Sunday, April 21, 2002

Etruscan Places 2004


Sunday 8th April: Gate of Mars, Perugia

Strolling round Perugia looking at Renaissance architecture, it started to rain.  So we left the centro storico and walked back to the car.  On the way we discovered the Gate of Mars, which was originally an Etruscan gate which got tarted up by the Romans.  It led into subterranean passages within the city walls - very atmospheric, rather reminiscent of Gormenghast.

Monday 9th April: hills around Lake Trasimeno

The name of the village where we stayed, Panicale, means ‘in the heart of Pan’.  The next village was called Gioveto - named after Jupiter (Jove).  We walked out of Panicale on the road towards Paciano.  There was a very different flora: olive trees, wild cyclamens, bugle, hornbeams, tree heath, greater periwinkle, comfrey, grape hyacinths.  We turned off the road and up the hill.  We didn’t quite reach the top of Monte Petrarvella, but we had lovely views of Lake Trasimeno and could see the Monte della Laga and the Monte Sibillini in the distance, which were snow-capped.  This is the highest and most central part of the Apennines.  While we were eating our lunch, two yellow swallowtail butterflies flew past.  Further down the hill, we saw lots of lizards, more flowers (Star of Bethlehem, Italian Arum, Golden Hawksbeard) and a white swallowtail butterfly.  The geology was spectacular, much folding of sedimentary rock.

Tuesday 10th April: Tarquinia

Visited the Etruscan necropolis at Tarquinia, where the painted tombs are.  Many fascinating wall paintings, with dancing figures, musicians playing lyres and double pipes, animals (stags, lions, leopards, horses etc), scenes of revelry, landscapes.  Amazing to think that they were painted 2500 years ago.  We went in the Tombs of the Leopards, the Charons, Hunting and Fishing, the Pulcella, the Gorgon, etc.  The Pulcella tomb was set into the hillside like a Mycenean tomb or a big burial mound, but with the paintings inside the resemblance ended at the door.  The Etruscans used only three colours of paint: red, black, and bluish-green, but they used them to great effect.  One tomb resembled a pavilion or tent, and had a tartan ceiling and a frieze of animals running all around it just below the ceiling.  The Tomb of the Charons had a bas-relief door and blue winged Charons either side of the door, with inscriptions in Etruscan writing above their heads.  Afterwards we drove into Tarquinia itself, which was fairly desolate (so it hasn’t changed much since DH Lawrence visited it and reached the same conclusion), but had an excellent museum of Etruscan archaeological finds, including the sarcophagi from the Tarquinia tombs, jewellery, pottery, mainly Greek style, but some with spectacular sexual positions depicted on it, some of which looked physically impossible unless you were levitating.  The gold jewellery was lovely; one necklace was made of gold acorns, another had what seemed to be little jars.  They also had Bronze Age fibulae (cloak pins) from the Villanova culture on display; these were very distinctive, with large round end-plates and spirally bows.  They also had a collection of funerary urns, some of which were in the shape of Etruscan houses, i.e. oval.  The acropolis was on the hill opposite the necropolis.

11th April: Assisi

Well, we had to go and pay our respects to the most Pagan of saints, Francesco.  One of his canticles speaks of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.  Of course being a 12th century saint he was a bit excessively ascetic, but on the whole he was alright.  There is also the façade of a 1st century temple of Minerva (of course the interior was converted into a church, but the plan of the temple was preserved underneath the ghastly baroque schmalz).  Apparently Goethe admired the façade, which he said was perfectly proportioned.

12th April: Carsulae and Orvieto

Visited the remains of a Roman town at Carsulae, which was abandoned in the first century CE.  It was lovely there, very peaceful, lots of birds singing.  There was a Roman theatre and an amphitheatre, so we recited various things in the theatre.  I found several Lady Orchids there (very spectacular) and there were lots of pink anemones and some Early Purple Orchids.  There was also a Temple of the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), also known as the Gemini. Funnily enough we passed a sign to the town of San Gemini later on - clearly a thinly-disguised Pagan survival. Outside the city gate was a large round mausoleum, and a pointy tower (both tombs). We also found Venus’s Looking Glass (Legousia hybrida), Star of Bethlehem, and anemones.  The Via Flaminia (an ancient Roman road) passed through the town, and cart ruts worn into the paving stones were still visible.  The line of the road was heading directly towards a distinctive rounded hill on the horizon.  Afterwards we drove from Carsulae to Orvieto through the valley of the Lago di Corbaro, whose waters flow into the River Tiber (Fiume Tevere in modern Italian).  Orvieto sits enthroned on a huge outcrop of rock, selected by the Etruscans or the culture that preceded them for its invulnerability to attack.  Etruscan walls, tombs, and cisterns have been found in the city.  Beneath its cliffs is the Etruscan necropolis of Crocifisso del Tufa.  It is a beautiful place, full of flowers and blossoming trees.  In the late afternoon light it all glowed like the Summerlands.  The tombs were arranged in little streets, their low trapezoid doorways had inscriptions in Etruscan cut into the tufa blocks.  The older tombs had a conical stone point on the roof.  Inside the construction was stepped.  There were two types of tomb - the earlier one had a stone couch for the deceased on the left hand wall and the rear wall.  The later type had a small antechamber with orthostats (upright slabs) before the burial chamber proper.  On the top of Orvieto’s rock is a the base of a little Etruscan temple of unknown dedication, overgrown with grass and flowers, perfectly proportioned according to the classical layout, with steps sweeping up to the façade.

