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Etruscan

Etruscan Forgeries: Inscriptions and the Penelli Sarcophagus

A few weeks ago I attended the Ridgway Lecture in archaeology at the University of Puget Sound. Dr. Richard Daniel De Puma spoke on Etruscan forgeries, which included a discussion of two authentic Etruscan sarcophagi and one fake sarcophagus.1 I really appreciated learning about this art from an archaeologist’s perspective, and also how archaeological finds and fakes prompted the interest in forgeries.

Annio da Viterbo, fragmentary inscription in alabaster, late 15th century (Museo Civico, Viterbo)

Annio da Viterbo, fragmentary inscription in alabaster, late 15th century (Museo Civico, Viterbo)

To start off, De Puma discussed one of the earliest documented Etruscan forgeries, which was made by Annio da Viterbo in the Renaissance. Annio da Viterbo was a Dominican friar and in 1493 he invited Pope Alexander VI to watch him excavate a site. Beforehand, da Viterbo planted an “Etruscan” tomb with five broken inscriptions, and he conveniently was able to “find” these inscriptions in front of the pope and deceptively suggest they were authentic. Da Viterbo began to “translate” such inscriptions, claiming that the text spoke of his hometown of Viterbo. If anyone had looked closely, though, they would have seen that the inscriptions were a jumble of Etruscan, Greek, Latin and hieroglyphs all mixed together.

According to Annio da Viterbo, the text included information about how the city of Viterbo was the center of the universe, how Noah’s ark actually had landed in Viterbo and not Mount Ararat, and how Noah was the first pope (not Peter!). Regardless of how ridiculous these claims seem today, da Viterbo’s findings were celebrated and he found himself promoted within the papal court. He also started to give public lectures and had immense influence on the thinking of educated Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries.It took over one hundred years before his forgeries were proven as fakes.

Edgar Degas, "Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery," 1879-80. Soft-ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Image in public domain.

Edgar Degas, “Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery,” 1879-80. Soft-ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Image in public domain.

Another forgery in the Etruscan style is a sculpture, not just an inscription, and it was made in the 19th century. But the story begins with an authentic work of art: the Sarcophagus of the Spouses at Ceveteri, was excavated in the winter of 1845-46 and immediately drew attention. The sarcophagus, which was found in fragments, entered the Louvre collection in 1861 and was restored by Enrico Penelli. This sarcophagus was a prized addition to the Louvre collection, and Degas even included a depiction of Mary Cassatt looking at the sculpture in one of his prints (see above).

If this Louvre restorer, Enrico Penelli, had been an honest man, the story might have ended there. But Enrico, along with his brother Piero Penelli, decided to make a forged “Etruscan” sarcophagus that they claimed was excavated in Caere. This sarcophagus entered the collection of the British Museum in 1873.

Penelli Sarcophagus, c. 1873 (forgery made to appear in the style of 550-525 BCE). British Museum.

Penelli Sarcophagus, c. 1873 (forgery made to appear in the style of 550-525 BCE). British Museum. Image courtesy of British Museum via Creative Commons license

In their desire to have a sarcophagus that was somewhat similar in size  and decoration to the one in the Louvre, the British seemed all too eager to accept this sarcophagus as authentic. However, a few decades later another authentic Etruscan sarcophagus (also called “Sarcophagus of the Spouses,”) was discovered at Ceveteri in 1898. This second find, which is now in the Etruscan National Museum in Rome, is very similar in composition and style to the Louvre sarcophagus. These striking similarities made it seemed more certain that the British Museum sarcophagus was a fake. However, it took more than sixty years for the British Museum to take it off of display, despite that the Enrico Penelli had confessed his misdeed to the archaeologist Solomon Reinach.

There are several things that suggest the Penelli Sarcophagus is not authentic: the man’s hair is cropped very short, which is different from the braided hair typically shown; the woman is wearing clothing that looks like nineteenth-century undergarments; the man is nude; the poses (including the propped up knee) are unlike Etruscan examples. There even is an inscription included that was directly copied off of a gold pin from the Louvre, so the dedicatory inscription about a fibula doesn’t make sense in the context of a sarcophagus.3 Even the sphinx-like sirens at the feet are unusual for an Etruscan sarcophagus, and the frieze underneath reminds me more of Greek imagery on vases and relief carvings.

