Thursday, February 24, 2011


Fulvia Lo Schiavo, Antonella Romualdi (ed.), I complessi archeologici di Trestina e di Fabbrecce nel Museo Archeologico di Firenze. Monumenti antichi (Serie miscellanea, 12) 66. Roma: Giogio Bretschneider editore, 2009. Pp. 204; l66 p. of plates. ISBN 9788876892141. (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Smith, Director of the British School at Rome (

Version at BMCR home site

This fascinating volume is largely for connoisseurs of Etruscan bronze and associated finds, but the outcomes are interesting at a broader level for discussions over concepts of trade, commerce and artisanship within Italy and the Mediterranean more generally.

Both sets of finds discussed in this volume belong to sites in the Val di Chiana, north of the Tiber, and were deposited in the Museo Archeologico of Florence early in the 20th century. They are characterised by extraordinary pieces of bronze craftsmanship, and the focus here is precisely on methods of manufacture, date and, critically, provenance.

Each object is meticulously described, and illustrated, both in line drawings and photographs, and with full lists of comparison pieces. The volume is, as one would expect, beautifully produced. The chapters by Macnamara and Shefton are in English; the remainder in Italian. The dates of the Trestina finds are predominantly from the 7th century, but there is a much earlier fibula serpeggiante; the Fabbrecce finds are dated to the mid 7th century into the 6th century. The volume concludes with some detailed accounts of the metallurgy of one object, the Trestina tripod, and a brief section on late 19th century methods of bronze restoration.

The two sets of finds are treated separately. The finds at Trestina were discovered in 1878 in agricultural work, and were rescued from dispersal on the antiquarian market. They include a tripod and cauldron, bronze oinochoai and some ceramic ware. The nature of the deposit is complex; it might be funerary, or perhaps another type of deposit.

The object which, since its restoration and recent display, is most famous is the massive tripod, with bovine feet, the heads of ibexes half way up the legs, of bulls at the top and in the middle centre three stags' heads complete with horns. The tripod as reconstructed stands 1.4m high. The struts are of iron; the heads of hollow-cast bronze, with ivory eye circles, and cast on to the iron. It supported a cauldron with griffon protomai.

There are parallels for individual parts of this assemblage in Italy, but this is a piece which carries memories of much earlier times and far distant places; the bulls' feet are found in 9th century Urartu. Within this volume, the major study of the piece is by Ellen Macnamara, who has long been engaged with this piece and the whole deposit, and it is a highly thoughtful and careful consideration of the possibilities. Her conclusion is that we should not discount that this remarkable synthesis of different pieces belonged to Greek traditions of craftsmanship (earlier accounts, in particular those of Michel Gras, had looked also to Sardinia).1 The size of the whole piece is perhaps the most striking thing; if the reconstruction is correct it puts one somewhat in mind of the overblown exaggeration of a piece like the Vix crater, and one should perhaps seek some context within the aristocratic competition of this part of central Etruria.

By contrast, the oinochoai which had been thought to be Rhodian are here subjected to a detailed restudy by Brian Shefton, who suggests that we may have dismissed too hastily the possibility of local manufacture. His account, which is hugely erudite and detailed, makes several important contributions: first, there are some problems with the earlier list of pieces which Shefton published;2 second, there are some issues with almost all earlier descriptions, so this becomes now both the most careful presentation, and an extended addendum to Shefton's own account; third, instead of a single point of origin, there are several, with some pieces having possible Laconian origins, but others appearing to be Oenotrian, and in fact the direction of influence appears to be from Italy (perhaps via Etruria) to Greece, rather than the other way round.

The Fabbrecce material is notable first for the way in which the Italian state was beginning to exercise its authority in the control of archaeological sites in the early 20th century, and second because of the outstanding nature of the funerary deposit, with a chariot, bronzes and proto-Corinthian ware of the highest standard. There are fewer issues of attribution in this case, but the interesting imagery of centaurs and mixed humans and animals on various fittings certainly justify the full publication here of an important find, and one which, as the editors say, has been somewhat neglected.

Taken as a whole, the volume intriguingly raises a range of questions about this part of the Upper Tiber Valley. What were the trading routes and the nature of the physical and social resources in this wealthy area? And the volume challenges us to think about how do we come now to write an account of the transmission of artistic ideas and individual objects? This volume shows how comprehensively the older idea that Etruria was a consumer of eastern ideas via the medium of Greek traders has failed the test of our greater knowledge. Here we have in the upper Tiber Valley sites where southern Italian bronzes, Greek ceramics, Etruscan imitations of those ceramics and indigenous Etruscan forms mingled freely and were exchanged up and down the peninsula and across the eastern Mediterranean in one direction, and in the case of the oinochoai across to Spain (and Gras' observations about Sardinia seem to me still to need consideration). This is a world of great intellectual and artistic complexity, the description of which remains a challenge.

Moving forward from the immensely valuable accounts of individual finds and deposits to the broader picture of how the upper Tiber Valley may be contextualised within its wider setting, these two sites are instrumental in forcing us to reconsider issues of orientalization. Recent work has raised important questions about what we mean by this highly loaded and difficult term, and whilst the question is not directly posed here, the two sites offer contrasting viewpoints. Purcell recently encouraged us to leave aside this problematic term, but one of his main reasons was that orientalization encourages an assumption of eastern priority which cannot always be proven.3 Fabbrecce and Trestina offer a similar challenge – why should we describe a phenomenon in terms of the east when in fact the influence may have moved from the west to the east? At Fabbrecce we see a particular connection with Vetulonia, which may be the more relevant to the movement of the pieces than discussion of the eastern origin of some objects – in other words for Fabbrecce they may have been relatively local. Even in the case of the Trestina tripod, if the craftsmanship is Greek, the context is profoundly local; it is this specific combination of factors, this very precise and otherwise unexampled combination of features, which marks out the find. The virtuosity of archaic habits of creativity, even within the matrices of particular forms, and the rootedness of those forms within local contexts and highly diverse trading patterns are perhaps more useful ways of approaching such objects than the attempt to find parallel and similar artefacts. We are confronted by highly personalised adaptations of a variegated palette of forms. This volume is in itself an important scientific contribution to the proper recording and study of two highly specific sites; but it is also another provocation to reconsider Etruria as a laboratory of intellectual exchange in which east and west are more or less meaningless terms, but deep and recent past, human, animal and monster, originality and adaptation, tradition and imagination are highly pertinent.


1.   M. Gras, 'Sardische Bronzen in Etrurien,' in RT. Thimme (ed) Kunst und Kultur Sardiniens vom Neolithikum bis zum Ende der Nuraghenzeit (Karlsruhe, 1980) 126-33; id. Trafics Tyrrhéniens Archaïques (Rome, 1985).
2.   See B. B. Shefton Die Rhodischen Bronzekannen (Mainz am Rhein, 1979) for an earlier statement, updated substantially here.
3.   N. Purcell, 'Orientalizing: Five Historical Questions,' in Corinna Riva, Nicholas C. Vella (eds) Debating Orientalization: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Change in the Ancient Mediterranean (London, 2006), 21-30.

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