The Guarnacci Etruscan Museum in Volterra contains thousands of funeral urns, jewelry, pottery, and other objects from local archaeological digs. The museum was founded in 1761 by a noble abbot, Mario Guarnacci (Volterra 1701-1785), who collected antiquities and donated his archeological collection to “the citizens of the city of Volterra”. The donation also included a rich library of more than 50.000 volumes now housed in another building with the city archives.
The layout of the museum is rather old-fashioned, especially on the ground floor where there are simply shelves and more shelves of objects that all look rather similar. The logic here is that these cinerary urns are all organized by theme to show the repetitive treatment of certain subject matter in this period. In case you’re wondering, cinerary urns are where they placed remains after cremation; the Etruscans practised both cremation and inhumation. Unlike greek and some modern urns, the Etruscan ones are often in the shape of a small coffin. So what you see is not hundreds of little baby sarcaphaghi!! Upstairs the display is slightly newer and you can visit the museum’s two “highlights” which are worth the trip to Volterra in themselves.
Here’s what to expect when you visit:
- Ground floor: Villanovan, Orientalizing, Archaic and Classic eras organized by theme (mostly cinerary urns). The Old display is essentially unchanged since it was mounted in 1887, with basically no labels or information. Some of the themes are: demons masks and rosettes, Fantastic and Ferocious animals, The Final Leave-taking, TheVoyage to the Underworld on Horseback… you get the picture, right?!
- Near the entrance, treasures from a Warrior’s Tomb dating to the late bronze age have recently been added to the collection after an accidental find in 1996 of a rare exquisitely manufactured bronze crested helmet , a laminated bronze flask and items pertaining to a warrior.
- second floor (IV-I centuries B.C.E.): These are the works that demonstrate the economic and artistic splendour of the Etruscans and are the most important nucleus of the original collection, including the two highlights listed below. Here, too, there is an abundance of material that used to line shelves on the walls; they have come up with an interesting museological solution to hide some of these and reveal others. There are green panels that create a path and give little windows onto chosen works. A scholar looking for a particular piece might find this annoying (who’se to say that x work is better/more important than y) but for most visitors this is a relief and it makes the museum seem much more modern. Don’t forget to look down: the floors are made of excavated mosaics which are covered with footpaths for the visitor.
- Also upstairs, don’t miss a room furnished with wooden cabinets that contain thousands of tiny metal objects – coins, sculptures, and jewels. There are some marvelous little bronze animals tucked away in a back corner that show the ingenuity of the Etruscans in expressing natural figures like dogs with just a few twists of the metal (or so it seems).
The two main features of the collection are:
The cinerary urn called “Urna degli sposi”
The lid of this cinerary urn represents a recumbant couple attending a luxurious banquet. Etruscan women were allowed to participate in these social occasions, which annoyed the Romans and Greeks who found this egalitarianism unsavoury. It is a beautiful example of terracotta manufacture. Look at the very individualistic faces and clothing that help indicate that this was a specific commision rather than a mass produced object. Furthermore, it seems that this subject choice was unusual during the period to which the object is now tentatively dated. Banqueting was popular on 3d-century BCE urns in the archaic style, but this is probably 1st-century BCE and may have been a conscious throwback to the past tradition in the face of Roman invasion.
Ombra della sera (Shadow of the Evening)
This is an elongated bronze statuette of a boy, probably an ex-voto figure for fertility. It dates probably to the 3d century BCE. His beautiful stylized manufacture immediately brings to mind modern art (they say this piece influenced the Italian artist Alberto Giacometti), as the artist clearly had the ability to represent the face and feet realistically, but chose to stylize and elongate the body. The figure stands in slight contrapposto which imparts sinuous movement to it. This artistic choice probably had something to do with the practical function of the object, about which we are unsure: perhaps the votive statue would be placed as an offering around an altar, and to catch the attention of the represented deity it had to stand taller than all the others; another suggestion is that this was a figure to encourage the fertility of the land, and thus was thrust like a lance into the ground!
These two “highlights” make for an interesting contrast with one another as they show two of the media in which the Etruscans worked, and the artistic range (from stylized to accurate) of which they were capable. The Guarnacci museum is a special place, a bit of an acquired taste but a must for anyone interested in getting to know this “mysterious culture” by visiting Etruscan museums in Tuscany.
Here’s a good video summary of the museum:
Location and opening hours:
Palazzo Desideri Tangassi
Via Don Minzoni, 15
56048 – Volterra (PI)
Open daily 9-19 in the summer, 9 to 13:30 in the winter (Nov thru March)