Semester of Graduation



Master of Arts (MA)


Art History

Document Type



Muscular women and effeminate men adorn the lids of Etruscan Cistae found in Praeneste (modern Palestrina, 23 miles southeast of Rome, Italy). Cistae (Latin plural of cista) are storage containers used by the Etruscans for women’s beauty items. This thesis focuses on the androgynous, mostly nude, figures that serve as handles and are often displayed in pairs. These pairs frequently depict a man and a woman together and androgynous qualities are usually emphasized on the female figures. Discussions of the androgynous body in the ancient world have centered around Greece and Rome. Only recently (Sandhoff 2007, 2009, 2011), scholarship has started to explore the topic of androgynous imagery in Etruria. Cista handles offer some of the most telling evidence of the complex representations of sexual and gender attributes in Etruscan art and their analysis provides an important contribution to the ongoing debate on androgyny in the ancient Mediterranean.

Androgynous figures of either sex are given the physical characteristics and/or behaviors of the opposite gender. This can be attained through the use of clothing or jewelry or, in the case of the nude pairs, by giving an individual physical features that are more typical of the other sex. Upon examination, it is evident that cista handle male figures take on feminine traits while female figures show masculine characteristics. The women have thick muscles and reduced breasts, whereas the men have bodies that match their female counterparts and have pectoral muscles that mimic small breasts.

This thesis maintains that the androgynous pairs on cista handles take up a transient space between male and female, at times reflecting both genders and occasionally neither, with the only indication of the figures gender being the genitalia on display. Through discussions of the manifestations of androgynous bodies on cistae, this thesis sheds light on the importance of an ambiguously gendered body to the Etruscan people, and especially to Etruscan women since it is on items of which belonged to them that these androgynous figures appear. It is the contention of this thesis that divine models of androgyny might play a significant role in the design of the cista handles from Praeneste.



Committee Chair