# 129 | Greeks, Etruscans and the image | Alain and Annie Schnapp

Using Il leone sogna la preda (2001), written by etruscologists Bruno D’Agostino et Luca Cerchiai, as a starting point, Alain Schnapp invites us to further our thinking on The Greeks, the Etruscans and images – the title of a previous book written by the same authors. The questions this text brings up are topical : thus of the visual culture of the Greeks and the Etruscans, of the role of images in the funerary rites of the times, the role of artisans between the Greek and Etruscan world, as well as of a shared culture  between civilisations.”

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac et Thibault Boulvain

The Greeks, the Etruscans and images: Notes on Il leone sogna la preda (Bruno D’Agostino & Luca Cerchiai).

Alain and Annie Schnapp

Fig. 1. Front cover of Il Leone sogna la preda.

 The co-authors of Il leone sogna la preda are well-known Etruscan scholars and had already published an important book on the relationship between the Etruscans, the Greeks and images 1Il mare, la morte, l’amore, gli Etruschi, i Greci e l’immagine, Donzelli, Rome 1999.. Anchored within a long-term project grounded in historical anthropology, this most recent work is its follow-up. The authors examine the status of images and the role of craftsmen between the Greek and Etruscan worlds. Their work is as much about iconology as it is about cultural transfers between different civilisations, one of which (Greek) exerted a dominant influence on the other (Etruscan). This book answers some of the most topical questions of our current century. How was this shared culture achieved? What became of the mythological themes depicted on funerary vases and paintings, how were they interpreted, and how were they chosen? The almost exclusively funerary use of vases in Etruria and their more discreet presence in the necropolises of classical Greece have been breakthrough discoveries in this regard.

The book is built around three themes, following on from a methodological chapter which gives pride of place to the work of J. P. Vernant, P. Vidal-Naquet and François Lissarrague (the “Ecole de Paris“) :

  • The artisan and the city
  • The Homeric imagination, Ulysses’ journeys;
  • The, mainly funerary, figure of Dionysus in the Etruscan world, between banquet and death.

The way the ancients looked at vases bears little resemblance to our own

Vases were without doubt costly objects, ornaments for wealthy homes (mainly in Greece itself) or funerary repositories for the elite (mainly in Italy), but they were less a work of art than a refined technè, as J. P. Vernant (and others…) has analysed so well. It not a coincidence that the god of craftsmen, Hephaestus, was conceived by his mother alone (Hera), and was so ugly that she threw him from the top of Olympus, adding a limp to his already deformed body. But he is also the undisputed master of the most prodigious technè, and it is this ambiguity that is directly reflected in the status of his human emulators. The first article in the book (“Lo statuto mitico dell’artigiano nel mondo greco” by B. D’Agostino) illustrates this point perfectly. For a long time, it seemed like the social depreciation of the craftsman in the city manifested itself mainly in the late archaic and classical periods. But Hephaestus’ image is far from uniform, and his mythical status reveals a much more complicated history. The author refers back to the sequence of Hephaestus’ passionate love for Athena, the failed rape and the birth of the Athenian lineage thanks to the god’s sperm thrown into the earth. The tension between the two divinities, the technè of Hephaestus and the métis of Athena, is part of the image of the craftsman.

The next article (“Scrittura e artigiani sulla rotta per l’Occidente” by B. D’Agostino) furthers this exploration of the status of the artisan, here in relation to the landing of Greek colonists in the West, particularly on the island of Ischia (Pithecusses) in the first half of the VIIIth century. There, on the edge of the Greek world, a craftsman (painter and/or potter?) proudly painted his name to a vase, before firing it: “(…) inos made me”. For D’Agostino, this example shows that social depreciation must have been much less marked in these outlying areas than in the great poleis of the same period, where no potter’s signature appears. In Ischia the so-called Nestor’s cup, another famous vase bearing two lines of graffiti, pastiches of Homeric verses, attests to the interest shown in writing by the elites of the time, as a symbol of their high social status. What, then, of the status of the potter, who was also a master of the written word? It would appear that this was an exceptional case, but it nevertheless raises the question of who had access to the written word in this early period, bearing in mind that all the flexible media used for writing have now completely disappeared.

