12 September 2014

Etruscan Places

The Road to Norchia

The road to the Etruscan site of Norchia, in Lazio, Italy, is hard to find. This is not a place that draws the crowds. We turn off the Via Cassia at Vetralla, some 75 kilometres north of Rome, and continue towards Tarquinia. The countryside is scrubby, indented by deep stream beds, and clothed in olives, nut trees and woodlands. Occasional gates show that someone lives somewhere over there, but there is little traffic. We come across an incident; a man in the road picking up the flat pack cupboard that has slipped off the unsecured roof of his Fiat, but otherwise it is quiet. After eight kilometres we pull in to a bar to check we are on the right track, and find that the turning is just ahead.

We follow a battered brown sign.  A narrow road leads past scattered farms and then elbows left at a right angle, becoming narrower and rough with tree root humps.  It narrows again as we leave the last farm behind, then dips and turns and stops, after five and a half kilometres, with a small asphalt patch just big enough for a couple of cars to park or turn.  Then an unsurfaced track leads off, shaded by eucalypts, between untilled fields and brushwood.

To the East we can see farm buildings and a small modern church, which was built over a tomb where reputedly lived San Vivenzio, patron saint of nearby Blera, and then ahead we can see the ruins of a thirteenth century castle (destroyed in 1435) which is completely surrounded by thick woods.

In the middle ages this was a busy place, but it was abandoned after the sack of the castle and may have been finished off by malaria, which affected life on these plains until the middle of the last century.  But in Etruscan times, some five hundred years before the time of Christ, it was an important city, situated on a ridge between two watercourses (those of the Biedano and the Pile) and controlling the Via Clodia, about half way between Blera and Tuscania. A sign, which stands almost forgotten on the edge of a precipice, portrays activity here two and a half millennia ago:

The picture shows an hypothetical reconstruction of daily life in Norchia (then known as Orcla, with 1300 inhabitants), with a funeral going on and what could be gladiatorial combat at the top (the Etruscans invented boxing, among other things!)  It also shows the typical cliff face tombs that we find here, with magnificent portici carved from the living rock, and the burial chamber excavated below.  This is indeed what we find here, and what was easier to see when I first came to Norchia thirty something years ago. Although the tombs were stripped of their contents ages ago (what weren't looted by the Romans or others in the first few centuries after the decline of the Etruscan civilisation, were mostly plundered or "excavated" in the early nineteenth century when "Etruscology" became the rage.)  There was a resurgence of interest in Norchia in the 1970s, and three hundred tombs were examined, though it has been calculated that over a period of two hundred years they would have buried about six and a half thousand persons.

We are not the only visitors, though this is probably a rare coincidence: it would not be possible to get a bus here.  Two couples from Rimini arrive on motor bikes, and we share information.  But no one else.  And no one has been here, except perhaps to walk a dog.  It is overgrown and eerie, with the sounds of trees and water occasionally punctuated by the alarm calls of birds, unaccustomed to human intervention.

The way this grand environment is being repossessed by nature is extraordinary.  We could spend hours here, or days even, getting lost amongst the fallen rocks, delving into holes within the tufo, clambering around the medieval ruins.  But, having gained an insight, perhaps, into the landscape of Etruria, we move on.....

There is something fungal about the Etruscans......

They appeared, and then they disappeared, having fruited magnificently in their season. What we know of them comes largely from underground, and much of what remains of them has crumbled to dust, or sits in damp caverns or holes in the ground.  They are difficult to understand, come in many varieties, and in some cases are very good to eat - no, sorry, that's a link too far.....

We travel on, over undulating waves of farmland and scrub, past the remains of a Roman aqueduct, to see some of the painted tombs at Tarquinia (Tarchuna, the principal city of the 12 cities of Etruria, also once Corneto until the Fascists changed it (back) in 1922). These are rightly famous, and visitors come here in their busloads.  There are approximately 6,000 tombs here, 200 of which were painted, though only a handful are open to tourists today.

