The Etruscans at the Villa Giulia

Even though it’s early July, it’s dull and damp here in London and I’m in a ‘and now for something completely different’ mood with regard to blogging. So I’m taking you to the Villa Giulia, just outside Rome, once a summer residence for Popes and, nowadays, it is the Etruscan Museum with some spectacular objects dating from the 6th century B.C.

An eye-catching terracotta statue of Apollo, still retaining much of its colouring. 

The Etruscan city of Veii was once hereabouts, though much of it was robbed out in the 19th century, either for the valuable objects found there, or for any recyclable material. We do, however, know where the important temple of Portonaccio once stood with its spectacular roof with life-sized painted terracotta gods striding along the top.

The demi-god, Heracles, having captured the Ceryneian hind.

Above is Heracles; he’s not yet a god – he’s still in the throes of performing his Twelve Labours as an act of expiation for having killed his wife and children in a fit of madness. He stands on a stool-like plinth which once straddled the Portonaccio temple roof, together with a very damaged Turms (Hermes, the messenger god), the god Apollo, and Leto/Latona, carrying the infant Apollo.

Heracles stands astride the hind with golden horns – his task was to capture her alive – she was dedicated to the goddess Artemis. The hind is lying on her back between Heracles’s legs, and her feet are bound together. Heracles’s lion skin is half over his head. The raised shoulder indicates that he was holding his club. Note his leg muscles – this is a god in action.

Apollo also wants the hind and he is in pursuit. His left arm may once have held a bow and his right arm is outstretched as he strides towards Heracles. It’s a frozen moment.


View of part of the roof; the decorative antefixes of winged guardians are there to protect the temple. I’ve kept in the seated figure bottom left to give you a sense of scale.

Veii was also an important artistic centre in the 6th century B.C. The geology of Veii did not include marble quarries but the Etruscans became known for their terracotta statues; many of which still retain some of their original colouring, which greatly adds to their liveliness and feeling of action.


 Bronze sheep’s liver as used in divination

The Etruscans were known as a supremely religious people, famous for their prophesying – it was an Etruscan seer who foretold Julius Caesar’s death on the Ides of March. The bronze sheep’s liver above was as aide memoire for haruspicy, that is divination by examining a sheep’s liver. The life-size bronze sheep’s liver above is marked out in sections with the names of various Etruscan divinities who ruled over the different aspects of life. Etruscan gods weren’t like the gods of Olympus – who were all too human in their wars, love affairs and so on – Etruscan gods were more aspects of the natural world – like the weather god Tinia.

Couple on the funerary dining couch

From the superb tomb in the Villa Giulia, known as the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple, an aristocratic couple are seated on their kline, that is, a dining couch. The couch is on four legs and, if the couple were to get up, you would find that the couch can be opened and that either their bodies, or their ashes are stored inside. The couple actually look very comfortable; the husband’s elbow is resting on a cushion and they seem happy in each other’s company.

View from the back; the husband’s arm is around his wife’s shoulders

Looked at from the back, the husband’s arm is, touchingly, around his wife. Their serenity is, perhaps, aided by the fact that the Etruscans worked in terracotta pottery rather than marble, and maybe this softer medium inclined itself to a more friendly view of the world rather than the rigidity of cold marble.

Terracotta jar with fish decoration

The Etruscans’ artistic sophistication can also be found in their grave goods. I love the double handled jar above with the stylized fish and geometric shapes. It’s full of joyous movement.

Bronze bowl with lions

Etruscan metalwork skills were also of a very high quality; I was very taken with this bronze bowl with four lions walking delicately round the rim. I wondered what you would cook in it – because surely it belongs in the kitchen and is meant to be used.

Terracotta perfume dispenser

This large perfume dispenser  – at least chest high – speaks of sophisticated gatherings, maybe even parties; though, it could, of course, be for a funeral party – it would depend on the perfume used.  Myrrh or frankincense would be suitable for funeral rites – a lighter scent would better suit a less formal occasion.

Painted hound’s terracotta head

This beautifully modelled hound’s head looks like a portrait of a known and much-loved animal and, when I saw it, I wanted to stroke it.

