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  • Lori-Ann Touchette

“Colours of the Etruscans: Terracotta treasures at the Centrale Montemartini”

It has been exciting the past few weeks as museum after museum in Rome reopens. Our first foray was to the Centrale Montemartini, the extension of the Capitoline Museum collections, housed in the oldest electrical plant of Rome. We couldn’t have chosen better.

The setting is stunning but we were blown away by the current exhibition “Colours of the Etruscans: Terracotta treasures at the Centrale Montemartini”. The extensive show presented a series of painted terracotta architectural elements that had been illegally exported to Geneva and were repatriated in 2016. Amidst the 45 crates filled with Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities was an extraordinary cache of polychrome terracotta slabs rotating circa 1000 fragments. In the same year, an agreement was reached between the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen for the return of artifacts in their collections, including 110 fragments of painted plaques from Cerveteri. The many examples of these polychrome terracotta slabs in European and American museums, yet their conspicuous absence in regular excavations, long led to their dismissal as fakes.

This show brings together the corpus of unpublished painted terracotta panels from Genevra and Copenhagen, supplemented by pieces repatriated from Italy and major international museums. An additional section presents polychrome terracotta from the exterior of Etruscan buildings. Finally, a section is dedicated to vases with themes that parallel those of the terracotta plaques.

The richness of the exhibition demands close attention and several posts. We will begin by looking at a selection of the terracotta slabs. Produced the Cerveteri from the early 6th centuries, these plaques were hung in continuous narrative friezes. Their production is tied to the diaspora of East Greek artists to Cerveteri in the 6th and 5th centuries.

This first post will present just a teaser of fragmentary works that introduce the subject and focus on technique and execution. The majority of the plaques were made in one piece in a press-mold or frame. Dimension range from 130-130cm high and 50 to 60 cm wide. The thickness varies between 2.3 to 4.5 cm. There were some smaller tiles as well in which the individuals panels were superimposed on two or three levels to attain heights of 150 or even 180cm. Coloured engobes were applied to the greenware slabs. Drips suggest that the slip was applied onto vertically placed panels following preliminary drawings and engravings on the soft clay. The chromatic range includes black, grey, purple and shades of red, pink and orange. The use of cinnabar and blue grit was rare. After a long drying period, the slabs were fired between 830 and 950C.

@ Centrale Montemartini

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