The Italic Collection

By: Dr. Eleanor E. Rambo

Originally Published in 1920

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The Etruscans

The Italic Collection comprises pottery, bronzes, terra cottas and jewelry. It is far the largest collection in the Mediterranean Section, and, historically and archaeologically, one of the most valuable in the Museum. The collection is almost entirely Etruscan ; and a complete detailed study of it, were such possible, should yield considerable material for the student of the history of that strange people in Etruria, long the mortal enemies of the Romans.

The Etruscans seem to have been immigrants from the nearer East, possibly from Lydia, for they show many affinities with the peoples of central Asia Minor. When they settled in Italy we do not know, but it was possibly about 1000 B.C., for at that time there was much unrest and migration among the peoples around the Mediterranean. Before the sixth century B.C., they controlled all Italy southward from the Alps through Latium and Campania. They may even have founded Rome. Certainly at one time they dominated the city, and Rome under the Tarquins was a far more influential community than it was in the early republic. Whether or not they founded the city, they left marked impress on the arts, religion and governmental forms of Rome. Of their history we know little, except that at certain times they came into alliance with the Carthaginians, the great traders of the Western Mediterranean, or into conflict with the Greeks in South Italy and Sicily, and later with the Romans. Their domination over the early Romans was naturally glossed over later by the zealous republican patriots, but the fact of their hold remains. Their power was broken not by a Roman consul, but by a Sicilian tyrant, Hiero of Syracuse, who, in 474 B.C., defeated the Etruscan fleet in a mighty sea battle off Cumae. Nearly a century later, in 396 B.C., the fall of Veii to the Romans destroyed the independence of the Etruscans, whose cities long thereafter prospered and flourished, though subject to Rome.

The Etruscans were preeminently warriors. To them the arts of peace were of secondary interest. Such commerce as they engaged in was due to the aggressive efforts of others, and was limited to the selling in the home markets of raw metals and the fruits of the earth.

They had no native genius for art, but, like the Phoenicians, they were skilful copyists of things foreign, which they appropriated to their own use, often brutalizing them in the process. This statement will be emphasized by a survey of the Etruscan collection.

The jewelry and some of the bronzes will be found in the room to the right of the stairs, cases VI and X respectively; the rest of the bronzes, the pottery and terra cottas in the room to the left of the stairs. At the time of this writing, the sarcophagi and cinerary urns in the form of sarcophagi are not on exhibition.


Case XVII.

Case XVII is filled with pottery of the kind known as bucchero, which is a ware distinctively but not exclusively Etruscan, manufactured mostly at Clusium (the modern Chiusi). The clay of which it is made is blackened either by the admixture of charcoal or by a slow fumigation in the furnace, and then polished with wax or resin. When the firing is imperfect, a grayish color results (No. 27). The manufacture of this ware begins in the sixth century B. C., and continues for at least two centuries, without showing any perceptible development or change in style. Specimens can, therefore, be dated only approximately by the date of objects with which they were found, notably Greek vases. The shapes are heavy copies of Greek kantharoi, oenochoae, amphorae, etc., and their chief characteristic is the obvious effort to imitate metal work. This is seen not only in the details of the construction (note especially the handles on No. 5) but also in the decoration. The method employed in the decoration forms a basis for a classification of the ware, which is purely stylistic, not chronological:

  1. Undecorated (No. 12).
  2. Incised (No. 11).
  3. Stamped relief (No. 4). (No. 26 combines 2 and 3.)
  4. Molded relief (No. 17).

All four classes are coexistent, but the fourth class is the commonest. The decorative forms are distinctly not Italian, but are either oriental: sphinxes (No. 7), lions (No. 29); or Egyptian: lotus ornament (No. 16), head with Egyptian head dress (No. 21). An Egyptian or Asiatic decorative motive used on a Greek shape—this is an epitome of the hybrid art of Etruscan pottery.

One of the most curious objects in this ware is a brazier (No. 30) used to hold coals either for heating a room or for cooking food. In the houses of the wealthy, such objects were usually made of bronze. Whether of bronze or clay, they are found frequently with household utensils. Beside this brazier is displayed a small bowl and a “palette,” which with several other objects were found inside it.

More bucchero ware will be found scattered through the tomb groups in cases XVIII, XXII, XXIII and XXIX.

