Richard Hodges travels to… Etruria

7 mins read
A woollen tapestry woven by D.H. and Freida Lawrence. D.H. Lawrence’s fascination with all things Etruscan was celebrated in his great unfinished travelogue: Etruscan Places. In it, he contrasted the puritan Romans with the vitalities of Etruscan living.

There are dowsers, whose hazel wands will tremble, not only for water, but also for gold and bronze and iron, even for bones or an urn-full of human dust. Archaeologists have used these mysteriously gifted persons as the truffle-hunter uses his dog or his learned sow, to nose out the buried treasures of ancient cemeteries… So far as the when and the how are concerned, this method is entirely satisfactory. But when it comes to the inner why, the results, in many cases, are not so good. … such a psychological diviner was D.H. Lawrence. In… Etruscan Places, Lawrence has left us the results of his dowsing expeditions in the tombs of Cerveteri and Tarquinia and Vulci…

Review by Aldous Huxley, The Spectator, 4 November 1932

Ninety years ago, D.H. Lawrence was working on two book projects: the essays that would form his posthumous Etruscan Places (1932), and the final version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The latter, Lawrence’s most notorious book, has well and truly overshadowed his unfinished account of a pilgrimage to Etruria. Yet his fascination for the tombs of Etruria has found new readers as this civilisation has become fused with the tourist pleasures of Tuscany. In this slim travelogue, Lawrence revels in Etruscan sacral mysteries and, perhaps perversely, their viciousness. Unlike the Romans, he writes, ‘they escaped being Puritans’. Hardly surprisingly this ‘psychological diviner’ championed the vivid mural art, the rich material culture, and above all the pagan deities: ‘To the Etruscan, all was alive, the whole universe lived, and the business of man was to live amid it all. He had to draw life into himself, out of the wandering, huge vitalities of the world.’ Such vitalities of the world lent Lady Chatterley’s Lover a sensational reputation when it appeared.

The Euphronios vase, a 6th-century BC masterpiece stolen from a tomb in 1971.

Today, we view these tribes as the bridge between prehistory and the gridiron world of the Romans. We are much less affected by their feasts and revelry, and instead champion them as Italy’s earliest full engagement with the Mediterranean. In them, more than the superficial passing of the Romans (viewed still in some parts of Tuscany as oppressors), the metaphorical roots of the Renaissance and modern campanilismo are to be found. Each city with its noble families competed with every other Etruscan city. Little has altered: Italians define themselves by their birthplaces not by their nationality. Above all, Etruscan inventive visual culture and their sumptuous materialism prefigures the palaces and churches of the Medici and their peers. Of course, archaeology has moved on since Lawrence’s time and, with it, generations of archaeological diviners have added richly to the lexicon of tomb art and sculpture. Yet Lawrence’s vision remains alive and well to instil mystery and awe in the many new museums dotted around these tribal lands. What is more, each museum bookstand prominently sells a contemporary edition of Lawrence’s 1932 book with a preface by Massimo Pallatino, the archaeologist who, more than anyone else after the English writer, has put the Etruscans in their rightful place in history.

With D.H. Lawrence very much in my mind, let me recall forays into Etruria this spring.

‘To the tombs’

…to the tombs, to the tombs! On a sunny April morning we set out for the tombs. From Rome, the eternal city, now in a black bonnet. It was not far to go – about twenty miles over the Campagna towards the sea…

Etruscan Places, p.32

Tom Campbell, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum in the Tomba dei Rilievi.

Tom Campbell was visiting and he wanted to see the Euphronios vase. Stolen from a Cerveteri tomb by clandestini in 1971, it was repatriated by the Metropolitan Museum of New York to its rightful home in Cerveteri just before Tom became the Met’s Director. Taking nothing for granted, the week before Tom’s arrival, I phoned Cerveteri Museum to check that all was well, and we drove there along the Tyrrhenian coast on a sunny April morning. The museum is in the armoury wing of Cerveteri’s dark castle. The serenity there should have alarmed me: the museum was closed on this Tuesday morning because – exceptionally – it had been open the day before on Pasquetta, Easter Monday! I contained my irritation and instead decided to try my luck in the Municipio to see if someone might let us in.

I bounded into the mayor’s outer office and opined rather operatically that the museum was closed and here I was with a disappointed Director from the Metropolitan Museum. What could we do? The stick-thin secretary to the mayor was a young man who had had a wonderful time in Stony Brook University and loved the Metropolitan Museum. Proudly practising his English, he bade me to wait and set to work on his mobile phone. He called the Assessore, a lean man who moments later – as if by magic – joined us. Our problem having been resolved, the occasion called for the mayor to be summoned. He too proudly practised his English, while I was struck by his contrived resemblance to Che Guevara.