Tomba 5636 (c300 BC, discovered 1969)

Modern interest in the Etruscans began with the Renaissance, though serious study was sporadic until the 17th and 18th centuries. George Dennis, an English antiquarian, published a detailed The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria in 1848 after several tours made in the area between 1842 and 1847. Dennis records that when he visited the Necropolis of Monterozzi the tombs had remained open to the wantonness of travellers and the ignorance of shepherds - in one case for nearly a century - were a few years since fitted with doors..... 

Tomba delle Leonesse (c520 BC, discovered 1874)

When D H Lawrence visited eighty years later he arranged for a guide to take him and Frieda to the painted tombs and he is surprised that at the necropolis there is no sign of any tombs: no tumulus, nothing but the rough bare hill-crest, with stones and short grass and flowers, the sea gleaming away to the right, under the sun, and the soft land inland glowing very green and pure....

Yes, it is still a bit like that, but now, instead of hiring a guide and crawling down through iron gates with an acetylene lamp, you are free to wander within a limited area and free to descend ramps and stairs to peer through thick glass at the walls of the dead, lit by electricity.  And what you see, although degraded by air and time, is the life of the Etruscans.  It is the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing... and it is supposed to date from the sixth century B.C.  Even in 1927 it was very badly damaged, pieces of the wall have fallen away, damp has eaten into the colours..... Yet in the dimness we perceive flights of birds flying through the haze, with the draught of life still in their wings.....

Tomba della caccia e della pesca (520 - 510 BC, discovered 1873)

Dennis and Lawrence travelled in different times - Dennis well before the unification of Italy, and Lawrence at a time when Mussolini was busy building the Italian Empire - and both found little infrastructure for visitors, little serious knowledge about the "mysterious" Etruscans.  But they understood from what they saw how vital their world was, and how different they were from the Romans who were to over-rule them, and much of the known world.

Tomba dei Baccanti (510 BC, discovered 1874)

George Dennis records how Etruscomania came to Tarquinia.  In 1823, Signor Carlo Avvolta, once Chief Magistrate of Corneto, was digging into a tumulus for stones to mend a road when he perceived a large slab of nenfro.... making a hole beneath it, he looked in, and there (to give his own words) - "I beheld a warrior stretched on a couch of rock, and in a few minutes I saw him vanish, as it were, under my eyes; for, as the atmosphere entered the sepulchre, the armour, thoroughly oxidised, crumbled away into most minute particles; so that in a short time scarcely a vestige of what I had seen was left on the couch...."  Fellini shows a similar scene in his Roma, when the mole used to create a tunnel for the metro breaks into a Roman house, and the frescos dry and fade in seconds.

In Tarquinia, in Palazzo Vitelleschi, there is a wonderful museum, with one of the major collections of Etruscan art and artefacts in Italy.  They have even lifted the paintings from the walls of certain tombs and reconstructed them on the top floor of the palace and in another room there are reconstructions of exactly how some tombs were when they were discovered.

There's a ghost in my tomb!

And there are innumerable exhibits of decorated ceramic vases, many of which are from Corinth, or show Greek images, though others depict Etruscan life:

And there are carved beasts, like this splendid lion, sculpted from tufo by someone who may very well never have seen such a cat (hence the very human teeth!)

And then there are human likenesses, such as this sarcophagus, portraying the deceased:

As well as terracotta pieces, some votive offerings, others of deities.  This one, with traces of the original paintwork stares at us blindly, as if from another world?

Lawrence and Frieda enjoyed this museum, though he wrote, in the fascinating little Palazzo Vitelleschi one could spend many an hour, but for the fact that the very fullness of museums makes one rush through them....

The Loggia of the Palazzo Vitelleschi, Tarquinia; the sea is only six kilometres away

We pause for ice cream under a giant awning, then wind down to the motorway and head for Cerveteri (ancient Caere), where the celebrated Necropolis of Banditaccia sprawls under pines as a real city of the dead, with rutted streets, and tombs aligned like back-to-backs in terraces.

