Etruscan Art and Greek Myth: The Tomb of the Bulls, Tarquinia
Etruscan art of the 6th century BC richly reflects the prosperity and activity of Central Italy at this time. The style of art is at heart Etruscan, strikingly different to that of the Greeks. It was in turn, emboldened by both the literature and iconographical stimuli of Greek culture. The relationship between the two cultures was complex. Even now it is not understood by scholars and several different opinions on the matter exist.An Etruscan tomb in which the art is heavily influenced by Greek myth and iconography is the Tomb of the Bulls.
The tomb was commissioned, according to an inscription painted on the back wall, by Arath Spuriana. Frescoes include images of animals, including those from mythology, Bellerophon and the Chimera, erotic scenes, and trees.
In one scene in the Tomb of the Bulls, has been identified as the ambush of Troilos by Achilles. Achilles armed with a sword and spear and protected by a helmet, greaves and loin-cloth lurks at the left of the panel, hiding behind several plants and an ashlar fountain. A naked Troilos carrying a long spear rides calmly on a long legged white horse unaware of the ambush. After this scene Achilles fights the young prince and kills him on the altar of Apollo, not shown in this instance.
The exotic plants, and style of fountain are all in the Etruscan style. Some of the plants reflect those that appear on contemporary greek vases, which the Etruscans imported. Though others appear to be wholly Etruscan, appearing in several other tomb scenes.
Beneath the main figure of Troilos, the sun is shown either rising or setting. It is probably setting, representing his impending end, this cosmic “death” precedes that of the prince. This is a particularly Etruscan motif. The image of the sun does not appear anywhere else in Greek of Etruscan art of this mythic scene. Instead it seems to reflect the literature itself which chronologically places the event at dusk. Apollo himself was sometimes conflated with the Etruscan sun god Usil so this motif may represent the god himself being present at the prince’s murder. A numer of Etruscan mirrors show the god Usil with rays emanating from his head while holding a bow (the symbol of Apollo).
It does differ from the Greek Kypria in so far as Troilos’ sister Polyxena is not present. However, the choice of subject seems to suggest that the artist was familiar with the suspense, the destruction of young life and the significance of the event and therefore how appropriate and powerful it is as an image in a tomb.
All information from: Olsen, J.P. (1975) “Greek Myth and Etruscan Imagery in the Tomb of the Bulls at Tarquinia”, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 189-200