Journeying Back in Time with Professor Alexandra Carpino


Alexandra Carpino, PhD

Professor of Art History 
Chair, Department of Comparative Cultural Studies
College of Arts and Letters

“For me it’s like coming home,” says Alexandra Carpino with an animated grin. Although the high desert town of Flagstaff has become her beloved home since 1998, Dr. Carpino is referring to her frequent visits to Italy to teach about her passion: the nearly forgotten civilization of the Etruscans.

Carpino, NAU Professor of Art History and Chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies, is a leading Etruscan scholar, specializing in Etruscan art history.

Both her dissertation and her book, Discs of Splendor: The Relief Mirrors of the Etruscans, focus on the once unexplored area of Etruscan bronze mirrors, a research area that continues to fascinate Carpino.  At the 2013 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle, she presented “The Iconography of Violence against Women on Engraved Etruscan Bronze Mirrors.” She also delivered the Archaeological Institute of America’s 2012/2013 Ferdinando and Sarah Cinelli Lecture in Etruscan and Italic Archaeology at the Nashville Parthenon. Her essay on Etruscan portraiture will be part of Routledge’s 2013 volume, The Etruscan World, edited by Jean M. Turfa.

Who were the Etruscans?

The Italic civilization of Etruria is one of the oldest and most important cultures in the ancient Mediterranean, with its own language and belief systems; it dates back to the eighth century BCE.  The Etruscans were contemporaries of the ancient Greeks and Romans. However, very little of their literature has survived other than Greek and Roman references to the Etruscan culture and the remnants of Etruscan art.  “Their art is unique,” explains Carpino. “The reason it’s different is because the Etruscans had their own distinct culture, and their art responded to that culture. Because of the Romans, a lot of Etruscan ideas were preserved, but no one knows that they were Etruscan.”

In fact, many innovations that we think were developed by the Greeks or Romans were actually first utilized by the Etruscans, notes Carpino. The Etruscans were expert agriculturalists, architects, and artists and developed advanced hydraulics and metallurgy.  Even the toga and Roman numerals originated with the Etruscans, which the Romans later appropriated for their own use.

Carpino, who is the editor-in-chief of Etruscan Studies:  Journal of the Etruscan Foundation, is currently working on an anthology, Companion to the Etruscans, with her colleague Dr. Sinclair Bell at Northern Illinois University. This collection of essays will present the most current research on Etruscan art and culture and aims to bring the Etruscans to life, not by comparing them to other cultures, but by focusing on what was dynamic about their culture.  It will be published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2014.

The beginning of a life-long passion

Carpino received her AB degree in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College and her PhD in art history from the University of Iowa. As a first-year PhD student, she had the opportunity to serve as a field researcher with the archaeological excavations at the Etruscan site of Poggio Civitate in Murlo, a small town just south of Siena, Italy. It was this study-abroad experience that sparked her life-long passion and dedication to put the Etruscans on equal footing with the Greeks and Romans.

It also made Carpino a champion of studying abroad because of its transformative capacity for academic and personal growth. “Being there and surrounded by so many options, you get to really discover what you have a passion for,” she says. Carpino specifically promotes the “NAU in Siena” program, a partnership between NAU and the Siena School of Liberal Arts, which lets students enjoy a semester or summer abroad and acquire a profound, hands-on experience in such areas as art restoration. Carpino says that travel also makes study come alive.

For example, Siena is famous for the Palio, a horse race around the Piazza del Campo that is held twice each summer. In the 1960s and 1970s, ancient plaques showing horse races were discovered in Murlo. These plaques have historical significance because horse racing was a very common funerary sport for the Etruscans and celebrated the death of someone important. The equestrians in the plaques are shown riding bareback, which is how the Palio competitors ride to this day. According to Carpino, when students have the opportunity to see connections such as these, their whole perspective shifts; history becomes real.

Bringing art into the community

Carpino’s own passion for art education extends into the Flagstaff community. She serves on the board of directors of the Masterpiece Art Program, which helps bring art appreciation and art history into local elementary school classrooms, particularly in schools where art education has been severely underfunded or cut entirely from the curriculum. The Masterpiece Art Program encourages parents and other members of the community to volunteer a presentation on an art topic of their choice. The goal is to get the students excited about art. The volunteers also initiate fun art projects with the children. “When the kids are able to have time with art—even just an hour, then a great sense of inspiration and self-exploration occurs,” says Carpino. “Art is one of the most important forms of expression that we have.”

--Kelly Zarcone



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