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Etruscan Leopards and Lions 

Author(s): Cornelius Vermeule 
Source: Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, 1961, Vol. 59, No. 315 (1961), pp. 13-21 
Published by: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

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1. Etruscan leopard. William Francis Warden Fund 61.130 

Etruscan Leopards and Lions 

RIVING NORTHWEST from Rome toward Pisa on the modern successor 
to the ancient Via Aurelia, one is soon in the “Etruscan Places” of D. H. 
' Lawrence. The names ring with the romance of heroic deeds, curious 
customs and funereal remains of a vanished civilization. Nature has always been at 

her romantic best here. 
From many a lonely hamlet, 
Which, hid by beech and pine, 
Like an eagle’s nest, hangs on the crest 

Of purple Apennine; 

From lordly Volaterrae, 

Where scowls the far-famed hold 
Piled by the hands of giants 

For godlike kings of old; 

Cervetri, Tarquinia, Vulci, Orbetello, Piombino, Volterra, whether the names 
are ancient or modern, they conjure up the spell of Lord Macaulay. They also re- 
call the material images of Etruscan civilization, which have been enriching the 
collections of Europe and the two Americas for over a century and a half. 
Stopping at Montalto di Castro in the heart of the wild and marshy section of 


Etruria, halfway between Tarquinia and Orbetello, one is surrounded for miles 
by remains of the great necropolis of Vulci. Little has been explored of this perhaps 
the richest of southern Etruscan cities, but for generations the tomb complexes have 
yielded the finest in Greek vases and Etruscan bronzes of the centuries from 650 
to 450 B.C. These Etruscans were wealthy enough from their mining resources 
to command the best in artistic produce from workshops in Corinth, Athens and 
the Greek cities to the East. The demands of Etruscan religion and interest in the 
hereafter meant that prized possessions found their way into elaborate rock-cut 
tombs beneath the naturally hilly terrain and beneath artificial mounds or tumuli. 

The insides of the tombs at Vulci, finished like rooms in houses, were occasionally 
decorated with frescoes suggesting the life of the deceased, the Etruscan pantheon 
and the mythological creatures to be encountered in the world of the gods. At 
Tarquinia the painting of underground tombs was carried out widely, giving us 
the great legacy in this branch of Etruscan art familiar to all in recent picture books. 
At Vulci in the period 600 to 500 B.C. a certain emphasis was placed on the outside 
of tombs. The tops and passageways were decorated with large sculptures carved 
in a comparatively hard, grey volcanic stone known as nenfro. Nenfro is a limestone- 
like version of the softer, brown or reddish-brown material known as tufa. Tufa 
was widely used in sculpture and architectural decoration by the Etruscans and by 
the Romans of the early Republic, before a taste was developed for marbles imported 
from the Greek world, Southern Italy, Sicily or Greece itself. The subjects of these 
tomb-guardians at Vulci ranged through the whole repertory of Greek fantastic 
and mythological creativity. There were centaurs, half-man and with the body of 
a horse attached behind. There were sphinxes, creatures with female heads and the 
bodies of winged lions. Pegasus, the winged horse ridden by Bellerophon, appears. 
Griffins of a sort are recorded. The most common creation was the winged lion. 
Finally, there was the very rare category of the leopard. 

From the early part of the last century excavators at Vulci began coming upon 
these creatures in their search for the rich contents of the tombs. Museums and 
private collections in Italy, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, France, England, 
the United States and South America contain specimens, many of indifferent quality 
or poor preservation. Others were recorded in early publications and are now lost 
or have only come to light again in recent years. The Museum of Fine Arts will 
shortly place on display in the new Etruscan Gallery a very fine specimen of a winged 
lion, and a recumbent leopard whose near-uniqueness is matched by his fetching 
composure. Both may be considered revelations in present-day knowledge of 
Etruscan Art. 

Let us consider the leopard first (Figs. 1-2)". Rudyard Kipling said of the leopard, 
before he acquired his spots, “he was the ’sclusivest sandiest-yellowish-brownest 
of them all — a greyish-yellowish catty-shaped kind of beast.” These adjectives fit 
admirably. He is relaxing in a pose of dignified meditation with his head down on 
the side of his chest, his forelegs almost tucked under, his hind legs against his side 
and tail curled up over his powerful left haunch. Pointed ears amid the bow curve 
of hair on the forehead, large almond eyes surrounded by folds of skin, a powerful 
snout and feline cheeks complete the picture. 


2. Side view of the leopard in Fig. 1 

The beauty of the leopard lies in the timeless construction of his body, the arrange- 
ment of the solids and the silhouette. He was certainly meant to be seen from be- 
low, befitting his perch in a position over the lintel, on the side or on the top of a 
tomb. Like the beasts of early Greek vases or like the leopards of mediaeval heraldry, 
he may have had a counterpart or pendant facing in the opposite direction. Like 
early Greek archaic pedimental sculpture, he is carved within the framework of 
a slender vertical profile, one which from all angles emphasizes the power of his 
neck. The balanced simplicity of the masses of carving gains further emphasis from 
the fact that, in reversal of the process described by Kipling, this leopard has prob- 
ably lost his spots. They were no doubt applied in paint over a thin layer of stucco, 
traces of which are visible on every surface. 