Tomb Groups

The rest of the pottery is almost entirely from what are termed “tomb groups.” That is, the vases and pots were found in lots in tombs of various sorts, buried with the body of the deceased. Their importance lies not in the individual specimens, which in themselves are of interest only to the enthusiastic student of ceramics, but in the information which can be deduced from the groups. The custom was to deposit with the corpse pieces of pottery of various shapes and sizes. Sometimes when incineration is practiced, a large clay vessel was used to house the bones of the deceased (see Nos. 159, 160, 166, in case XXIX, in which bones may still be seen). It is natural to assume that the pottery so deposited is of the sort which is being manufactured and used at the time of the burial. If, then, we compare the pottery from any given tomb with that from another, studying the styles, we can deduce the relation of the one to the other. That is, we can determine which is the older and which the later; we can frequently approximate the date of manufacture, and so can date the tomb from which the pottery comes. If we find in the same tomb, pottery of different ages, we may safely assume that the tomb was used more than once for burial. This utilizing of a tomb already in use is called “intrusive burial.” It is not uncommon, and it explains why in the same tomb may be found vases and other objects varying in date more than a century. That heirlooms might have been deposited with the dead is not likely.

Types of Italic Tomb

Most of the tombs from which these tomb groups have been removed date from the seventh century or earlier. The placards in the cases mention three types of tomb: well tombs (tombe a pozzo), trench tombs (tombe a fossa), and chamber tombs (tombe a camera). The first and second are nearly contemporary, and are very early; the third is later and more elaborate. It is the sort of tomb in which were found the famous Etruscan mural paintings.

The earliest tombs yield pre-Etruscan remains, deposits made by the people who lived in central Italy before the invasion of the Etruscans. To these people of non-Etruscan stock we apply the general term Italic, and we call their early civilization the Villanuova period in Italy, because at a site called Villanuova near Bologna were first distinguished the marks of that stage of the world’s development. It is a period of about two hundred years, beginning with the ninth century B.C., and it forms the transition from the Neolithic Age (1500-900 B.C.) to the Iron Age, or the beginning of the historical period, when Greek intercourse was first felt in the west in the late eighth century B.C.

The tomb groups may include other things than pottery. In the tomb groups exhibited in the University Museum the additional objects are chiefly of bronze armor, vessels of one kind or another, whole or in fragments, horse trappings, toilet articles, razors, tweezers, combs, etc., and even jewelry: bracelets, pendants, fibulae (singular fibula, which is the ancient safety pin), bullae (singular bulla, which is an ornament worn to avert the evil eye). It has been found expedient to separate the pottery from the other objects. The pottery will be seen in the tall show cases, and the bronzes in the low free standing cases in the alcoves. A placard in these latter cases gives the number of the group of pottery with which any given group of bronzes was found.

Typical Shapes in Pottery


In the pottery of these tomb groups three recurrent forms cannot escape notice:

  1. A round bowl generally curving inward at the top to a short neck with a spreading lip, made of red clay, generally unpainted and frequently ribbed, resting on a relatively tall stand with a peculiar profile. The stand appears as if made of three superimposed jars. Like the vase, the carrier is not always painted; it is sometimes vertically ribbed, and frequently pierced with irregular cuts, ranged in tiers. Occasionally, there are plastic additions, human figures or knobs. Large specimens of this form of pottery are shown in case XXXVI. Their use is unknown.
  2. A form characteristic of this early pre-Etruscan period and frequently called the typical Villanuova shape. It has a long wide neck rising from a bowl-like body, with two handles at the widest diameter. It is a cinerary urn.
  3. This also is a cinerary urn. A bowl with a cover in the form of a second bowl, frequently of a different color.

Beside these typical vase forms, certain other objects here are of casual interest. In case XVIII, group 35, is a small cup labeled D. This is a proto-Corinthian skyphos, such as was made in the seventh century B. C. Its presence in this tomb group (35) dates the other objects as approximately of the same century. Group 36 comprises very small vases, probably toys, and appropriately comes from the tomb of a little girl. Group 57 in case XIX, which comes from the same tomb as group 37 in case XVIII, gives us typical information of the sort that can be deduced from these tomb groups, and that is so valuable for reconstructing the history of lost civilizations. Among the many ornaments from this tomb, some of which are of gilded bronze, are two fayence figurines, one a dog (N), one a duck (0). These could have been made only in Egypt, and must have been imported from thence into Italy. That is, as early as the eighth century B.C., for that is the date conservatively assigned to this tomb, there was a considerable commerce between Italy and Egypt. Group 58 (E and D) testify to the continuance of this trade in ornaments a century later.