The British Museum has now accepted the “fake” status of this sarcophagus, and even brought it back out on display. Dr. De Puma said that he remembered that the British Museum put the sarcophagus on display in a show dedicated to fakes from all kinds of periods, and I believe he was referring to the 1961 exhibition “Forgeries and Deceptive Copies.” Do you wish that this sculpture was back on display? It is pretty terrible aesthetically, I think, but its history is interesting!

1 Dr. Richard Daniel De Puma, “Etruscan Forgeries.” Lecture, The Ridgeway Lecture 2019-2020 from University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA, September 28, 2019.

2 Walter Stevens, “When Pope Noah Ruled the Etruscans: Annius of Viterbo and His Forged “Antiquities,” MLN 119, no. 1 (2004): S201-223. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.seattleu.edu/stable/3251832.

3 The inscription says “I am the fibula of Arathia Velasvna and Tursikina gave me [to Arathia].” 

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Etruscan Terracotta Sculptures and Vent Holes

Apollo from the Temple of Veii, c. 510-500 BCE. Terra-cotta, 5'10"

Rear view of “Apollo” from the Temple of Veii, c. 510-500 BCE. Terra-cotta, 5’10”

I’ve been thinking about the statues from the Temple of Menerva (also spelled Menrva) at the ancient Etruscan city of Veii this week. Tonight I found a cool image that shows the back of the “Apollo” statue. This image shows two intentional holes that created so that the terracotta would be properly ventilated during the firing process. One hole appears just about where the shoulder blades should be, and another is seen at the base of the decorative support between Apollo’s legs.

Drawing of the Temple at Veii with figures (from L-R): Turms (Mercury), Hercle (Hercules), Aplu (Apollo) and Letun (Diana) on the ridgepole of the roof

Drawing of the Temple at Veii with four specific figures (from L-R): Turms (Mercury), Hercle (Hercules), Aplu (Apollo) and Letun (Diana) on the ridgepole of the roof

The Apollo sculpture comes from a group of four figures that would have decorated the ridgepole of the Temple of Minerva at Veii (although many other figures would have also been included along the roof of the temple, as shown in a reconstruction model). This group of figures would have referenced the third labor of Hercules, in which he is sent to capture the sacred deer with the golden horns: the Golden Hind. This deer is sacred to Diana (Apollo’s sister), and Apollo is struggling with Hercules over the deer. For more of the story, see the Smarthistory video and article on the topic.

The figure of Diana has been ruined and lost over time, and today only the head of Mercury and a little bit of the body remain. However, a good portion of the Hercules figure exists today, although it is not in as good of condition as the Apollo.2 A back view of the Hercules sculpture reveals that it has similar vent holes (between the shoulders and at the bottom of the sculpture). I assume that the holes in the deer’s body are were created for ventilation purposes.

Figures of Hercules (left) and Apollo (right) from Veii, c. 510-500 BCE. Terracotta

Figures of Hercules (left) and Apollo (right) from Veii, c. 510-500 BCE. Terracotta

Despite that terracotta doesn’t preserve extremely well, I’m glad that we have enough authentic Etruscan terracotta pieces to enjoy today (complete with authentic ventilation holes) to help us know more about the Etruscan people. Although a venting hole may seem like an insignificant technical detail, it actually can help us identify authentic works of art. For example, the Etruscans’ use of ventilation holes helped to identify later forgeries that were created in the Etruscan style. In the early part of the 20th century, three such forgeries were created by Alfredo Fioravanti and Riccardo Riccardi (with the exception of the Colossal Warrior, which was made with the help of some of Riccardo’s family members after Riccardo’s death). These forgeries were of terracotta warriors; they were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and displayed together for the first time in 1933.

Heroic-Size warrior (left), Colossal Head (center) and "Old" Warrior (right), c. 1915. The Colossal Head is 4.5 feet (137 cm), the "Old warrior is 6.6 feet (202 cm).

The Colossal or Heroic warrior (left), Colossal Head (center) and “Old” Warrior (right), c. 1915. The Colossal warrior is approximately 8 feet tall (about 243 cm), The Colossal Head is 4.5 feet (137 cm), the “Old warrior is 6.6 feet (202 cm).