14th April: Orvieto & Chiusi

We woke up to find that it was snowing, so we decided to visit the Etruscan museum (Museo Claudio Faina) in Orvieto.  There were many Greek-style vases, some with multi-coloured winged Etruscan genies on the handles; also pottery masks which would have adorned the edge of the roof of Etruscan temples, probably as protective deities.  When we emerged from the museum it was sunny, though still cold, so we went to St Patrick’s Well, a masterpiece of medieval engineering built in 1537, with two sets of interlocking spiral steps, one going down and the other going up.  On our way home we visited Chiusi, which once boasted the tomb of Lars Porsenna (5th century BCE), who besieged and took Rome after Tarquin’s expulsion.  The tomb had a huge labyrinth in it (one of the three famous ones of the classical world) and four enormous conical towers (one at each corner) with wind chimes on top.  Weird.  There are also tunnels - the remains of the Etruscan water system - leading to a large, well-built Etruscan cistern beneath the bell-tower of the cathedral.  It was very windy on top of the bell-tower, so presumably Porsenna’s wind-chimes must have really annoyed the neighbours.

15th April: Hannibal battlefield

Went to see the site of Hannibal’s victory against the Romans near Tuoro, north of Lake Trasimeno.  The Carthaginians and their allies (some of whom came from as far afield as India) decided that Rome was gaining too much power.  Hannibal won the battle but not the war, however, as the Carthaginian navy, which was meant to sack Rome, stayed at home, and Hannibal was left to fight a sort of guerrilla war throughout Italy for the next twenty years.  How different the world would have been if he had won the war…  Afterwards drove to Cortona, which had very little to recommend it, except that, just as we were leaving, we saw a sign for an Etruscan hypogeum, so we visited it.  It was lovely - a little stone tomb surrounded by cypresses, slightly tumbledown, but elegant nevertheless.

16th April: Bagno di Vignoni

A wonderful place tucked away in southern Tuscany where no-one would think to look for it.  The Rough Guide to Italy only deemed it worthy of a tiny paragraph (but then the author seems to be interested only in frescoes).  Hot sulphurous springs rise on the hillside above the river Orcia, spilling minerals down the hillside and forming layer upon layer of tufa.  The main spring rises in a large rectangular pool.  There we made an offering and I had a vision of the nymph of the pool.  Further down the hillside, channels have been cut into the rock, and the hot spring-water rushes through them.  We joined a number of others in putting our feet into the water - bliss.  Later we walked along the valley of the river Orcia, and saw  another mineral stream that forms a series of pools down the hillside.  There were lots of flowers: borage, shrubby globularia, spiked speedwell.  Bagno Vignoni had its own micro-climate, caused by the condensation of the steam from the hot springs, so that the whole place was bathed in very soft rain.

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17th April: Ipogeo dei Volumni & Tempio di Clitunno

The Ipogeo dei Volumni (an Etruscan underground chambered tomb near Perugia) turned out to be rather atmospheric.  When we entered the building that had been erected over the entrance, it was full of stone cinerary urns like small houses, carved with bas-reliefs of griffins, melusinae, moons, bulls, medusae, or the goddess Vanth, a woman riding a dragon with a long curly tail - she is the Etruscan goddess of the underworld.  Some of the faces carved on the urns had snaky hair and wings growing out of the side of their heads.  There were also battle scenes carved on many of the urns.  The descent into the hypogeum was like going into the underworld.  The soft volcanic rock was greeny-grey, and a woman’s face was carved into it over the door of the chief chamber of the hypogeum, where there were several sarcophagi still in situ.

