquets, reclining on this type of couch.

Life-sized Statue
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On some lids, husband and wife actually appeared together. See how the hands of these figures are extended?

Espressive Hand Gestures
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Much like modern Italians, Etruscans communicated through expressive hand gestures while talking. So, what do we have here? A large, comfortable home, filled with people enjoying a banquet and having a lively conversation. This isn't a tomb - it's a party!

Art in Etruscan Tombs

Etruscan tombs were designed to be the homes of the dead, and this was also reflected in the art that covered the walls. This image is from the Tomb of the Reliefs a third century BCE Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri, Italy:

Tomb of the Reliefs
mural in tomb of the reliefs

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