The Odyssey

This part of the book, like the following one on Dionysus, contains the articles written by Luca Cerchiai. The figure of Ulysses and the description of his journeys during his ten years of wandering are extraordinarily popular in Greece and Etruria. But above all, the Odyssey portrays a human being, removed from the demigods populating the Homeric epic, and who above all knowingly chooses to be human. His decision to fully assume his mortal condition marks a radical and definitive break with the world of the gods. Luca Cerchiai explores the different facets of the hero’s encounters with various mythical characters: Sirens, Circe, etc.


Luca Cerchiai begins by emphasising the “extraordinary trove of images related to the tomb” in the Etruscan world. In this funerary repertoire, he underlines the constant interaction between death and the world of wine and banqueting, of which Dionysus is the undisputed master. Dionysus, the god of otherness and the crossing of borders, a foreigner at the heart of the city, is the one who, through the consumption of wine, provides blissful intoxication free from constraints, the one who can engender a trance, the primordial means of communication with the gods, but which sometimes also leads to madness in the event of divine vengeance. Among the Etruscans, he is key to interpreting death. Dionysus is a god of passage, a psychopomp who guides humans to their new state. One might say death is not the end, and the omnipresent theme of the banquet is there to underline this positive dimension.

Fig. 2. Tarquinia, tomb of « the Hunt and the Fishing », c. 530. Wiki commons. User: Arthur Laisis~commonswiki.

Luca Cerchiai pays particular attention to the iconography of the “Hunting and Fishing” tomb in Tarquinia (c. 530), which depicts the god sitting at a banquet in a superb seascape. It functions as a metaphor for the passage from one world to another, where the sea represents the frontier to be crossed. Other funerary paintings show the god with a woman pouring wine (his wife Ariadne?) and dancing komasts and satyrs. A rare depiction shows a dead man on a funerary bed (Dead man’s Tomb, late VIth century) facing a naked komast performing dance steps. L. Cerchiai emphasises the ambiguity of the scene, which combines two completely different worlds: the bed is both the place where the dead man is laid to rest and the place where people lie down to enjoy the banquet. L. Cerchiai’s study of all the painted tombs has enabled him to develop a detailed anthropology of Etruscan funerary imagery. These paintings attest to the desire to give visual expression to the passage towards death, through a complex series of stages leading to a type of new identity for the deceased.

However, this analysis would remain incomplete without a study of the ceramic material, taking into account the specificity of tombal iconography. This involves analysing the representations of the vine and its relationship with Dionysus (L. Cerchiai, Il dono della vite da parte di Dioniso…) The vine is a unique plant that combines a supernatural origin with a cultivation mastered by human techniques. The images highlight these different techniques and underline the tension between these two aspects, for the grape harvests on the vases are associated with the thiasus of satyrs and maenads in an atmosphere of joyous celebration, as on the famous amphora of Exekias. The seated god presides over the scene, and the meaning is clear: wine, the bearer of a power that introduces the drinker to the world of Dionysian otherness, is indeed a gift from Dionysus to mankind. It occupies an absolutely central place in food and sacrifice. But those who abuse it and lose control of themselves also lose their own identity and find themselves in the unbridled world of satyrs and maenads.