Afterwards we went to the Tempio di Clitunno (just off the main road between Assisi and Spoleto), a tiny temple built into the hillside in the first century CE.  The portico had 4 columns, the two bluish ones in the middle with acanthus leaves and the two outer ones with spirals winding up them.  It had been turned into a church at some time, which had evidently saved it from destruction, but it still had atmosphere.

18th April: Rome

The Forum was at first sight a confused jumble of relics, until the individual buildings began to emerge from the background: the last corner of the House of the Vestal Virgins, who tended the sacred fire of Vesta; the temple of Saturn, where the god was kept chained because the statue was believed to go walkabout at night, and it was feared he might unleash chaos upon the Forum.  He was only let loose at Saturnalia, when topsy-turvydom was given free rein.  We saw the Temple of Romulus (not the famous founder of Rome, another one), whose porphyry pillars framed an ancient bronze door.  19th century archaeologists found the key to the doors, and the lock still worked after 2000 years.  They made things to last in those days…  Next door was the temple of Augustus and Faustina, whose pillars of cipollina marble the early Christians tried to pull over with ropes soaked in bacteria (the marks are still visible on the pillars).  Fortunately during the entire medieval period, the Forum was mostly buried under silt which had been accumulated by successive floods of the Tiber, so the pillars were impossible to pull over.  This was lucky, as the Forum was used as a quarry for building materials for the churches of Rome.  The Senate house (the Curia) still has its original floor and a fair amount of its original walls.  Over this floor walked Caractacus, the first Briton whose words entered written history.  He was handed over to the Romans by Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, after a glorious career of resisting the Roman occupation, but he still managed to persuade them not to kill him, with these eloquent words:

"If my lineage and my rank had been matched by moderation in success, I should have entered this city rather as a friend than as a captive. My present lot, if to me a degradation, is to you a glory.  If I were dragged before you, after surrendering without a blow, there would have been little heard either of my fall or your triumph. Punishment of me will be followed by oblivion. But save me alive and I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency."    

Then we went to the Pantheon, the magnificent temple built by Agrippa in 27 BCE and restored by Hadrian from 118 to 123 CE.  It was saved from destruction in the sixth century by the decision to convert it into a church.  Its dome was the largest in the West until Brunelleschi built the dome of Florence cathedral.  A veritable forest of pillars hides the entrance door.  When we entered, it was local noon, because the ray of sun coming in through the opening in the centre of the dome was striking the door.  An auspicious moment.  It is a magnificent building, and we want it back.  We uttered a small prayer to the deities of Rome in the very centre, and gazed sadly on the empty niches where the statues of the Roman pantheon would have been.  There are many different colours of marble - red, black, yellow, white, harmoniously arranged.  Afterwards we went to the banks of the River Tiber, and stood on the bridge.  The we walked to the Rotunda and the Temple of Hercules, which was one of the oldest temples in Rome.

19th April: Florence

Pretending to be Helena Bonham Carter in Room with a View, we walked to the Duomo, Orsanmichele, and the Palazzo Vecchio.  This was amazing; it has a whole series of rooms with allegorical frescoes by Vasari of the classical deities.  One of the most interesting rooms was the Room of the Elements, with a wall for each element.  The offering of the first fruits to Saturn represents Earth; the birth of Venus represents Water; Vulcan’s forge represents Fire; Air, on the ceiling, is represented by Saturn assaulting Heaven, surrounded by allegories of Truth, Peace, Day, Night, Justice, and Fame, and the chariots of the Sun and the Moon.  Apparently Cosimo de Medici (who commissioned the frescoes) was a Capricorn, so he liked to have depictions of the ruling planet of his sun sign.  There was also a Terrace of Saturn.  Afterwards we went into Santa Croce, found Machiavelli’s tomb, and wandered around for quite a while before we found Galileo’s tomb.  We managed to get a quiet moment reflecting on his life and thought before a tour party turned up. Dante and Michelangelo are buried there as well.  Then we went to the Boboli Gardens to commune with Nature.  We particularly liked the Island Pond and the Knight’s Garden, and the whimsical Mustaccio fountain, a rill where the water runs through a series of grotesque masks.

21st April: Marzabotto


Marzabotto was a 5th century BCE Etruscan colony south of Bologna (the northernmost extent of the Etruscans’ domain).  It was a beautiful place, a plateau surrounded by mountains and a bend in the river.  It had been a very  large city, with wide porticoed streets, elaborate drainage systems, and an acropolis with several elegant temples.  There were some lovely Lady Orchids there too.  Outside the eastern gate of the city was the necropolis, with small tombs, about the right size for a crouch burial or a cremation, with an egg-shaped stone on the roof.  The plan of the Etruscan houses was different from that of the Romans, with a long corridor leading to the central courtyard, which had a well or water feature in the centre.