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Etruscan Cultural Heritage: the Sarcophagus of the Spouses project


 The Sarcophagus of the Spouses (Italian: Sarcofago degli Sposi) is a late 6th century BC Etruscan anthropoid sarcophagus. It is 1.14 m high by 1.9 m wide, and is made of terracotta which was once brightly painted.[1] It depicts a married couple reclining at a banquet together in the afterlife and was found in 19th century excavations at the necropolis of Cerveteri (ancient Caere). It is now in the Louvre in Paris and was in the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia, Rome. The portrayal of a married couple sharing a banqueting couch is uniquely Etruscan; in contrast, Greek vases depicting banquet scenes reflect the custom that only men attended dinner parties.[1]

The smiling faces with their almond-shaped eyes and long braided hair, as well as the shape of the feet of the bed, reveal Greek influence. However, the marked contrast between the high relief busts and the very flattened legs is typically Etruscan. "The Etruscan artist's interest focused on the upper half of the figures, especially on the vibrant faces and gesticulating arms."[1]

A masterpiece of Etruscan terracotta production renowned all over the world, the “Sarcofago degli Sposi” was found in 1881 in a tomb of the Banditaccia necropolis belonging to the Ruspoli princes: Felice Bernabei, the founder of Villa Giulia Museum, on perceiving its extraordinary beauty purchased the sarcophagus in fragments (more than 400 pieces). The sarcophagus contained the ashes of two deceased and consisted of a case, in the shape of a ”banquet bed” (kline), and a lid, reproducing a banquet with a couple in a half-reclined position, according to the oriental fashion. The man shows his naked trunk while the rest of his body is covered with a cloak. His arm is placed round the woman's shoulder, in a loving attitude; the woman is lavishly dressed and wears a hat (tutulus) and pointed sandals (calcei repandi). They both hold vases and other banquet vessels in their hands. The theme of banquets was particularly frequent in funerary monuments and the representation of the couple portrays an important moment in Etruscan aristocratic life, highlighting their social standing and wealth and reflecting ancient ideals along with ritual patterns taken from the Greek Homeric world.

 The sarcophagus was modelled as a whole and was later cut vertically into two halves to prevent   damages during the baking; it was probably originally lively coloured, colours that are partly preserved in the “twin” sarcophagus, also from Cerveteri, displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The sculptor concentrated on the figures' heads, with the backs particularly round, and faces with thin ovals and elongated eyes, while the body structure is hidden by a soft drape, particularly elegant even in its details. Datable to the period between 530 and 520 BC, the sarcophagus shows stylistic elements characteristic of the so-called “Ionian” artistic trend launched by craftsmen from the Greek towns of Minor Asia, and which dominated throughout Etruria in the second half of the 6 century.

  1. a b c Kleiner, Fred S. (2010). A History of Roman Art, Enhanced Edition, p. xxxi. Wadsworth, Cenage Learning.

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