Funerary art seems a morbid source of inspiration but it was my discovery of an ancient sarcophagus that began my obsession with the art of a little known civilization and a ten year journey to write my novel, The Wedding Shroud.
Let me explain. Years ago I came across a photograph of a casket with a life size married couple reclining on their bed in a tender embrace.
Sarcophagus of the Married Couple, Cerveteri, Bandataccia Necropolis, C520 BC
‘ there was a smooth, round contentment to her as she sat upon a dining couch with her husband, head resting against his shoulder as he embraced her. Their happiness revealed by the curve of their lips and the ease of their touch…’ The Wedding Shroud
The impact upon me of finding a husband and wife depicted in such a way was profound. To understand this, I need to take you back to Classical times where Athens was a shining light for its democracy, philosophy, art and literature and where the nascent Republican Rome was still scrapping with its Latin neighbours to gain ascendancy in Italy.
At that time women were possessions of men. In Athens they were cloistered in women’s quarters. In Rome they were second class citizens restricted to rearing their children and household duties.
Roman women rarely ate with their men and could be killed with impunity by their husbands or fathers for committing adultery or just for drinking wine. They were given only one name, that of their father’s in feminine form, and when they died, their ashes were placed in a man’s tomb and they were not commemorated.
Knowing this put into context the extraordinary rendering of the couple on the sarcophagus and piqued my interest to discover who these people were with their distinctive almond shaped eyes and straight nose and brow. What kind of ancient society would portray both a man and a woman in such a sensuous pose? What appeared to be an exaltation of marital fidelity?
The answer led me to the Etruscans, a race that had lived in Italy from before archaic times and were located in the area we now know as Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio but whose influence spread throughout Italy, and whose trading interests extended across the Mediterranean.
My research revealed that, although recent archaeological digs are revealing more about the Etruscans, their civilisation has often been dubbed ‘mysterious’ because none of their literature has survived other than remnants of ritual texts. Most of what is known of the Etruscans from literary sources is from historians who wrote centuries after Etruria had been destroyed or from fragments of texts from contemporary travellers to their cities which were quoted by later historians. In effect, the victors (who came from societies which repressed women) wrote about the vanquished through the prism of their times and with all their prejudices intact.
To my delight I discovered that there was another source of information about the Etruscans - their fantastic art. Engraved mirrors, funerary sculpture and paintings as well as votives, furniture and utensils give us a glimpse into their world and, in turn, served as a rich vein of inspiration for episodes within my book.
Examination of tomb paintings clearly demonstrated that the Etruscans were as enlightened as the Athenians but there was one major difference - women were afforded independence, education and sexual freedom including the ability to dine with their husbands and drink wine. As a result they were considered wicked, decadent and corrupt by the rest of the ancient world.
‘… the women sat on their husband’s couches. These had headboards with deep mattresses piled high with pillows, more bedding than upholstery.’ The Wedding Shroud
Tomb of the Leopards, Tarquinia, early C5th BC
Etruscan women were also believed to hold positions as high priestesses and even conducted their own businesses. Inscriptions recorded that they were given two names, their maternal and paternal bloodlines clearly acknowledged. Some modern historians even go so far as to say that Etruria was a matriarchal society.
The Sarcophagus of the Married Couple was the first of many Etruscan artworks which was to inspire me as I delved into the history of these people. As I studied the vivid murals I was astounded at how these people seemed to have decanted beauty into paint, revealing their hedonistic world which was so different to that of their austere and self righteous neighbours, the Romans of the early Republic.
The paintings open up a world of Dionysian revels where the Etruscans indulged in ecstatic dancing while listening to lyre, double pipe and timbrel.
‘Musicians were playing … plucking strings, beating drums or trilling pipes. And it seemed the [Etruscans] captured the lilt of melody in their limbs even when no lyre or horn could be heard.’ The Wedding Shroud
Tomb of the Triclinium, Tarquinia, C470 BC
Their art also displays a mystical world where the art of prophecy had been raised to a science.
