Wednesday 21 November 2018

Ancient World Glitter and Glamour by Elisabeth Storrs

I’m delighted to join the History Girls and hope you’ll enjoy learning a little of the history behind the Etruscans whose society has fascinated me for over twenty years of research. Compared to other ancient civilisations in the Mediterranean such as Rome and Greece, the Etruscans afforded independence, education and sexual freedom to their women which intrigued me. This liberal, mystical and cosmopolitan society inspired me to write the Tales of Ancient Rome saga which chronicles the events of a ten year conflict between Republican Rome and Veii, a city described as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Etruscan world. It is the tale of two lovers who are blamed for starting a war, and the journey of three women to survive a siege.

C5th  BCE Etruscan Jewellery set
 Gold, rock crystal, agate, carnelian
When ancient Italy is mentioned most think of Rome as the dominant culture. Yet the Etruscans had built a sophisticated and extensive civilization well before the Romans were fighting turf wars with other Latin tribes. According to legend, three Etruscan kings ruled Rome until the evil Tarquin the Proud was expelled for raping Lucretia, a virtuous Roman matron, which led to the foundation of the Roman Republic. In fact, at its height, Etruria and its settlements extended throughout the modern regions of Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio and part of Campania and also dominated trade routes stretching from the Black Sea to northern Africa. The civilisation lasted for centuries with first settlements dated from early Iron age 1100 BCE throughout Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods before finally ‘dying out’ around 100 BCE as a result of conquest and assimilation by first Greece and then Rome. During this immense span of history Etruscan fashion, jewellery, furniture and utensils changed, but one constant remained throughout each era - the Etruscans loved beautiful things. The more glittering and glamourous the better.

Etruscan Earring types- disc, pendant, 'grape' and baule
One of the more enjoyable aspects of my research was to imagine the jewellery my characters would wear, and the objects that surrounded them. And what an amazing treasure trove I discovered.
 Etruscans decked themselves with pectorals, torques, fibulae brooches, necklaces, rings, bracelets, lockets and hair ornaments. Most magnificent of all were elaborate headdresses crowned with clusters of golden or silver leaves. Sophisticated techniques that involved filigree, engraving, repousse (hammered relief decoration) and granulation (where tiny grains of gold were soldered to cover the surface of an object) were all employed by gold smiths to stunning effect. Amber was popular and of course – gold.

Earrings were delicate or ostentatious with some pendant earrings dangling four inches long. Others were shaped in heavy grape clusters. Bauletto ‘little bag’ earrings were cylindrical in shape and were often suspended on hooks made from fine gold filigree wire. Others consisted of rosette discs with tiny gemstones within elaborate floral motifs.

Etruscans were particularly fond of wearing hollow ‘bulla’ lockets which could contain perfume or a charm to ward off ill luck. Roman boys wore a bulla until they reached manhood whereas Etruscan men wore bullae throughout their lives. Greek critics condemned Etruscan men for their hedonistic lifestyle and their great love of luxury but such criticisms belied their ferocity and skill as warriors. It is said that the Romans learned the art of phalanx warfare from this foe.

Bulla, Wreaths, Pectoral and Amber pendant

And where was this finery stored?  In cylindrical containers known as cistae which could also be divided into compartments where mirrors, combs and perfume bottles were kept. There is a particularly fine example of a cista from Praeneste, a site in Latium that was heavily influenced by Etruscan culture. The body of this container is decorated with scenes from the most infamous couple of ancient times, that of Helen of Troy and Paris.

In addition to jewellery, the Etruscans loved highly decorated jugs, cookware, utensils and furniture. The most stunning examples came from the era known as the ‘Orientalizing’ period from ca. 720-575 BCE. This was a time when Phoenician and Greeks were attracted to Etruria due to its rich metal deposits. The Phoenicians were a sea faring people with extensive trading interests across the ancient world. Originally from the area we now know of as Lebanon, they also set up a colony in Carthage (modern Tunisia).Through their trading links, goods from Egypt and Assyria were imported into Etruria and graced the houses of the wealthy.

Praenestine cista and bronze incense burner
 Enormous bronze and silver mixing bowls were decorated with mortal and mythical animals: scarabs, panthers, winged lions, chimeras and sphinxes.  Ivory inlaid boxes were popular as well as faience vases (tin glaze on earthenware) and even decorated ostrich eggs (a symbol of fertility). Huge chandeliers with wick holes were fashioned with the Gorgon faces. Satyrs and maenads graced wine jugs. Incense burners, balsarium perfume holders, handles, and furniture feet were produced in anthropomorphic shapes. Such highly ornamental and often grotesque designs continued to be used throughout the entire duration of Etruscan civilisation. So when you think of designer jewellery—the Etruscans paved the way—although their home wares may not be considered stylish to our modern tastes!

Bronze balsarium (perfume holder) and offering dish handle

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at More examples of Etruscan jewellery can be found on her Pinterest board.

Images are courtesy of The Met Project and Wikimedia Commons


Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen the Sythian gold-work? It is fascinating and exquisite; I saw it in Finland and was amazed by it.

Sue Purkiss said...

What exquisite jewellery!

Katherine Langrish said...

Wow, these are beautiful! Thankyou for this lovely post.

Alison said...

Lovely post, Elisabeth. I always go and drool over the Etruscan exhibits in the British Museum when I'm in the UK.

Unknown said...

Congratulations on joining The History Girls Elisabeth! You are a brilliant addition to a great team. Excellent post by the way.

I too, like Alison said before me, drool over these exquisite pieces of jewelry, and am constantly astounded by the creativity, skill and workmanship of ancient times. I look forward to reading more from The History Girls.

Elisabeth Storrs said...

Thanks all. I'm delighted you enjoyed the post.
And yes, I've seen Scythian jewellery- absolutely beautiful.