Head from a stela.
Museo Nazionale
del Gargano, Manfredonia, Italy.

Hellenic and Italic Civilizations



Italic Art



Complex civilizations of many races and languages developed in the Italian region from the early centuries of the first millennium bc. Of the
various artistic cultures of Italy, the most prominent were those of the Etruscans and the Romans, each with their own individual characteristics.


Harious peoples occupied Italy during the first millennium bc the main groups in the Alps were the Ligurians in the west, the Veneti to the east, and the Protocelts to the north.
The Po valley and Etruria were occupied by the Villanovan group, which developed into the historical Etruscan civilization. South of Etruria were the Latins, who founded Rome; and farther south, to the east, and in the islands were various populations of different provenances, some of whom, like the Sardi, or the Elymi of Sicily evolved highly original cultures.
From this rich diversity of peoples, and with the addition of Greek (Magna Graecia and Sicily) and Punic (Sardinia and western Sicily) colonies, evolved the ancient art of Italy.



Daunian stelae (commemorative slabs or pillars) were cur from the soft stone of the Gargano promontory in Apulia. Initially white, this stone tended to darken as it aged. The stelae were painted in red and black, as was contemporary pottery (seventh to sixth century bc).
Across Apulia, from Sipontum to Arpi, to Canosa, and as far as Melfitano, the ruling families honoured their dead in this monumental form. The figures, mostly female, are heavily stylized and contained within the rectangular form, with just the faintest sign of chiselling in places to create the almost imperceptible effect of bas-relief details. The body, long garments, jewels, and other personal objects are very stylized. So too is the head, which is often rendered as a smooth, featureless oval with a conical headdress for women or a sectioned helmet for men. The arms are folded across the torso and the feet are not included. Instead, the rectangle becomes a space which is filled with delicate and intricate decoration, combining geometric patterns with a variety of figurative scenes - travel, hunting, fishing, navigation, milling and weaving, lovers, banquets and ritual games, domesticated animals, monsters, and mythical figures. The sculptors were precise in their rendering of detail, as they were convinced of the power of symbols and of the significance of human existence within the cosmic design.

Funerary stelae of women limestone.
Museo Nazionale del Gargano, Manfredonia, Italy.


The Italics

Despite the diversity of the peoples and regions, artistic production in the Italian peninsula was united by a readiness to embrace existing forms. From early prehistory, the need to express beliefs and experiences - magical, religious, and funerary -was manifested in personal adornment and in the production of cult and votive objects. It was also evident in other artistic endeavours, such as the great series of rock carvings in the Alpine foothills of northern Italy, which depict scenes of hunting, ploughing, and combat and seem to include both human and supernatural figures. By the end of the first millennium bc, there had been profound changes in society, with the development of complex social stratification; this was reflected in art in the erection of memorials to eminent people and other public monuments. In the Gargano area of the Italian peninsula and in Sardinia, stone sculpture was produced from the end of the Bronze Age. The Mycenaeans, who had reached southern Italy earlier in the Bronze Age, introduced the use of refined clay as a substitute for the rougher impasto materials. Painted decoration on pottery began with the proto-geometric style of the lapygian peoples in Apulia ( 11th—9th century bc). followed by the Oenotrian style found from Basilicata to the Tyrrhenian coast. Then, in the late ninth and eighth centuries bc, Phoenicians and Greeks arrived in Italy and Sardinia, resulting in the adoption of new pottery techniques for some forms in Central Italy: the use of the wheel, refined clay, and painted decoration.


Oenotrian geometric earthenware pot showing a  mourning scene, Tursi.
Museo Nazionaie Archeologico. Matera, Italy

Male funerary stela, limestone,
Bigliolo (Aulla, Val di Magra).
Museo Civico, Pontremoli, Italy.

