Monday, 10 June 2013

Bone: Greeks vs Etruscans

Let battle commence! A gorgeous vessel by Nikosthenes from the British Museum

I'm off to Italy next week. I can't wait- heading out into the sun to dig of an early morning is one of the best feelings in the world. Before I go, I will be putting the finishing touches to my PhD- then leaving it to fester for a few weeks so I can proof read it properly. Looking back over my PhD, while it's about pottery- the Etruscan experience of pottery- there's an underlying subtext that weaves through every chapter, ever conclusion. That subtext is, perhaps, the second biggest argument in Etruscan studies. The biggest argument is where the Etruscans came from- a topic for another day. The second debate is over the relationship between Greek traders and colonists sneaking their way into the Tyrhennian from Sicily and southern Italy and Etruscan communities, who had themselves expanded their influence all the way down to Campania. There has been to-ing and fro-ing over this issue for over two hundred years- and to-ing and fro-ing is putting it very lightly. Some of the most acerbic, bitter and downright nasty language that I've ever read in an academic context was written about this problem. In the Greek corner, classical archaeologists and scholars howl for the Etruscans as mindlessly consuming Hellenic culture- their only role was to keep it safe for future generations in their helpfully secure burials. In the Etruscan corner are prehistorians and more classical archaeologists who yell back that the Etruscans were independent traders, strongly competing with a rival who, thanks to their later dominance, had the opportunity to traduce them in print (well, in tablets).  So, as I'm loosely doing a series in my "Stones" posts, I thought I'd do another one with "Bones." Over the sumer, I will trace this argument forward from its origins to the contribution of my thesis to the debate, trying to tease out what lies behind the passionate arguments that still kick off whenever Greek and Etruscan scholars wind each other up, in print or the pub.

So, where did the trouble start?

The origins of this argument date back to the rediscovery of the material culture of the classical world and the 18th century. Prior to this, the Etruscans had variously been adopted as independent ancestors of the Florentine Medici, allowing them to claim a past separate from Rome. Generally, their PR was pretty good- the discovery of the first Attic ceramics at Arezzo in the 14th century resulted in these objects being attributed to Etruscan makers- a feather in the Tuscan cap. Into the 1700s, Etruscomania was sweeping Europe- aristocrats built Etruscan salons, and the potter Josiah Wedgwood developed an Etruscan-inspired range. But by the later 18th century, as knowledge of Hellenic culture was increasing, the Etruscans lost their place in the classical ancestry pantheon, squeezed out by Greece and Rome. It's mostly this man's fault.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, gazing innocently out from those doe eyes from this lovely portrait, opened this can of worms. You wouldn't guess his impact on history from that gentle expression, would you? He looks like a generic 18th century Grand Tourist, a gentleman with aquiline nose and a suitable pretension to scholarship. However, Winckelmann was an amazingly erudite scholar- he more or less invented both art history and classical archaeology. Born in a poor family in 1717, he managed to leave his background behind through devoting himself to study- an example of serious social mobility for the 1730s. Winckelmann's obsession with classical Greece began as a teenager- it intensified in the course of his study for a theology degree at Halle University, and finally found employment which allowed for his passion as a librarian for a rich German aristocrat. From this post, he eventually managed to publish his own work on Greek art, and in 1751 moved to Rome to pursue his studies further. His masterpiee, The History of Art in Antiquity, provides a chronological analysis of art in the ancient world- and it incorporates a study of the Etruscans.

For Winckelmann, Etruscan art was a poor cousin to Greek perfection. He chose to compare Greek art to every other form of art in the ancient world- and, of course, nothing could compare. Greek statues and paintings captured naturalistic forms of human life, they were beautifully composed, they expressed pure emotions reflecting the moral superiority of Hellenic society. On the Etruscans, Winckelmann is pityingly scornful. He compares Etruscan imagery to a young boy who has got in with the wrong crowd- he is violent and uncontrolled. By contrast, Greek art is like a well-brought up young gentleman, modest and knowledgeable, a true citizen of the world. The same tone is applied to a metaphor about rivers- Etruscan art is like a raging torrent, bouncing off rocks, while Greek art is a softly flowing river, gently fertilising a green plain. (Some of us prefer torrents to sluggish muddy-bottomed ooze, but then that's just so much sour grapes from me!)

Winckelmann's opinion was plain- Etruscan art had just got it wrong. The Etruscan representation of the human form was either too extreme (bulging muscles popping out everywhere) or unrealistic (carefully stylised figures with the wrong position of the hands and feet). By the time Greek art starts to arrive in Etruria, it's almost too late- the Greek imagery tries to civilise the Etruscan barbarians, but the fools can only make pathetic imitations- nowhere near the real thing. It's only in the late classical period, when Greek art begins to be copied more effectively, that the Etruscans are worth a damn.

I'm being a bit unfair with my paraphrasing here. Yet I think it's justified (although I wouldn't and haven't written this way in my thesis- but hey, what are blogs for?) What Winckelmann did was set up a series of value judgements about Etruscan art, while simultaneously imposing a methodology which would perpetuate them. So, in his eyes, the only proper way for an art historian/archaeologist to go about their business was to compare objects to other objects and look for signs of development. Remember me writing about social darwinism the other week? This is artistic evolutionism in action- a hundred years before the Origin of Species. If it's beautiful, it's civilised/better. Greeks make "better" art, so their civilisation is more sophisticated. If you only methodology is based on value judgements, created from a very particular set of social sensibilities and conditioning, the Etruscans are going to lose every time. In this way of thinking, it's obvious that the Etruscans would want objects made by Greeks- exotic, beautiful objects that were as alien as they were exciting- because they were just better than those they made themselves. This comparitive methodology doomed the Etruscans to a place as the ancient world's underdogs for at least the next hundred and fifty years.

But some of us love an underdog. And in the next "bones" post, I'm going to chase this argument forward from Winckelmann to the 20th century, and the resurgence of the Etruscans (ahem).*

Ok, so maybe not as "perfect" as an Attic red figure vessel... Etruscan red figure Calyx Crater from the British Museum, showing what happens to people who criticise the Etruscans... well. Not really. I'll just give you an evil in the pub. Although Winckelmann was murdered, age 50, in Trieste... I'm pretty sure there's a horror film in there somewhere....L'Etrusco uccide il studioso..

*I apologise for the deeply partisan nature of this blog post.... when it comes to Etruscan-bashing, I just can't help myself. I have also been known to describe the Etruscans as "us" and Greeks as "them," but only after several free glasses of conference wine make me let my guard down. I hope I'm not alone in this- please do let me know if you are similarly passionate about a particular faction/group in the past- I'm envisioning fans of Sulla, Octavian and others fessing up with abandon. To say nothing of all the British Iron Age people I know who detest those dastardly Romans...... I guess this is why you shouldn't pretend to be objective. 

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