Sarcophagi of the Spouses at the Louvre and Rome

Sarcophagus of the Spouses, Etruscan, c. 520-510 B.C.E., painted terracotta (Musée du Louvre)

Author does not wish to be identified

Sarcophagus of the Spouses (Louvre)

The freedom enjoyed by Etruscan women

One of the distinguishing features of Etruscan society, and one that caused much shock and horror to their Greek neighbors, was the relative freedom enjoyed by Etruscan women. Unlike women in ancient Greece or Rome, upper class Etruscan women actively participated in public life—attending banquets, riding in carriages and being spectators at (and participants in) public events. Reflections of such freedoms are found throughout Etruscan art; images of women engaged in these activities appear frequently in painting and in sculpture.

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses was found in Cerverteri, a town in Italy north of Rome, which is the site of a large Etruscan necropolis (or cemetery), with hundreds of tombs. The sarcophagus vividly evokes both the social visibility of Etruscan women and a type of marital intimacy rarely seen in Greek art from this period.

A funerary banquet?

Detail, Sarcophagus of the Spouses, Etruscan, c. 520-510 B.C.E., painted terracotta (Musée du Louvre)

In the sarcophagus (and another largely identical example at the Villa Giulia in Rome), the two figures recline as equals as they participate in a banquet, possibly a funerary banquet for the dead. In contemporary Greece, the only women attending public banquets, or symposia, were courtesans, not wives! The affectionate gestures and tenderness between the Etruscan man and woman convey a strikingly different attitude about the status of women and their relative equality with their husbands.


Aside from its subject matter, the sarcophagus is also a remarkable example of Etruscan large-scale terracotta sculpture (terracotta is a type of ceramic also called earthenware). At nearly two meters long, the object demonstrates the rather accomplished feat of modeling clay figures at nearly life-size. Artists in the Etruscan cities of Cerveteri and Veii in particular preferred working with highly refined clay for large-scale sculpture as it provided a smooth surface for the application of paint and the inclusion of fine detail.

Handling such large forms, however, was not without complications; evidence of this can be seen in the cut that bisects the sarcophagus. Splitting the piece in two parts would have allowed the artist to more easily manipulate the pieces before and after firing.  If you look closely, you can also see a distinct line separating the figures and the lid of the sarcophagus; this was another trick for creating these monumental pieces—modeling the figures separately and then placing them on top of their bed.


A really lovely characteristic of this sculpture is the preservation of so much color. In addition to colored garments and pillows, red laced boots, her black tresses and his blond ones, one can easily discern the gender specific skin tones so typical in Etruscan art. The man’s ochre flesh signifies his participation in a sun-drenched, external world, while the woman’s pale cream skin points to a more interior, domestic one. Gendered color conventions were not exclusive to the Etruscans but have a long pedigree in ancient art. Though their skin and hair color may be different, both figures share similar facial features—archaic smiles (like the ones we see in ancient Greek archaic sculptures), almond shaped eyes, and highly arched eyebrows—all typical of Etruscan art.

What were they holding?

One of the great puzzles of the sarcophagus centers on what the figures were holding. Etruscan art often featured outsized, expressive hands with suggestively curled fingers. Here the arm positions of both figures hint that each must have held small objects, but what? Since the figures are reclining on a banqueting couch, the objects could have been vessels associated with drinking, perhaps wine cups, or representations of food. Another possibility is that they may have held alabastra, small vessels containing oil used for anointing the dead. Or, perhaps, they held all of the above—food, drink and oil, each a necessity for making the journey from this life to the next.

Whatever missing elements, the conviviality of the moment and intimacy of the figures capture the life-affirming quality often seen in Etruscan art of this period, even in the face of death.

Sarcophagus of the Spouses (Rome)

By Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker / 08.08.2015
Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies
Binghamton University

Sarcophagus of the Spouses (or Sarcophagus with Reclining Couple), from the Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy, c. 520 B.C.E., painted terracotta, 3′ 9 1/2″  x 6′ 7″ (Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome)

Sarcophagus of the Spouses, c. 520 B.C.E., Etruscan, painted terracotta, 3 feet 9-1/2 inches x 6 feet 7 inches, found in the Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri (Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia in Rome)

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses is an anthropoid (human-shaped), painted terracotta sarcophagus found in the ancient Etruscan city of Caere (now Cerveteri, Italy). The sarcophagus, which would have originally contained cremated human remains, was discovered during the course of archaeological excavations in the Banditaccia necropolis of ancient Caere during the nineteenth century and is now in Rome. The sarcophagus is quite similar to another terracotta sarcophagus from Caere depicting a man and woman that is presently housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris; these two sarcophagi are contemporary to one another and are perhaps the products of the same artistic workshop.

Upper bodies (detail), Sarcophagus of the Spouses, c. 520 B.C.E., Etruscan, painted terracotta, 3 feet 9-1/2 inches x 6 feet 7 inches, found in the Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri (Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia in Rome)

An archaic couple

Feet and shoes (detail), Sarcophagus of the Spouses, c. 520 B.C.E., Etruscan, painted terracotta, 3 feet 9-1/2 inches x 6 feet 7 inches, found in the Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri (Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia in Rome)

The sarcophagus depicts a reclining man and woman on its lid. The pair rests on highly stylized cushions, just as they would have done at an actual banquet. The body of the sarcophagus is styled so as to resemble a kline (dining couch). Both figures have highly stylized hair, in each case plaited with the stylized braids hanging rather stiffly at the sides of the neck. In the female’s case the plaits are arranged so as to hang down in front of each shoulder. The female wears a soft cap atop her head; she also wears shoes with pointed toes that are characteristically Etruscan. The male’s braids hang neatly at the back, splayed across the upper back and shoulders. The male’s beard and the hair atop his head is quite abstracted without any interior detail. Both figures have elongated proportions that are at home in the archaic period in the Mediterranean.

