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Treasures of the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

The Villa Giulia houses a great collection of Etruscan art. This post provides you with a few of the highlights.

Here is a close-up of sarcophagus of the Spouses.

The Etruscans had an evolving view of the afterlife, and this sarcophagus reflects the optimistic view that the privileged would dwell in a paradisical life in the underworld, with great feasts. The couple are represented here as at that banquet. Their hands probably held pateras (dishes), and/or goblets. There are other examples of couples' sarcophagi. One similar to this one is in the Louvre (not as gorgeous and skilled, in my humble opinion), and others carved from stone. Workshops would have, for the stone ones, at least, produced these generically, and carve in the faces once they were purchased. I am inclined to believe that this one (in terracotta) was a generic ideal, not portraiture.

The Villa Giulia has an overwhelming display of Etruscan vases, mostly found in burial sites. Here are a few featuring the Labors of Hercules.

Hercules and Geras

This is Hercules encountering Geras (the god of old age--same root from which we get "geriatric"). The story is lost, but there are at least 3 of these in existence (this one is from the Villa Giulia in Rome, and there's another in the Louvre).

Hercules Steals Cerberus from Hades

This is Cerberus (note the TWO heads) being stolen by Hercules (with Athena and Hermes' help) from Hades. Note that Cerberus has a snake for a tail. It's ambiguous that his mane/ruff is just hair or are snakes (no features of snake heads clear on this vase). Horace writes that Cerberus had snakes for a tail and in his fur. There are differing reports and images from Antiquity about how many heads this mythical creature had.

Athena also is wearing her aegis, with snakes writhing around her. The artist had to really sketch this one out carefully--the rear head has two snake bodies at the neck, and maybe a hint of collar, but it merges with the leash line. Then there's the spear, her aegis snakes, and all of the white- tipped dog-snakes (which is very cool, because the artist managed to give them white bellies to contrast with the black dog). I'm just dizzy here. I like that the tail snake is reacting to Herc.

Hercules and the Hydra

This is Hercules and his nephew, Iolaus, fighting the Hydra. Notice Iolaus on the left, using a brazier to cauterize the neck of one of the heads. Their battle with the Hydra was an immensely popular subject for Etruscan and Classical art. You can find it on funeral vases and sarcophagi. For Etruscans, this story resonated with their own religious beliefs of the deceased doing battle with monsters in the underworld before reaching the great eternal feast at the end of the journey.

Odysseus and the Cyclops

Beyond Hercules, the museum has vases reflecting The Odyssey. Here, Odysseus and his men are putting out the eye of Cyclops. It would make sense that the Odyssey, with its many challenges to the hero regarding home-coming (including a sojourn into the Underworld) would be a useful theme for grave goods.

Maenad and Satyr

The museum also has a collection of fragments from Etruscan temples. These small figures decorated a temple, and show a satyr (on the right, who I believe is holding either an amphora of wine, or a votive offering in the shape of an animal), and a maenad. She might even be an Ariadne figure. Her assertive stance, with arms akimbo, and her direct gaze at the viewer make her a powerful figure. I think this is a hallmark of Etruscan art--female characters are much more active and empowered than in representations of women from Ancient Greek and Roman workshops.

Here is a good introductory video on Etruscan Art, featuring pieces from the Villa Giulia:

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