During the Orientalizing period (seventh century bc) and Archaic period (sixth and earlier fifth centuries bc) there was increased cultural exchange over ancient land routes, or by way of new sea lanes along the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian coastlines. The Orientalizing period is named after the wealth of luxury goods imported from the Near East and the Aegean, including vessels of gold, silver, glass, and fine pottery, as well as ivories and ostrich eggs, many decorated with figured scenes. The Daunians controlled the mouth of the Ofanto from Canusium, as well as trade with groups across the Adriatic. The geometric tradition of the lapygians provided the basis for a regulated decorative style, which, in pottery, resisted outside influence. The princely tombs of Noicattaro and Conversano in Peucetia reveal an accumulation of imported merchandise rather than the products of a purely local tradition. The Messapians, who were in close contact with the Greeks, imitated the use of the Black-Figure technique in ceramics,
adopted Greek forms of worship, and developed monumental architecture. Etruscan influence prevailed in Campania as a result of their direct dominance as far as the valley of the River Sele. By the end of the fifth century bc, the use of both painted terracotta decorations for the eaves of buildings and terracotta votives was widespread in southern Italy. The influence of the Greek colony at Cumae extended from Capua to Teanum, Minturnae, and Satricum, and as far as Rome and Caere. With the Sabellian conquest of Capua in 423bc, production of sculpture in tufa began, a parallel practice to the Etruscan limestone caning at Chiusi. From about 400bc, when the Lucanians took control of Poseidonia (Paestum), until the foundation of the Latin colony in 273bc. funerary painting became popular in this area, though it had started in the Orientalizing period in Etruria. The subjects were mainly funerary scenes depicting musicians, games, and offerings. The red, black, and yellow on a white ground (blue and green were rare) conformed to the four-colour convention observed by the great Greek painter Apelles (360-3 15bc). In Italy, the colour was painted on a layer of lime plaster applied to the rock. This contrasted with the Greek tradition, in which stucco was used to simulate marble as a support for the colour. The Sabines were influenced by a style that spread beyond the Apennines from Etruria and the Faliscan area; it featured animals and an original treatment of monster images. In Umbria, during the fifth century bc, small bronzes of stylized warrior men and gods, elongated to the point of deformation, were dedicated at sanctuaries. The stelae statues from Luna represented a late development of megalithic sculpture among this warrior community. Of interest are their anthropomorphic figures, which arose from contact with northern Etruria (610-600bc). Paleo-Venetian art adopted Orientalizing schemes to depict the life of the upper classes. Later, the theme was used in the thriving local bronze-working industry and revealed Etruscan influence. The art of the Siculi and Elymi in Sicily developed independently of Greek and Punic art.
At a very early stage they used monumental forms for dwellings and sanctuaries, as at Mendolito, Sabucina. and Monte Adranone (late sixth century bc). The exploits of Alexander the Great inspired the western campaigns of Alexander of Epirus and Pyrrhus, and the ensuing period was dominated by Hellenistic innovations.


Silenus and Maenad Dancing,
terracotta antefix, Satricum.
Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome.



A painting at Paestum from the tomb of a survivor of the battle of the Caudine Forks commemorates this Samnite victory over the Romans, at a time when the Lucanians, rulers of Paestum. were their allies (321bc). The painting conforms to the historical narrative style of ancient Greece. In the background are a mountain and four cattle, which are drawn to a larger scale than the human figures. These animals are seen in similar circumstances in a painting by the Greek artist Euphranor of the confrontation preceding the battle of Mantinea (362bc). Also related to Euphranor's painting of the Stoa of Zeus at Athens is the contrast between the marching Romans, earning spears and shields, and the deployment of their enemies, hidden by the terrain. The helmeted commander, who stands on the rise, threatens the legions that have fallen into the ambush. A fresco from a tomb in Rome shows the counterpart to this scene, with episodes from the Samnite wars as seen by the Romans in the style of Fabius Pictor. Quirites (Roman citizens) with large shields also appear in the polychrome decoration of vases from Arpi, the Daunian city allied with Rome against the Samnites.

Battle of the Caudine Forks, tomb painting trom Andriuoio.
Museo Nazionaie Archeologico, Paestum, Italy.



Bronze urns with mobile, semicircular handles (situlae) were produced from the Po river to the Danube. The first examples in the Tyrol and Slovenia had geometric decoration, and later types reflected the Orientalizing taste for rows of animals. At Este, the centre of production, the Benvenuti situla was the first to bear narrative scenes featuring peace and war. Other situlae have scenes from agriculture, commerce, games, and battles, interspersed with plants and real and fantastic animals taken from eastern models (600bc). The final examples, with flowers, date from the fourth century bc. For a long time, the art of the situlae was common to populations both north and south of the Alps. The influence of Mediterranean figurative art on the European continent is also apparent in Celtic culture.

Benvenuti situla, bronze.
Museo Nazionale Atestino, Este, Italy.


Lavinium was a sacred city linked with the origins of Rome. According to legend, Lavinium was founded by Aeneas in honour of his wife Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus. For centuries the magistrates of Rome came to Lavinium to offer sacrifices when taking office. The city had links with the Hellenic shrines. Magna Graecia, and Etruria, the art styles of which would have been familiar. Painted terracotta sculpture was common to Etruria. Latium, and Campania and. like other artistic products, had distinct local styles.
The sculptors at Lavinium who made the series of fine terracotta votive statues drew on the Archaic and classical Greek art styles but adapted them to their own needs and aesthetic preferences. The offering figure (left) dating to c 325-300BC, is a product of the mature local style. The classical Greek influence is clear in the heavy rounded jaw, the pouting, slightly downturned mouth, and the clothing (a long tunic of fine linen and a woollen cloak); while the frontal pose and lavish jewellery are reminiscent of the sixth-century Archaic Greek korai (young women). However, the overall effect is non-Greek. This and the second figure have a powerful presence and are the work of skilled craftsmen with a long tradition behind them.

