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Terracotta figurative sculptures: Dr. Stephen Smithers discusses the collections of the J. Paul Getty and the University of Iowa Museums of Art.

THE HUMAN FIGURE HAS been a means of expression in the ceramic arts from ancient times to the present day. Early terracotta figures often served a votive function. This is particularly true with the Etruscans that inhabited west-central Italy from the mid-eighth to the first century BCE. Many of these dedications were offered to a mother goddess and divine nurse (or kourotrophos) whose cult embraced all aspects of life and death. Typically depicted as an enthroned female holding a swaddled child, the goddess could be known as Uni, Mater Matuta, Turan, and Minerva Medica. The extant votive figures, heads, bambini and anatomical parts attest to the simple piety and hope of those who dedicated them to the goddess for healing, medical treatment or aid on the difficult passage to the afterlife. Examples are scattered world-wide in both museum and private collections. The following article will focus on specific terracottas in the J. Paul Getty and the University of Iowa Museums of Art to provide a brief overview of the range of these images.


Etruscan terracotta votive heads and figures were mould-made and mass produced. A patrix was first fashioned out of clay and baked. Then clay moulds (usually front and back) were taken from the patrix, fired and used to produce the terracottas for the west central Italian market. These votive objects were made in series and often went through many generations and sometimes travelled from one Etruscan centre to another through trade. The first generation came directly from the original patrix. Subsequent generations were created by producing moulds from an existing terracotta votive. Each successive generation had a progressive loss in size due to clay shrinkage and may not have been produced in the original workshop in which the patrix was created. Alternate series were produced by incising different details in the clay moulds themselves prior to firing. Occasionally a mould used for a head series could cross typological boundaries and be used for standing or seated figures, or even bambini.


Terracotta male and female votive heads first appeared in the late sixth century BCE and are the most commonly found votive type in American collections. Votive figures and bambini are less common and generally date from the fourth century or later. Votive anatomical objects representing various body parts were introduced to the sanctuaries of the kourotrophic goddesses at about the same time as the votive figures and bambini. Standing male and female nudes, detailed representations of the internal organs of the body and truncated figures with the abdominal cavity opened to display the internal organs sometimes are found in the votive deposits as well. An Etruscan truncated figure with an opened abdominal cavity (Figure 1) is part of the J. Paul Getty Museum collection and alludes to the practice of medicine in the sanctuaries of the kourotrophic deities and probably served as the means for transmitting medical knowledge from one generation of priest-physicians to the next. Medical treatment did not become secularized until the late first century BCE and the reign of Augustus.

Since terracotta heads are found in the same votive deposits as the anatomical examples, it is commonly accepted that they also paid tribute to successful cures. However, rarely do any of the heads display any physical abnormalities. Instead, the images produced reflect ideals of male and female beauty, aspects of religious decorum, and the influence of Greek artistic trends filtering into Etruria and the rest of Italy. For this last reason, Etruscan votive terracottas are often stylistically dated by comparison to Greek sculptural prototypes. During the Etruscan Classical Period, these Greek influences are received indirectly through trade contacts with Southern Italy and Sicily. Late Classical and Hellenistic heads continue stylistic elements retained from contacts with fifth century Greek models as well as new influences from Late Classical and Hellenistic Greek models. The later Etruscan heads frequently belong to large series represented by examples in this country and in Europe.

A bearded Etruscan terracotta head in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Figure 2) exemplifies the blending of Late Archaic characteristics with those of the Classical period in Greek art. The head is veiled and produced by using two moulds, one for the face and one for the veiled back of the head. The Archaic hairstyle is reminiscent of the same handling carried over in the famous Early Classical Greek bronze Zeus or Poseidon of Artemision in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. A beige-pink slip covers the entire head, and traces of both a white preparatory coating and a rose flesh colouring are preserved in some of the flesh areas. A head from this same series is attributed to Etruscan city of Caere (or Cerveteri) and is part of the Chigi collection in the Museo Archeologico in Siena (inventory 37846). Stylistic comparisons with the Zeus or Poseidon (dated 460-450 BCE) support a dating of the Getty and Chigi heads to the second half of the fifth century taking into account the time needed for Greek trends in sculpture to be transmitted and absorbed by coroplastic workshops in Italy. The time lapse for Greek models to be received and absorbed into the production of the Italian workshops is believed to be approximately 10 to 20 years. The longevity of the moulds taken from the original patrix, and later moulds taken from votive terracottas derived from that patrix to produce yet another generation often extended the life of series over many years.