Where did the Etruscan sculptor of about 575 B.c. derive his model for such a 
beast? Just as there were no centaurs, Pegasuses or sphinxes in Etruria at this time, 
so we can be sure that leopards were nearly as difficult to see. There were certainly 
small mountain felines and large wildcats, but this is hardly one of them. This 
leopard is an Etruscan version of those beasts, incorrectly named “‘panthers’’ for 
archaeological convenience, who are found on vases and in terra cottas made at 
Corinth between the Greek mainland and the Peloponnesus in the generations just 
before and after 600 B.c. To the Corinthian school, although found near Thebes 
in Boeotia, belongs a terra-cotta leopard in Kipling’s sandy-yellow, enlivened with 
reddish-brown spots and lines (Fig. 3). Long in the collections, this alert feline once 
formed the plastic handle of a large vase.? 


3. Terracotta leopard from Boeotia. Henry L. Pierce Collection 01.8055 

4. Bucchero oenochoe with leopards 
Gift of Mrs. H. P. Kidder 01.13 


6. Etruscan winged lion. 
William Francis Warden 
Fund 61.131 


7. Etruscan winged lion. Courtesy, the Metropolitan Museum of Art 
Rogers Fund, 1960 

8. Etruscan winged lion. Courtesy, 
the University Museum, Philadelphia 


The method of transmittal down the Gulf of Corinth, across the Sicilian Sea, 
perhaps by way of Tarentum, and up the Adriatic or Ionian Sea to Etruria must 
have been through vases such as this. A contemporary Etruscan pitcher in bucchero 
or blackened volcanic clay in the collection shows the results in similarly small 
dimensions. A leopard with archaic Greek face similar to his large counterpart in 
stone reclines with several brothers on the body of the vase and, while looking out 
at the viewer, curls his tail up in suitably decorative fashion (Fig. 4). The monu- 
mental Greek parallel, however, survives from a building closer to Etruria than the 
city of Corinth. A beast who is half leopard, half lion filled both halves of the West 
or rear pediment of the Temple of Artemis at Corfu on Corinth’s island-colony 
of Corcyra (Fig. 5).4 Corcyra is the island closest to the heel of Italy, and the Temple 
of Artemis is generally dated about 580 B.c. The leopard of the pediment, who has 
a lion’s mane because the sculptor probably never saw either beast, is also reclining, 
with his tail curled up over his right rear haunch. He is carved in limestone. His spots, 
or tufts of hair, are represented by concentric circles which cover his body regard- 
less of the schematized muscles beneath. His face is also lively and intelligent, with 
the pleasingly direct expression of archaic sculpture. It is in mollifying this directness 
to something spiritual in its reflectiveness that the Etruscan sculptor has created a 
masterpiece in native Italian stone. 

If the Etruscan leopard is contemplative, the Etruscan lion is exuberant almost to 
the point of boisterousness (Fig. 6).5 He may be described as “a very happy fellow,” 
although no doubt the sculptor was moved by notions of ferocity when he carved 
him. He was decidedly a winged lion, and the loss of curling feathers as well as lower 
has reduced him to the appearance of one big roar. Open mouth, upper and lower 
teeth and fleshy jaws have as unnatural contrast (for a roaring lion) a great tongue 
which lolls down as far as the chest. There are traces of red paint on this tongue, 
suggesting the lion might have been a riot of color in antiquity. The stone is rougher, 
redder and more porous than that in which the leopard is carved. Nonetheless, the 
sculptor’s feeling for curved surfaces outweighs the stylization of wings and leg 
muscles in giving the head and body a vast sense of form as well as spirit. 

Two important recent acquisitions by other American museums broaden our 
knowledge of these lions from the Etruscan world of 575 to 525 B.c. The first, 
contemporary with our lion, is in the Metropolitan Museum of New York and 
supplies the missing details of lower forelegs and curled wings (Fig. 7).° He shows 
the amount of variation enjoyed by sculptors in carving details of muscles, feathers, 
whiskers, jaws, nostrils, haunches and other points of comparison. The artist has 
carried off the feeling of ferocity with greater success, a success not due merely to 
preservation. The face has an almost reptilian cast to it. The animal is overwhelming. 

The second feline resides in Philadelphia, in the University Museum (Fig. 8).7 
Chronological arrangement of these winged lions has proven next to impossible 
because of the mutilated condition and variance in details of the survivors. Parallels 
in archaic Greek sculpture, however, give every indication that the lion now in 
Philadelphia must be a generation or more younger than the beasts in Boston and 
New York. His eyes are smaller and more natural; his tongue looks more human 
or equine (in an effort to look more feline); and his wings begin to approach those 


9. Middle Corinthian alabastron. Anonymous Gift 60.1465 

of South Italian Greek sphinxes in the late archaic period. He is also carved in nenfro 
of the same grayish cast as the leopard, although the stone is more pitted. 

