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Etruscans?

Male and female figures. Brass (copper alloy). Purchased with a grant from the National Art Collections Fund, GR.1.1946 and GR.2.1946

Male and female figures. Brass (copper
alloy). Purchased with a grant from the
National Art Collections Fund,
GR.1.1946 and GR.2.1946.

In May 1946, the Museum bought these two striking statuettes (right) at a London auction. The sale catalogue entry described them as 5th century BC representations of an Etruscan god and goddess, Tinia and Uni. They were said to have been found ‘many years ago’ in Tuscany and to have close parallels in two bronze figures excavated in 1882 in the Apennine mountains (below).

Bronze male and female figures (MCA_Bo_27816, MCA_Bo_27828). Both 24.5cm high, c. 480-470 BC. Found at Monte Acuto Ragazza, Italy in 1882. Reproduced with permission from the Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna

Bronze male and female figures
(MCA_Bo_27816, MCA_Bo_27828).
Both 24.5cm high, c.480-470 BC.
Found at Monte Acuto Ragazza,
Italy in 1882. Reproduced with
permission from the Museo Civico
Archeologico di Bologna.

Before deciding to bid for the objects, the curator of the Greek and Roman collections, a specialist in ancient bronze sculpture, examined them and consulted leading scholars of the day in Cambridge, Oxford and at the British Museum in London.

Entry for the two 'Etruscans' in an annotated sale catalogue, Catalogue of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Sotheby an dCo., London 14 May 1946

Entry for the two ‘Etruscans’ in an annotated
sale catalogue, Catalogue of Greek, Etruscan
and Roman Antiquities
, Sotheby and Co.,
London, 14 May 1946. Click on the image to
see a bigger version.

Two days after the sale, Sir Sydney Cockerell, a former director of the Fitzwilliam, reported some gossip. He had heard that the pieces came from a ‘suspect quarter’ and that the story in the catalogue about them being damaged in a bombing raid during World War Two (1939-1945) was ‘pure invention’. At the time, doubts about their authenticity were dismissed and they were put on show, but as the years passed there was increasing concern.

By 1963 they had been removed from the Museum’s Handbook of the collections, but remained on display with deliberately vague labels: the National Art Collections Fund had given £1,000 towards the purchase price of £1,350, so the status of the statuettes was a slightly sensitive issue. In 1964, a German scholar published them as forgeries. Working only from poor quality photographs, he carried out a detailed stylistic comparison between these pieces and other Etruscan figures and found them to be worryingly ‘unique’. Although the Museum authorities felt that he should have examined the objects in person before reaching such a conclusion and should have disclosed to the Fitzwilliam in advance that he was writing an ‘exposé’, the publication of the article enabled them finally to send the figures to quiet retirement in the Museum’s storerooms.

However, in the following decades, scholars continued to be interested in them and to wonder whether they could be eccentric, but genuine pieces. One compelling reason for lingering doubts was that technical features of the statuettes, especially the green and black surface patina, looked too ‘good’, too ‘ancient’ to be the product of a forger’s workshop.

The civilisation of ancient Etruria existed across a large expanse of Italy from around the 8th to the 1st century BC. Its ‘mysterious’ art and culture have exerted a strong fascination since a passion for all things Etruscan, or thought to be Etruscan, developed in 18th century Europe. In the long history of archaeological fakes, Etruscan material has provided particularly fertile ground for forgers. The forms tend to be highly stylized and thus easy to imitate. Etruscan art drew on a wide range of influences and is famous for inconsistency. It developed in a less predictable way than, for example, Greek art and, certainly at the time the Fitzwilliam pieces were purchased, was less well-known and understood. Some of the most compelling stories concerning the unmasking of audacious forgeries and pastiches have been about ‘Etruscan’ pieces, for example, the enormous terracotta warriors acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York between 1915 and 1921 and definitively exposed in 1961. It is generally acknowledged that there are numerous questionable small bronze statuettes in both public and private collections, but usually, like ours they live in the storerooms, only emerging for special exhibitions.

Can the technical features of the statuettes settle the question of their authenticity?