But in 1961, the Met had to admit that they had purchased works of art that were fakes. One of the tell-tale signs that these warriors were not Etruscan has to do with the vents: each warrior only had one vent, unlike the Etruscan works of art that are fired as a single unit with multiple vents (as shown in the Apollo and Hercules sculptures).3 This indicates that the large forgeries were fired separately and then reassembled. The modern day forgers did not have a kiln large enough to fire these large-scale objects! If they had taken the time to build such a kiln (and in turn create the proper number of ventilation holes), I wonder if it would have taken experts longer to determine that these sculptures were forgeries!

UPDATE: In a lecture I attended by Dr. Richard Daniel De Puma, he explained that the subject matter of male warriors was intentionally picked by the forgers Fioravianti and Riccardi. The forgers knew that John Marshall, the foreign agent for the Metropolitan Museum of Art located in Rome, was a homosexual. The forgers singled out Marshall, who often dined at the same restaurant, and attracted his attention by speaking loudly about Etruscan art while they dined. Marshall and the forgers became acquainted and the forgers eventually led Marshall to the forgeries, even taking him past an archaeological site first to make the art seem more authentic.

Eventually, scholar Harold Woodbury Parsons set out to show the Marshall had been duped. Ironically, even Parsons’s agenda relates back to homosexuality, since Parsons viewed Marshall as competition and rival (at one point, Parsons had a romantic interest in Marshall’s partner, Edward Perry Warren).

Dr. De Puma explained that he was involved in the recent redisplay of the Etruscan art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He strongly advocated that at least one of the forged terracotta warriors be put back on display, but due to financial and space considerations, the museum decided to put authentic objects on display instead. Today, these terracotta warriors are in need of restoration, and, understandably, the museum would rather spend money to restore authentic works of art.4

1 Edward Storer, “The Apollo of Veii” in Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts 2, no. 13 (June 1922): 238-239. Storer explains that the figure was fired as a single unit and that the terra-cotta is about an inch and a quarter thick. Article is available online at: http://bluemountain.princeton.edu/bluemtn/cgi-bin/bluemtn?a=d&d=bmtnaap192206-01.2.19&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-#

2 Another well-preserved figure that decorated the roof of the Temple of Veii exists today, although it is separate from this group of four figures that relate to the Golden Hind myth. This additional figure is of Latona (Leto), a goddess with the child Apollo.

3 The fragments of the figures also did not align properly, which also indicated that they had been fired separately. Experts also became concerned when they discovered that the glazes contained chemicals that were not in use during the Etruscan era. For more information see the book “Etruscan Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (p. 295-297) as well as the online articles “Tracking the Etruscan Warriors” and “The Case of the Etruscan Warriors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

4 Dr. Richard Daniel De Puma, “Etruscan Forgeries.” Lecture, The Ridgway Lecture 2019-2020 from University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA, September 28, 2019.

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Blue-Skinned Demons, Monsters, and Gods

Detail of Blue demon and snakes with another demon, Tomb of the Blue Demons, Necropolis of Tarquinia, Lazio, Italy. 5th century BC, Etruscan

Detail of Blue demon and snakes with another demon, Tomb of the Blue Demons, Necropolis of Tarquinia, Lazio, Italy. 5th century BC, Etruscan

Last week my students and I were discussing the blue demons that are found in some Etruscan tombs. We were exploring two different reasons which might explain why these demons have blue skin. One theory is that the blue skin is a depiction of rotting human flesh: these demons are embodiments of death.1 A different, yet also related theory, is that the blue color relates to the skin discoloration which occurs when someone is bit by a deadly, poisonous snake, specifically an adder.2

During this discussion, two different students mentioned that the blue skin reminded them of demons and religious figures found in other cultures. I never thought too deeply about how blue skin appears in different cultures across the world, and I thought I’d make a little compilation of a few noteworthy examples.

Soga Shôhaku, (1730-1781), Blue Oni, detail from a hanging scroll depicting the Sessen Doji story. Ink on silk, hanging scroll, about 1770s

Soga Shôhaku, (1730-1781), Sessen Doji (Sessendoujizu) scene with a blue oni, detail from a hanging scroll. Ink on silk, about 1770s, Keishouji Temple.