Increased contacts between Etruria and Magna Graecia to the south during the fourth century brought northward influences from the workshops of Taras. This contact is illustrated by a female votive head in the Getty collection (Figure 3). A high headdress or hairstyle held in place by a netted band flares outward along with the projecting veil that frames and forms the back of the head. A similar netted hairstyle appears on a female figure on an Attic red-figure kalpis attributed to the Meidias Painter (circa 410 BCE) found in Italy at Popolonia, however the Praxitelian handling of the brow and the softly modelled facial features recall mid-fourth century Attic prototypes. A comparable hairstyle, headdress and facial details appear with the female figure in the Banquet of Larth Velcha fresco from the Tomb of the Shields, Tarquinia, typically dated to circa 280 BCE. Clay spheres have been applied after removal of the head from the mould to provide a necklace suggesting beads or pearls. A clay band forming part of the veil frames the lower part of the neck and forms a supporting base. As with the prior male head, this female example is entirely covered by a beige-pink slip. The female votive head shares many characteristics in common with a votive head series from Caere, but the details it exhibits (that is, the netted band and necklace) show the coroplast's attempt to individualize the head after its removal from the mould to satisfy a specific patron. The distance in time between the introduction of the hairstyle and headdress from Greece and its appropriation into the production of Etruscan votive heads of the late fourth and third centuries is reflective of the transmission of elements of style and fashion from Greece, into Magna Graecia, and finally into the workshops of Etruria.


Related to the previous votive are two Etruscan female heads in the Getty collection that are from the same series and share the same clay body and facial details seen in Figure 3. One is well preserved (Figure 4), with minor chips, and the other is less clear in its details and is broken below the chin. Measurements indicate that both of the heads are from the same mould generation. Like Figure 3, a band forming part of the veil serves as the base for the well-preserved head. Unlike Figure 3, there has been no attempt to individualize either of the two heads. Both are of the same clay body seen in Figure 3 and have the same beige-pink slip covering their entire surface. An example of this same mould series was uncovered in the votive deposits of the temple of Uni at Caere. The mica and stone inclusions of this head in the Museo Archeologico (inventory 37834) in Siena are consistent with the Getty heads. The greater sharpness of the brow and other details of the Siena head indicate that it was produced earlier in the mould series than the two terracottas in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Similarities in the hairstyle worn by the three heads and female head antefixes found at Pyrgi (the port city of Caere) suggest a dating of 350-300 BCE.

A fragmentary head of a young man (Figure 5) in the J. Paul Getty Museum is representative of a late Etruscan mould series from Caere. The head is not veiled and is only preserved down to the level of the chin. The seam formed by the joining of the front and back moulds is visible above the ears. The clay body of the head contains small mica and stone inclusions consistent with the other examples from Caere cited above. What is unique about this head is the excellent preservation of the red and black pigmentation of the face and hair. A thin layer of black also overlaps the red pigment of the brow to indicate eyebrows. Approximately 25 thinly applied black spots randomly dot the right cheek. These spots and the bags below the eyes provide a rare example indicating the illness of the patron for whom the head was made. Comparisons made with other examples related to the series that have been found at both Caere and Punta della Vipera date this head to the first half of the second century.

