Villa Giulia, the Etruscan legacy

by timspauwen on August 5, 2009

It was a nice walk through ‘Villa Borghese’, a cool park situated to the North of the historic city centre of Rome. Our legs had brought us to the museum called ‘Villa Giulia’ to see the Castellani Collection. The museum is situated in a beautiful villa that used to be the summer home to Pope Julius the third. Anticipating gold and gemstones only, I was somewhat startled to enter the museum and see a hallway full of pottery, artifacts that I had familiarized myself with two days earlier while visiting the Vatican Museum. A quick look on the museum ticket I was just handed solved my puzzle: I just entered ‘Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia’ – the national Etruscan museum. I’d been under the assumption that the museum was home to products from the Castellani workshop only. Wrong…

Villa Giulia holds the most extensive collection of Etruscan artifacts in the world. Pottery, metalwork, sculptures, fragments of buildings and the like, it is fascinating to see how these people lived, built and died. A large portion of the items on display is coming from tombs. The Etruscans must have been under the firm believe that there was a long life after death. The amount of gear a deceased would carry with him in the grave is impressive. I learned that the famed ‘Roman arch’, the feature that enabled higher structures to be built, was in fact a perfect copy of the Etruscans’ arch. Several hundreds of years before the ancient Roman civilisation came to it’s glory the Etruscans had already figured out many of the Greek ‘secrets to society’.

The Etruscans had acted as a sub station for a lot of things that I, until then, had pictured to have flown over straight from the Greeks to the Romans. Situated just north of Rome, the center of the Etruscan civilisation had provided as a hub for knowledge and acted as a source for inspiration to the Roman architects and artists.

Amongst all the grave gifts were, of course, many jewelry articles. Turning into one room eight large cabinets were lined up along the walls. From a distance I recognized one of the pieces to be a Castallani brooch with it’s fine micromosaic. Quick glances towards the other cabinets proved that there were 2 cabinets with Castellani made items and 6 with original Etruscan jewels.

The Castellani displays showed a nice collection of work produced by the three generations of goldsmiths this family produced during the years 1814 and 1927. Unique micromosaics, granulation in all possible forms and perfect filigree kept us occupied for over an hour in front of those two cabinets alone. The Etruscan cabinets provided much food for thought. The main question being: ‘how did these people manage to manufacture items so fine, so detailed? Such complicated techniques, and so long ago… 2700 hundred years!’ But also: ‘where did those gemstones come from?’ There was sapphires, emeralds, garnets and quartz. Polished pebbles, the worlds first cabochons.
To this day it’s still impossible to decide which I found more impressive, the 19th century Castellani jewelry or the 2700 year old Etruscan pieces. It’s craftsmanship to it’s perfection all over the place. The Etruscan pieces with their fine hammered sheets of gold decorated by granulation. The Castellani-made perfect micro mosaics, reinstated granulation and fine filigree work.
Both periods represent eras where human time was much less expensive than the gold that was needed for an item. Human hands were abundant, gold wasn’t. The result was hundreds, maybe thousands of hours spent on a single item, manufacturing it to be perfect. A situation we may never encounter again.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Taueret September 9, 2009 at 1:26 am

I am going to really enjoy following this blog! I have some Roman glass beads and some ancient marble beads that I would love to do something with- but feel like it needs to be right.

Tim August 10, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Thanks Rick, it was an interesting visit indeed. The use of gemstones, and in particular the sorts of gemstones the Etruscans used indicate flourishing trading contacts with India and Sri Lanka. Whether these contacts came through the Phoenicians or from already established routes from the Etruscans themselves will be an interesting research topic. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any other cultures living to the west of Asia Minor from the 1st century BC that were using sapphires in their jewelry.
(Ancient) Jewelry history is fascinating. We have so much more to discover, so much more to learn…

Rick Martin August 6, 2009 at 8:49 am

Excellent report, Tim! I envy your visit. Etruscan jewelry artistry and technology, along with the mystery of this culture’s origins and sudden appearance in Italy, have been something of an obsession of mine for years. The Etruscans were accomplished civil engineers and, as you point out, many of their accomplishments have been incorrectly credited to the Romans.

Like you, I’m intrigued by the origins of the many gems they used, and lapidary techniques used to fashion them. It’s truly unfortunate that so much history has been lost to the ravages of wars, migrations, natural disasters and carelessness. Archaeologists now theorize the Etruscans originated in Anatolia and were forced to leave because of famine. What is known is that they arrived in Italy with a fully-developed culture to build cities and introduce technologies that were patterns and inspirations for the later Romans. It would be fascinating one day to know their full history. Meanwhile, their amazing art brings us tantalizing wonders from the distant past.

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