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: An Etruscan Cinerary Urn


John A. Pinto



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
An Etruscan Cinerary Urn of painted terracotta1 has been acquired by the Institute with use of The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund. The box-shaped urn, together with its detachable lid, has the appearance of a primitive dwelling. The sloping lid is decorated with parallel stripes of dark paint which suggest the cross beams of a hut. At right angles to these stripes are two thicker lines which, if we continue the analogy with a primitive hut, define the central ridge-pole. This ridge-pole is terminated at both ends by what appear to be rams' heads in moulded terracotta. At the corners of the lid are other small animal heads. Each of the four exterior sides of the urn is decorated by a recessed lozenge-shaped field which is flanked by small paintings (ca. 3" high) of plants and human figures. Both in the conception of this charming hut-form and in its decorative paintings, the ancient artist has shown himself capable of representing three-dimensional forms with remarkable freedom and spontaneity.Not only is the cinerary urn an object of exceptional beauty, but it is also an important historical and anthropological document. Etruscan civilization was already enigmatic in antiquity, and only recently has modern archaeology begun to dispel some of the obscurity which shrouds it. Still, certain questions of basic importance remain to be solved: was, for instance, Etruscan civilization the product of a people indigenous to Italy or of foreign colonization? What is the key to the Etruscan language, which still can not be accurately deciphered?Enough is known about the Etruscans, however, to place the Institute's cinerary urn within its general historical and cultural context. During the course of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. the Etruscans came to dominate the Tyrenean Sea, and also to expand territorially within the Italian peninsula, north to the Po River and south to Magna Graecia. For about two-and-a-half centuries the Etruscan city states, united in a loose federation, grew rapidly and flourished brilliantly. In the fifth century B.C., however, they began to decline due to maritime reverses dealt them by the Greeks, the loss of the Po valley to the Gauls, and of Latium (with its important trade center, Rome) to the Latins.The art of the Etruscans is characterized on the one hand by an extraordinary vigor, and on the other by the variety of foreign (especially Greek) artistic influences it openly incorporates. The well-known painted tombs of Tarquinia preserve a remarkable range of Etruscan pictorial composition dating from the sixth to the first centuries B.C. Comparisons with examples such as the Tomb of the Augurs suggest a date in the first quarter of the fifth century. Many tombs of this period have niches intended for cinerary urns of the deceased.2 The fact that only three sides of the Institute's urn are decorated with painted figures suggests that the fourth side was intended to face the rear of such a niche. The same arrangement may be observed in another cinerary urn in the National Museum at Tarquinia.3A satisfactory explanation of the significance of the urn's pictorial decoration has not yet been suggested. It is unclear whether the five figures represented take part in a narrative scene or are conceived as isolated one from the other. Three figures are depicted on one of the long sides: at the extreme left a robust male, colored deep red, looks over his shoulder at another male (somewhat lighter in complexion), holding in his left hand a staff with green leaves. At the far right another vigorous figure, colored red and holding a helmet, raises his left arm over his head in the act of throwing a sling. Behind this figure, on the adjacent short side, is another male, apparently nude. On the other short side, opposite, is a female figure with both arms raised and dressed in a red garment and a long flowering stole.The mystery surrounding the paintings on this urn, like that associated with the Etruscans, may one day be dispelled. In the meantime, the Institute is fortunate to display such an exquisite object which will contribute towards a more complete evaluation of Etruscan art and culture.John A. Pinto is a graduate student in the department of fine arts at Harvard University. A short note by him recently appeared in the "Acquisition Report" of the Fogg Art Museum.Endnotes
  1. 70.8 a b. The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund. Painted terracotta, 9 1/4" (h. with lid) x 13 1/2" (l.) x 9 3/4" (d.).
  2. One notable example which dates from around 520 B.C., is the Tomb of the Lionesses.
  3. No. 1417. Slightly larger than the Institute's urn (but missing its lid), the Tarquinia example dates from the beginning of the fifth century.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Cinerary Urn and Lid. Etruscan (Tarquinia), 6th-5th century B.C. Painted terracotta, 9 1/4" (h. with lid) x 13 1/2" (l.) x 9 3/4" (d.). The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 70.8 ab.
  2. A side view of the urn showing a female figure with both arms raised.
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Source: John A. Pinto, "An Etruscan Cinerary Urn," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 59 (1970): 33-35.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009