Pre-Roman Italy

Painted sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa

The rugged hills, mountain ranges and rivers of Italy led to its peoples being naturally divided and until the first millennium BC each group developed in its own distinct way. A number of these cultures are represented at the Museum by their characteristic wares, such as the distinctive bronze armour of the Samnites and the pottery of Apulia with its ingenious painted and modelled decoration. There are also dramatic bronze figures made by the Nuraghic people of Sardinia.

The best known of the early Italian peoples is, however, the Etruscans who mainly inhabited the area of modern Tuscany. They were much inspired by Greek art but had their own distinctive character and greatly influenced their Italian neighbours, including the Romans. Some of the earliest Roman objects shown are the realistic clay model huts of the 10th/9th centuries BC, used for the cremated remains of the dead.

The Etruscans grew rich from trade based on their native copper and iron ores. They were called Etruscans from the eighth century BC when their unique language was first written down and their presence began to be felt in other parts of Italy. They were famed in antiquity for being devoutly religious, their metalworking, love of music and banqueting, and the independence they allowed women. All these aspects are illustrated at the Museum by splendid gold jewellery, stone and terracotta sculpture, decorative work from temples, burial chests, inscriptions, painted pottery and bronze statuary, vessels, implements and mirrors.

From the sixth century BC, mainly as the result of assaults from Greeks, Gauls and Romans, the Etruscan civilisation began to decline. From their city-states, they continued to fight the Romans until, by about 280 BC, all had been defeated. By the first century BC, the Etruscans had been assimilated into the Roman world.

Image caption: Painted sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa
Etruscan, about 150-140 BC. Found at Poggio Cantarello, near Chiusi, Tuscany, Italy

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