The oni is an ogre or troll, and it is a common figure in Japanese folklore. They have distinctive long horns, which makes them appear to be a combination of both beasts and humans. Onis most commonly appear with blue, red or green skin, and they are often clad in tiger skin. One particular representation of the oni that I like is from the 18th century (shown above), in a painting by Soga Shôhaku. Here, an oni is used to depict a demon from the Sessen Doji tale.

In thinking about the various colors which can be used for the oni’s skin, I wonder if color is supposed to suggest that the figure is inhuman. From what I can tell, the color of the skin doesn’t matter (since red, blue, and green are all used), but all of the colors are very different from how human skin actually appears. To me, the blue skin of the no suggests that the figure is otherworldly, which by extension makes the figure seem more threatening to me. The creators of the film Avatar used blue skin for the same reason; they played with modern associations regarding skin color and race to make sure that moviegoers could perceive these figures not only as aliens, but as Others.

Krishna Fluting for the Gopis, page from an illustrated Dashavatara series, ca. 1730. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 10 1/4 x 8 in.

Krishna Fluting for the Gopis, page from an illustrated Dashavatara series, ca. 1730. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 10 1/4 x 8 in.

In some cases, though, the color blue has much more significance than to draw a visual distinction of difference between a the figure-in-question and a human audience. Such is the case with Hindu art, in which more than one blue-skinned figure appears. Perhaps the most common figure who can appear with blue skin is Vishnu (who can also appear with blue skin as Krishna, considered by many to be an avatar of Vishnu). Some claim that the blue skin in this religious context has positive connotations, suggesting the sky and the limitlessness of the sky and universe. Blue also references life and the forces of life, since bodies of water can appear blue. Finally, others assert that the color blue in Hinduism is used to describe manliness, bravery, a stable mind and a depth of character. How curious that the color blue can suggest a depth of character in Hinduism, whereas the blue color in Japanese folklore seems to suggest an inhuman creature (which perhaps implies a lack of character or positive human feeling, right?)!

Vishnu Vishvarupa, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800-20 Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.5 x 28cm Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Vishnu Vishvarupa, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800-20 Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.5 x 28cm Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I know of a few other instances where blue-skinned figures appear, too. In Balinese culture the traditional gods can appear with blue skin. A traditional Balinese monster, the oguh-oguh, also can appear with blue skin (although various colors are used to depict the oguh-oguh, so the color doesn’t seem to be a qualifying feature).

Do you know of other cultural instances in which blue-skinned figures occur in art? If you know of other cultural and/or symbolic associations with blue skin too, please share!

1 How Art Made the World: To Death and Back, directed by Nick Murphy. London: BBC, 2005. Available online: https://youtu.be/ekR_kPJVTtA?list=PLE84B4973D9F49E44

2 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.

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Snakes in Ancient Art Hiss-tory

Each of my classes this quarter has its own distinct personality. My ancient art students are especially curious, and I love the questions that they raise in class. And for some reason, a lot of our recent topics have meandered (or perhaps slithered?) toward a discussion of snakes. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, since snakes held symbolic significance in a lot of ancient cultures. Here are some of the works that we have been discussing at length (and some topics that we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks):

I can’t even express how much I love the Minoan Snake Goddess (shown left, c. 1700-1550 BCE, image courtesy Flickr via Xosé Castro). This was one of the first statues that I loved as an AP art history student in high school. A few weeks ago, my students and I discussed how the snake could have held multiple symbolic associations for the Minoans. Snakes are associated with rejuvenation in many ancient Mediterranean cultures, since snakes can rejuvenate themselves by shedding their skin. Snakes are also associated with resurrection, since they can move both above and beneath the ground.

Last week, when discussing Hellenistic art, a student asked why Alkyoneos (depicted in part of the Gigantomachy frieze at the Altar of Zeus, Pergamon, c. 175-150 BCE) was entwined with a snake. (We were also looking at another Hellenistic sculpture, the Laocoön (1st century BC), and the student noticed a visual similarity between the writhing snakes.) I had never paid attention to the Alkyoneos snake before, but discovered that the snake helps the viewer to identify that Alkyoneos is battling with the Olympian goddess Athena. The snake aids Athena in her victory, similar to how serpents aid the Olympian gods (specifically Athena, according to some accounts) in the killing of Laocoön, the Trojan priest.

