In northern Lazio, Donald Strachan goes underground to meet one of Europe’s forgotten peoples
It doesn’t look like much. A scrubby field half-overgrown with cow parsley and daisies. Wild wheat and yellow flowering rapeseed have blown in on the breeze. But this is the Necropoli dei Monterozzi, just outside Tarquinia, and its real action is below ground, the single greatest collection of frescoed Etruscan tombs anywhere in Europe.
Here and there squat buildings of brick and poured cement guard staircases down into the dark. I pause on the top step as my eyes switch from blazing spring sun to subterranean black. Twenty or more paces below are little chambers hacked from the rock around 2,500 years ago. I can only go as far as the entrance: the tombs are sealed behind glass. Tarquinia’s legacy is too precious to dissolve in airborne sweat and condensed breath.
The novelist D. H. Lawrence was enchanted by Etruscan civilization. Around the time he was polishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he also wrote Etruscan Places, an account of months spent exploring their tombs and other scant remains. For about five centuries before the rise of Rome, the Etruscans ruled most of central Italy — north beyond the Apennine Mountains to the plains of the River Po, south as far as Campania. Yet the mainstream has forgotten them. There’re no crowds at Etruscan sites, like those at Pompeii or the Forum in Rome or Verona’s Arena. They bequeathed their name — to “Tuscany” — and as far as posterity goes, that’s about it.
Dying for attention
Ironically, death conveys most of what we know about Etruscans’ lives. The Romans — at various times were Etruria’s allies, conquerors and a bit of both, and annihilated or assimilated almost everything. A small amount of writing survives, but it’s mostly uninteresting. Their burial sites, though ransacked, are a different story.
I press a plastic button to light the Tomb of the Leopards and reveal its art. There’s a party going on in vivid pigment, where the deceased reclines in his finery to enjoy music and dancing. Above his head, two leopards face each other through the fronds of an olive tree. The preservation is remarkable. These images are five times as old as the Sistine Chapel.
Elsewhere at Monterozzi are painted lionesses, panthers and bulls, hunting scenes, fishermen, demons, athletes and acrobats. More than three-quarters of known Etruscan painted tombs are strung along the crest of this single ridge. It’s a city of the dead populated by harpists and flautists, wrestlers and waiters and several characters who are clearly drunk.
I’ve spent a lot of time around ancient Etruria, walking Pitigliano’s vie cave (deep channels cut through volcanic rock) and roaming archaeological sites in the Tuscan Maremma, at Vetulonia, Roselle and Populonia. There are excellent Etruscan museums in Volterra, Grosseto, Orvieto and Tarquinia itself. The Tomb of the Demon Charioteer, outside Sarteano, stars a menacing figure unique in ancient art. Nowhere brings these people to life quite like their tombs. The Etruscans knew how to die. Tarquinia’s art suggests they knew how to live pretty well, too.