Photos and an eyewitness description of centuries-old, intricately painted sculptures and frescoes from tombs of the ancient Etruscans will soon fill art history classrooms at Wright State University.
Assistant art history professor Caroline Hillard participated in a traveling seminar in June that took a select group of American academics to Etruscan sites in Italy, including a necropolis in the west central Italian city of Tarquinia.
“It consists of a bunch of small underground chambers,” Hillard said. “You climb down these stairs and there are these little chambers decorated with incredible frescoes. Some of them would just knock your socks off.”
The traveling seminar — titled “The Legacy of Ancient Italy: The Etruscans and Early Rome” — was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Community College Humanities Association. Two Etruscan experts led the group of 25 archaeologists, classicists, art historians and artists on the trip, from June 2-26.
“The purpose was to enable people who teach at the college level to study a topic in depth to bring new knowledge into the classroom and further their own research,” Hillard said.
The Etruscans were one of the great Mediterranean civilizations, a wealthy and educated people who flourished before the rise of Rome. They were obsessed with elaborate burials and brought objects from daily life to the grave. Artistically, they are best known for their funerary paintings, sculptures, urns and jewelry.
The Tarquinia necropolis features bedroom-sized, rock-cut tombs with vivid murals depicting scenes of hunting, dancing, sports, music and daily life.
“I can impart that to my students. I’ve got good images,” said Hillard. “We went to some digs and we were able to look and really understand them in a way that just reading about them in books doesn’t allow. It will be great for the students, great for my research.”
At the end of the seminar, Hillard presented her research project to the group. The project focuses on Rome in the early 16th century and guides to the ancient monuments written by humanist scholars.
“I’m looking at what they have to say about the Etruscans and how the election of a Florentine as Pope prompted people to celebrate the Etruscans,” she said.
Hillard is also researching the discovery in the early 16th century of an Etruscan tomb, which spawned writings about people’s reactions and a probable drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. The seminar helped her connect with other experts and start a dialogue.
Hillard, an expert on the Italian Renaissance, grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. She became interested in the Renaissance era while she was painting and studying art in high school.
“I was specifically drawn toward the Renaissance period because of the kinds of artistic challenges that those artists faced — things such as developing strategies for depicting space on a two-dimensional surface or how to convey movement in painting,” she said. “Since I was going through those kinds of experiments myself, it was very interesting to learn from it.”
Then, as an undergraduate at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, she traveled to Italy and fell in love with both the country and its art.
“For me it’s being able to experience the art in something close to its original context,” she said. “We can see a painting in the church it was made for or a sculpture in the palace it was designed to decorate.”
Well-known artists of the Early Renaissance include Botticelli, Fra Angelico and Perugino; those of the High Renaissance include da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian.
Hillard got her master’s degree at Syracuse University and worked for the university in Florence, Italy, as a field studies instructor. She earned her doctorate in art history at Washington University in St. Louis.
Hillard joined the faculty at Wright State in 2011. She teaches art history up to and including the 17th century, specializing in the Italian Renaissance. She also teaches Roman art with a segment on the Etruscans.
Hillard’s research focuses on how people during the Renaissance created a mythology about the Etruscans and their art.
Next summer, she will lead an art department-sponsored trip to Italy for Wright State students. The Ambassador Program, called Masterpieces of Italian Art and Architecture, includes art tours in Florence and Rome. The July 11-27 trip will give students three credit hours.