Masters of Power and Pleasure

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Venice is hardly the most logical location for a show on the Etruscans, a people who flourished in central Italy before the Romans. The majority of Etruscan tombs are much closer to Rome, in the regions of Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria, and many of their most precious artifacts are held in museums in Rome and Florence. That has not kept Venice's elegant Palazzo Grassi from hosting an ambitious exhibition covering nearly an entire millennium of Etruscan civilization. With the simple title "The Etruscans," the show boasts some 700 objects from 80 different collections in 13 countries. It covers an early period known as the Villanovan, around 900 B.C., and takes the Etruscans through stages of wealth, war and expansion until it ends with absorption into the Roman Empire in 27 B.C.

Under the supervision of Etruscan expert Mario Torelli, the exhibit, which runs until July 1, sheds light on a rich and complex lifestyle, including trade, piracy, opulence, warfare, religion and the role of women. Often portrayed on their tombs smiling and banqueting, the Etruscans seemed more jovial than the Romans. Unlike the Romans, they enjoyed the company of women at their feasts. They loved athletics and games, music and dancing, fine clothes and other imported luxuries. The men wore elaborate cloaks and soft boots with the toes turned up like Turkish slippers, while the women enjoyed expens-ive clothes and finely worked gold jewelry.

Torelli, a professor of archaeology at the University of Perugia, defines the show as "an exhibition of Etruscan power." In the 7th century B.C., Etruria, or the land of the Etruscans, was the Eldorado of antiquity, he says, and attracted merchants, artisans and aristocrats from abroad. They brought their products but also their culture. "In this way the Etruscans come into contact with Greek civilization," Torelli says. "They find it fascinating and absorb some aspects. They rework them and use them to reinforce their own power. They were a little like the Japanese of today, who have taken possession of some aspects of Western culture, adapting it to their own needs and transforming it into power for themselves." Symbols of power, such as the lictor's fasces (a double ax with eight rods of iron) and the toga edged with purple were Etruscan inventions passed on to Rome. Etruscan organizational skills abetted their power. While private property was nonexistent in prehistoric times, the Etruscans began dividing land for agricultural use as early as the 9th century B.C. In only a few generations, they progressed from a tribal society to one based on nuclear families.

The real force of the Etruscans, however, was on water. As early as the 5th century B.C., the Etruscans were exploring the southern coast of what would become the Italian peninsula. (The Tyrrhenian Sea, on the western coast, is named after an early Etruscan leader.) This thalassocracy, or dominion of the seas, gave the Etruscans tremendous potential for trade as well as piracy, and it has become difficult to determine which imported objects were obtained by which means. In one way or another, the Etruscans got the goods, and the exhibition includes such exotic objects as an engraved ostrich egg, Greek vases and Egyptian figurines.

The Greeks simply considered Etruscan sailors plundering pirates. They invented the story of how the Greek god Dionysus got the better of the Etruscans, turning them into dolphins. The Etruscans liked the legend, which is mentioned in Homer's seventh Hymn to Dionysus, and one of their own artists illustrated it on a water jug. The object, on loan from the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, shows an Etruscan sailor with a dolphin tail along with five amphibious colleagues, all diving to the seabed. The Etruscans were at home in the water, and proud of it.

They were also master bronze workers, and an entire room of Palazzo Grassi is filled with tools, weapons and a few splendid helmets. The prize of the show is a bronze figure known as the Chimera of Arezzo. This fire-breathing monster, remarkably detailed for the 5th century B.C., signifies the Etruscan debt to the Greeks and their legends. Less exquisite but equally impressive is a tall, thin young man known as the Shadow of the Evening. The primitive stick figure dates from 270 B.C., but its links with African and modern art, especially the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, are unmistakable.

Metalworking skills are also evident in the 7th century B.C. oval-backed bronze throne from the Louvre in Paris. Other treasures almost get lost in the plethora of objects, such as the small Ploughman with two oxen, cast in solid bronze during the 4th century B.C., and a belt from the 8th century B.C. that looks surprisingly like a modern heavyweight boxing trophy. Among the more refined pieces are a woman's gold necklace with satyr pendants and 2,600-year-old gold loop earrings and bracelets that would be at home today on a Versace catwalk. Women were responsible for displaying a family's accumulated wealth, and gold jewelry was the way to do it.

Tomb paintings and reliefs suggest that Etruscan wives-shown lying alongside their husbands at banquets during which "business" was discussed-held a social status that would have shocked the Greeks and Romans, with women often taking place of honor at Etruscan burials. Palazzo Grassi curators have managed to piece together a woman's luxurious wedding chariot, found near Perugia in 1812. Its bronze panels and delicate figurines had been auctioned off separately and taken to four European museums. Now in Venice, the two-wheel chariot is an elegant vehicle once more for embossed scenes of animal hunts and mythological scenes.

The religious section of the show offers several examples of the haruspex, or priest-interpreter of omens, at work. Small figurines, reliefs and sealstones show the priest poring over a fresh sheep's liver. He wears a leather cone-shaped hat and draped tunic, and frequently has a bronze crook in his hand. A small bronze model of a sheep's liver with 56 compartments identifying the gods relating to each area of the celestial vault is one of the more unusual items on display, a kind of haruspex travel guide. While the hefty catalog for "The Etruscans" is available in English, and well worth the $30 price, it might be advisable to have a dictionary handy. Not only for words such as "haruspex," but also "stela" (a commemorative stone slab, normally inscribed), "olla" (an earthenware vessel with looped handles) and "fibula" (an ancient clasp resembling a safety pin).

Several items alone would warrant a trip to Venice for Etruscan buffs. The Torlonia frescoes, taken from the François Tomb at Vulci, 80 km northwest of Rome, had never been shown publicly before this exhibition. The recently discovered Cortona bronze tablet, containing 206 words in Etruscan about the division of land, is also on display, as is the reconstruction of the Tomb of the Bronze Chariot, discovered at Vulci in 1965. Venice may not have been the center of Etruscan life and culture historically, but it will be for the next four months.