Art History Professor Dr. Alexandra Carpino will present her research in Etruscan iconography at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting on January 5, 2021. Her presentation, “Not a Taboo: Maternal Undress in Late Classical Etruscan Mirror Iconography,” is part of the Nudity, Costume, and Gender in Etruscan Art Colloquium. Learn more about her presentation in the abstract below.
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 males and females. The largest body of nude representations of 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. In this paper, I analyze the visual rhetoric communicated by the juxtaposition of the exposed bodies of mythological mothers such Leto, Semla, Thesan and Thetis 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. This suggests that the various states of undress seen in connection with these mothers represent a specific costume that correlated the successful mothering of adult children with a female’s most important rite of passage. Given that couples would have received one of these distinctive toilette artifacts on their wedding day, the present and the future were thus successfully merged and the value placed on maternity in aristocratic Etruscan society perpetually affirmed.