So far we have been assuming a Greek source for the iconography and design of 
the winged lion. Like the leopard, the winged lion reached Etruria through the 
intermediary of small, portable objects such as painted vases. He also came from 
Corinth, the great Greek commercial center which received, utilized and dissemi- 
nated artistic influences and designs from all over Greece, Western Asia Minor and 
the ancient Near East. An apt parallel in Corinthian vase-painting of the period 
about 590 to 575 B.C. has just entered the collections. It is a large alabastron or ovoid 
jar in buff clay with red, black and brown decoration (Fig. 9). A winged lion, 
with bird-like legs, walks majestically amid filling ornaments in the form of rosettes 
and a large triangle beneath the wing. The mouth is open, and the tongue protrudes 
between the fangs in the stylized semblance of a roar similar to that found in the 
Etruscan stone lions. The connections between Corinthian and Etruscan lions 
illustrated here become all the more cogent when we note that the alabastron was 
probably found years ago in the very necropolis of Vulci from which large Etruscan 
animals now scattered about the world ultimately derive. 

Through Greece the Etruscan winged lions have connections with the older 
civilizations of Anatolia and Mesopotamia. Many critics have noted the coincidences 


of resemblance between these lions and those of Hittite art. The fact that the Etrus- 
cans produced beasts like those of the ancient East is due in part to the Eastern 
element in their ancestry. It is more immediately due to the fact that “Oriental” 
motifs were the rage in Greek art from 750 to $50 B.C., and the Etruscans took over 
the Near Eastern stable of fantastic, winged beasts by way of Greek designs. 

In the leopard and the lion the Etruscan genius revolves around an ability to take 
motifs and designs on small scale from other civilizations and transform them into 
a monumental art of great originality, vigor and beauty. These beasts have inner 
and outer life of their own. They cannot be mistaken as dull, eclectic repetitions 
of Greek inventions. Their size in no way spoils, rather it enhances, their effective- 
ness. Etruscan art is now so accepted that we need speak no longer of its identity 
separate from the art of the Greeks and its contributions to the later art of Italy and 
the Romans. The addition of a monumental leopard and a lion to the collections 
in the Museum enriches our civilization in its broadest sense, a civilization so rightly 
concerned with the best art in the pasts of all peoples and especially those peoples 
whose pasts are in so many respects our own. 




Height 2434 inches (0.62m.); length is 
33 inches (0.84m.). He appears in The 
Illustrated London News, April 29, 1961, 

p- 717. 

. A. Fairbanks, Catalogue of Greek and 

Etruscan Vases in the Museum of Fine Arts, 
Boston, Cambridge (Mass.), 1928, I, 

no. $35; G. M. A. Richter, Animals in 
Greek Sculpture, New York, 1930, fig. 30; 
P. Barnard, The Contemporary Mouse, 
New York, 1954, p. 38. 

. Fairbanks, op. cit. no. 662. 
. G. Rodenwaldt, Die Bildwerke des 

Artemistempels von Korkyra, Berlin, 1939, 
pl. 20. 

. His height is 1734 inches (0.45m.), and 

his length is 2034 inches (0.52m.). 

. Acc. no. 60.11.1; D. von Bothmer, 

Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 
20, 1961, pp. 181ff., fig. 4; ibid 19, 1960, 
pp. 45 (fig.), 60. Andrew Oliver has 
kindly supplied photographs and 


. Acc. no. §9-24-1; E. Kohler, “An 

Etruscan Tomb-Guardian”, Expedition, 
Bulletin of the University Museum, 
University of Pennsylvania, 2, no. 2, 

Winter 1960, pp. 25ff., 2 figs. Miss Kohler 
has furnished the photographs and helpful 


. Its height is 854 inches (0.22m.). 

D. Adlow, The Christian Science Monitor, 
Jan. 9, 1961, p. 5, fig. The vase has been 
attributed by J. L. Benson to the 
Erlenmeyer Painter. 


The subject of lions and leopards in 
Etruscan art was treated exhaustively by 
the late W. L. Brown of Oxford, in a 
book The Etruscan Lion, Oxford, 1960. 
Chapter IV gives a list of winged lions 
then traceable, and Appendix II discusses 
“Leopards and Panthers”. The only other 
leopard known at the time Brown 
compiled his material was recorded by the 
early Etruscologist L. Canina, in 

L’ Antica Etruria maritima, Rome, 1846-51. 
It seems to be now lost. On the basis of 
the line engravings, this leopard appears 
to have been carved much later than the 
animal discussed here. 

I wish to thank my colleagues Mary 
Comstock and Julia Green for sundry 
observations on how felines behave.