Happy Summer tutti. June 21st was the official start of the summer. The second homes which were left empty during the winter months by occupants that live in Civitavecchia, which is just as hot as Rome, are now being occupied for the summer. By the end of May, spring cleaning, painting and planting of flower pots signified the start of a new season. The temperatures are now rising across Italy and from one day to the next it has become a hot mixture of humid and rainy afternoons. The scirocco which are hot sandy winds that blow in from the Sahara have come early and once again the mountains have become a haven as it is much cooler at our elevated heights than Rome. There is no such thing as air conditioning, so now unless I leave the house before 7 am and retreat back inside at 12, it is far to hot to be outside until around 7pm when there is a cool breeze flowing up from the coast.
Luckily in May we took several day trips while the weather was still at its cool best. From Monti della Tolfa, it is possible to visit small towns, many of which are abandoned or not quite vibrant but very rich in history. The region of Lazio is definitely more than Rome. Northern Lazio was once the home of the Etruscan culture, a people that came long before the Romans. They occupied all of middle of Italy and dominated from about 800 BC when the first city states of Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci (all in Lazio) were formed. In it’s hey day there were 12 great city states that were rich and powerful. The Tolfa area belonged to Cerveteri.
The Etruscans flourished until the early Roman days and to the 6th century BC. Then they vanished. It was not until the 19th century when excavations of the necropoli (grave-cities) began that they once again became known. Sadly, prior to my first trip to Italy, I have to admit that I had never heard of the Etruscan culture – all I ever heard or learnt about were the ancient Romans! Now living in the midst of of what was once Etruria, I have grown fascinated as I learn more.
I have a thing with travel writers from the 19th and 20th centuries. It was a time when it was fashionable to come to Italy either to get away from dreary English or German weather to the sunshine, for culture appropriation or to simply find one self- maybe much like today. D.H. Lawrence is one of them. Lawrence said that “when he first became conscious of Etruscan things at a museum in Perugia he was instinctively attracted to them”. It was the same for me when I first went to Tarquinia many year ago. Lawrence’s book “Etruscan Places” has now become my guide to finding the Etruscans in this region and it is fascinating to compare his trip of 1927 to mine of 2021. I think he was a bit disdainful of the Romans of which He said “Romans in their usual neighbourly fashion wiped them out in order to make room for Rome with a big “R”. It seemed that the puritan Romans did not approve of the more liberal Etruscans.
“Because we know nothing about the Etruscans except what we can find in the tombs”, so off to the tombs we go! Our first city to visit is Cerveteri which from Tolfa is a 40 minutes drive. Cerveteri was the most important seapower being on the coast. There in Cerveteri is the “Banditaccia” necropolis, a precious testimony of the Etruscan passage in this territory. Its necropolis, together with that of nearby Tarquinia, was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
“-so that the Etruscan cities vanished as completely as flowers, only the tombs, the bulbs, were underground”D.H. Lawrence in “Etruscan Places”
It’s a beautiful sunny May day, much cooler than we expected but the best day for a trip outdoors. Located a few kilometers (about 6) from the Tyrrhenian coast and if you are coming from Rome it is about 40 kilometers north traveling through the Roman countryside to the sea. The meadows are spring green with pockets of yellow buttercups and vermillion red poppies grow carelessly along the roadside. From the coast we passed the pink and creamsicle orange buildings of the town of Cerveteri to the grey tombs outside the town were it was tradition and still is, until this day to bury the dead. We drove through a 2 – lane flat road which was unpaved and white in Lawrence’s day and under a row of trees lining the lane, which he described as “a noble avenue of umbrella pines”. We turned into a vast parking lot being guarded by a family of calico and brown cats. Besides the road a small field of lavender and deep purple thistle plants known as cardo in Italian, form a backdrop to the town in the distance and further down was the sea. The area is fenced off and once we paid our entrance ticket we were free to roam the “city” of necropolis .
THE NECROPOLIS ON THE HILL IS CALLED BANDITACCIA AND IS THE GREATEST COLLECTION OF 7TH AND 6TH-CENTURY BC ASHLAR BUILDINGS TO BE SEEN IN EUROPE. It is a well planned out ‘city’ with established avenues lined on either side with mushroomed-shaped structures with mounds of grass on top.
The bases are carved into girdles of stone, all around. They are sunk a bit into the ground with avenues making a path in-between.
In May, Italy was still under several restrictions and as a result there were still not many travelers outside of the regions. So we had the place literally to ourselves with the exception of one or two other families which had already moved on to the otherside of the garden. The atmosphere had a very still peacefulness. It was a place where you could sit and contemplate the past or just mediate and be in the moment. “A curious peaceful repose” Lawrence said. Unlike other ancient cities e.g. great pyramids in Mexico, Celtic places or that of Egypt, he thought that there was a stillness and a softness in these grey grassy mounds. Walking around there was a “lingering of a homeliness and happiness, a soothing in the air and a feeling that it was good for one’s soul to be there”.
These homes of the dead are quite large. Cut out of the volcanic rock and some deep below the surface, they are like houses. The roof has a beam impression which imitate the roof beam of a house. In fact it is a house, a home for the departed. But as you go in, there is a pleasant feeling that they left behind. In fact, apparently they were a jovial people that truly new how to enjoy life. In Tarquinia the painted tombs left behind tell of how much they enjoyed good food, wine, exercise and going to the sea. So as they lived, they died leaving that pleasant atmosphere behind. Death to the Etruscans was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels , wine, flutes playing and dancing. It was a natural continuance of the fullness of life, neither a heaven or purgatory just that everything was in terms of life or living.
There are many many tombs and if you are like Riccardo you will descend into them all. Some are large and some small, the larger seemingly to be for the noble and wealthier citizens. Most have several chambers and antechambers.
I don’t think it is possible to grasp the reality that these people once roamed these lands 3000 years ago, at least 700 years before Christ. They left behind the beautiful round structures that were once filled with gold and silver and jewels and vases that looked like Greek vases. All the tombs are empty. All the treasures are gone. When the Romans took over and started collecting Etruscan antiques, there was a great sacking of the tombs. Then Rome fell and the barbarians pillaged whatever was left. Over time the earth washed in and filled the entrance way covering the stone bases of the mounds and trees and bushes grew over the graces. What was left was a hilly, bushy waste country. Under these tombs lay silent and untouched buried on the other side of the town until 1836 when it was discovered.
I feel the need to return in order to capture that feeling and moment in time. There are far too many tombs and like all sightseeing in Italy, each place or monument needs two or three trips to understand the magnificence of the passage of human time. There is a museum but on this trip we did not make it. There I am sure it is filled with examples of Etruscan life, jewellery, weapons and objects as well as Greek vases.
On leaving the Banditaccia we made a quick stop in the town and I marvel that here live a people that may have descended from the vital, jovial Etruscans. Some claim that the Etruscans still ‘live’ in this part of Italy. And I believe it. The ability to enjoy the good things of life, good food and drink, good company and long dinners and not be too concerned about what the future may bring are traits that my Italians friends carry. Lawrence felt that “Italy may be more Etruscan than Roman and the Etruscan element is like the grass of the field and the sprouting of corn…it will always be so”