right Small bronze figurine of man in a toga, c.600 BC. Found on the Isle of Elba in 1764, the statuette’s extended right arm once held an object that has been lost.

Etruscans: pushing boundaries

When the Etruscans expanded to the south and the vast plains of Campania, they found a land of cultural connections and confrontations, as luxurious grave goods found across the region reveal. An exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples sheds light on these ancient Italians at the frontier. Paolo Giulierini, director of the museum, is our guide.


According to the ancient scholar Servius, the city of Capua, in what is now the southern Italian region of Campania, was founded after a hawk or falcon was sighted. The Etruscan word for this augural sign, the hawk or falcon, is capys, and, while we only know this word from Servius’ gloss, its mark can still be seen in the city’s name today. The Etruscans – or Rasenna, as they called themselves – were an ancient, pre-Roman civilisation dating back to c.900 BC. They controlled swathes of central Italy, ancient Etruria, encompassing the modern regions of Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria. In time, they expanded north beyond Etruria, and also pushed south into the fertile fields of Campania, settling at centres like Capua.

Fine bronze vessels called lebeti, decorated with sculpted figures of warriors, have been found in the tombs of Capua’s necropolis. Examples of these extraordinary objects, testimony to the magnificence of this centre in the Archaic age (600-480 BC), have been in the British Museum since the 19th century. Also preserved abroad, this time in the museums of Berlin, is an artefact that demonstrates the city’s involvement with the Etruscan religion: the exceptional Tabula Capuana, a religious calendar inscribed – using the Etruscan language – on a terracotta tile.

Small bronze figurine of man in a toga, c.600 BC. Found on the Isle of Elba in 1764, the statuette’s extended right arm once held an object that has been lost.

Around the great urban hub of Capua, there is plenty of archaeological evidence for a lively Etruscan presence in Campania, confirmation of the ancient authors, who even wrote of a ‘dodecapolis’, a league of 12 cities, following the model of the dodecapolis in Etruria. An exhibition in the Palestra Grande in Pompeii used some of this evidence to explore the relationships between elite Campanians, Etruscans, and Greeks and the Etruscan presence in this pre-Roman centre – and now, at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (MANN), we present The Etruscans and the MANN (see ‘Further information’ on p.47). Our exhibition begins with a video in which a hawk flies over Etruscan territory, from Lazio down to Campania, letting visitors see from above the most important sites of this civilisation which, from the 8th to the 5th centuries BC, controlled the great plains of the region.

Evidence for the first phase of Etruscan activity in the area comes from grave goods from the Campanian sites of Carinaro e Gricignano di Aversa, Suessula, and Pontecagnano, showing the progressive control of the valleys that lead into the plains and along the Tyrrhenian Sea. At Pontecagnano, more than 9,000 burials have been excavated over the last fifty years. Owing to the quality of the objects found in the graves of the necropolis, some have been called ‘princely’ burials. These offer an insight into the aristocracy of the period between the late 8th century and the end of the 7th century BC, when a vast commercial network (with Campania as an important junction on the Italian peninsula) was established across the Mediterranean and objects that show clear influences from the eastern Mediterranean appear. The grave goods from these and other sites also allow us to appreciate the introduction of elements from the Villanovan culture.

Later, we can see a process of osmosis with the Greek culture of the nearby centres of Ischia, the island in the Bay of Naples where Greeks from Euboea settled to trade with the mainland Etruscans, and Cumae, an ancient Greek colony also founded by Euboeans. With these Greek sites nearby, the plains of Campania were fertile ground not just for agriculture, but also cultural exchange. Such processes lead to the birth of the first great metropolises in Etruscan Campania, such as Capua.

A particularly emblematic example of these processes can be seen in the Artiaco Tomb (Tomb 104) at Cumae. This is the oldest burial of the necropolis, dating back to the end of the 8th century BC. The furnishings of this tomb mix Greek components (like a silver cinerary urn whose decoration refers to a Homeric funeral ritual) with Etruscan elements (as seen in the shield) and reflect the magnificence of the cultural current of this period in which there were many connections to the eastern Mediterranean (such as the buckle, decorated with sphinxes and restored for the exhibition).

Gold and silver buckle, decorated with sphinxes, found in a tomb in Cumae, late 8th century BC.

