PUSHING BOUNDARIES
Minerva|January/February 2021
When the Etruscans expanded to the south and the vast plains of Campania, they found a land of cultural connections and confrontations, as luxurious grave goods found across the region reveal. An exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples sheds light on these ancient Italians at the frontier. Paolo Giulierini, director of the museum, is our guide.
Paolo Giulierini

According to the ancient scholar Servius, the city of Capua, in what is now the southern Italian region of Campania, was founded after a hawk or falcon was sighted. The Etruscan word for this augural sign, the hawk or falcon, is capys, and, while we only know this word from Servius’ gloss, its mark can still be seen in the city’s name today. The Etruscans – or Rasenna, as they called themselves – were an ancient, pre-Roman civilisation dating back to c.900 BC. They controlled swathes of central Italy, ancient Etruria, encompassing the modern regions of Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria. In time, they expanded north beyond Etruria, and also pushed south into the fertile fields of Campania, settling at centres like Capua.

Fine bronze vessels called lebeti, decorated with sculpted figures of warriors, have been found in the tombs of Capua’s necropolis. Examples of these extraordinary objects, testimony to the magnificence of this centre in the Archaic Age (600-480 BC), have been in the British Museum since the 19th century. Also preserved abroad, this time in the museums of Berlin, is an artefact that demonstrates the city’s involvement with the Etruscan religion: the exceptional Tabula Capuana, a religious calendar inscribed – using the Etruscan language – on a terracotta tile.

Around the great urban hub of Capua, there is plenty of archaeological evidence for a lively Etruscan presence in Campania, confirmation of the ancient authors, who even wrote of a ‘dodecapolis’, a league of 12 cities, following the model of the dodecapolis in Etruria. An exhibition in the Palestra Grande in Pompeii used some of this evidence to explore the relationships between elite Campanians, Etruscans, and Greeks and the Etruscan presence in this pre-Roman centre – and now, at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (MANN), we present The Etruscans and the MANN (see ‘Further information’ on p.47). Our exhibition begins with a video in which a hawk flies over Etruscan territory, from Lazio down to Campania, letting visitors see from above the most important sites of this civilisation which, from the 8th to the 5th centuries BC, controlled the great plains of the region.

Evidence for the first phase of Etruscan activity in the area comes from grave goods from the Campanian sites of Carinaro e Gricignano di Aversa, Suessula, and Pontecagnano, showing the progressive control of the valleys that lead into the plains and along the Tyrrhenian Sea. At Pontecagnano, more than 9,000 burials have been excavated over the last fifty years. Owing to the quality of the objects found in the graves of the necropolis, some have been called ‘princely’ burials. These offer an insight into the aristocracy of the period between the late 8th century and the end of the 7th century BC when a vast commercial network (with Campania as an important junction on the Italian peninsula) was established across the Mediterranean and objects that show clear influences from the eastern Mediterranean appear. The grave goods from these and other sites also allow us to appreciate the introduction of elements from the Villanovan culture.

Later, we can see a process of osmosis with the Greek culture of the nearby centres of Ischia, the island in the Bay of Naples where Greeks from Euboea settled to trade with the mainland Etruscans, and Cumae, an ancient Greek colony also founded by Euboeans. With these Greek sites nearby, the plains of Campania were fertile ground not just for agriculture, but also cultural exchange. Such processes lead to the birth of the first great metropolises in Etruscan Campania, such as Capua.

A particularly emblematic example of these processes can be seen in the Artiaco Tomb (Tomb 104) at Cumae. This is the oldest burial of the necropolis, dating back to the end of the 8th century BC. The furnishings of this tomb mix Greek components (like a silver cinerary urn whose decoration refers to a Homeric funeral ritual) with Etruscan elements (as seen in the shield) and reflect the magnificence of the cultural current of this period in which there were many connections to the eastern Mediterranean (such as the buckle, decorated with sphinxes and restored for the exhibition).

Displayed next to the Cumaean tomb are the exquisite grave goods from the slightly later Bernardini Tomb, from the Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia. This princely burial from the 7th century BC, discovered in Palestrina, Lazio, in 1876, reveals through the luxuriousness and exotic nature of the objects a complete openness to the influences of eastern Mediterranean culture. It is a stunning example of the circulation of high-end goods and of the wealth accumulated by the elite in Etruria during the 7th century. Among the resplendent endent artefacts found within the burial are a gold buckle – again decorated with sphinxes, but also bearing female heads – and a spectacular gilded silver ‘Phoenician’ bowl. This is embossed and engraved with friezes of a hunting expedition and horses and flying birds, and has a central medallion showing a prisoner tied to a tree and a man being bitten by a dog, all encircled by a snake.

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