'Ombra della sera' is a bronze statuette from the old Etruscan city of Velathri, the modern Volterra, in the Tuscany region of Italy. The literal translation of Ombra della sera is 'Evening Shadow', though it might also be interpreted as 'The Shadow at Dusk'. The figurine currently resides in the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum in Voltera.
The appearance and detail of the figurine show considerable skill and craftsmanship that can make it difficult to reconcile with the sheer age of the piece. The bronze figure stands a little over 57cm tall (22.5 inches) and weighs approximately 1.25 kilograms (2.75 pounds). The metal surface shows a roughness of finish, with slight variation in colour and texture across the whole length.
While obviously a model of a young naked boy with a small round face and visible genitalia, the sculptor has rendered the body from the neck down as if a shadow, the form thin and considerably elongated. A good third of the height stretches simply from knee to toe. The boy stands with arms hung against sides, palms pressed against thighs.
The boy's face has a broad, flattened nose, tight-lipped mouth and perhaps a hint of furrow in the brow. The hair crowning the head sweeps forward from the crown with a parting on the left, curling underneath where the ears would be. The neck thickens beneath the head, tapering slightly toward the shoulders.
The Etruscan people predated the Romans, occupying — at least — the area of northern Italy during much of the early part of the first millennium BC. Lying within prehistory, our knowledge about the Etruscans resides in the hands of those people most likely to pervert their images, character and purpose — the Romans who subsumed their culture and took their territories. By 300 BC the Etruscan people had begun a swift descent into oblivion, absorbed into the growing might of the Roman Empire.
In their time, the Etruscans made the most of the land they controlled, mined the riches of the Earth, built great cities, gathered considerable knowledge1 and created fine works of art. Alas, the Romans, over time, destroyed a great deal or, like the Etruscans themselves, absorbed facets of their predecessors knowledge and culture into their own.
Lost and Found
In 1737, the Florentine scholar Anton Francesco Gori discovered the statue in the home of the Buonarroti family at Florence. Some time after, Mario Guarnacci came into possession of the statuette — though whether by purchase, exchange or some other means is not clear.
Mario, a prelate, collector and archaeologist, had received his education at the University of Pisa, and later studied Greek in Florence under the tutelage of Anton Maria Salvini. From 1726 Guarnacci committed to an ecclesiastical life in Rome, but after holding various prominent positions resolved to return to Volterra. From the end of the 1750s, Guarnacci concentrated his studies on the Etruscan people and collected numerous finds discovered in and around the town into a personal museum, which — in late 1761 — he gifted to the town. His generosity secured a significant collection of Volterran heritage, something that remains to this very day.
Name, Comparison and Influence
Like so much about this statue, even the name of the piece has an air of mystery. The title 'Ombra della sera', it would seem, comes from the 19th-Century Italian poet and journalist Gabriele d'Annunzio. It seems that D'Annunzio thought the statue looked like the long shadows thrown by a man at sunset — thus 'Evening Shadow'.
Viewers of the Evening Shadow have drawn comparison between the form of the statue and the more recent sculpture of Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. In the 1950s, Giacometti went through a period of sculpting statues in a stretched and elongated style, obsessing over an inner vision of perfection and whittling away material to a point of utter emaciation. It isn't clear what influence statues like Ombra della sera may have had on the sculptor or whether the similarity merely comes down to a coincidence of creativity.
The Evening Shadow's popularity draws considerable attention to Volterra, pulling in tourists and scholars alike. During the Festival del Teatro Romano di Volterra, the organisers of a theatre awards event offer a copy of the statue as the prize for the most distinguished and talented performer or scholar of theatre.
L'Ombra della sera's origin in the pre-history of Etruscan civilisation makes it nigh on impossible to know for sure why someone might have created this piece of captivating art. Experts pose possible theories — such as those outlined below; but, other stories circulate too.
While not a theory of the statue's purpose, per se, one tale of the statue's discovery does provide some amusement, if nothing more. A French archaeologist, staying in the area around Volterra, found himself at the centre of a sudden storm looking for somewhere to shelter. He happened across the humble dwelling place of a farmer who invited him in to warm himself by the fire until the storm passed. The archaeologist settled down near the fire to dry off and watched as the farmer stoked the logs in the grate. Relief in the warmth turned to surprise, one would suspect, when the Frenchman realised that the farmer's poker turned out to be not a simple metal rod, but an elongated bronze Etruscan statue.
The Etruscans may have practiced the tradition of dedicating figurines in the worship of their gods — just as the Romans certainly did after them. While simple prayer might suffice to appease the gods, to dedicate a piece of art, like a statue, and leave it at the place of worship could considerably enhance the supplicatory act. Holy sites would, as a result, accumulate many votive offerings like the Ombra della sera, for modern day archaeologists to uncover and puzzle over.
Lares served as small gods or household spirits for Roman families. The Lar came in pairs and would participate in all the key events around the household, including the family meal. While the specifics around the Lares have been muddied somewhat with the passage of time, these statuettes provided a vital function within the household, exerting a beneficial influence. Pictorial records of the Etruscans, such as the wall painting at Tomba dei Leopardi, suggest the Romans may have adopted the idea of the Lares from their predecessors. While no more certain than any other theory about the Ombra della sera, the possibility exists that this exquisite figure might just be an example of an Etruscan house spirit.
Visiting the Museum
At the time of writing, amongst the considerable collection of Etruscan artefacts in the museum, Ombra della sera sits at the centre of Room XXII in the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum. Visitors can gain entrance to the museum all year round for a small charge, with slightly shorter opening hours in the winter.