The Albani Maiden, marble.
Villa Albani, Rome.

They have exploited the plastic qualities of the terracotta to the full, with the pose giving solemnity and intensity, and the various details and textures adding a sense of vitality. The necklaces, armring, and diadem have been copied from life -examples in gold, silver, semiprecious stones, glass, and amber have been found in contemporary central Italian tombs. These are wealthy, aristocratic figures, or possibly goddesses, and would have carried clear messages about religious beliefs and the organization of society, easily understood by contemporary' viewers. Their calm dignity is also seen later in sculptures such as The Albani Maiden.

Terracotta offering figure, Lavinium. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Head of maiden, terracotta, Lavinium. Soprintendenza Archeologica per il Lazio, Rome.




The Etruscans

The Etruscans developed a sophisticated civilization in the first millenium bc in central Italy - between the Tiber and Arno rivers - with outposts in the Po valley and Campania. They adopted an alphabet from the Greeks to write inscriptions in their own language, which was unlike any other in Italy. For them, the religious aspect of life was all-embracing, ritual pervaded everyday life, images of death took on natural guises, and women enjoyed undisputed privileges. The people who became the historical Etruscans are recognizable in the Proto-Villanovan (12th-10th century bc) and Villanovan (ninth to eighth century bc) archaeological cultures. They found self-expression in the production of bronzes by specialist craftsmen and handmade pots that were incised and impressed with complex geometric patterns.

Bronze situla from Bologna, Certosa.
Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna.

Villanovan ossuary with bowi-shaped lid, impasto,
ninth-eighth century BC, San Vitale.
Musee Civico Archeologico, Bologna.



In the Villanovan and earlier Etruscan periods, highly abstract renderings of the body accompanied some dead to the grave. Villanovan biconical cinerary urns miay be interpreted as a replacement for the body destroyed by cremation. This body reference later became more explicit: at Vulci, the head was rendered as an anonymous sphere on a cylindrical neck (680-670BC). At Chiusi, in the seventh and sixth centuries bc, there was a flourishing production of anthropomorphic cinerary urns featuring heads with eyes, nose, mouth, and ears and often decorated with bronze elements such as earrings. The urns sometimes have arms and may be seated on bronze or pottery chairs.
Later, a widespread practice developed, of sculpting one or more human figures on the lid of a sarcophagus or ash chest. For example, the painted terracotta Sarcophagus of the Married Couple from Cerveteri carries exquisitely modelled, life-size figures of a man and woman, reclining as if on a banqueting couch.

Stylized bronze head, Vuici.
Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome.



