If you went for a walk this Easter weekend I imagine some of you found yourselves in close proximity with others, and greeted these people with a gesture not dissimilar to that made by our terracotta arm. This Etruscan sculpture looks to be a fragment from a statue where the subject is waving to the viewer, but this is not the case. The naturalistically rendered right arm, with gentle curves of the musculature, and creases to the palms, is complete. So what was its purpose?
The Etruscans were a highly cultured civilisation, spreading across central Italy. A predominantly peaceful and spiritual people, they were eradicated by the Romans, their towns and villages raised to the ground and the citizens enslaved or assimilated into Roman society. The majority of the objects that have survived from this early italic civilisation are those intentionally buried, kept safe from the burning and looting of the Roman militia. They were contained for posterity within tombs and sacred grounds, their existence forgotten about for centuries.
When afflicted with an illness, a wound or a deformity, the Etruscans would pray to the gods, imploring them for restored health. The affected body part was moulded in local micaceous clay, fired, and dedicated at a sacred site. Unlike with their Greek contemporaries who mainly prayed to Asklepios, the divine father of medicine, for such purposes, the Etruscans dedicated these votive body parts to a wide variety of deities. There are over 300 sites across the Etrusco-italic region where such offerings have been found, confirming their religious contexts.
The body parts depicted include whole and half heads, wombs, phalluses, eyes, ears, legs, feet, hands, toes and fingers. Regardless of the efficacy of such offerings, they certainly make for striking and enigmatic works of art today, and do well to remind us of how fortunate we are with the advances in modern medicine. Whilst many of us are making donations to the NHS and those on the Covid-19 front line, it makes me wonder - are charities the new Saviours?