Displayed next to the Cumaean tomb are the exquisite grave goods from the slightly later Bernardini Tomb, from the Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia. This princely burial from the 7th century BC, discovered in Palestrina, Lazio, in 1876, reveals through the luxuriousness and exotic nature of the objects a complete openness to the influences of eastern Mediterranean culture. It is a stunning example of the circulation of high-end goods and of the wealth accumulated by the elite in Etruria during the 7th century. Among the resplendent artefacts found within the burial are a gold buckle – again decorated with sphinxes, but also bearing female heads – and a spectacular gilded silver ‘Phoenician’ bowl. This is embossed and engraved with friezes of a hunting expedition and horses and flying birds, and has a central medallion showing a prisoner tied to a tree and a man being bitten by a dog, all encircled by a snake.

The 7th century BC Bernardini Tomb in Palestrina, located in Etruria proper, contained a rich array of gold and gilded silver objects. The grave goods include a gold buckle decorated with sphinxes and women’s heads.
The gilded silver ‘Phoenician’ bowl is decorated with scenes of a hunting expedition, a series of horses and birds, and a central medallion showing a prisoner tied to a tree, with two other standing figures, one bitten by a dog.
The a small gilded cauldron has friezes of geese, armed men, and scenes of rural life and hunting. The six snake protomes were added at a later date.

Exceptional finds trace the birth and growth of the Etruscan cities of Campania, and further highlight the cross-cultural connections of the period. The clay decorations from the roofs of the shrines in the Etruscan city of Capua, for instance, share a similar language with those of the Greek settlement of Cumae. There are many ceramics from these cities too, sometimes imported, and sometimes manufactured locally, such as bucchero, a distinct type of dark pottery that is characteristic of the Etruscans.

The mingling between the different cultures of ancient Campania, especially between Greeks, local populations, and Etruscans, is one of the central elements of the exhibition, but this coexistence was at times far from peaceful. Tensions and competition led to famous naval battles and even the emergence of propaganda in the guise of artistic production. Between the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the Etruscan powers in Campania were in crisis, a situation exacerbated by their defeat at the Battle of Cumae in 474, in which the navies of Cumae and Syracuse (a Greek settlement in Sicily) fought the Etruscans as part of their efforts to stem the Etruscan expansion into southern Italy. Such conflict is brought to mind by Greek vases that depict the Gigantomachia: the gods of Olympus fighting against the giants, which, according to myth, took place in the Phlegraean Fields, where there was also a confrontation between Etruscans and Cumaeans. The Etruscans were seen as Giants to be defeated and civilised by the Greeks, who are represented by the gods, and the period of conflict between the two groups coincided with the spread of the Gigantomachia in Greek art.

Coexistence is, of course, not only a matter of confrontation but also of enrichment and mutual cultural exchange. The frontier combines all these things, and the Etruscan ‘cowboys’ knew what they could expect as they pushed away from their lands.

Oinochoe (wine jug) in heavy bucchero, a typical Etruscan ceramic imitating embossed metal forms, 590-570 BC. It is decorated with pairs of sphinxes, gorgons, and winged horses.

Both in Etruria proper and on the frontier plains, the Etruscans were famously adept at divination (determining the will of the gods) and their fascination with birds and the role of these winged creatures in religion is highlighted in the exhibition through one intriguing bronze object: a container on wheels, a cultic trolley. It consists of a cista (a cylindrical box or basket) with a lid, on top of which are four birds. Its four legs lead down to wheels, and it is decorated with two bands of rings. This artefact in our collection lacks contextual dating information but it recalls other similar objects, as well as platters or tripods on wheels, which spread mainly between the end of the 9th and the 7th centuries BC, from the north to the south of the Italian peninsula. They were particularly prevalent in Villanovan Etruria.

It is possible that, like some of these objects, our little trolley was used as a perfume burner or to present offerings. These are thought to have been the functions of the most famous examples, celebrated for the complexity of their figurative decoration, such as that from Tomb 2 of the Olmo Bello necropolis at the ancient city Visentium in Tuscany. In the case of our artefact, the typology is consistent with the metal-working of Campania – such as fibulae (or pins), perhaps intended to be worn on parades, pendants, and lids, made in Capua between the middle of the 8th and the beginning of the 6th centuries BC, and also finds from Suessula and Lucera. Euboean Greek influences can be seen in the figurative elements, and help lead us to a date somewhere near the beginning of the 8th century BC.

