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Thursday, Nov. 24, 2005


Artifacts so old they're modern

Special to The Japan Times

Civilization seems to have its own enormous bell curve. If you go back a few hundred years, everything looks old, quaint, dated. The aesthetic of those times immediately tells you that people were looking at the world in quite a different way from you. However, if you keep the pedal of your time machine pressed firmly to the floor, you'll eventually reach epochs, thousands of years ago, where things start to take on a more familiar, even modern, look. The ruins of Stonehenge, if they weren't so famous, could be mistaken for modernist sculpture -- especially from the 1970s Japanese mono-ha movement -- while the fashions of ancient Egypt make more sense in today's world of haute couture than do the powdered periwigs of the American Revolution.

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Female Canopic Jar (late 7th century B.C.) COLIN LIDDELL PHOTOS AND THE INSTITUTO ITALIANO DI CULTURA (third photo)

The same feels true for the art of the Etruscans, an obscure race with an urban society on the Italian peninsula that predated and heavily influenced the Romans, before being conquered and absorbed by them. As the earliest recorded indigenous Italian civilization, it is fitting that "Il Mondo Degli Etruschi (The World of the Etruscans)," an exhibition of its artifacts -- like the anthropomorphic and Picassoesque Female Canopic Jar (late 7th century B.C.) -- should mark the occasion of the first major exhibition at the impressive new headquarters of the Italian Cultural Institute in Tokyo's downtown Kudanshita district.

"Some aspects of Etruscan art are very modern," the institute's director Alberto di Mauro observes, while pointing out three Small Warrior Statues (ca. 550 B.C.). "Even with these soldier statues, we see clear affinities with the stylization of modern sculptors like Alberto Giacometti or Marino Marini."

Like Giacometti's famous bronzes, these works have an elongated elegance that seems to place them just as comfortably in our modern, effete, image-conscious world as in the hard, brutal warrior societies of Iron Age Europe.

Based in Tuscany, the Etruscans had to contend with a variety of tough enemies, including fierce Gauls to the north, Greek fleets threatening their coasts and, from the 5th century B.C. on, the relentless rise of Roman power to the south. Hence the various weapons and pieces of armor in the 235-item exhibition, like a Hemispheric Helmet (early 8th century B.C.) decorated with a schematic human face thought to ward off evil.

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Cinery Urn with Reclining Female (2nd century B.C. (top) and Small Warrior Statue (c. 550 B.C.)
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Despite their enemies, the Etruscans were able to expand south and north out of Tuscany from about 750-500 B.C., and for a time they even controlled Rome. Success brought an influx of trade and foreign influence, especially from the enterprising and artistic Greeks. Some of the items of pottery and jewelry, like the stunning Golden Diadem (late 4th century B.C.), made from dozens of separate gold leaves attached to a rectangular gold sheet, are almost indistinguishable from Greek creations -- but a closer look often reveals significant differences.

While the Greeks were obsessed with the perfect proportions of the human form, something that even extended to their pottery, the Etruscans had a more relaxed attitude, as can be seen in the awkward shape of a dwarf on the Red-Figured Kelebe, a kind of mixing bowl (late 4th century B.C.), and even more clearly on the quaint-looking statues on sarcophagi, like the large-headed figure on the alabaster Cinerary Urn with Reclining Male Figure from a tomb near Florence (2nd century B.C.). Such works give Etruscan art both a feeling of naivete and freedom lacking in the classical perfection of Greek art.

In addition to the statues, which represent the deceased, the sarcophagi are also decorated with a wide array of sculptural reliefs, some mythical, some narrative, and others symbolic. One of the most charming of the several on display is the lion carved on the front of the Cinerary Urn with Reclining Female Figure (2nd century B.C.) discovered near Siena. Holding a lance with one paw, he breaks it in his mouth in an anthropomorphic act of unknown symbolism.

By the 2nd century B.C., Etruscan civilization had already been politically wiped out by the expanding Roman Republic. But there still existed a separate Etruscan consciousness and culture that was to flare up one last time in the Social War (91-88 B.C.), when the various peoples of Italy rose up to demand full Roman citizenship -- which was eventually granted. As their culture, race and traditions were subsumed into the greater Roman civilization, the distinct Etruscan identity and language were lost, and only in their art and in their tombs did the civilization survive.

Careful study of these tombs has allowed this civilization to once more emerge from the shadows. According to di Mauro, in the last few decades this research has enabled archaeologists and historians to piece together a much richer picture of Etruscan life.

"Many of the tombs have frescoes, and there is an urn for ashes that was the same shape as the hut where the person lived," he explains. "So we can get many details of their daily lives, and we can see differences from contemporary cultures, like the Greeks. Etruscan culture is less abstract and religious, and more human. Unlike the Greeks, they didn't believe in an afterlife as such. For them the two worlds of the living and the dead were not so separate."

If this is the case, then -- unlike their Roman successors who have passed on to their final home in Hades -- the Etruscans are still very much among us.

"Il Mondo Degli Etruschi" is at the Italian Cultural Institute, 2-1-30 Kudan Minami, Chiyoda-ku, till Dec. 18; open 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; 500 yen adults, 400 yen students; for more information call (03) 3478-2051 or visit www.italcult.or.jp.

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