Ever noticed the similarities between the words “Etruscan” and “Tuscan”? The Etruscans are the civilization that inhabited this area before the Romans basically wiped them out. The Etruscans tended to settle in hill towns, in areas rich in natural resources (especially metals). These independant city states – there were twelve of them – gathered in a League at Volterra. Most of these towns are in modern-day Tuscany (like Fiesole, Volterra, Cortona, Tarquinia, Populonia), though some are over the border in Umbria (Orvieto, Perugia, and Todi).
OBJECTS: Suffice to say that we don’t know very much about the Etruscans; what we do know is derived mostly from the remnants of their funerary practises, which tell us that they were artistically advanced but reveals little of their daily life. We do have various objects from Etruscan daily life, too, which gives us a sense of their eating and grooming habits. And where are all these objects? In Etruscan Museums of course. Tuscany is rich with Etruscan Museums of various sizes that usually display items retrieved in nearby areas; here is a short list of my favourite ones.
5 Best Etruscan Museums in Tuscany
1) Cortona, MAEC (Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca) [website].
Maybe I just love Cortona a lot and it’s given me a particularly rosy view of this museum, but this is a very pleasant place and it’s never very crowded. They have recently developed a modern display on the ground floor that has excellent educational texts in both English and Italian.
Most important discoveries in the area: excavations from the nearby tomb at Sodo.
Funniest item: the Ghirarium (reconstruction and diagram). This large terracotta pot was developed to breed doormice for eating. Yup, Etruscans ate mice… they also used rabbit blood in their hare sauce, according to Tuscanycious.
2) Chiusi (SI), Museo Archaeologico Nazionale [website]
Chiusi is a very small town with not a whole lot to offer (sorry, Chiusi!), other than a particularly lovely museum and an Etruscan tomb nearby. The Etruscans of Chiusi made a particular kind of pottery called Bucchero ware that is very dark and imitates metal; of course the best collection of this ware is right here in Chiusi.
Most important discoveries in the area: Tomba della Scimmia (tomb of the monkey), a tomb with wall paintings, visitable by appointment
Funniest item: by far the best object in Chiusi, if not in all museums of Tuscany, is the “Sella Caccatoia“, an object of which I am trying to get a photo for your entertainment. It is a terracotta potty that Etruscans used for their toddlers. They also own a real ghirarium (not a reconstruction), it’s in the basement, don’t miss it.
3) Archaeological museum at Medici Villa Artimino [info on turismo.intoscana.it]
This is a small museum in the basement of a Medici Villa in the province of Prato. It has a good quality, easily digestible collection that you can see as part of a day trip to Medici Villas, or while looking for local evidence of Etruscans like at the nearby lost city of Gonfienti.
4) Volterra, Museo Guarnacci [info]
Everyone loves Volterra right now thanks to New Moon, but before that, the Etruscans loved it thanks to its rich store of iron. The Guarnacci museum, which originated as a private collection, has a very large number of small urns that are arranged on shelves that line every room. This can get excessive, and the curators know it, so they came up with a most interesting museological solution for the upstairs (first floor). They covered the walls with green panels that allow you to see only select works; other pieces are set up in glass cases in the middle of the room.
Most important works: This museum contains two important works in totally different styles. The Ombra della Sera is a tall bronze shadow figure with a young boy’s head; it may have been a fertility figure, thrust into the ground. The other piece to note is the terracotta funerary urn of a couple, “Urna degli sposi“, that is highly detailed and doesn’t miss a wrinkle. The Romans in fact didn’t approve of the way that the Etruscans invited their wives to their drinking parties; the Etruscans were rather more egalitarian, as can be seen by this double funerary monument for a couple that has lived a long life together.
Honorary #5: Gubbio isn’t in Tuscany, so it cannot be officially on this list. But the Civic Museum of Gubbio holds the Eugubine Tablets, the bronze slabs (rather indecorously displayed, for that matter) of Umbrian writing that are kindof the Rosetta stone of Etruscan language. This museum has a mixed collection (it’s not exclusively dedicated to Etruscan items) including some really lovely elongated “shadow figures”. The building itself is also of interest.
There’s more good stuff in Fiesole, Grossetto, and in other areas… until next time!