In 1840, an Etruscan chandelier was accidentally discovered near Cortona, Italy in the Fratta locality (See Figure 1). It has been a part of the Etruscan Academy’s archaeological collection since 1842 and is one of their “best-known and most highly prized items” (Sala del Lampadario Etrusco). 175 years later, I had the opportunity to visit the bronze piece in the Etruscan Academy’s Museum in Cortona. Though the date of the chandelier has been disputed by scholars, the Etruscan Academy supplies a date to around the fourth century BC. Because most of what we know about the Etruscans comes from their art and the archaeological record – and not their texts – this chandelier and its detailed decorations provide information about Etruscan beliefs, skills, and activities.
While admiring the piece’s complex imagery, I noticed its separate sections: lips, an external ring, inner ring, innermost ring, and centerpiece. Starting from the outside, the lips of the chandelier are made up of sixteen figures of Achelous (See Figure 5). In Greek mythology, Achelous was the God of all water and became a river God in Hellenistic times (See Figure 2). To the Etruscans, Achelous was an important deity in mythology, evidently a reason for including his image on the chandelier over a dozen times. As in the Greek tradition, he was related to all water and carried significant ‘underworld’ associations.
Alternating figures of Sileni playing pipes and Sirens with their arms crossed make up the external ring of the chandelier (See Figure 1). In Greek mythology, a Silenus was a member of Dionysus’s inner circle of satyrs – ithyphallic males with goat-like features (See Figure 3). The plural “Sileni” sometimes refers to them as having horse-like rather than goat-like features but this distinction is not clear-cut. Sirens, as we all somehow remember from Homer’s Odyssey, were strange woman-bird creatures who lured sailors to their demise with music and song…creepy stuff (See Figure 4).
At the inner ring, we move away from the dangerous Sirens and onto graceful images of dolphins in waves. However, the peace remains for but a few moments before we notice four groups of wild animals attacking weaker prey. Finally, the center of the chandelier includes plant decorations and a Gorgon’s head, with mouth open and tongue out, surrounded by snakes. Though the chandelier hold glimmers of beauty, it can’t break free from the grotesque. Perhaps it’s just beautifully grotesque.
According to the Etruscan Academy, the chandelier was a product of the northern Etruscan craft tradition and was made in a workshop with highly qualified staff and equipment owing to the complexity and difficulty of its production. Though the Etruscans’ most successful pottery style was Bucchero, they were also “master bronze smiths who exported their finished products all over the Mediterranean” (Hemingway 2004). Made from one highly complex matrix (mold), the chandelier required skill and expertise to create, surely an item no amateur could produce. Finely worked bronzes, such as the chandelier, “attest to the high quality achieved by Etruscan artists, particularly in the Archaic and Classical periods” (Hemingway 2004). The piece was made using cera persa technique, also known as lost-wax casting. This process allows for the duplication of original casts, often in silver, gold, brass or bronze. Because of this technique, some of the piece’s decorative figures were copied from other works, while others are in fact original and unique.
The combination of figures and imagery, including creatures, waves, and snakes, leads to interesting interpretations. Some scholars, like Van Der Meer, believe that the chandelier is cosmic in nature. Others argue for meanings such as death, ongoing life, fertility (Achelous and the ithyphallic nature of the Sileni), the Underworld (Gorgon), the ocean (waves and dolphins), and heaven (Sileni and Sirens).
It is believed that the chandelier was originally used to light an important place of worship and was perhaps even rededicated at one point to another location. Unfortunately, the chandelier’s origin has yet to be identified or located, however it is believed to be near Cortona. The piece is thought to have been in a religious context because many of its elements are “also present as motifs in funerary contexts” (Van Der Meer 294, 2014). Noting the various details of the chandelier, it would be difficult to decide definitely that it only served one purpose. Some elements of the piece suggest that its context may have been a tomb, but it may have also been used in a funerary temple or chapel (Van Der Meer 294, 2014). It’s best to hold onto these options because the exact history of the piece is cloudy and making assumptions impedes one’s ability to think widely.
Hemingway, Colette, and Sean Hemingway. “Etruscan Art.” Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2004. Web. 19 June 2017.
“Il Lampadario Etrusco.” Museum of the Etruscan Academy. Cortona, Italy. 9 June 2017.
“Museums, Archives and Libraries.” Cortonaweb: Everything about Cortona. Comune di Cortona, 2017. Web. 18 June 2017.
“Sala del Lampadario Etrusco.” Museum of the Etruscan Academy. Cortona, Italy. 9 June 2017.
Van Der Meer, Bouke. “The Etruscan Bronze Lamp of Cortona, its Cosmic Program and its Attached Inscription.” Latomus 73 (2014): 289 – 302. Academia.edu. Web. 19 June 2017.