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  • Lori-Ann Touchette

Sarcophagus of the Spouses in the Villa Giulia

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses in the Villa Giulia is perhaps the best-known of Etruscan funerary monuments. Found in 1881 in the Banditaccia necropolis in Cerveteri, it was reconstructed from 400 fragments. Composed of four pieces, its scale is noteworthy (1,14 x 1,9m). It would originally have been painted (cf: the contemporary Sarcophagus of the Spouses in the Louvre) with inlaid eyes now lost. The elements in the hands of both figures are missing but she may have held a perfume bottle and a pomegranate, a symbol of immortality (cf Persephone). Perhaps the man held a wine cup. The sarcophagus would have held the cremated remains of the deceased. The style of the figures with their stylized hair and ‘Archaic smiles’ suggests a date of 520 BC whereas the facial features reflect the Eastern Greek style that was prevalent in Cerveteri at that time. The woman’s cap and her pointed shoes reflect Etruscan fashion as evidenced in Etruscan tomb paintings.

The spouses recline on a “kline”, immortalized as they participate in a banquet. Banqueting was an essential element of Etruscan elite social life. Whereas the Greek symposium was reserved for males alone (any woman present would have been a prostitute or hetaira), in Etruscan feasting, women participated on equal terms with men, a reflection of their different social status. On the sarcophagus lid, the married couple banquets as they did in their lifetime and look forward to its continuation in the afterlife. The tendency to interpret their smiles as indicative of affection and a joyful approach to death is belied by the ubiquity of the ‘Archaic smile’ in art of this period.

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