A painted panel from the sarcophagus of Laris, showing Achilles slaughtering Trojan prisoners in revenge for the death of Patroclus.

During the next two hours, we saw the exhibition of Giacomo Medici’s looted treasures, found in 1997 in a concealed bunker at his home at San Severa; then Cerveteri Museum; and finally the sprawling necropolis of massive mound tombs courtesy of the diligent Assessore. Each in its own way is world class, and not surprisingly Cerveteri is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The Euphronios vase is a masterpiece by any standards, the work of a supreme artist. Set centrally in the upstairs gallery of the museum, its narrative remains so alluring that the surrounding panels are worn away by visitors peering closely. More extraordinary still is the Tomba dei Rilievi in the necropolis, which we were privileged to see. Normally closed, this family tomb is the only Etruscan example of painted stucco. Descending the long staircase to the mausoleum, one new member of the Soprintendenza accompanying us, muttered that he had never seen this and how grateful he was for our visit.

Bunga bunga at Tarquinia

The highway now sweeps past Civitavecchia and stops at Tarquinia, an hour north of Rome. The hilltop town bristles with pencil-thin towers – pure swank in Lawrence’s opinion – from a time when it was a Tyrrhenian port for Rome. Six thousand tombs lie along the ridge, known as Monterozzi, south of the town. In all but name, it is an Etruscan Uffizi. As Lawrence discovered, the painted tombs many metres below the travertine hilltop are breathtaking in their individual narratives and rich ochrous reds. Lawrence would have been especially thrilled by one tomb whose salacious afterlife was found 30 years after his death.

A white marble sarcophagus, depicting the priest Laris.

The Bartoccino Tomb is superficially unexceptional. The sign laconically informs us that the tomb, with its grand banqueting scenes, was reused in the Middle Ages. Only when you get inside does a little video presentation show you what an understatement this is. The real story is gripping bunga bunga (to use Silvio Berlusconi’s infamous phrase). Carlo Tedeschi, a distinguished professor of medieval palaeography at Chieti University, discovered medieval graffiti all over this painted tomb (see www.viella.it/libro/9788883349386). Twenty or so 13th-century graffiti defaced the checker-board Etruscan painting. Several roughly made lines explicitly record sexual liaisons between Templar knights and local women – for example, between Meliosus and Maria, and Gregorio and Ganfreda. Secreted away, protected by crosses carved into the tomb walls, these warrior-priests sanctified their illicit underground actions and orgies. Far from Tarquinia’s ashlar palaces and churches, the Templars found the boldness to register their deviances for posterity.

The Vitelleschi palace, since 1924 a national museum, doubtless witnessed the passage of the Templars in Tarquinia – and in 1927 welcomed D.H. Lawrence. The writer loved the museum-palace: ‘If one must have museums, let them be small, and, above all, let them be local. Splendid as the Etruscan museum is in Florence, how much happier one is in… Tarquinia, where all things are Tarquinian’.

My objective was to see the restored terracotta horses from the Temple known as the Ara della Regina. Before reaching this masterpiece, avoiding the rooms of glorious objects and travertine tombs, I was drawn to a gallery belonging to the Partunu family, excavated in 1874. The family’s sarcophagi are all made of white Parian marble, imported from Greece in the 4th century. The subtle naturalism of the marble figures is affecting in its realism. My favourite was Laris the priest, a man who apparently died when he was aged 55-60. With one hand raised in orant prayer, he was entombed in a coffin with its painted sides depicting the Trojan wars. Faded but still visible, the scenes possess the vitality of a limpidly coloured cartoon. Of them all, I sought out the arched figure of Achilles, mercilessly slaughtering Trojan prisoners as a reprisal for the death of his friend since childhood, Patroclus. Here you enter a Mediterranean world connected by marriage, where Etruscan metals were exchanged for marble, and families shared the fabled stories of Homer.

These majestic terracotta horses were found in hundreds of fragments in 1938 during excavations at the 4th-century temple of Ara della Regina. It was only after decades of conservation that they finally went on display in 2015.

Upstairs, in its own room, is the pair of terracotta horses I have come to see. They were mounted for display in 2015, after decades of conservation. At first, you ask what are they made of? Is it coloured stone? The majestic poise, restrained energy, and naturalism are executed with consummate mastery. Illuminated by the sharp Tyrrhenian marine light, the creatures originally struck out from an angle of the pediment of the great 4th-century temple of Ara della Regina. Once seen, you appreciate that their resurrection is an Italian miracle. In 1938, Pietro Romanelli found these creatures in hundreds of fragments, along with the long bronze nails that once held them in place. Originally painted in garish colours – a faint trace of yellow survives – the horses had been pinned in such a way as to suggest their legs were pawing the ground. A charioteer, now lost, probably completed the tableau.

This is an extract from an article published in issue 91 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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