Patti Birch Collection, NY acquired in the 1990s;
Stair Galleries, June 21, 2008, lot 142.

Etruscan pottery is found in many varieties. It ranges from the black, glossy bucchero style to red- and black-figure vessels in imitation of contemporary Greek examples that were imported and traded throughout coastal Italy. This lidded olla is of a third style: unglazed and fashioned from unrefined grey-brown clay, decorated with simple designs, rendered in relief, it is representative of the so-called “impasto” genre of Etruscan ceramics, a style which, like bucchero, was unique to Etruria in this period.

Ollae such as the present example were used as urns by the Etruscans to bury cremated remains. These urns were typically interred in small well-like shafts covered by stone slabs (tombe a pozzo); in other cases, they have been found in the same tomb as sarcophagi containing inhumated remains, a testament to the lively heterotopia of Italy in the Greek period. Impasto vessels are a staple of Etruscan burial practice and an inheritance from the slightly earlier Villanovan culture of central and southern Italy in the early part of the first millennium B.C.

The present large olla rests on a small ring foot. Black splotching along the lower section is a deposit from its long interment. A trellis of interlocking triangles graces the shoulder of the vessel, while the lower section’s decoration consists of vertical ribs that converge at the base, flanking a central motif of five nested inverted “U” shapes with two notches projecting above these curves and a larger, conical nub within them. Likewise, looped ribs project from the sides, above the low, nearly horizontal handles. The domed, circular lid is similarly decorated with a pattern of arched ribs, two on each quadrant, with a flat top adorned with a ringed, conical element at its apex.

An object that contained human remains, this olla abstractly represents recognizable human features. Etruscan urns display such features with wide variety: for example, certain urns were topped with representations of heads on the lid, while so-called “warrior urns” wore abstract helmets of either impasto or bronze. In the archaic period, from which the present olla dates, these vessels were particularly abstract, which makes a single schematic reading particularly difficult. However, certain features are clear: the lid resembles a breast or could also represent a head or helmet. The arched ribs on the body could represent flanks, and the three nubs could be a pair of nipples and a belly button or phallus.

The motif of life-giving organs throughout the vessel can be interpreted as a spiritual message: it may indicate a hope for the regeneration of the body or soul in the afterlife. Unfortunately, much about the Etruscans is unknown due to scant textual evidence and the very limited scope of their archaeological remains, which are almost entirely related to death and burial. Nevertheless, the centrality of burial and the afterlife for the Etruscans is abundantly clear from the scale and grandeur of the graves and tombs built throughout their societies.

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