In general these tombs are carved out of the volcanic tufo, and many then have tumuli heaped above them. They vary considerably, but they are not painted, and they tend to have several rooms, with carved lintels and roof beams.  In one there are crude capitals chiselled at the top of columns:


In another the columns and walls are covered in relief carvings of everything from a cat to a wine bottle, with swords, shields and mythic beasts thrown in for good measure.  Oh, and pillows!

And in another I stumble on a woman mourning her dead husband, though am most disturbed myself by her left hand, which seems to be dextrous....

The necropolis goes on and on.  But despite the emptiness, and the hollow fustiness of clambering in and out of burial chambers, it doesn't pall..... (groan!)

Each interior has its own character, and it becomes like a house hunt, rejecting one for being too small, another for being the wrong colour, and so on.....

So you start looking at the brickwork:

And the cippi (symbols for male and female) and funerary urns on the doorsteps:

So then you settle for one, and put in an offer, and wait....

It's a long wait.  The agent doesn't get back to me.  We have played here too long, so we move on.  There are so many places to see, so much to learn.  We could go to the wastelands of Vulci, or explore more ravines at Barbarano or Castel d'Asso; nose into the civic museum in Trevignano Romano, where we are staying, or wander up to Sutri to marvel at the 1st Century BC amphitheatre, entirely dug and sculpted out of a hill of tufo:

But I opt for a solo flight to the remains of the greatest Etruscan city of all, Veio (Veii), just seventeen kilometres from Rome.  There is comparatively little superficially apparent here, as the Romans bulldozed it in 396 BC, after years of siege, and, apart from a trattoria by a waterfall (where friends and I used to lunch), the remarkable Ponte Sodo, where the Etruscans diverted the river, and the curious hamlet of Isola Farnese, the land is both farmed and overgrown, but it is nonetheless an evocative site.  

Keep Out!  Excavations!

A great deal has been taken from here, both for the Museum in the Villa Giulia and to decorate the houses of the rich, one way or another..... But to this day you cannot walk through the fields without finding pieces of broken terracotta or bucchero....

Veii is jammed between the Via Cassia and the Via Flaminia, and ribbons of development mean that the neighbourhood is crowded, so it is not surprising that there is vandalism and degradation in evidence.....

But it is not all so.  George Dennis remarked that He who would make the tour of Veii must not expect to see numerous monuments of the past.  Scarcely one Etruscan site has fewer remains, yet few possess greater interest.....

Given that it is so close to the capital, and especially given that it is now so close to the sprawling mass of 'civilisation' that commutes across the modern world, it is curious how sepulchral and remote this area now seems.  The city was seven miles round, and even today almost that area is undeveloped.  There are simple cavity tombs and holes in the ground everywhere, some excavated legitimately, others broken open and looted by who knows who?

The landscape, despite the ploughing, is open access and the views of the distant hills (towards the Apennines) are uncluttered.

Walking across the stubble the crumbs of a city are there at your feet: pieces of pottery or tiles, scraps of houses, temples, tombs are everywhere.  With a metal detector it was certainly possible not long ago to find jewels, coins, rings, ornaments in gold, bronze, silver scattered like fertiliser across the fields.  

The Etruscans were supposed to be a mystery.  They appeared, from nowhere; they disappeared, absorbed into the Roman world, their language obliterated (the Emperor Claudius, who wrote a history of the Etruscans which has not survived, was apparently the last known person to 'speak' Etruscan), their sense of delight and energy brought to heel by the officious and heavy-handed Romans.

But they left their traces.  Not only is it unnervingly common to suddenly realise that the almond eyed girl behind the counter could have stepped straight off a vase in the museum in Tarquinia, but the boy on the motor bike who just passed you was the spitting image of one of the dancers in a tomb you just visited.....  And then there are the pieces of hand made craft.  Pieces that can still be used, worn, admired, drunk out of.....

When you visit the museum in Tarquinia be aware. The girl behind the pillar might just be two and a half thousand years old. And the guys relaxing by the steps could be her parents, checking you have your ticket.....

Mia casa e tua casa (1981)

1 comment:

  1. A haunting history indeed. Thank you. You're right - the lady is very ambi-dextrous - or is it just a sinister reflection of time's passage?