Dr. Carpino Deciphers Stories on Etruscan Bronze Mirrors

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Dr. Carpino has been fascinated with Etruscan bronze, hand-held mirrors since she first began studying them at the University of Iowa. Photo: Monica Saaty, IDEA Lab.

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 death

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. 

Recent scholarship

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.”

Carpino has 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.