Review by Lucy Shipley
This book is very clearly a passion project, the result of a lifetime’s love for and engagement with the Etruscan past. It provides a rare opportunity to hear the views of a specialist from another discipline, that of film studies, and to enjoy the author’s extensive knowledge of 19th- and 20th-century art and literature, the ‘modern imagination’ referred to in the title.
Sam Solecki’s 24 chapters are devoted to references to the Etruscans in the work of individual artists and writers from the late 18th century onwards. Some of these are the most well-known literary aficionados of Etruria, like George Dennis and D H Lawrence, but others are less-famous figures. I was especially pleased to encounter the doughty Mrs Hamilton Gray, an early 19th-century travel writer who comes across in this account as a thorn in the side of the aforementioned Dennis.
Solecki’s detailed analysis in each chapter is laser-focused on the artist or writer’s engagement with the Etruscan world, and there are lengthy and enjoyable quotations presented to illustrate this. Stendhal’s account of his travels in Etruria was a particular highlight, with beautifully chosen passages illustrating his wit. On occasions, particularly with the later, more challenging work, which includes harrowing comparisons between Etruscan bucchero pottery and the victims of the Holocaust, more contextualisation is needed to understand the position of the writer Rika Lesser and her reason for making such a haunting, horrific analogy. Similarly, the positioning of the Etruscans within a eugenics-based view of ‘vanished races’ without a reference to the dubious nature of this assessment and its broader background is an issue. There is often an assumption of the same level of knowledge of literary culture between the author and the reader, and for many archaeological readers – or general readers – this may not be the case.
The book would have benefited greatly from a more thorough and up-to-date engagement with Etruscan archaeology, as it misses the huge archaeological efforts of the past nearly 100 years, from the painstaking landscape surveys of South Etruria to the most recent DNA studies. It is heavily reliant on introductory, general texts, many of which are now period pieces akin to the work of the writers and artists under discussion. The richness and variety of the Etruscan archaeological record is underestimated, undermining the volume’s valuable central message.
The book is written in lavish and characterful prose, with delightful vignettes and pleasingly acidic footnotes, but also some bizarre references, including a surprise guest appearance from Liam Neeson. The annotated catalogue of ‘Etruscan sightings’ with which the book ends is an incredibly valuable resource for those interested in Etruscan reception studies. Indeed, although it has issues, the whole book provides a series of jumping-off points for a closer assessment of the relationships the author has documented.
The Etruscans in the Modern Imagination
McGill-Queen’s University Press, £33.99, Hardback