Structure Radiographs show that each figure was made in solid metal by the technique known as ‘lost-wax’ casting. In this method, the craftsman creates a clay mould around a wax model of his sculpture. The mould is heated and the melted wax poured away. The resulting cavity, in the shape of the sculpture, is filled with molten metal. This was the way that an Etruscan sculptor would have worked, but the method used on our figures to ‘make good’ casting flaws, such as air holes on the surface of the metal, is not the technique used in the ancient world (see below). The attributes (rays of male’s coronet, the ‘thunderbolt’ in his hand, the disc on the female’s head) and the bases of both figures, are all separately attached pieces (not part of the original casting).

X-radiograph of female’s left foot. The arrows mark the drilled out, plugged holes. There are many plugs like these all over the figure. On the surface, they are completely hidden by the incised decoration and the patina, suggesting that the plugs are contemporary with the manufacture of the statuettes. 
Throughout the Greek and Roman world, casting flaws were disguised by chiselling out a hole around the flaw and inserting a rectangular patch of metal.

X-radiograph of female’s left foot. The arrows mark the drilled out, plugged holes. There are many plugs like these all over the figure. On the surface, they are completely hidden by the incised decoration and the patina, suggesting that the plugs are contemporary with the manufacture of the statuettes. Throughout the Greek and Roman world, casting flaws were disguised by chiselling out a hole around the flaw and inserting a rectangular patch of metal.

Metal composition Analysis of hundreds of Etruscan objects has shown that leaded bronze, an alloy of copper, tin and lead, was used for cast pieces such as statuettes. Analysis of the Fitzwilliam figures indicates that they are made of leaded brass, an alloy of copper, zinc, tin and lead. The production of brass is a much more complex process than the production of bronze, and the furnace technology required was not widely available in the Greek and Roman world until the 1st century BC.

The Fitzwilliam figures contain a high proportion of zinc (16%), so it is extremely unlikely that they could have been made in 5th century BC Etruria. The separate attributes have compositions more typical of ancient, if not necessarily Etruscan, metalwork.

Patina structure and composition The surface of an ancient copper alloy object that has been buried in the ground, will usually have reacted with oxygen and water and salts in the burial environment to grow a surface patina of red copper oxide, overlain by the familiar green crusts copper carbonates and chlorides. Because the corrosion process penetrates into the metal, these corrosion products are strongly attached to the metal. It is difficult to create a convincing replica of these natural corrosion products. Layers created artificially by application of heat and chemicals are often powdery and flaky. The patina on these statuettes looks very good and has been polished to compact and harden it. But, when examined at high magnification, the structure of the layers, the patchiness of the red copper oxide, the areas of poor adhesion to the metal surface all suggest an applied rather than a naturally formed patina (photograph above, right). Analysis of the salts shows a complex assembly of compounds that is also unlikely on an ancient excavated copper alloy. The separate attributes have corrosion products more consistent, in appearance and composition, with those that are naturally formed.

Detail of the back of the proper right side of the female's head (left). A thin, flaky, bubbly surface has been built up during an artificial patination process. In comparison, the naturally-formed patina (right) on a genuine 5th-century BC Etruscan tin bronze (Loan.Ant.103.42, on display in Case 11) has a thin, compact, hard, well-adhered surface.

Detail of the back of the proper right side of the female's head (left). A thin, flaky, bubbly surface has been built up during an artificial patination process. In comparison, the naturally-formed patina (right) on a genuine 5th-century BC Etruscan tin bronze (Loan.Ant.103.42, on display in Case 11) has a thin, compact, hard, well-adhered surface.

If the Fitzwilliam statuettes are not ancient Etruscan objects, what are they?

The close resemblance to Etruscan bronzes found and put into public collections in Italy in the 1880s, the almost identical alloy composition in two relatively large objects, the modern treatment of casting flaws that seems to be contemporary with the figures before they acquired any surface patina: all these features make it most likely that the Fitzwilliam figures are stylistically eccentric, but technically accomplished, late 19th or early 20th century forgeries. The attributes appear to be older objects that were added to embellish the sculptures and add to the aura of antiquity.

It is, of course, possible that the statuettes were made simply as pleasing imitations or reflections of extraordinary pieces that were in the public eye in the late 19th century, and only became ‘authentic’ 5th century BC objects as they began to pass through the art market. A very good workshop made the Fitzwilliam ‘Etruscans’. Enquires of museums and scholars of Etruscan material have not, so far, revealed any obvious near relatives of our pieces, but we are sure they must be out there somewhere.