Plate depicting wolf-god in centre, with Heracles chasing the centaur, Nessus, who is chasing Heracles’s wife, Deianira

I’m ending with the mysterious plate depicting the centaur, half man – half horse, at the top of the plate, who is pursuing Deianira, Heracles’s second wife – we can see her flying drapery as she flees. On the right, we see Heracles in pursuit with his raised club; he will kill Nessus for this outrage. But Nessus has one last trick up his sleeve; with his dying breath he tells Deianira that his blood-soaked shirt is a love charm, and he gives it to her. What he doesn’t tell her is that the shirt has been poisoned by the Hydra’s blood.

Some time later, Heracles falls in love with Princess Iole, and Deianira, desperate to win back her husband’s affection, sends him Nessus’ shirt. But the moment Heracles puts it on, the poison takes effect. In agony, Heracles orders a funeral pyre to be built and flings himself onto it. He dies and Dejanira then kills herself. Heracles was carried to Olympus and, in recognition of his outstanding bravery, he was made a god.

And the mysterious wolf god in the centre of the plate?  No-one knows. A dæmon, suggests one expert – which is not very helpful.

The Villa Giulia, once the summer palace of Popes, now the Etruscan Museum.

I hope you have enjoyed this visit to the Villa Giulia. It is easily accessible from Rome and is well worth visiting.

All photos by Elizabeth Hawksley

Twitter: @Hawksley_E

Elizabeth Hawksley

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8 thoughts on “The Etruscans at the Villa Giulia”

  1. What an intriguing post – every piece is worthy of a page in itself, full of beauty and fascination.
    I love the couple – the fact that they are concealing their own ashes or bodies adds poignancy to their contentedness and absorption in the present moment.
    I could see the faithful, patient expression in the hound’s eyes – just lovely.
    And the plate! The lines and curves make the figures and the drapery so vivid and immediate.
    Thank you so much, Elizabeth – I enjoyed this tremendously.

    1. Thank you, Prem. I confess, I find the Etruscans endlessly fascinating. Unfortunately, we have almost no accounts of what they themselves thought. Their mindset seems to have been very different from that of the neighbouring Romans – or, indeed the Greeks who occupied southern Italy at that time (6th century B.C.) in Magna Graecia. Their language isn’t related to any other language and is now extinct, and they wrote on linen not parchment, so very little of what they had to say survives. The Emperor Claudius wrote a history of the Etruscans – but that has been lost, too.

      Still, at least we have their wonderful art.

  2. This is lovely! I agree, the statues are so much softer, livelier and crucially, more human than others from the Ancient World

    1. I’m glad you agree, Jan. I think part of it is because the Etruscan gods were more congenial. The Greek and Roman pantheon were always fighting, taking sides with or against humankind e.g. in the Trojan War, and causing no end of trouble by their jealousy, like the goddess Hera, or amorous intrigues like Zeus – for which the wretched humans always paid the price. The Etruscan gods were different. The Etruscan Apollo actually loved his wife, Latona/Leto, and the Etruscan gods were more interested in controlling the weather rather than causing havoc amongst humans.

  3. Lovely post, Elizabeth. I have always had a soft spot for the Etruscans, probably because their art is so attractive. Or maybe it’s because so little is known about them and that makes them particularly intriguing.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Gail. I think both your points are true. I’ve just been reading D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Etruscan Places’ (1932) and he loved the Etruscans because he felt that they were the opposite of the militaristic Romans, whom he loathed! Mind you, DHL was in Italy during the rise of Fascism under Mussolini, and that was probably the connection in his mind.

  4. Those are some truly wonderful pieces of pottery/ceramic. I wonder how they would have fired the piece of the couple on the couch. Presumably in an enormous kiln.

    The Wolfman plate, the hound’s head and this fish vase are all very interesting and quite fun.

    I wasn’t to visit the Villa Giulia when I was last in Rome, so I’m very happy to have been given a glimpse of what I missed out on.

    Thanks Elizabeth.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Huon. Never mind – the Villa Giulia will still be there to be visited (I hope) when you next go to Rome. That’s a very interesting point about how the Etruscans fired their huge ceramic pieces. I don’t know the answer.

      I hope you are well.

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