Tomb of a Warrior

Case XX.

In case XX is displayed a helmet (64) made of hammered bronze, from a grave, sometimes called “the tomb of a warrior” at Narce in Etruria. Two similar helmets are known, one in the Museum at Corneto in Italy, on the site of the ancient city of Tarquinii, and one in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The helmet has a high triangular crest, ornamented with parallel lines and bosses. The casque itself is decorated in the same way, and has three projecting rods of bronze at front and back.

The owner of the helmet had also a coarse pottery canteen (72 B) with a groove running along the side to accommodate a cord by which the water flask might be suspended from the shoulder of the warrior. Additional equipment might consist of a bronze girdle, and throwing spears, such as are in case XXV, No. 125.

Miscellaneous Pottery and Bronzes

Case XXII.

In case XXII is a curious group of pottery, said to have been found at Todi in Umbria. It consists of clay representations of an oenochoe with slender neck and pointed beak, a fish, an eel, a bean pod, a chicken prepared for broiling, a cake, grapes, etc.; eighteen pieces in all, deposited on a low terra cotta tray. The group is unique, and accordingly hard to date except within wide limits (second century B.C. to first century A.D.). It seems to have been an ex voto, a sort of everlasting prandium, deposited in the tomb for the delectation of the dead. With it is to be compared a similar group in the Egyptian Section, case 27.

Next this group is a crude red pot (No. 102), of interest only because it has on its side an incised inscription in Etruscan letters. The Etruscan language is still undeciphered, so the meaning of this and other inscriptions is a mystery.

Case XXV.

A large number of bronze figurines of gods, men and animals (No. 126-147), extending over several centuries, is shown in case XXV. The earliest date from the sixth century (No. 134) or earlier, and the latest (No. 146), a caricature of a Roman comic actor, may be dated as late as the first century A.D.

This same case contains a curious glazed jar (No. 148), a duplicate of which is to be seen in the Museo della Villa Giulia in Rome. The green glaze, the quality of the clay and the decoration show Egyptian influence, but the fact that the hieroglyphs are meaningless indicates that the vase may be of Phoenician manufacture. The Phoenicians were the great traders of the ancient world, and were notorious for their cheap imitations of Egyptian articles. Things Egyptian were then in great demand, and wherever the unknowing would accept a substitute, the Phoenician palmed off his own product at no small profit to himself.


These cases contain more bronze ornaments and fragments from Italic tombs. One of the most interesting of these is (No. 151 G, case XXVI) an Etruscan bronze fan. The fan is thin and flexible, and is decorated with rows of repoussé dots. The handle was riveted in place. In appearance the fan is not unlike a modern “fly swatter.”

Cinerary Urns

Case XXIX.

This case is largely devoted to cinerary urns. One of especial interest is No. 161, which was found at Albano in Latium. It is in the shape of a round hut with a thatched roof and a single door, held in place originally with a wooden bolt. This last abode of the dead is made in imitation of the dwellings of those living at that time and is important to us to show the origin of such historical round buildings in Rome as the temple of Vesta. The cult of Vesta was one of the oldest in Rome, and the dwelling of the never dying hearth fire kept through the ages the form of the primitive house where the worship of the hearth goddess first developed.



These cases, which stand against the wall between the windows, contain Greek and Italic figurines, mostly from the Greek colony of Tarentum in South Italy. The Tarantine figurines were made throughout the third century B.C., and are easily distinguished from the Italic, which are coarser. The subjects are genre (Nos. 41, 42) rather than mythological, although No. 25 is a head of Herakles and No. 37 is an Eros and No. 39 may represent Aphrodite with Eros. Other figurines will be found in the room to the left of the stairs in alcove D, case V.

