“Heavy drinkers and good looking”. An Etruscan woman semi-serious portrait

I talk about a woman we cannot interview or offer a coffee to. She was well educated, fashionably dressed, she could inherit her father’s wealth and played the same role as her partner in their society. I talk about her because, after all, she resembles us.

Gossiping was very popular also in the ancient age, especially if the topic were the habits of the Etruscan women. According to reliable sources, they were beautiful ladies with a passion for amusement and hedonism. It was in the first decades of 300 BC that the maledicentissimus Greek historian, Theopompus, tells of dissolute women who used to get drunk and show their bodies naked in front of men “without blushing”, as Livy reports with sentimental details.

They had an important role in society and were not locked up in the gynaeceum like their contemporaries in Greece nor did they fear the intrusive practice of the ius osculi the Latin uxores had to undergo to verify whether they were drunk or not. In this lost civilization, influenced by an erudite East World, there were women who could confer matronymics on their children, who took part in chariot races with their husbands and who were in charge of entire family clans: they were wives, mothers and grandmothers celebrated as lively and fertile creatures.

National Archaeological Museum in Florence, Cinerary statue, cover, II century BC

The beauty of our ancestors is perceptible in the green sinuosity of Etruria, in the vines that cover our landscape beloved all over the world. The Etruscan women tipsy echo is felt in the abundance of vines and in the wheat flooded by the summer sunshine.

If on one hand scholars consider the freedom of manners of Etruscan women unacceptable and sometimes overestimated, on the other we know they were emancipated figures. This makes us feel proud of our pre-Italic past. Their names and dedicatory formulas were engraved on feminine objects belonging to their trousseau, including the spools, witness of the art of weaving and processing natural fibres, such as wool and linen.

National Archaeological Museum in Florence, Juglet and and golden hatpin in Attic style from the Necropolis della Pedata of Chianciano, 450 -440 BC

In all likelihood, the saying according to which alongside a great man there is always a great woman was born to paraphrase Livy (I, 34.9), who narrates the story of the priestess Tanaquil. As Etruscans were used to do, she revealed a premonition to his husband Lucumone and encouraged him to leave their city and go to Rome. Once there, he succeeded in becoming king and changed his name into Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome.

The divinatory power of Tanaquil makes her the embodiment of the sacredness of family and daily life. Among the archaeologists who study these women today there is who finds passion in “smelling history” and who has scientifically proven that the women of ancient Italy used to enhance their charm through the use of essences, contained in beautiful examples of alembics found in necropolar areas:

Aryballoi, Populonia (LI), Poggio della Porcareccia, Flabelli’s tomb, VII – first half of sixth century BC.

The archaic Etruscan tombs have returned dozens of aryballoi and proto-Corinthian and Corinthian alabasters. The affection for this type of product was such that this ceramic was marketed and distributed throughout the Mediterranean. This handcrafting activity achieved also best results in the production of unguents

says Paola di Silvio.

The question that arises is: what smell did the perfume trail of Etruscan women have? Flowers and simplicity, I dare to say. Among their favourite perfumes there was lily; we know, thanks Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder, that Corinth was renowned for this perfume. Theophrastus informs us that this scent was obtained through a five-year drying of the Iris rhizome, which was left to maceration at a low temperature in oil. Lily is a flower that grows abundantly in Tuscany and that is traditionally cultivated there: the stylized iris florentina is the symbol of Florence and the emblem of an ancient civilization, whose grace and power were also represented by the Marzocco, another icon of the Florentine power.

Florence, Piazza della Signoria, copy of Donatello’s Marzocco
Ph. Credits: FlorenceCity - Rivista Fiorentina

The portrait of the Etruscan woman is not only the narration of a fascinating universe, but a story of an elegant and casual woman, holder of the sacredness of the family clan and materialist in a refined way. This is a story enriched through the molecular analysis of a remote past and the archaeology of the evanescent.

Alàbastra (perfume dispenser) Etrusco-Corinthian, Populonia (LI), Poggio della Porcareccia, Flabelli’s tomb, VII – first half of sixth century BC.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.