From Tombs to Terracotta: The Evolution of Etruscan Painting

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A Detailed Look at Etruscan Art from Orientalizing to Hellenistic Periods

Etruscan painting is one of the most significant artistic manifestations of the Etruscan civilization. This art form encompasses both funerary and decorative paintings found inside tombs as well as on terracotta slabs that adorned both public and private buildings. Spanning from the 8th to the 2nd century BC, Etruscan painting evolved parallel to Greek painting, from which it borrowed techniques and themes, influenced by imported painted pottery and the influx of foreign artisans.

Featured image: Monterozzi Necropolis, Tomb of the Triclinium
Related articles: The religion of the Etruscans ; God and Goddess of Ancient Rome

Techniques and Media

The predominant painting technique used by the Etruscans was fresco, with many remarkable examples preserved in necropolises. This technique involves painting on wet plaster, allowing the paint to chemically bond with the plaster as it dries, making the painting an integral part of the wall and ensuring its longevity. Mineral pigments and animal bristle brushes were commonly used.

The limestone from Tarquinia was particularly suitable for fresco painting. In preparatory sketches, carved into the base with a point, both firm single lines typical of compositions from existing models derived from vase painting and broken and resumed lines

Artistic Evolution and Periods

Orientalizing Phase

Etruscan tombs were conceived as the deceased’s dwelling place, with decoration primarily focused on the central atrium, while the burial chambers often lacked adornment. While the internal decoration could mimic domestic structures, as evidenced in Caere as early as the 7th century BCE, this was not uniformly accepted. In Tarquinia during the Orientalizing period, painted decorations referencing the prothesis ritual were documented, with references to dwellings introduced only in the 4th century BCE. Among the oldest painted tombs is the Tomb of the Ducks in Veii, dating to the second quarter of the 7th century BCE. A procession of birds painted in red and black on a yellow background forms the frieze above the red base along the rear wall of the burial chamber.

The color is applied directly to the wall without a preparatory layer, following an incised outline. The birds feature an internal net-like design typical of a class of vases attributed to a group of Cycladic ceramists active in Caere and Veii, whose activity influenced Aristonothos. However, it’s not conclusive to associate ceramists and tomb painters with the same artisanal sphere, as tomb decorators could be assimilated with decorators of Etruscan princely homes, from which tomb motifs, alongside geometric, phytomorphic, and animalistic motifs, or more complex scenes, were derived. The Painted Lions and Painted Animals tombs in Caere are the most elaborate figurative examples from this era, dating to the Middle Orientalizing period, though their interpretation relies on reproductions from the early 20th century due to progressive pigment fading. The Campana Tomb in Veii is a notable example of Late Orientalizing: the rear wall of the first burial chamber, adorned with geometric and phytomorphic elements, features four pictorial panels depicting men on foot, riders, and real and fantastical animals.

Campana Tomb of Veii
Campana Tomb of Veii, drawing from one of the panels on the back wall of the first room, upper band to the right of the door, source

The Campana Tomb of Veii represents a prominent instance of the later Orientalizing period: its first burial chamber’s rear wall displays four decorated panels. These artworks incorporate geometric and plant-like designs and depict scenes with pedestrians, horsemen, and various real and mythical creatures.

The Tomb of the Painted Lions and the Tomb of Painted Animals, both located in Caere, are the most elaborate figuratively from this period, dating to the middle Orientalizing phase. However, they can only be understood through reproductions from the early 20th century due to the progressive fading of the pigment.

Archaic Period

In Caere, the predecessors of the great Tarquinian late archaic painting were found in terracotta slabs used for wall cladding in public and private buildings. The style of these painted terracotta slabs, such as those found in Caere (Gorgon slabs, Campana slabs, and Boccanera slabs), showed influences from architectural decoration rather than contemporary vase painting.

Tomb of the Bulls
Tomb of the Bulls

The Tomb of the Leopards forms a part of the Etruscan necropolis of Monterozzi, located in Tarquinia, Italy. Regarded as one of the most significant and crucial works of Etruscan funerary art, it, along with the entirety of the necropolis, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004. This chamber tomb features a rectangular layout, a double-pitched roof, and a ridge beam, with access facilitated through a short corridor with steps.

Its name derives from the depiction of two leopards portrayed in the trapezoidal space facing the entrance, depicted with gaping jaws and positioned around a tree. The painted scenes depict a symposium taking place outdoors amidst fruitful olive trees, with men and women reclining on dining couches while being served meals by young, nude attendants. The tomb’s style bears the influence of Greek art, particularly that of Attic vase painting from the early quarter of the 5th century BCE.