Architectural Ornaments

Cases XXX and XXXIV

These cases are devoted to architectural ornaments of terra cotta from Etruscan temples in Cervetri, Corneto and Orvieto. They are chiefly antefixes, in the form of male or female heads, sometimes framed in a “shell” (Nos. 252, 253, 261, etc.). The collection includes also waterspouts in the form of lion heads (Nos. 257, 266), and fragments of revetments (No. 265), used to conceal unsightly pieces of structural work. Fragments of an Etruscan openwork grill and a photograph of a reconstruction of it are displayed in case XVI.

Miscellaneous Bronzes and Ivories

Case XXXI.

In this case are a number of bronzes, among which perhaps the most interesting are the mirrors. These are round disks, decorated on one side with scenes from mythology or daily life, and polished on the other side so as to give a reflection. St. Paul’s words as recorded in the King James version of the Bible, I Cor. xiii, 12, “Now we see through a glass darkly,” take on additional significance as we look at these ancient mirrors. They are of two sorts: (1) A disk with a tang, which originally fitted into a wooden handle. Such a disk would be incised on the back, as for instance No. 167, which shows the purification of Orestes at Delphi. The story goes that after slaying his mother, Clytemnestra, in revenge for the murder of his father, Agamemnon, Orestes, pursued by Furies, fled to the oracle of Apollo. The mirror shows him embracing the omphalos, the reputed center of the earth, while Apollo, despite the interference of the Furies, holds over the suppliant’s head a pig, the symbol of purification. (2) The polished disk might be inserted in a case, the lid of which would be highly ornamented. No. 173 is such a mirror case, its cover decorated with the figure of a dancing Maenad in high relief. Inside the case in high relief is the figure of an Eros warming his hands at a fire.


This case contains some of the most interesting of the bronzes. No. 203 is a vase of undetermined date (900-500 B.C.). The beauty of its form is enhanced by the patina of delicate turquoise color. Beside it is a small candelabrum (No. 204), probably of the fourth century B.C. It has three feet in the form of sea horses, supporting a pedestal on which stands a nude figure of Aphrodite, with a mirror in her left hand. From her head rises the stem of the candelabrum, up which runs a tiny fox, stalking a dove which is perched under the basinlike top. The top is square, with a round depression in the middle. Doves rest on its four corners. Nos. 205-208 are tomb furniture. No. 206 is a bronze focolare or brazier, a sacrificial tray for sacred fire, containing four small bronze vessels. Nos. 205, 207, 208, are respectively a chair, a table and an urn from the tomb of a child at Chiusi, dating probably from the early fifth century B.C. The urn held the ashes of the dead, and originally was placed on the chair which stood before the table. The table itself had been covered with food offerings, some of which still remained on it when the furniture was found.


This case contains a miscellaneous lot of bronze and ivory utensils from Etruria.

No. 209 is a pair of flesh hooks, used either in sacrifice or in ordinary cooking to hold flesh over the coals.

No. 210 is a bronze ring, within which is placed a fragment of an Attic black-figured hydria, or water jar, on which is represented a similar object. The ring seems to have been used as a means of preserving the equilibrium of men while treading out grapes in a vat—cf. Cato’s orbis aheneus. Its appearance on the vase fragment is to be explained on the ground of its being a votive offering to Dionysos, god of wine.

No. 211 is a group of three bronze strigils, or scrapers, used by the ancients to scrape from the skin grime and perspiration. Lysippus, the Greek sculptor of the fourth century B.C., made a famous statue called the Apoxyomenos, representing an athlete with such a strigil removing from his arm the dust of the palaestra. A copy of this statue is preserved in the Vatican Museum in Rome.

No. 214 is a peculiar object consisting of two rings extending laterally from a base out of which rise three vertical spines. It has generally been called a “bow puller.” It may have been used to adorn the headstall of a horse, and would, because of its horns, have been a potent safeguard against magic or any blight. Even today in Italy the horn is the greatest of prophylactics.

No. 220 is a group of miscellaneous ivory objects, including some styli, used by the ancients to write on wax tablets.

No. 221 is a group of horseshoe-shaped objects with teeth and a large hole in the center, used as cheek pieces for the bits of horses.

Cite This Article

Rambo, Dr. Eleanor E.. "The Italic Collection." The Museum Journal XI, no. 2 (June, 1920): 22-30. Accessed May 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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