The recurring motif of bird protomes, either on their own or in pairs, is often traced back to the idea of representing the solar boat (that is, the transporting of the sun, a symbol of rebirth, either by boat, as in the Egyptian world, or by birds, which are often identified as souls). But the presence of birds, and the fact that they are four in number, might suggest a different subject, namely the religious observation of birds in flight by the Etruscans, which was so celebrated in the ancient world.

As we have already seen with the hawk and the foundation of Capua, birds have clear religious significance. The observation of the flight of birds for the purpose of divination in the world of the Etruscans is recorded as a widespread practice by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who speaks of tyrrhenikè oionoscopia (tyrrhenikè, or Tyrrhenian, is what the Greeks called the Etruscans). This was known in the Latin world as auspicium (‘I observe birds’).

An early 5th-century Attic black-figure lekythos (a Greek oil jar), showing the goddess Athena fighting two giants.

The most famous episode of the observation of the flight of birds is that relating to the foundation of Rome, as narrated by Livy. He tells us how the twin brothers Romulus and Remus studied the skies in order to decide who would be entitled, as king, to found and give their name to the city. First, Remus spotted six vultures; after that, Romulus saw twelve. A dispute arose because the former claimed that it was more important to have seen the birds first, the latter that the number mattered most. Varro later added another element: when he talks about the subsequent ritual of the sulcus primigenius – that is, the foundation ceremony of the new city – he points out that Romulus made use of an Etruscan rite.

There is a second episode, also reported by Livy, this time relating to Tarquinius Priscus. The historian informs us that this son of Demaratus (whose name was then still Lucumo) was arriving in Rome from Tarquinia with his partner, the Etruscan woman Tanaquil, when he suddenly saw an eagle coming down from above. The eagle took his pilleus (a felt headdress), lifted it into the air, and then put it back on the man’s head, before eventually flying away. Tanaquil, an expert in celestial wonders, as the Etruscans are generally, immediately interpreted this episode as a sign of future royalty for her husband. Once he became king of Rome, Lucumo took the name Tarquinius Priscus.

Clues about what birds meant to the Etruscans come from a number of later authors. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder says in his Natural History that species of birds not seen for centuries were described in the set of Etruscan religious scriptures, known as the Etrusca Disciplina. Ancient literature speaks of ritual books that concerned themselves generally with the religious procedures to be observed on occasions such as the foundation of a city or a sacred area, and for all things relating to war and peace, the span of a human life, the duration of states, and, above all (according to Cicero’s account), the treatment of ostenta, the tell-tale signs.

The roster of these signs was continually expanding, as Etruscan priests noted new omens. In this way the ostentaria – documents cataloguing the ostenta – arose: we have some fragments from an ostentarium arborarium (concerning trees) mentioned by Macrobius, and we can attempt to reconstruct parts of other ostentaria based on how Roman haruspices, rooted in Etruscan traditions, interpreted various portents. Later the scholar Servius, in his commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid, recalls that there were chapters of sacred books that deciphered the flight of birds, and the fortunate presence of glosses of Etruscan words (such as capys and hiuls, the little owl) recorded in late antique commentaries give further hints.

Texts and exceptional artefacts such as the Liver of Piacenza (a bronze model of a sheep’s liver used in divination, found in the Tuscan town Piacenza) reveal a basic concept in the Etruscan belief system: the division of the sky into 16 parts, each dedicated to a deity and each either more favourable for wishes or less so. This division of heaven could be transferred on to particular materials used for soothsaying, such as a sheep’s liver. Depending on where a particular event takes place (whether the flight of a bird, lightning in the sky, or, if examining the liver, the location of spots), the priest could predict the good or bad outcome of an action that you wanted to take.

Bronze cultic trolley, adorned with a series of rings around its rim, and a bird on its lid, late 8th to early 7th century BC.

In our wheeled cista and its four birds, we can perhaps detect a veiled reference to the organisation of the sky in religion, which is ultimately divided into those 16 sections, but was first divided into four sections, each referring to a group of deities. In this way, the appearance and the course of the flight of the bird would swiftly clarify to the priest the nature of the omen.