‘There was drama to his ministry. When he marked the sacred boundaries with his lituus, carried the patera of water around the altar, she could almost see the lines that divided holy from profane appear.’ The Wedding Shroud
|Tomb of the Augurs, Tarquinia, C520 BC|
In fact their tenets were set out in a series of sacred books that together formed the Etruscan Discipline, with its complex branches of haruspicy, divination and most fascinating of all, the interpretation of lightning. In fact, their priests predicted Etruria would end after ten sacred eras known as saecula and this appears to have come true. The Etruscans also believed that they could delay fate which became an essential plot component in my novel.
There was also a dark side to their worship. As their enemies slowly dominated their cities, the more life-affirming Dionysian religion was overtaken by a death cult preoccupied with the torments of the journey to the afterlife. This was reflected in their art which pictured the demons and monsters that awaited them in the Beyond.
‘Each of us is greeted at the gate of Acheron by demons that either guard or terrify us. They are servants of Aita, god of the dead.’ The Wedding Shroud
|Francois Tomb, Vulci 350-330 BC|
I wanted to write about these amazing people by comparing their culture to that of their Roman enemies. And that’s when I read the little known story of the war between Rome and Etruscan Veii. These cities were located only twelve miles apart across the Tiber, and it intrigued me that just by crossing a strip of water you could move from what was the equivalent of the Dark Ages into something similar to the Renaissance. So I created Caecilia, a young Roman girl from ‘virtuous’ Rome, who is married to an Etruscan nobleman, Vel Mastarna, to seal a truce. Caecilia is exposed to the ‘sinful’ Etruscan culture and must deal with conflicting moralities as she is slowly seduced by the freedoms granted to her by her husband’s decadent society.
Of course the scenes and historical accounts of sexual abandon seem at odds with the commitment also portrayed between Etruscan couples in funerary art. However, to me, the concept of a society that condones female promiscuity while also honouring wives and mothers is not necessarily contradictory. For while it can be erroneous to compare modern societies with ancient ones, it could be argued that this attitude to women occurs in many present-day Western cultures.
Images of a couple embracing or even being shown in sexual congress were common in Etruria. The sexual act and its connotations of fertility and regeneration were protection against the evil that might lurk after death. None is more powerful than the sarcophagus (my favourite) which inspired the title.
‘Lying on her side, she faced her husband, their arms encircling each other, swathed in their transparent wedding shroud and unconcerned that their bare feet were uncovered in abandon.’ The Wedding Shroud
Sarcophagus and lid with husband and wifePhotograph Courtesy © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Italic, Etruscan, Late Classical or Early Hellenistic Period, Ponti Rotto Necropolis, Vulci 350—300 B.C.
Here Thanchvil Tarnai and her husband, Larth Tetnies, lie naked beneath a mantle which I came to understand could be the large veil under which an Etruscan bride and groom were married. So, in effect, this husband and wife are lying for eternity under their ‘wedding shroud’ - an enduring, potent and touching image.
Etruscan art continues to absorb me, not only because of its beauty but because it is also open to interpretation due to the lack of substantial extant Etruscan literature. As a result, research also needs to be undertaken into the art of other contemporary cultures to establish a context when viewing them. There is also an opportunity for a writer not only to escape into their world but also to hypothesize on the meaning behind their artwork. Another reason why I love Etruscan art!
Elisabeth Storrs has long had a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from the University of Sydney in Arts Law, majoring in English and having studied Classics. She lives with her husband and two sons in Sydney and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer, senior manager and company secretary and corporate governance consultant. Elisabeth's first novel, The Wedding Shroud, is set in early Rome and Etruria, and was researched and written over a period of ten years. It was released last September by Murdoch Books in Australia and New Zealand. She is currently writing the sequel which will be released by Pier 9 / Murdoch Books in 2012.
If you would like to see some more examples of Etruscan Art, please visit Elisabeth's website where you can view a book trailer, or at Youtube!
You can buy The Wedding Shroud online at many Australian bookstores such as http://www.booktopia.com.au/, http://www.dymocks.com.au/, http://www.fishpond.com.au/, or http://www.qbd.com.au/. If you have any trouble locating the book for sale, please email us at Historical Tapestry and Marg will do her best to find some links for you.