 Some also had tiny figures of humans and animals on handles, rims, and lids. They exploited extensive iron, copper, and lead deposits in Etruria to form the foundations of a thriving economy. Trading contacts with the east Mediterranean began in the late ninth century and were soon enhanced by the establishment of Greek and Phoenician trading stations in southern Italy. Sicily, and Sardinia. The local Italian groups adopted new techniques such as wheel-throwing and painting pottery, and precious metal-working techniques. The elites who controlled trade were increasingly interested in acquiring exotic luxury items, and adopting eastern aristocratic behaviour such as wine drinking and banqueting as indicators of rank. From the seventh century, the Etruscans promoted representational art. drawing on eastern Mediterranean models. Etruscan potters became specialized, producing their own versions of Greek figured pottery (Corinthian, Black-, and Red-Figure), and also inventing the elegant black pottery known as bucchero (c.670bc), and soon traded across the Mediterranean. From early times, the Etruscans were skilled seafarers and for centuries dominated the Tyrrhenian sea. The new skills were partly introduced by foreign craftsmen. Greeks living in western Turkey were driven out by the Persians in the sixth and early fifth centuries bc, and many of them settled in the west. Etruscan art at this time was especially influenced by the Ionian Greek art and it is likely that Ionian craftsmen and artists came to work in Etruscan cities: Cerveteri was the home of the Master of the Hydriae (water vases) and the Micali Painter; and Tarquinia has a concentration of fine tomb paintings depicting banquets, funeral dances, and games. At Veii, the sculptors of the fine terracottas decorating the roof of the Portonaccio Temple (510-490BC) worked in the Ionic tradition, but the final products are nonetheless distinctively Etruscan. Most striking are the full-size painted terracotta statues of Apollo and Herakles confronting each other over a hind, watched by Hermes and Apollo's mother Leto. These powerfully modelled figures stood on the roof ridge and, with the other figured and floral terracottas protecting the eaves, would have made a great display. Contact with the merchants of Aegina (510nc) and relations with Magna Graecia and Sicily followed. The maritime supremacy gained by Syracuse after the Greeks won the battle of Cumae (474bc) interrupted the import of Greek goods into the ports of Etruria. Gradually, some trade was rerouted via the Adriatic and the Etruscan site of Spina on the Po delta. The northern inland cities such as Clusium (Chiusi) and Arretium (Arezzo) continued to thrive and industries developed from the import of ceramics from Athens via Spina (450-440bc). The new Greek classical style is clearly reflected in the tradition of stone sculpture at Chiusi, especially in the fine limestone stelae with scenes of banqueting and funeral games. The sculptors of Volsinii (Orvieto) used terracotta to give expression to Attic forms and decorative styles in the great temples of the late fifth century bc. Local bronze-workers made the almost life-size statue of Mars (400bc), found at Todi, for an Umbrian client, displaying skilful artistic-licence compared with the classical Greek tradition. The fifth centuiy bc also saw conflict with the growing power of Rome. The great city of Veii finally fell in 396bc, and some other cities only remained independent via treaties and alliances with Rome. Conflict with the Greeks of Magna Graecia continued, for example the Syracusans sacked the port of Pyrgi and captured Caere. In Etruscan tomb-painting the banquet scene was often now set in Hades and accompanied by demons and spirits of the underworld, producing a more sombre vision of death. Temple terracottas continued to be important. At Falerii, which remained the bulwark of the Etruscan area after Tarquinia's war with Rome (358-335bc), the Temple of Lo Scasato I, dedicated to Apollo, has fine sculptures in the pediment zone, including one of Apollo leaping into his chariot. Artists from Volsinii may have worked in Tarquinia on the "Ara delia Regina1' temple. Remaining from the pediment is a pair of splendidly modelled winged horses pawing the ground as if about to take flight. Also important are the terracottas of Temple A at Pyrgi, with late classical features again in an Etruscan formulation. Etruscan bronzes - especially votive figures and household items, such as mirrors, candelabra, and incense-burners -were famed in antiquity. Also important was the production of sarcophagi and ash chests in terracotta and stone from the sixth to the first centuries bc, with varied local traditions and specialities. For example, in the later period, the northern city of Volterra produced chests in local alabaster with complex high-relief scenes from myth and history on the front.

Head of Leucotea, terracotta, from Pyrgi.
Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulla, Rome.



Bellerophon on Pegasus defeating the chimaera,
back of a mirror, bronze, Paiestrina.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


The chimaera is a mythical beast, part lion, part goat, and part snake, which was killed by the hero Bellerophon. In Etruscan art. it occurs on mirrors, painted pottery, and private seals. Most famous is the Chimaera of Arezzo, a magnificent life-size bronze statue, made in the early fourth century bc and found during building work in 1553 near the Porta San Lorenzo, Arezzo. Although wounded in the leg and goat's head, the cornered beast crouches as if about to spring at its attacker and snarls ferociously. An Etruscan votive inscription on its right foreleg, added to the wax model before casting, indicates that this sculpture was made in a North Etrurian workshop. The tail is a restoration of 1785. The powerful body is modelled naturalistically in sharp contrast with the stylized muzzle and the stiff petal-shaped tufts of the ruff and mane. On the mirror from Palestrina, dating from about 330bc, Bellerophon riding Pegasus deals the mortal blow to the chimaera. The goat's head has already been speared but the animal fights to the last. The turmoil of bodies enclosed within the circle of the mirror enhances the sense of drama.

Full view (detail)
of the Chinaera of Arezzo.
Museo Archeologico, Florence

Full view of the Chinaera of Arezzo.
Museo Archeologico, Florence


Votive figure,
century bc,
from Volterra.
Museo Etrusco
Volterra, Italy.


The main figure of a naked boy stands half a metre (one and a half feet) high. The face, toes, fingers, genitals, navel, and buttocks are naturalistically modelled, drawing ultimately on Greek art. However, the spectral elongation of this figure — referred to by one romantic author as "The Evening Shadow" - came out of a very different artistic and cultural tradition rooted in popular Italic and Etruscan cult. This tradition continued to produce wooden ex-votos of board-like form and simple stylized figures in sheet and cast bronze with non-classical proportions throughout the first millennium bc. These elongated figures may be male or female, children or adults, nude or clothed, with arms at their sides or with one forearm extended in a gesture of offering. They have attracted much attention by their strange form and powerful presence. For example, the similarly elongated figures by the 20th-century Italian sculptor Giacometti suggest a direct influence, although they are differently modelled.

Votive figure, bronze,
Sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis,
Musee du Louvre, Paris



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