Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Etruscan jewellery: necklaces


Those Etruscans, of whom we catch occasional glimpses in brief passages of the early history of Rome, are so vaguely described, that a reader almost feels inclined to believe that they were merely fabulous rivals and enemies of Rome, invented by Roman historians as a canvas upon which to embroider imaginary victories. Etruria seems to be spoken of as a land of mystery to draw upon for supernatural legends when the wonderful was to be dwelt upon, or when the mystic origin of a prince was to be described. It was scarcely known whether to ascribe to this Etrurian people the superior civilisation, so vaguely ascribed to them by ancient writers, or whether to deem them merely a half barbarous tribe, like the Sabines or the Romans themselves. They had faded into a mythic kind of historical existence, which modern writers would have been rash to invest with a more virtually historical character before the palpable discoveries of recent years had revealed to us those ancient Etruscans, in their very habits, as they lived—still, though in the tomb, wearing their bronze armour, their gold jewels, and their robes of state, and surrounded by their favourite weapons, within those subterraneous chambers, still perfect after the lapse of ages, even to the curious paintings on the walls and roofs; the dead being surrounded by all these tokens of affectionate regret, which seemed to betoken the near presence of the still living, so long after both life and death in that ancient race had ceased to be.

It is the revelations of these ancient Etrurian tombs that have restored the Etruscans to their place in history, and from which these exquisitely wrought jewels of gold and of silver have been recovered, which now form such attractive objects in the British Museum as well as in some of the great museums of the continent. It was from this source that the exquisite Etruscan jewellery of the Gregorian Museum of the Vatican was procured; and the Campana Museum, recently purchased by the French Government, which contains the most extensive collection of ancient Etruscan necklaces that has ever been brought together, not even excepting that of the Vatican itself, derived its riches of that class from the same source. Its original collector, whose name it bears, possessed unusual facilities for forming such a collection, as being the possessor of estates in that part of Italy, formerly within the limits of the ancient Etruria.

To an enthusiastic archæologist these facilities were the source of great temptations, and the whole of a noble fortune was expended in the gradual acquisition of the magnificent collection which has recently been scattered in consequence of the pecuniary embarrassments of its possessor. The first portion, chiefly comprising the specimens of ancient sculpture, found its way to Russia. A smaller portion—chiefly ceramic wares—was purchased by England for the National Museum of Art at Kensington, while the bulk of the collection, containing nearly all the antique jewellery, was purchased by the Emperor of the French, and is destined to form an addition to the vast artistic and archæological riches of the Louvre, under the title of Musée de Napoleon III.

In the Campana collection of ancient Etruscan jewellery, the necklaces alone form a splendid series of eighty-two nearly perfect specimens, besides a number of beautiful fragments.

The art of working in gold was one of the first steps in metallurgy. Gold was more easily worked than any metal known to the ancients; and Homer speaks of stores of it being accumulated in royal treasuries for the purpose of making jewels, &c. In the Bible also are passages, connected with some of the earliest patriarchs, in which jewels of gold are mentioned. Such as those referred to in Genesis, xxiv. 22, as given by Abraham’s servant to Rebekah, “The man took a golden ear-ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands, of ten shekels weight of gold,” &c. These ornaments being, in all probability, beautifully ornamented, as there are other passages in the Pentateuch, which especially refer to ornamental work in metal.

In the earliest records concerning the mythological and heroic age of Greece, anterior to the date of authentic history, jewels are frequently referred to, especially the famous necklace presented to Harmonia as a wedding-present on her marriage with Cadmus, who is said to have received it from Aphrodite or Europa, or from Hephæstus the god of fire, that is to say, so far as fire is indispensable in arts and manufactures, of which he was the originator, in the Greek mythology, (as Vulcan is in the early mythology of Italy, and as Tubal Cain is in the Bible,) teaching man the arts which adorn life. This fabulous necklace, presented by Cadmus to his bride, was said to be most richly and elaborately ornamented, insomuch, that Nonnus, in the story of Cadmus and the foundation of Thebes, which forms part of his long poem, in forty-eight books, known as the Διονυσιακά, devotes no less than fifty lines to its description.

