"The Shadow of the Night: Etruscan Splendors from Volterra in Tuscany," Oct. 1-30, 1998, at the Sidney Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, 135 East 22nd Street, New York, N.Y.
He's only 22 inches tall, but this nude male youth in bronze is the star of "The Shadow of the Night: Etruscan Splendors from Volterra in Tuscany." L'ombra della sera, as he is called, is a well-known Etruscan artifact. He is paying a short visit to New York for an exhibition at Baruch College, along with a clutch of grave goods from the recently excavated "Tomb of the Warrior," several alabaster funerary urns and two other smaller figurative bronzes.
They are in town thanks to Sandra Kraskin, the imaginative director of Baruch's Sidney Mishkin Gallery. The romantically titled L'ombra della sera or The Shadow of the Night is one of a type of distinctive Etruscan elongated standing figures that resemble vertically pulled taffy. They look surprisingly modern and may have been the inspiration for Alberto Giacometti's sculptures.
You enter the darkened gallery at Baruch to find this young man spotlighted on a tall pedestal. He stands legs together, hands at his side. Three areas draw your attention: his head with its wavy hair and sober expression, his sex and his feet with their well-defined toes. How refreshing to concentrate on a single haunting work of art, in which the setting intensifies the power and mystery of the object and invites close scrutiny.
Two other smaller bronze figures, both water carriers from around the same period as Shadow, the 3rd century BC, exemplify how disparate the sources were that coalesced into the Etruscan civilization and made Shadow possible. Both wear a short garment over their lower torso and carry a jug on one shoulder. One, a little over eight inches high, is flatter that the Shadow, while the other, a little less than five inches high, has rounded limbs in almost classical proportions.
The truth is that the Etruscans borrowed from Mediterranean cultures -- mainly Middle Eastern and Greek -- to fashion their own unique way of life. The exact ebb and flow of influences has yet to be worked out, but we do know that by the 3rd century, Etruscan cities that had grown up in the later Iron Age (8th century BC) and subsequent city-states, had declined with the loss of Etruscan dominion over the seas, internal conflicts, and wars with the expanding Romans. Having reached their summit in the 7th century, by the 3rd century BC the principal Etruscan cities were part of a Roman-Etruscan Federation. By 100 BC, Etruria was gone, totally absorbed within purely Roman territory.
The show contains several alabaster funerary urns that date from around 200 BC, when inland towns like Volterra still had a degree of independence, though most well-to-do Etruscans had already moved to Rome. Notable in some of these urns is Greek idealized portraiture, visible on some of the figures on the lids; on others a generalized but realistic Roman portraiture style predominates. The most interesting urn (with a male figure on top) has a wonderfully terrifying demonic figure, hardly classical, at each end. Another has a fine carving of the Actaeon myth -- a hunter sees the goddess Diana bathing and is turned into a deer, which is then attacked and killed by hounds -- visible on the front. The lid, with its reclining woman, was not originally paired with the classically inspired base.
The earliest artifacts in the exhibition are 17 items from "The Tomb of the Warrior," the grave of a high-born knight that was unearthed in 1996. The tomb dates to the 7th or 8th century, a time when the Etruscans were at their height, ruled the seas and were called pirates by the Greeks. Among the warrior's treasures are a javelin cusp, part of a sword blade, a lance head, a bracelet, a fibula, a "patera" or bowl, a goblet, and an assortment of other small bronzes. And more importantly, on view are a horse's bit with a large and smaller equine, a flask with repoussé quadrupeds and abstract designs and an impressive ogee-shaped crested helmet with repoussé ducks.
Most of what is known about the Etruscans comes from their art, especially their burial treasures. You only have until the end of October to visit the Mishkin Gallery and become acquainted with these!
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.