Dr. Carpino Deciphers Stories on Etruscan Bronze Mirrors
Dr. Alexandra Carpino, NAU Professor of Art History, Chair
of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies, and a leading Etruscan
scholar, has been fascinated with Etruscan bronze, hand-held mirrors since she
first began studying them at the University of Iowa while working on her PhD.
Her pioneering scholarship was not only the basis of her dissertation but also
led to the publication of her book, Discs of Splendor: The Relief Mirrors
of the Etruscans (2003). These mirrors
continue to inspire her research, which has become more targeted over time, now
focusing on specific themes, such as matricide.
Objects of luxury for life and
More than 3000 mirrors have been recovered
from the ancient Italic civilization of the Etruscans. They were produced from
the mid-sixth to the second century BCE, and all have been excavated from
tombs. So, they were both household objects, used by the Etruscans to see
themselves, and funerary gifts, placed with pottery, jewelry, and other items
next to the body of the deceased or on the lids of sarcophagi.
Studying the mirrors, she says, has revealed significant
insights about Etruscan culture—particularly important since no literature has
survived from the Etruscans themselves.
Many mirrors were engraved (drawn
into the surface with tools), but some were cast so they are three-dimensional.
According to Carpino, no other ancient Mediterranean civilization produced so
many luxurious mirrors that, through narrative art, reflected social and
cultural values, beliefs, aspirations, and fears. Throughout her career,
Carpino’s goal has been to decipher the messages of the mirrors’ iconography.
Studying the mirrors, she says, has revealed significant insights about
Etruscan culture—particularly important since no literature has survived from
the Etruscans themselves. Indeed, most of the information about this lesser-known
civilization comes from their archaeological and artistic remains.
Greek myths served as the
inspiration for many of the stories found on the Etruscans’ mirrors, but the
engravers modified them and made them their own. “The stories were consciously
selected and carefully adapted to fit local social and cultural institutions
and beliefs,” explains Carpino. “Themes
and meanings [on these mirrors] vary considerably—from the joys, challenges,
and tensions of family life to reflections on beauty, fertility, heroism,
power, fate, and immortality.”
While most of the stories found
on the Etruscans’ bronze mirrors are uplifting and inspirational, some are
cautionary and even tragic. Carpino’s recent research into the
iconography of violence against women on Etruscan mirrors moves away from her
previous studies into the darker sides of human and divine behavior. By
analyzing themes such as matricide within their Etruscan context, Carpino has
been able to show how mirrors “were used to promote family values and enforce
cultural norms within the context of the home.” She notes, “The basic elements
of matricide myths are domestic issues, especially tension and hostility
between mothers and sons; issues of infidelity and loyalty (particularly to the
family); and the varying consequences of revenge.”
found that the Etruscans used mirrors decorated with three different types of
matricides. Most frequently portrayed
was the death of Klytaimnestra, whose
story from Greek literature illustrates the downfall not only of an individual
but of an entire family. (Klytaimnestra and her
lover Aigisthos conspired to murder
King Agamemnon, Klytaimnestra’s husband, in a palace coup; her son Orestes,
who escaped unharmed, later avenged his father’s death by killing the
murderers). The Klytaimnestra mirrors focus on the dark side of divinely
ordained revenge and the tragic fate of a once powerful queen. They illustrate
the moment just before Klytaimnestra dies but the scenes are contemplative
rather than gory. “Each time they used these mirrors, their owners could
reflect on consequences of the choices Klytaimnestra made as a wife and a
mother,” says Carpino. “These representations also served as cautionary tales,
underscoring Etruscan social and cultural expectations about marriage and
motherhood, and denouncing domestic murder, specifically the killing of a
husband.” In this way, mirror iconography served as an important form of visual
communication within the domestic sphere.
Carpino’s next project is to see what these mirrors’
narratives can teach us about the Etruscan institution of marriage.