5th Century BC

In 5th-century BCE Tarquinia, artistic innovations were scarce. Around 490 BCE, the painter of the Tomb of the Chariots established banquet iconography, reflecting the oligarchic society’s shift towards politically charged imagery. The symposium theme replaced scenes of games and feasts, symbolizing its declining social significance. The painter showcased mastery in rendering bodies akin to Athenian red-figure pottery. Subsequent tombs, like the Triclinium, Funeral Bed, and Black Sow, maintained late Archaic traditions while incorporating proto-classical influences.

Towards the century’s end, new themes emerged in tombs like the Gorgoneion, Pygmies, and Blue Demons.

4th Century BC

The Tomb of Orcus, resulting from the merger of two decorated burial chambers in the first half of the 4th century BCE, reflects the assimilation of painting techniques developed in Hellenic contexts. Tomb of Orcus I, characterized by thin lines and sparse hatching, depicting a symposium scene, dates back to around 400 BCE. It is attributed to an artist of Attic or Magna Graecia background, possibly linked to early Faliscan pottery. The banquet scene on the rear wall, set in the afterlife, features inscriptions praising the depicted figures, a novelty for the Archaic period.

Tomb of Orcus II, larger and dated around 350 BCE, exhibits advancements in shading and hatching techniques, influenced by Magna Graecia. The subject matter is more explicitly funerary, depicting the underworld allegorically to celebrate the patron family through myth. Unlike contemporary Tarquinian tombs, this tomb stands out for its patronage and the complexity of its painting cycle, likely inspiring the François Tomb in Vulci and the Golini Tombs in Orvieto.

The François Tomb, dated around 340 BCE, rivals the quality of Tarquinian tombs. Its scene depicting the sacrifice of Trojan prisoners before Patroclus’s tomb blends Greek models with local figures depicted in a less evolved style, characterized by black outlines and flat colors occasionally enhanced with hatching and highlights, techniques partially understood. A mythical scene, linked to the myth of the Trojan War, depicts the Greek hero Achilles (Acle) sacrificing Trojan prisoners in honor of Patroclus, slain by Hector. Achilles is depicted with the Etruscan underworld deities Vanth and Charun on either side, as he plunges his sword into the neck of one of the prisoners.

The painting style of the François Tomb resembles that of Tomb of Orcus II and both align with the ornate style of Apulian pottery, particularly the Painter of Darius.

Also from around the mid-century (circa 340 BCE) is the Tomb of the Shields in Tarquinia, named for its 14 painted shields interspersed with family names. The family is depicted feasting, while the progenitor appears in a magistrate procession scene, displaying symbols of power for the afterlife. The style is illustrative, employing functional and sculptural contour lines and flat colors with minimal shading, reminiscent of Campanian models, as seen in contemporary works like the Amazon sarcophagus.

Hellenistic Age

Complex painting cycles disappear with the advent of early Hellenism. The Tarquinian Giglioli Tomb, already in this phase of symbolic simplification, incorporates the tradition of late Classical Greek painting in its highlights. The theme of displaying weapons and insignia is an ancient motif also found in contemporary Macedonian tombs.

At the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, the Tomb of the Garlands features two distinct painting styles based on the type of representation. The ceiling is adorned with blue lacunaria, within which putti, swirls, and fantastical animals are depicted using a blotchy technique reminiscent of West Slope pottery, Gnathian pottery, and Pompeian paintings. Conversely, the demons depicted on the entrance wall are painted in a classical chiaroscuro technique.

In Tarquinia, during this era, painted decorations exclusively reference the afterlife. The Tomb of Typhon, from the third quarter of the 3rd century BCE, continues the great tradition of late-classical Tarquinian painting. Its name comes from the two giants supporting the vault on the central pillar. The magisterial procession displays figures arranged frontally, at different levels, and partially overlapping, a representation found in Volterran urns from the 1st century BCE and Pompeian painting, indicating continuity in tradition. Aligned with sarcophagus reliefs is the contemporary Tomb of the Cardinal, where the painting technique remains blotchy, as seen in the Tomb of the Garlands.

Amazon sarcophagus, side 1
Amazon sarcophagus, side 1


The legacy of Etruscan painting is preserved in numerous frescoed tombs across various necropolises, each representing different phases of Etruscan artistic development. Significant sites include:

  • List of Necropolises Preserving Frescoed Tombs
  • Necropolis of Monterozzi in Tarquinia, with over 100 frescoed tombs;
  • Necropolis of Banditaccia in Cerveteri, with over 10 frescoed tombs;
  • Necropolis of Chiusi;
  • Necropolis of Vulci (Tomb of François);
  • Necropolis of Sarteano (Tomb of the infernal chariot);
  • Necropolis of Veii (Tomb of the Ducks);
  • Orvieto;
  • Tuscania;
  • Populonia;
  • Orte;
  • Blera;
  • Santo Stefano;
  • Bomarzo;
  • San Giuliano;
  • Magliano in Toscana;
  • Ansedonia

Source: Wikipedia
Featured image: Wikipedia

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