Athena was often identified with snakes (I joked with my students that she might have been a Parselmouth). Not only was the snake associated with wisdom (which was one of Athena’s attributes), but snake also served as the symbol for Erectheus, the mythical king of Athens. As the patron goddess of Athens, it makes sense that Athena would also be associated Erectheus (and Athens) through the snake symbol. Athena was depicted with a snake in the monumental “Athena Parthenos” statue by Phidias (original dated 438 BC, see reconstruction from Royal Ontario Museum here).

In about a week, I’ll be talking about snakes with my ancient art students again, this time in connection with the Etruscans. Scholar Kristen Lee Hostetler recently explored how snake imagery is found in depictions of Etruscan demons (such as the wall painting of the demon Tuchulcha, Tomba dell’Orco II, Tarquinia, last quarter of the 4th century BC; shown left). It appears that snakes (specifically the extremely poisonous adder) were feared by the Etruscans. Hostetler points out that the distinct adder markings are noticeable in the demon imagery1. In addition, some of these Etruscan demons have blue flesh (as seen in the “Tomb of the Blue Demons” in Tarquinia, late 5th – early 4th century BC), which is reminiscent to the skin discoloration caused by an adder snakebite.2

Earlier in the quarter, my students and I have discussed the significance of the enraged uraeus snake in Egyptian pharaonic imagery (as can be seen in the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, c. 1327 BCE). The snake is a reference to the Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt. According to mythology, the pharaoh sat at coronation to receive his crown from this goddess.3 The cobra was one of the earliest of Egyptian royal insignia.

Do you have a favorite work of art which includes snake imagery? It’s interesting that snakes have obviously fascinated (and intimidated) the human race for so many centuries. I can think of many other examples, even extending outside the realm of ancient art. Biblical images of Eve with snakes have been popular in Christian art for centuries. Snakes can also appear in conjunction with the Virgin; my favorite Baroque example is Caravaggio’s Madonna with the Serpent (1606 CE).

1 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.

2 Ibid., 206.

3 Nancy Luomala, “Matrilineal Reinterpretation of some Egyptian Sacred Cows,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), 27.

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The Capitoline Wolf is Medieval?!?

I don’t know how I missed this news (it’s over two years old), but I thought that I would post it for others who may not have heard. In recent years scholars have questioned whether the “Capitoline Wolf” (an iconic statue of a she-wolf that is related to the mythological founding of Rome, see left) is Etruscan. Winckelmann first attributed this statue to the Etruscan period; he based his reasoning on the way that the wolf’s fur is depicted. In turn, it generally became accepted that the statue was created in the 5th century BC.

However, a couple of scholars have questioned this attribution since the 19th century. The most recent critique was published by art historian Anna Maria Carruba in 2006. Carruba noted that in the 1997 restoration of the statue, it was observed that the she-wolf was cast as a single unit – a technique that was common during the medieval period.

Carruba’s work eventually led to radio-carbon dating tests on the sculpture. About twenty dating tests were conducted at the University of Salermo, which resulted in the announcement that the she-wolf was created in the 13th century AD! In other words, she was created up to 1,700 years later than we originally thought. Wow. Sorry Winckelmann: it looks like you’ve struck out again. Ouch.

This is a crazy paradigm shift for me. I’ve always connected the Capitoline Wolf with the Etruscans (and the Romans by extension, since she is connected with the story of how Rome was founded). I’ve always known that the Romulus and Remus figures underneath were made during the Renaissance (they were fashioned in the late 15th century AD, probably by Antonio Pollaiolo), but it’s crazy to think that the Capitoline Wolf is medieval.

I should note, though, that the attribution of this statue is still far from resolved. Not only can one get a sense of the ongoing debate here and here, but right now the Capitoline Museum still has the Etruscan date on their official website. As for me, though, I’m currently inclined to go with the radio-carbon tests and the several scholars which have questioned the attribution. (And maybe I feel this way because I often question Winckelmann’s judgment, even outside of this Etruscan attribution.)

Is this news for anyone else? Maybe I’m just behind the times. What do other people think about this new date?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.