It was an unseasonably cold April weather I left behind to travel with via antiqua to Latium, Tuscany, and Rome in search of Rome’s Etruscan heritage, a program designed and curated by Anke. Already on the way from the da Vinci airport one seemed to enter a dreamy zone as the trip began with a leisurely walk through the Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri. Amongst high grass and quiet bluebells rose a majestic ancient city of round tombs chiseled out of the region’s natural landscape of tuff rocks. Round, cylindrical houses with roofs the shape of funeral mounds, overgrown with grass and even after millennia boasting intricately fashioned facades to give the illusion of doors and frames, and then, steps descending into the sepulchral chambers themselves. We entered into several, all the while Werner, our expert guide, explained the purpose of the chambers‘ fixtures, which were, in their turn, chiseled out of the volcanic tuff rock to give the semblance of beds and furniture, wooden roof beams and even, at times, cushions and bedding. We heard about Etruscan families and their customs as well as the architectural types of tomb, the variations and development of design, and viewed one particularly luxurious sepulchral chamber where not only were there likenesses of beds and cushions chiseled out of the rock, but also wall reliefs of domestic goods and decorations, giving the tomb the all-round look of a new home for the deceased.
Our hosts were the very lovely organic farmers Chiara and Marco of Pulicaro, who served home-cooked meals of regional specialties like eggplant pie, duck ragout egg pasta, wild boar stew and hearty desert cakes, all made from fresh and often home-grown ingredients, accompanied with quality Tuscan wine and the mandatory after-dinner espresso and digestives. The farm, an “agriturismo” model mixes the comfort and elegance of country house guest rooms with the rustic, healthful atmosphere of a family farm, traditional cooking expertise with organic, high-quality local meat, poultry and vegetables. We enjoyed our breakfast too, an exotic take on the American breakfast, of deeply yellow, Italian-style scrambled eggs, fine cheese platters and fine meat cuts for bacon.
The next cultural destination was the Etruscan necropolis at Sovana, a winding mountain drive away. Here, we were able to marvel at large houses for the dead, this time not round but in the shape of half-cubes emerging out of the rocks. Stairs and columns, parts of roofs, and even a coffered ceiling had been chiseled out of the tuff here. On our way, we had stopped briefly to inspect some man-made caverns in the rock with pigeon-hole like cavities in them, and learned that they were urn spaces; at the archaeological treasure trove of Sovana, we also saw large remains of what seemed to have been a triangular roof-frieze
showing a winged siren with long and snake-like, curling tail.
Werner explained the figure and her significance to Etruscan mythology, which is different from both the Greek and the Roman. That siren, I saw again several times: not least, she was haunting the monster park of Count Orsini we visited not long after. This large hillside park, designed in mid-renaissance for the bemusement of the whimsical count, lover of the grotesque, presents like an aggrandized cabinet of horrors, where the unsuspecting flaneur is greeted, time and again, by the contorted and voracious faces of mysterious, half-fantastic creatures with big gaping mouths sown around disconcerting landscapes with eerie decorations and led upon an erratic route marked out by enigmatic inscription in Renaissance Italian. My function here was to read and translate the inscriptions for the others, yet all remained mystified by their often oracular meanings and as we walked out of the fairy-tale like park gate all were scratching their heads and pondering whether it wasn’t all just one gigantic joke (pun intended!).
On a similarly otherworldly note, driving home we passed some hot and sulphur-rich springs and thermal baths. Vapours were rising from the earth and hot water bubbling into rock basins and along a low, hot-water mini-aqueduct from which people were able to fill their bottles with the volcanic waters, which are said to have particular healing properties, as Anke explained. Some few people were soaking in the hot water pool, keeping very still and smiling at one another; others were wandering around slowly in loin cloths and bath robes, glancing through the fog of steam.