For the Etruscans, this encounter between two worlds, brought on by a foreign and itinerant god, is illustrated by a magnificent black-figured Attic cup, also by Exekias, found in Vulci: the god is lying on the deck of a ship, holding a rhyton, sailing on a sea as red as wine. A huge vine twists around the mast and falls on either side; dolphins frame the scene. This scene does not correspond to the traditional Greek iconography of the vine. L. Cerchiai sees in it a polemical allusion to Etruscan pirates, reduced to the status of dolphins circling helplessly around the divine boat. The Hydria Ricci, on the other hand, was made by an Eastern Greek craftsman based in Caere (Cerveteri), and shows Dionysus supervising an entire sacrifice, from the preparation of the victims to the consumption of the meat. In this particular case, it is the god’s civilising function that is celebrated, he who brought to Etruria both the cultivation of the vine and bloody sacrifice, the foundations of a political community.

The book continues with an analysis of the iconographic program of two Etruscan tombs in Tarquinia by L. Cerchiai (“Tomba del Topolino, Tomba delle Leonesse”), and a presentation of an Etruscan festival in honour of Dionysus. It concludes with a study entitled “Arianna e le sue compagne”, based on a red-figure kylix by the Foundry Painter, which associates Ariadne and Helen on both sides of the vase, one abandoned by Theseus, the other abducted by Paris and then found by a vengeful Menelaus, both victims of the failing masculinity of their respective spouses.

Il leone sogna la preda highlights the complexity and richness of the exchange between the Greek cities and the Etruscan world, which can in no way be reduced to the mechanical reception of an invasive culture. A study of the iconography of funerary vases and paintings reveals a polysemous imaginary of Greek origin, worked and enriched by this Tyrrhenian mental universe that we know, for lack of texts, little about.

Through the variety of its approaches, as well as the presentation of works known but too often isolated from their context, the authors’ work constitutes a first-rate contribution to the understanding of images in the Etruscan and Greek world. It is a welcome synthesis of the comparative approach they have pursued with as much conviction as persuasiveness for several decades.


[1] : L. Cerchiai  ;  B. D’Agostino, Il mare, la morte, l’amore, gli Etruschi, i Greci e l’immagine, Donzelli, Rome, 1999.


 D’Agostino, B., & Cerchiai, L., Il leone sogna la preda, Rome, Quasar, 2001.

Bérard, C., & Vernant, J. -P., La cité des images, religion et société en Grèce antique, Paris 1984.

Mossé, C., & Schnapp-Gourbeillon, A., Précis d’histoire grecque, Paris, Armand Colin, 2009.

Schnapp-Gourbeillon, A., Lions, héros, masques, Paris, Maspéro, 1981.

Vasso, Z., Lehoux, E., & Hosoi, N., La cité des regards, autour de François Lissarrague, Rennes, PUR, 2019.

Bruno D’Agostino,(Naples, 1936) was a civil servant at the Italian Ministry of Culture, then a professor of Etruscology at the University of Naples “l’Orientale”. In 1979 he became associate director of studies at the EHESS. He headed the “Annali di Archeologia e Soria Antica” from its foundation in 1979 until his retirement. He is a member of the board of the Istituto di Studi Etruschi ed Italici in Florence. In 2004, he was awarded the “Antonio Feltrinelli” prize for archaeology by the Accademia dei Lincei. He has directed numerous excavations in Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Luca Cerchiai, (Rome, 1955) was a civil servant at the Archaeological Superintendency of Salerno. He is Professor of Etruscology at the University of Salerno and a member of the Board of Directors of the Istituto di studu Etruschi ed Italici in Florence.  He has been a research fellow at the CNRS and an associate professor at the University of Paris I. He is a member of various Italian and international scientific institutions.

Annie Schnapp-Gourbeillon (1946) is a specialist of the ancient Greek world. A qualified researcher, she taught at the University of Paris VIII. She has taken part in numerous excavations in Greece and Italy. Her most recent book is Aux origines de la Grèce. La genèse du politique, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2002. The third edition, with an updated bibliography, was released in 2010.

Alain Schnapp (1946) is a specialist in the iconography and history of ancient Greece. Professor emeritus at the University of Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne, he has taken part in numerous excavations in Greece and Italy. His latest publication is Une histoire universelle des ruines des origines aux Lumières (Paris, Le Seuil, 2020).

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