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Etruscan Dress

Etruscan Dress

By Larissa Bonfante. 2nd ed. Pp. ix + 261, figs. 171, table 1. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2003. $22. ISBN 0-8018-7413-0 (paper).

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The original edition of Etruscan Dress was published in 1975 and has stood up well to the tests of subsequent scholarship. Small, in her excellent review (AJA 81 [1977] 253–54), predicted that the book “will serve as a point of departure for future examinations of Etruscan dress” (254).

Small’s prediction has been borne out by the numerous scholarly contributions on the topic of Etruscan (and ancient) clothing that have followed in the book’s wake since 1975 and now by the very fact that Etruscan Dress has been published in an updated edition. The second edition wisely keeps the text and format of the first. It is composed of seven chapters, two appendices that highlight problems and explain vocabulary, notes, ample illustrations, the original bibliography, and an essay devoted to an overview of publications since 1975.

Chapter 1, “Fabrics and Patterns,” serves as an introduction by examining in detail the materials and techniques involved in the production of Etruscan clothing in the context of other ancient cultures, especially in the Near East and Greece. It provides the framework for the study of Etruscan costume as a phenomenon in the wider cultural context of the Mediterranean. Chapters 2–6, “Perizoma and Belts,” “Chiton and Tunic,” “Mantles,” “Shoes,” and “Hats, Hair Styles and Beards,” include studies of the individual elements of costume in four periodic divisions: “Orientalizing” (650–550), “Ionian” (550–475), “Classical” (475–300), and “Hellenistic” (300–100). A chronological table (8–10) provides a summary/outline divided by gender of those fashions actually worn and those depicted but not worn in real life. The organization of Etruscan Dress thus allows it to be used both as a historical overview and as a handy reference.

The final chapter, “Foreign Influences and Local Styles,” summarizes the evidence presented in the first six. It concludes with a list of 10 observations on contrasts between Greek and Etruscan and between Roman and Etruscan dress. In the 30 years since the printing of the first edition, a large number of scholarly books and articles have treated the subject of ancient costume from a variety of disciplines and methodologies. Significant recent finds have also contributed to the evidence and sharpened the focus of interpretations of production, social significance, and iconography. Nonetheless, the 10 observations have retained their relevance.

The 2003 bibliographic essay (213–14) highlights the major directions of scholarly inquiry since 1975. Significant among these is the work being done on aspects of textile production, spurred by the finds from Verucchio, Campovalano, and Casale Marittimo. Technological advances that allow the identification of pseudomorphs have revealed important information regarding the use of cloth in funerary contexts (213). The territory of Chianciano Terme continues to yield examples of the practice of covering ash urns with a cloth to simulate a mantle in wealthy burials of the seventh century B.C.E. One find from Poggio alla Sala is in Florence (11,106, no. 3; F. Delpino, in the exhibition catalogue Principi Etruschi tra Mediterraneo ed Europa [Venice 2000] 196), but traces of fabric were also found to have covered the cinerary urn of the principal male burial in Tomb 116 at Località Tolle (G. Paolucci, entry to nos. 186–88 in Principi Etruschi [190]). The most significant find to yield evidence of this practice was made in 1995 in the Località Morelli of the La Pedata necropolis of Chianciano. The ossuary in the main chamber of this late seventh-century tomb shows traces of having been covered with cloth fastened by an iron fibula over a thin sheet of gold to which were affixed two eyes made of bone (A. Rastrelli, “La necropolis di località la Pedata,” in G. Paolucci, Museo Civico Archeologico delle Acque di Chianciano Terme [Siena 1997] 24–30). This tomb is now on display in the newly refurbished museum at Chianciano Terme, but to my knowledge no comprehensive study of it has been published to date.

Discoveries related to production have also raised scholarly interest in the connection between status, women, and the working of fabric. Particularly interesting are recent efforts to link “wool working, women and writing” (213, 222, no. 10). Bonfante emphasizes the significance of the 1972 discovery of the wooden “throne” from Tomb 89 at Verrucchio (discussed in some detail by M. Torelli in Il rango, il rito e l’immagine alle origini della rappresentazione storica romana [Milan 1997] 52–86). This object combines visual evidence of the process of wool working both by male and female artisans on an object clearly denoting high status (214).

Iconographic studies of costume as indicator of status, divinity, and gender have led to reinterpretations of Etruscan works, such as the erroneously restored terracotta figures from the “Tomb of the 5 Chairs” at Cerveteri, which have now been correctly “rejoined” (217). The plausible identification as female—based on the hairstyle (219)—of one of a pair of perizoma-clad stone figures from Casale Marittimo highlights the problem of attributing gender strictly based on costume.

Recent scholarly interest in identifying the realia of dress, as well as the depiction of women and barbarians (or the “other”), has yielded a number of important works by Bonfante and others. Her seminal article on “Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art” (AJA 93 [1989] 543–70) “has proven to be a useful departure point from which to examine the reality and symbolism of nudity in both Greek and barbarian, or non-Greek, art and life” (Etruscan Dress 220). On this topic, we can add to the bibliography McDonnell’s article, “Athletic Nudity among the Greeks and the Etruscans” (in Spectacles sportifs scéniques dans le monde Étrusco-Italique [Paris 1993] 295–407), a case study that reflects the diversity of Etruscan attitudes toward nudity, based on an analysis of 11 Attic black-figure vases made for the Etruscan market depicting athletes with perizomas painted over their bodies to hide their nudity. Jannot’s contribution in the same volume (“Phersu, Phersuna, Persona,” 281–320) also deserves mention since it provides a detailed analysis and interpretation of the bizarre costume worn by the enigmatic masked “Phersu” in a variety of depictions.

The study of dress is an inexhaustible topic. Costume pervades all aspects of life; it denotes status, defines ethnicity, and serves as symbolic attribute. The updated bibliographic essay of Etruscan Dress, to which I devoted the greater part of this review, reflects the vitality of the topic. In 1995, to the delight of scholars and students of Etruscan culture, Francesca Serra Ridgway updated Brendel’s incomparable Etruscan Art, first published in 1978 (New York). Similarly, the new edition of Etruscan Dress demonstrates how the life of a fine work of scholarship can be extended and periodically freshened.

Helen Nagy
Art Department
The University of Puget Sound
Tacoma, Washington 98416

Book Review of Etruscan Dress, by Larissa Bonfante

Reviewed by Helen Nagy

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 4 (October 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1104.Nagy

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