We returned to deepest underworlds and Etruscan graves the next morning as we went to visit the Francois tomb by the archaeological excavation park at Vulci. The murals in this large and prominent tomb are particularly well preserved and at the same time, the tomb is accessible to walk in rather than being sealed off behind glass, so Werner got out the torch and let the colorful murals shine. He pointed out a further recurring pattern of t-shaped door frame designs chiseled in rock, that we found also here, adorning the opening between grave chambers. Our especially hired guide gave us detailed interpretations of the mural allegories, which in fact showed pairs of mythological and historical scenes in a fascinating complementarity. As I acted as an interpreter to the guide who was giving the tour in Italian, Anke and Werner soon began to question the scholarly soundness of the guide’s explanations and all entered into a topical discussion on the development of art, myth and thought among the Etruscans. Inside the Francois tomb we also saw, again, the siren’s snake-like tail, this time in the guise of a lovely geometric and multicolor, snake-skin-like frieze pattern painted upon an illusory skirting plank (given that the tomb is actually chiseled out of the rock) running around the ceiling.
There was ample occasion to be awed by bright colors and scenic motifs at Tarquinia, where, although there was not much visible by way of grave mounds (let alone tumulus-like, or round, or half-cube structures), mural paintings in several dozen tombs were almost perfectly preserved and we could marvel at artistic motifs ranging from tigers and leopards, to florals, musical entertainment, and—but unfortunately that’s shut—sex scenes, to gods and myths, all to be found by descending the ancient stairs into the graves and shining light on the rich darkness. With these joyous scenes and Werner’s explanations on the Etruscan customs of grave parties and other funeral rites, a rather joyful picture of the Etruscan approach to death and funerals began to emerge.
We traveled to Norchia, a faraway Etruscan necropolis on the steep and lonely, wild cliffs behind unploughed fields that were, in this season, opulent with wild poppies and daisies. We ventured over dubious abysses, thorny weeds and disappearing stone stairs into the middle row of the old necropolis, in search of elusive inscriptions and sculptural details. The sun was beating down on lizards sunbathing on rock cliffs that had been polished flat and into rows of semi-cubic grave houses with sculptural details of pretend-door entrances and mighty steep stairs down into the graves, which we chiefly focused on not accidentally tripping over into, although we also entered some, torch in hand, and found various shapes of grave chamber, some graves and grave lids, even. It has to be said that not everyone shared the unabated enthusiasm of archaeological adventure and spurts of rock-climbing, as some parties of the trip found themselves at the exit much earlier than others, rather sitting in the flowers instead.
With that behind us, we drove off again, some miles through more mountainous roads and idyllic small towns, passing ancient bridges and aqueducts, for a trek up the steep ramp to Civita di Bagnoregio, a small polity on the top of a tall cliff—originally founded by the Etruscans, now all but abandoned, as, though picturesque, the location perhaps never was all that practical—we looked down on a most sharp and spiky scape of rocks and rising hills and enjoyed an aperitif in a quiet little bar, then took a walk around and enjoyed the peaceful silence there.
We drove to Sutri to see the archaeological site. The ancient amphitheater, cut into the volcanic tuff rather than built from stones, was impressive to behold so it was a real shame we could not see much more of the archaeological park owing to a recent flood. Just by that site, however, was the Mithraeum, an ancient Etruscan family crypt knocked into tuff cliffs, which had been turned into a Mithra-cult cave come the mystic era, and even later was consecrated as a Christian crypt, and remains a Christian church until now. Its interior is adorned with multiple layers of mural paintings that retell the story, in a nutshell, of how Etruscan graves and other pagan worship sites became appropriated by other faith systems over time, transformed or decomposed into their elements and later recomposed, or gradually integrated and transformed. Not least had we also visited a very old, almost ancient church by Tuscania, searching, indeed finding, not only Etruscan motifs but whole architectural parts such as columns and corner stones, recycled into the more recent buildings to suit the purposes of other times and faiths, most notably of course the Roman Catholic church.