So that's what the Etruscans did for us... Italy rediscovers glories of its mysterious past

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The most extraordinary smile has been beaming down at Romans from hoardings all over the city this week. It belongs to a statue of the Apollo of Veio, the vanished Etruscan city a few miles north of central Rome.

The most extraordinary smile has been beaming down at Romans from hoardings all over the city this week. It belongs to a statue of the Apollo of Veio, the vanished Etruscan city a few miles north of central Rome.

Yesterday, after the first painstaking restoration since the statue's discovery 80 years ago, it went on display in Rome's National Etruscan Museum in Villa Giulia.

The terracotta statue was assembled from 30 fragments found in 1916 in a cave at the site of the vanished city. In 1944 more pieces came to light, enabling archaeologists to add the statue's right arm.

Before the restorers went to work, the statue was subjected to intense study that yielded important information about the source of the clay used, the com- position of the minerals used for the colour and the temperature at which it was fired.

Close study enabled the restorers, once the statue had been purged of dust, grease and encrustations of calcium, to give it back its authentic colours: the black of the long, ribbed tresses, the violet-red of the skin, the ochre of tunic and mantle.

"The Apollo is one of the classic pieces of Etruscan art," said Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the British School at Rome.

"There are thousands of classical marble statues in existence but only dozens of terra- cotta ones, and this is one of the best. It's particularly welcome that they are putting energy into conserving and restoring some of these things. It's the sign of a new sensibility."

It has been a good week for the Etruscans. As well as the glorious return of Apollo, the god of light whom the Etruscans adopted from the ancient Greeks, on Wednesday Unesco announced it was adding the two enormous Etruscan necropolises at Tarquinia and Cerveteri, on the coast north of Rome, to its list of World Heritage Sites. These brought the number of Unesco sites in Italy to 39 - more than any other country. So the "mysterious Etruscans" are back in business, and making headlines in Rome, the city they founded (contrary to self-serving Latin myth) and ruled over for more than a century before Tarquinius Superbus, the Etruscan king, was forced out by the Latins who established a republic in his stead.

Etruscans laid the foundations of the Rome we know today: drained and paved the Forum, built a paved road, the Sacra Via, part of which survives, and put an imposing temple dedicated to Jupiter on the Capitol, destroyed by fire in 83BC. But once their last king was expelled, the Etruscans were in retreat. After that the rise of the Latins/Romans was unstoppable, and the once-proud and civilised Etruscans melted away into nothing as Roman legions spread across the peninsula.

The original home of the newly restored Apollo was a temple in the Etruscan city of Veii. Now called Veio, today it is a beautiful roll of woods, pasture and farmland a few miles north of Rome, with tumbling streams and a tiny medieval village with its own manor house.

But of the Etruscan city that once stood here there is hardly a hint, besides a handful of archeological sites. Built in wood, the cities of the Etruscans rotted away within generations. They were literate - they used the Greek alphabet - but had no literature beyond brief, cryptic texts which have yet to be fully deciphered. Once their temples and villas had rotted, and their gold jewellery and carvings had been melted down by the Romans and re-cast as coins, nothing remained to tell of their origins or their fate.

Yet that blazing smile of the god of light, reminiscent of the "haunting archaic smiles" of early Greek statues, remains. The statue's provenance is not known for sure, though it could be Vulca, the only Etruscan master whose name we know, and who is known to have made terracotta figures at Veii.

Etruscan civilisation endured for seven centuries before fading away in the sixth century BC, and so underwent many evolutions which account for the rich variety of art that survives.