Previous to the great archæological discoveries of the last three-quarters of a century, it appeared vain to hope for any positive knowledge of the actual form and decorative details of the jewellery of the patriarchs, of the Pharaohs, or of the gold ornaments described by the poets and historians of Greece, or of the exquisitely wrought tiaras, ear-rings, and necklaces of those vaguely mentioned Etruscans, the parents of Roman civilisation, fragments of whose history have been so recently snatched, as it were, from the obliterating darkness of the past. Modern researches have, in fact, yielded to us a rich harvest of knowledge in the shape of exquisite remains of former phases of civilisation, some of the specimens of the ancient art of the jeweller being as perfect as the day on which they were wrought in those antique workshops which, with the artificers who once made them resound with the busy clink of the hammer and of other tools, whose forms and uses have been so long forgotten.

The disinterment of the long-buried towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, yielded the first rich spoil of relics of ancient art. The great discoveries in Egypt followed. More recently the excavations in Asia, which have brought once more to light the palaces and royal chambers of the kings of Assyria and in Italy, the discovery of the ancient tombs of the Etrurians, have been still more rich in archæological results. In some of these Etruscan sepulchres, the dead who had lain undisturbed perhaps for thirty centuries, were found still wearing almost the aspect of life, and still clothed in the dresses they had worn when living. The bodies—that crumbled on the first rude touch—were still decorated with these gold jewels of the tomb, massive in appearance but thin as gauze, and which were manufactured expressly to replace the more solid ones, which were in some cases removed after the ceremony of interment was over. It is, however, not only these thinly beaten sepulchral jewels which have been recovered. Many of a more solid class have also been found, and gold ornaments of almost every class wrought by the hands of some Etrurian workmen, from five to ten centuries before the Christian era may now be examined in all their original perfection, not only in the Campana Museum, in the fine collection of the Vatican, and several other European collections, but also in the British Museum, where there are several fine specimens of necklaces found in Etruscan tombs.

Among ancient nations, necklaces were worn not only as marriage ornaments, but also by young girls, as proved by one of very graceful workmanship in the Campana collection, which was found upon the body of a girl (apparently of about fourteen years of age) in one of the tombs of Cervetri. It is composed of several plats of gold wire, from the lowest range of which are suspended little gold balls, delicately ornamented, and to the upper band is attached a series of stamped ornaments, imitation tassels, and the leaves of different plants; while from the principal plat descend smaller chains of different lengths, to which are attached alternately elegantly stamped representations of syrens, medusa heads, and leaves of plants, the centre ornament being a Lotus flower. The next specimen is a beautiful Etruscan necklace of an entirely different character, found in excavations made on the site of the ancient Vulci; it is composed principally of Scarabæi (the mystic beetle of the Egyptians), which were evidently used by the Etrurians merely as ornaments, as they bear no hieroglyphic characters. The undersides of those composing this necklace are carved with gracefully executed intaglio designs, such as a biga, or two-horse chariot, with its driver, a warrior armed with the Etruscan lance and buckler, &c. These Scarabæi are mounted in delicate filagree work, and fixed by a gold loop, also of filagree work, to a connecting bond, alternating with pendant gold balls, which are covered with a profusion of exquisite ornaments, that may literally be termed microscopic; sometimes they are patterns in granulated gold wire, ingeniously laid on; in other instances they are dotted with patterns formed of minute pellets of gold, or minute plaited bands of gold. The clasps for fastening it are composed of two dolphins, in stamped work of spirited design. But that M. Castellani, the celebrated artistic jeweller of Rome, possesses a similar specimen of Etruscan art, this specimen might be considered unique. The close connection of the Etruscans with Egypt is very evident from the style of some of the earliest specimens of their jewellery, which have been executed before the foundation of Rome. Indeed, some of the leading features of their civilisation are stamped with a character which evidently belongs to a period anterior to the rise of civilisation in Greece or Rome. Among other things they evidently conducted their commercial transactions without the aid of coined money, and like many of the ancient conservative nations of the east, did not adopt it even when in daily use among their neighbours. So that in the decorative ornaments of the Etrurians we look upon a kind of art that had its origin, and had reached its perfection long before the classic eras of Greece and Rome.

