Thursday 26 November 2020

The Lost Tomb: Etruscan a la Baroque by Elisabeth Storrs

Visiting the Italian city of Tarquinia is an experience I’ll never forget. Not just for the beauty of its medieval fortress but because of the Etruscan frescoes of the  Monterozzi necropolis – a city of the dead lying opposite the living one. Much of what we know about Etruscan society is gleaned from interpreting paintings on the walls of underground tombs. On the surface, the Monterozzi necropolis is an arid landscape dotted with earthen mounds known as tumuli. What lies beneath these hillocks is astonishingly beautiful – small funerary chambers decorated in vivid colours with scenes of banquets, games, musicians, flora and fauna as well as demons and monsters. They are given names such as Tomb of the Leopards, the Bulls, the Shields and the Blue Demon.  Some even come with an ‘X’ rating, a fact remarked upon by DH Lawrence in his book, Etruscan Places, when he visited Tarquinia in the 1920s. 

Tomba del Biclinio Plate 7

 A common artistic theme in Etruscan funerary art is a banquet where men and women share dining couches (biclinio) in a way considered scandalous by contemporary Roman and Greek societies. Such banqueting scenes are also believed to be connected with Dionysian worship (see The Elusive Search for Dionysus) The tombs of Monterozzi are now temperature controlled and protected by glass barriers but even so, curators battle to conserve these extraordinary artworks due to climatic conditions and earth movements.

One Tarquinian tomb disappeared long ago yet the images depicted on its walls have not been lost due to the efforts of an C18th Scottish antiquarian and artist, James Byres. It’s known as the Tomba del Biclinio.

At the end of the 1700s, Etruscan pottery and jewellery had been popularised by artisans such Josiah Wedgewood and the Castellani Brothers (see my post on Neo-Classical Revivalism). Byres wanted to take advantage of this growing interest in the Etruscans by producing an illustrated history. He visited Tarquinia (then known as Corneto) in 1766 where he recorded scenes of Tarquinia as well as decorations of various underground tombs or ‘hypogaei’.  He also commissioned his protégé, a young Polish artist named Franciszek Smuglewicz , to make sepia copies of the murals of the C5th BCE Tomba del Biclinio.  Byres's recording of the elegant paintings from these tombs parallels the internationally-influential recovery of Roman wall-decorations from the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Byres’ masterpiece never eventuated due to lack of funding, and the fact his copperplates were detained in Livorno during the Napoleonic Wars. Ultimately they were published posthumously in 1842 by an English portraitist, Frank Howard, in a volume of engravings entitled Hypogaei, or Sepulchral caverns of Tarquinia, the Capital of Antient (sic) Etruria.

Etruscan Tomb of the Shields
The book depicts not only the murals of  Tomba del Biclinio but also cross sections of the 5 chambers within the tumuli mound to a standard higher than anything achieved at the time in archaeological investigations. It’s a tragedy such priceless cultural monuments have been irrevocably destroyed. And I find it somewhat haunting to imagine those C18th century ‘virtuosi’ adventurers venturing into the subterranean caverns to copy the frescoes in the flickering shadow play of torchlight. Unfortunately, Byres and Smuglewicz did not faithfully record what they saw. Etruscan fresco art is extremely distinctive but is sometimes regarded as crude compared to Greek art of the same time. Accordingly the Hypogaei engravings appear to be filtered through the lens of classical Greek art enveloped in a Baroque haze. Nevertheless they are exquisite in their own way, and give us a semblance of what has been lost. Compare the actual rendering of an Etruscan couple in the Tomb of the Shields compared to Byres' version in the Tombo del Biclinio.

Tomba del Biclinio murals Plate 8

Byres himself was a fascinating character.  He was member of a culturally significant minority in Scotland, his family having remained Roman Catholic during the Reformation.  His parents made their escape after the catastrophic defeat at Culloden of the Jacobite rising of 1745-46, and arrived eventually in Rome, where Byres was to make his career as antiquarian, art dealer and cicerone (a guide who conducted tours of classical sites for wealthy young British aristocrats on the ‘Grand Tour’.) In fact Byres guided Edward Gibbon during the historian’s brief sojourn in Rome. Byres was also interested in natural phenomena, in particularly volcanoes, becoming a close acquaintance of Sir William Hamilton, the famous vulcanologist and British Ambassador to Naples. Indeed, Byres sold the Roman cameo glass vessel known as the Portland Vase to Hamilton (which was reproduced by Josiah Wedgewood in an echo of Byres’ copperplates of the lost Etruscan tombs.)

Byres regarded the Etruscans as the 'first people of Italy' and saw their subjugation by the Romans as barbaric. It is not unlikely, given the C18th taste for drawing contemporary parallels with ancient history, that he may have thought the Etruscans as comparable to the oppressed Jacobite Scots or his ‘ain folk’. He remarked in the draft of his History of the Etrurians:  The Romans ‘vanity of appearing the only great nation probably induced them to destroy Etruscan records, which perhaps showed the meanness of their own origin, which they probably wanted to conceal.’

As an Etruscophile myself, I can only concur that the Rome's annihilation of Etruria, its literature, and its people, was unspeakable. I’m grateful for Byres’ attempts to record Etruscan society’s hidden art even if the images he engraved were distorted by the prism of his artistic prejudices.   The Tomba del Biclinio stands as a symbol of a lost civilisation whose temporal beauty even now remains fragile. Let’s hope the efforts made by Italian historians to preserve sites such as the Monterozzi necropolis and other Etruscan ruins are successful.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the founder of Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at  Neo-Classical Revivalist jewellery can be found on her Pinterest board. Images are courtesy of Maravot and Wikimedia Commons.


Susan Price said...

I enjoyed this -- as a footnote, the magnificent Portland Vase was reproduced in the 1880s, in its original medium, glass, by George and Thomas Woodall of the Redhouse Glass Works in Stourbridge. It was so technically difficult that it took four years just to make the blank: that is a blue vase covered in a layer of white glass. They then cut through the white glass to various depths to produce the images. The whole thing was far more technically difficult than Wedgewood's pottery reproduction and, I think, far more beautiful.

George Woodall became known as the finest engraver of intaglio glass 'of his time.' You can see an example of his work here

I should add that this was all cribbed from the very knowlegeable Kate Round, from the Stourbridge glass museum. -- I happened to listen to a Zoom talk by her about the history of Stourbridge glass a couple of nights ago.

Elisabeth Storrs said...

Susan, thanks so much for showing me to the Woodall relica of the Portland Vase. It's gorgeous.

Elisabeth Storrs said...
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Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Thank you for such an informative blog, Elisabeth. The images are beautiful and it is fascinating to learn how, in the 18th century, they were filtered through the lens of Classical Greek art.

By pure coincidence, I received a tweet yesterday which mentioned James Byres (I had tweeted a St Andrew's Day message!). I shall post a follow up with a link to your blog as it is right on point!