Romans were fascinated by the beliefs of the Etruscans and their skill at interpreting omens, and drew heavily on Etruscan culture, but more modern interest in the Etruscans of Campania is also explored in the exhibition. This interest – both from the point of view of scholarship and collecting – has been continuous and has early roots, as demonstrated by the small bronze figurine of a worshipper from the island of Elba, which entered the collections of the Royal Museum of Naples (the MANN’s predecessor) at the end of the 18th century. The Etruscan collections of the MANN grew between the 18th and 19th century, as the museum set out to follow the 19th-century idea of a ‘universal’ museum, looking beyond the local Campania area. Objects, mainly from Etruria, entered the museum from various sources, including the Borgia Collection (from which come carved friezes from a religious building in Velletri, Lazio) and the Spinelli Collection, which has amassed bucchero vessels, sarcophagus lids shaped to show the deceased at a banquets, bottles for fragrances, jewellery, coins, and more. An abundance of historic studies of the Etruscan civilisation from the museum’s library, along with historical furniture, show a strong antiquarian interest in the subject, as well as a taste for the antique in design.

A bronze ‘parade’ fibula from the Suessula necropolis, 8th century BC. Spirals of bronze surround the large disc, and in the middle sit four ducks.

The two exhibitions on the Etruscans in Campania – the first in Pompeii and the current one at the MANN – have rekindled interest in one of the great cultures to have crossed the region since the early Iron Age. They provide a context for findings made over a considerable stretch of time, and fully support the assertions made by the ancient geographer and historian Strabo, who wrote about how the Etruscans, extending their domain in Campania as far south as Agro Picentino, founded a dodecapolis in the region, following the model they had established in Etruria and in the north of Italy. Capua was the main centre, but the other key towns were Nola, Nocera, Herculaneum, Pompeii, Sorrento, Marcina, Velcha, Velsu, Irnthi, Uri, and Hyria.

And there is still more that could be done beyond the exhibition: there is the enticing possibility of exploring a network of museums that would help visitors to understand fully the presence of the Etruscans in Campania. In this way, you could explore, through archaeological finds and also linguistic traces (in addition to the name of Capua, you might think of Cava dei Tirreni, the Tyrrhenian Sea, Castel Volturno, or the Volturno and Clani rivers, all of which have clear Etruscan roots), the extraordinary cultural strata of these lands. Together with the MANN, a large group of museums could be included, but we will restrict ourselves to mentioning only the most remarkable – and without forgetting that, in Naples itself, there is a small Etruscan museum, the De Feis Etruscan Archaeological Museum, which preserves interesting Etruscan finds from the necropoleis of the Cannicella and the Crocifisso del Tufo in Orvieto.

Ceramic frieze that once adorned the ‘Temple of the Stigmata’ in Velletri, late 6th century BC. The scene shows the apotheosis of Heracles (on the left) who is presented by Athena to the Olympians. The bearded god with a rod towards the left is perhaps Tinia (the Etruscan equivalent of Zeus), and the one with the curved staff might be Turms (Etruscan Hermes).

In Campania alone, there are a number of important cultural institutes that should not be left off any Etruscan itinerary. The first is the Provincial Museum of Campania in Capua, best known for its Matres Matutae (statues of women nursing infants). The second is the National Archaeological Museum of Pontecagnano, displaying finds from the Villanovan and Etruscan-Campanian centre of Pontecagnano and its ‘princely’ burials. Another important stop is the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Capua, with many objects of Etruscan origin: bronze bowls with beaded rims; bucchero vases, both imported and locally produced; architectural decorations, such as antefixes in the shape of palmettes, the head of a Gorgon or the Greek river god Acheloos. Etruscan finds are also on view in the National Archaeological Museums of Calatia, the Sarno Valley, the Sannio Caudino, and Montesarchio.

Together, the museums form a sort of new dodecapolis, where visitors can follow the frontier trail of the Etruscans.

Further information
The Etruscans and the MANN runs at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli until 31 May 2021. Visit www.museoarcheologiconapoli.it/it/ for more information.
All images: © Ministero per i Beni e le attività Culturali e per il Turismo/Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Napoli, unless otherwise stated.