This necklace is not of the sepulchral class of Etruscan jewellery: it is of the solid make of the jewels of the living, and we cannot look without emotion upon those golden leaflets, and richly matted chains that once lay upon the warm bosom of some young Etrurian girl, whose very name, and race, and language have passed away!

Amber, garnet, and opaque emeralds (the smaragdi and virides gemmæ of Roman writers) are frequently wrought into this Etruscan jewellery, either as amulets, or because certain medicinal virtues were supposed to belong to them. But the “charms” were generally composed of small pieces of polished flint, or some other common stone, such as the one forming the centre ornament of the necklace engraved above (No. 1), which is from one of the specimens in the collection of the British Museum, which were purchased of the Prince of Canino.

The centre ornament is in other cases composed of a small gold bulla, or locket, containing either an amulet or some cabalistic form of invocation to the protective gods. Within such a locket, now in the Campana collection, a piece of sheet silver was found, carefully rolled and folded, on which were eighteen lines of writing, in very ancient Greek characters, mixed with cabalistic signs.

Another curious bulla of this kind, though not containing a cabalistic charm written on leaf silver, has a beautifully executed low relief in gold on its upper surface, representing an infant suckled by a mare, with the figure of a woman looking at the child. This possibly illustrates the mythological legend of Hippothous suckled by a mare, while the female figure is probably his mother, Alope. Several Etruscan bullæ or lockets of this kind, all of them curious, are preserved in the Museum Etruscum Gregorianum.

The Campana collection is particularly rich in necklaces formed of gold and emeralds, above referred to, a rich mixture of colour which appears to have found great favour with the Etrurian world of fashion; but it is the gold work itself that imparts the greatest value and interest to these exquisite remains of ancient art. One necklace, especially, in this collection is distinguished by the most exquisite workmanship of a bearded human head, with the horns of a bull; the face itself is highly finished, with careful and minute chasing, while the curling of the beard is represented by minute granules of gold, apparently soldered on to the solid in a very skilful and laborious manner. The hair is formed by innumerable spirals of gold wire, each terminated by a little knob or pellet of bright gold. A bandlet passes across the forehead, which is also enriched with a close granulation of minute gold pellets, like the beard. This rich ornament is suspended by a loop, highly enriched with filagree work, to a plaited chain of gold wire, which terminates with an enriched hook as a fastening. This jewel is of fine artistic style, and the workmanship may be pronounced truly exquisite in fineness and accuracy of finish.

The Græco-Etruscan necklaces, of somewhat different style, belonging to this collection, are equally admirable in their artistic workmanship, and scarcely less curious and interesting style; especially two which were discovered in a tomb at Vulci by MM. François et Noel des Vergers. The first of these consists of a series of the most intricate and beautiful knottings in gold wire, alternating with solid glass beads of curious fabric, of which only seven remain. The other is formed of six groups of ornament, each group composed of a bead of amber placed between two richly-wrought balls of gold. These groups of gold balls and amber beads are separated from each other by intricate knottings of gold plaited wire, of large dimensions. The fastening is composed of an ornament in the form of a wheel, enriched with a large garnet.

Silver jewellery of Etruscan workmanship is much more rare than gold, and on this account a beautiful silver necklace in the Campana museum is more prized than some of the far richer examples in gold. This silver necklace, of quaint and singular design, is composed of a series of twenty smooth balls, separated into groups of four by curiously-wrought syrens and harpies; while from the two central balls of each group of four an amphora is suspended by a loop, which is delicately enriched with a filagree pattern of twisted wire.

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Enamel was frequently added to vary the effect of Etruscan jewellery, and there are several fine specimens in the Gregorian museum of Etruscan antiquities in the Vatican, and a very pretty example in the British Museum, which is represented in the annexed wood-cut (No. 2) and in which enamel was freely used.