A banquet

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses has been interpreted as belonging to a banqueting scene, with the couple reclining together on a single dining couch while eating and drinking. This situates the inspiration for the sarcophagus squarely in the convivial (social) sphere and, as we are often reminded, conviviality was central to Etruscan mortuary rituals. Etruscan funerary art—including painted tombs—often depicts scenes of revelry, perhaps as a reminder of the funeral banquet that would send the deceased off to the afterlife or perhaps to reflect the notion of perpetual conviviality in said afterlife. Whatever the case, banquets provide a great deal of iconographic fodder for Etruscan artists.

Banquet Plaque (detail) from Poggio Civitate, early 6th century B.C.E., Etruscan, terracotta (Antiquarium di Poggio Civitate Museo Archeologico, Murlo, Italy) (photo: sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In the case of the sarcophagus it is also important to note that at Etruscan banquets, men and women reclined and ate together, a circumstance that was quite different from other Mediterranean cultures, especially the Greeks. We see multiple instances of mixed gender banquets across a wide chronological range, leading us to conclude that this was common practice in Etruria. The terracotta plaque from Poggio Civitate, Murlo (above), for instance, that is roughly contemporary to the sarcophagus of the spouses shows a close iconographic parallel for this custom. This cultural custom generated some resentment—even animus—on the part of Greek and Latin authors in antiquity who saw this Etruscan practice not just as different, but took it as offensive behavior. Women enjoyed a different and more privileged status in Etruscan society than did their Greek and Roman counterparts.

Technical achievement

Female’s face (detail), Sarcophagus of the Spouses, c. 520 B.C.E., Etruscan, painted terracotta, 3 feet 9-1/2 inches x 6 feet 7 inches, found in the Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri (Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia in Rome)

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses is a masterwork of terracotta sculpture. Painted terracotta sculpture played a key role in the visual culture of archaic Etruria. Terracotta artwork was the standard for decorating the superstructure of Etruscan temples and the coroplastic (terracotta) workshops producing these sculptures often displayed a high level of technical achievement. This is due, in part, to the fact that ready sources of marble were unknown in archaic Italy. Even though contemporary Greeks produced masterworks in marble during the sixth century B.C.E., terracotta statuary such as this sarcophagus itself counts as a masterwork and would have been an elite commission. Contemporary Greek colonists in Italy also produced high level terracotta statuary, as exemplified by the seated statue of Zeus from Poseidonia (later renamed Paestum) that dates c. 530 B.C.E.

Etruscan culture

Seated statue of Zeus from Poseidonia (Paestum) c. 530 B.C.E., terracotta (photo: Dave & Margie Hill, CC BY-SA 2.0) (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Paestum)

In the case of the Caeretan sarcophagus, it is an especially challenging commission. Given its size, it would have been fired in multiple pieces. The composition of the reclining figures shows awareness of Mediterranean stylistic norms in that their physiognomy reflects an Ionian influence (Ionia was a region in present-day Turkey, that was a Greek colony)—the rounded, serene faces and the treatment of hairstyles would have fit in with contemporary Greek styles. However, the posing of the figures, the angular joints of the limbs, and their extended fingers and toes reflect local practice in Etruria. In short, the artist and his workshop are aware of global trends while also catering to a local audience. While we cannot identify the original owner of the sarcophagus, it is clear that the person(s) commissioning it would have been a member of the Caeretan elite.

Male’s face (detail), Sarcophagus of the Spouses, c. 520 B.C.E., Etruscan, painted terracotta, 3 feet 9-1/2 inches x 6 feet 7 inches, found in the Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri (Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia in Rome)

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses as an object conveys a great deal of information about Etruscan culture and its customs. The convivial theme of the sarcophagus reflects the funeral customs of Etruscan society and the elite nature of the object itself provides important information about the ways in which funerary custom could reinforce the identity and standing of aristocrats among the community of the living.

Additional Resources

The Sarcophagus in the Louvre

Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia (UNESCO)

Etruscan Art on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilrbunn Timeline of Art History

Conservation in Action: Etruscan Sarcophagi

L. Bonfante, ed., Etruscan Life and Afterlife: a Handbook of Etruscan Studies (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986).

M. F. Briguet, Le sarcophage des époux de Cerveteri du Musée du Louvre. (Florence: Leo Olschki, 1989).

O. J. Brendel, Etruscan Art, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

S. Haynes, Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History (Los Angeles, California: Getty Publications, 2000).

E. Macnamara, Everyday life of the Etruscans (London: Batsford, 1973).

E. Macnamara, The Etruscans (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

A. S. Tuck, “The Etruscan Seated Banquet: Villanovan Ritual and Etruscan Iconography,” American Journal of Archaeology 98.4 (1994): 617-628.

J. M. Turfa, ed., The Etruscan World (London: Routledge, 2013).

A. Zaccaria Ruggiu, More regio vivere: il banchetto aristocratico e la casa romana di età arcaica (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 2003).

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