A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Honoring an Etruscan Ambassador
Trying to get the Etruscans out of their ghetto," is how New York University classics professor Larissa Bonfante described her career in accepting the Archaeological Institute of America's most prestigious award, the Gold Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement, this past January. She noted that many classical archaeologists have focused on the cultural pinnacles of fifth-century B.C. Athens and Rome under Augustus (31 B.C.-A.D. 14), while other peoples, like the Etruscans of central Italy to which she has devoted her career, have been neglected.
As a student, Bonfante was introduced to the Etruscans when she excavated at Cerveteri, one of their chief cities. She used her 1966 Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation as the basis for Etruscan Dress (1975), a groundbreaking work on a largely ignored topic. Since then she has published widely on Etruscan dress, on costume--and nudity--in the ancient world, and on women's roles in society and the depiction of women in Etruscan art.
Her long list of publications includes Etruscan Life and Afterlife (1986), Reading the Past: Etruscan (1990), The World of Roman Dress (1994), Italy and Cyprus in Antiquity (2001), and Etruscan Myth (2006). In press are The Barbarians of Ancient Europe and Nudity as a Costume in the Ancient Mediterranean. She also authored the definitive work on Etruscan bronze mirrors in the Metropolitan Museum.
Scholarship is a family affair for Bonfante. With her daughter Alexandra Bonfante-Warren, she published The Plays of Hroswitha of Gandersheim (1979), a translation of tenth-century works by the earliest-known woman playwright. Bonfante also wrote Etruscan Language (1983) with her father, the late Giuliano Bonfante, a renowned linguist.
Many of her books are accessible to nonspecialists, and Bonfante's efforts to bring Etruscan culture to a wide audience are laudable. At New York University, where she has taught since 1963, Bonfante earned the "Great Teacher" award. An active member of the Institute, she lectures to AIA societies and has contributed to both the American Journal of Archaeology and ARCHAEOLOGY. She is also a founder and co-editor of Etruscan News, a newsletter that keeps scholars, students, and enthusiasts apprised of the latest Etruscan research and discoveries.
Few have done so much to elucidate a past civilization and bring its achievements to so many. As their unofficial ambassador, it was appropriate that upon receiving the AIA Gold Medal, Bonfante noted, "I am accepting this honor on behalf of the Etruscans."
C. Brian Rose is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.