The 20-year-old Oscar Wilde enthuses over the Etruscans in the old Archaeological Museum when it was in the Via Faenza; from The Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis.
Then to the Etruscan Museum, which is in the suppressed monastery of San(t’) J Onofrio and most interesting. You come first to a big tomb, transplanted from Arezzo; cyclopean stonework, doorway with sloping jambs and oblong lintel, roof slightly conical, walls covered with wonderfully beautiful frescoes, representing first the soul in the shape of young man naked, led by a beautifully winged angel or genius to the two horsed chariot which is to convey them to Elysium – and then represents the banquet which awaits him.
The same idea of the resurrection of the soul and a state of happiness after death pervades the whole system of Etruscan art. There were also wonderful sarcophagi which I have roughly drawn for you. On the top the figure of the dead man or woman holding a plate containing the obol for paying the ferryman over Styx. Also extraordinary jars with heads and arms – funeral of course – I have drawn them. The sarcophagi are sculptured with the achievements and adventures of the dead man, mostly in basrelief which are sometimes coloured. There were some with frescoes instead of sculpture, beautifully done. Of course urns and vases of every possible shape, and all painted exquisitely.
A great collection of coins, from the old as, a solid pound weight of metal about as big as a large bun and stamped with a ship on one side and a double-faced Janus on the other, down to tiny little gold coins the same size as gold five-franc pieces. The goldsmith’s work for beauty of design and delicacy of workman ship exceeded anything I have ever seen. As I was kept there for a long time by an awful thunderstorm I copied a few which I send you. I cannot of course give you the wonderful grace and delicacy of workmanship, only the design. Goblets and bowls of jasper and all sorts of transparent pebbles – enamelled jars in abundance.
Swords of the leaf shape, regular torques but somewhat same design, metal hand-mirrors, and household utensils of all kinds, and every thing, even the commonest plate or jug, done with greatest delicacy and of a beautiful design. They must have been a people among whom artistic feeling power was most widely spread. There is also a museum of Egyptian antiquities, but their devices and frescoes appeared to me grotesque and uncouth after the purity and sentiment of the Etruscan. You would have been much interested in all the Etruscan work: I spent two delightful hours there.
Museo Archeologico – Via della Colonna 36 Florence – info : Official web site
Article by Massimiliano Marzi