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Not A Taboo: Maternal Undress In Etruscan Mirror Iconography

  • 27 Mar 2022
  • 11:00 AM
  • Virtual

Not A Taboo: Maternal Undress In Etruscan Mirror Iconography

AIA Society: Long Island
Lecturer: Alexandra Carpino


The seminal work of Larissa Bonfante established that nudity not only signified a wide range of concepts in Etruscan iconography – from eroticism, marriage and vulnerability to an individual’s social status and/or cultural identity – but also that it was equally prevalent for both males and females. The largest body of nude representations of girls and women in Etruscan art appears in the scenes found on the reverses of engraved bronze mirrors, especially artifacts produced during the fourth and third centuries BCE that illustrate bathers, lovers or the different processes associated with adornment. A more surprising aspect of this iconography is the consistent depiction of either fully unclothed or partially-dressed mothers with their grown children on a group of exceptionally large and aesthetically rich tang mirrors produced in central and northern Italy between the late fourth and early third centuries BCE. Created not only as a form of visual communication in the domestic sphere but also as artifacts that mediated between the worlds of women and men, the unmarried and the married, and the living and the dead, these mirrors project a pictorial tradition with a strong ideological – rather than realistic – power and social influence. In this lecture, I consider the visual rhetoric communicated by the juxtaposition of the exposed bodies of mythological mothers such Letun, Semla, Thesan and Thethis with the clothed, semi-nude and/or nude depictions of their grown children, mainly sons. A close sense of intimacy, rather than eroticism, is projected through the embraces that many of these pairs share. In addition, despite their status as established rather than soon-to-be mothers, the bodies on display emphasize youth and fitness rather than middle age, evoking the forms used for brides and/or divinities connected with marriage on contemporary mirrors. In this context, it is possible to see undress as a socially-relevant costume that not only conflated themes such as fertility, procreation and nurturing but also contributed to the creation of a maternal ideal not previously acknowledged in Etruscan art.


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