Infants (or bambini) in wrappings are a unique Italian development that first appears in west-central Italy in the last quarter of the fourth century BCE. The standing or reclining figures are enveloped in either a mantle or swaddling cloths (fasce). A fragmentary standing figure of a child (Figure 6) in the Getty collection is representative of the type wrapped in a mantle. The left arm extends down the side of the figure and only the hand clenching a sphere (possibly a pomegranate) projects from beneath the mantle. An oversized right hand with its fingers extended protrudes from under the two bands that form the upper edge of the drapery and rests on the left side of the child's chest. The entire figure is coated with a greenish-cream slip. The hair is indicated with red pigment and traces of red are found on the mantle and the index finger of the left hand. A similar fragmentary figure exists in the Kelsey Museum of Ancient and Mediaeval Archaeology at the University of Michigan. The modelling of the face of the Getty bambino suggests a second century date, but the provenance remains uncertain.


An excellently preserved bambino in fasce or swaddling cloths (Figure 7) was acquired by the University of Iowa Museum of Art in 1973. Figures of this type are widely dispersed throughout the votive deposits of Etruria, Latium, and Campania. When compared to examples in Italian collections, the Iowa infant is set apart by its large size (87.5 cm in length) and the smooth, continuous contour of the wrappings that unites the head and body. Diagonally incised impressions on the body suggest the winding wrappings of the infant. These wrappings extend upward around the head to form a veil framing the face. A similar handling is a characteristic of all the bambini found in the deposits of Tarquinia and also Vulci. The deep undercutting of the wrappings surrounding the head creates shadows that project the face outward. The loose handling of the incised hair of the Iowa bambino is typical of Etruscan terracotta votive heads and funerary figures of the second century BCE and argues for a similar dating of the piece. Seven vertical lines ascending from the feet appear to be remnants of a lime slip that covered the coarse clay body of the entire figure and was applied before painting. Traces of reddish-brown and orange pigment are preserved on the left side near the feet. Tarquinia has been suggested as the possible provenance of the terracotta infant.

The general distribution of infants wearing mantles or wrapped in swaddling cloths throughout the Etruscan sanctuaries of the kourotrophic goddesses attest to their popularity in central Italy. Commonly votive infants in wrappings have been interpreted as representing a desire for children or protection of a child from disease. This hypothesis is based on the fact that they are found in votive deposits that also contain large numbers of terracotta depictions of both male and female reproductive organs. The location of some sanctuaries of the goddesses near necropoleis also suggests such infants possibly served as an offering to safeguard a child both in this life and in its transition into the next life. If indeed the votive child in the Getty collection is meant to be seen as holding a pomegranate, the fruit of the underworld, it reinforces this possible funerary connection. A unique mongoloid bambino from Falerii also implies this type of funerary function since such a child would have little chance for survival in antiquity.


At the end of the second century BCE votive bambini disappear from Italian kourotrophic sanctuaries along with the production of votive heads. The disappearance of both votive types coincides with the extensive remodelling programs initiated at these sites as Italy came under Roman domination.

The all-encompassing popularity of the Italian kourotrophic goddesses is attested to by the large number of mould-made terracotta votive figures, heads, bambini, and anatomical parts produced by coroplastic workshops to serve the devotional needs of their patrons. While the facial features reflect the absorption of Greek stylistic trends filtering into central Italy, the veil worn by most of the heads and bambini is indicative of the pietas connected with both Etruscan and Roman religious rite. In antiquity, a high mortality rate was a reality of life. The Romans were convinced that the family existed on both sides of the grave. Roman beliefs often reflected those of their Etruscan neighbours. This is clearly indicated by the types of votive figures found in the deposits of Roman kourotrophic sanctuaries like that of Minerva Medica in Rome itself.

The human figure continues to be a popular subject in ceramics as well as all other modern art media. Contemporary examples no longer serve a votive function as did the Etruscan terracottas, but they still attest to man's interest in the human condition and the ability to relay that message to others.

Stephen Smithers, PhD, teaches art history at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana, US.
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Author:Smithers, Stephen
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
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