The diamond work between which the ridged plates of gold in the above engraving (No. 2) was originally filled with what appears to have been red, grey, and green enamel, which must have produced a very pleasing effect, in contrast with rich yellow of the matt gold, of which all the rest of the necklace is composed.

As an example of the manner in which different kinds of foliage, the figure of the hippocamp, or of syrens, or harpies, &c., were introduced, I cannot give a better general example than the one engraved above (No. 3). It is of extremely thin gold, as thin as tissue paper, and lightly stamped with the detail of form required, being doubtless one of the sepulchral decorations with which occasionally the body of the deceased was dressed, when the more solid jewels were removed, subsequently to the ceremony of the interment. So thin and delicate is the fabric of Etruscan jewellery of this class, that it appears impossible that the specimens should have been perfectly preserved for so many centuries; it is only in the undisturbed solitude of the tomb that such delicately wrought ornaments could have remained uninjured, and when discovered, after their interment of two or three thousand years, it is only by their immediate removal from the tombs to the safe keeping of our great modern museums, that their future preservation can be ensured.

Since the discovery of the Etruscan cemeteries at Vulci, Cervetri, and other places in central Italy, the opening, or as we may say, the desecration, of the ancient tombs have been carried on with amazing activity, and their contents have furnished our museums with a class of ancient art not previously known. It is true that many of the tombs were found to have been plundered before, but by ignorant marauders, who speedily reduced the beautiful jewels they found to mere lumps of gold, to facilitate their sale without raising suspicion. In some cases when the tombs were formed on the slope of a hill, the rains of successive centuries at last washed away by slow degrees the earth which covered the roof of the vault, and ultimately the roof itself, thus exposed, crumbled away during some night of unusual storm, and the next morning the shepherds, leading their sheep to browse on those lonely hills, have looked into a dark chasm, and seen with stupid amazement the warriors of 3000 years ago, lying grim and stark in their bronze armour, with the weapons they had used in life placed carefully about them; and bodies of stately women, with their funeral jewels still upon their forms, perfect for a moment, but crumbling to a handful of dust with the first touch, or the first gust of wind that blew direct upon them, and shrinking into dusty vapours, while the gold, jewels, or bronze armour remained hanging upon the bones of skeletons. To gaze for a moment in superstitions horror; and then, gaining courage in the fuller daylight, to break down the uncovered entrance and snatch the jewels from the ancient bones, was naturally the course of the fortunate shepherd, who destroyed all traces of his discovery by throwing earth into the rifled grave, which was soon overgrown with verdure like any other inequality of the neighbouring ground. It was so that these Etruscan tombs were discovered and rifled in past times, and so that they have been rediscovered in the present day, when their contents are better appreciated and more carefully preserved. The sites of the cemeteries having been once discovered by accident, frequent excavations now take place to discover fresh tombs; and though a large proportion of those discovered are found to have been robbed of their contents by previous invaders, still enough is found intact to render the works of research now carrying on full of interest, as objects of new and unexpected character are being continually discovered.

It appears somewhat extraordinary that our English jewellers have not sought in copying some of these exquisite necklaces of Etruria the means of re-establishing the elegant fashion of highly wrought gold necklaces, which might be made to form so profitable a branch of the goldsmith’s trade. M. Castellani, the celebrated Roman jeweller, has already done this, with very profitable results, and a wedding casket of jewels presented by the people of Rome to the daughter of Victor Emmanuel on her marriage to the King of Portugal, consisted of a series of exquisite copies of ancient Etruscan jewellery, in M. Caatellani’s own collection and the Campana museum. The whole set forms what was anciently termed a cista, or mondo, such as was the nuptial gift of a patrician maiden of ancient Rome. It consists of a diadem, rings, buttons, fibulæ, decorative hair pins, necklace, &c., &c., all delicately wrought in the Etruscan fashion, just as they probably were in ancient Rome, where the fashion of Etruscan work prevailed, much as the rage for imitations of our ancient Celtic fibulæ does at the present time in England.

Η. N. H.