There is an intuition that leads one on. And so yesterday, early, we headed out to Tarquinia to spend the beach and sun part of our holidays.
There has been talk for a very long time of completing a Pisa to Rome motorway to provide a direct link from Genoa to the capital and relieve traffic on the Autostrada del Sole but (thankfully) nothing yet has been done to further despoil the extraordinary country through which the strada statale 1, the Italian equivalent of the UK’s A1, passes. Much of our journey was through the maremma which for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire declined into a malarial ridden coastal plain. Italy is so ridden with hills and mountains that it was strange to drive through miles of gently undulating scenery with the mountains as a distant cornice – it gave one a feeling of expansiveness.
We passed the old customs post which once demarcated the frontier between the grand-duchy of Tuscany and the Papal states.
We were now in Lazio and shortly saw to our left, on a gentle hill the walls and towers of Tarquinia.
We entered through the wide barriera di San Giusto which, I felt was contemporary with the change of the city’s name from Corneto to Tarquinia ordered by Mussolini back in 1922 to extol the glories of Italy’s classical past.
But this was no ancient Roman glory praising the virtues of obedience and discipline – Tarquinia is that city so lovingly described by DH Lawrence in his “Etruscan places”. I hadn’t realised (or rather I’d forgotten) this but remembered that Lawrence had compared unfavourably the seriously militaristic ethos of Rome with the life-enhancing, peace-loving culture of the Etruscans – that still highly mysterious people whose domain stretched north to Florence and south to Rome itself and whose language is still largely undeciphered.
Having sorted out our hotel in the more modern part of the city we returned to visit the Archaeological museum – one of the greatest collections of Etruscan finds in the world. The palazzo is splendid architecture going from gothic into early renaissance and built for the town’s bishops – it’s worth going to the museum just to see it. From the top there is a wonderful enclosed terrace with gorgeous views towards the sea. As for the the museum, it is quite stunning but also quite disturbing. Surely those rows of sarcophagi draped by the out-stretched figures of ancient Etruscans should not have been brought here but allowed to rest in the coolness of the necropolis tombs which lie just outside the walls? How would my own immediate ancestors have liked to have their graves dug up and the Carrara marble epitaphs put on display in a museum and be ogled at by international tourists. As Lawrence says in that marvellous posthumous travel book of his, “Etruscan places”: “museums are wrong”. Be that as it may, without museums a lot more of what the Etruscans left behind would have been lost for ever. There is so much to learn here, so much to gasp at. The day after our visit the winged horses, which once decorated the tympanum of a temple (and have now become the symbol of Tarquinia), and the joyful painted tombs with their frescoes recovered by the strappo technique from the mausoleums they one adorned, stand out foremost in my mind’s eye. But there was so much else, including some rather dainty earthenware confirming Sir Richard Burton’s hypothesis of the sotadic zone.
Tarquinia is a proud and at the same time, amicable place. We loved wandering around its people-friendly streets after our dutiful museum visit. For supper we chose a somewhat unconventional place – the old city abattoir where a social and film club offered us a (mainly vegetarian!) buffet supper and where we decided to give the film a miss for there was something rather more enticing just above us. By the abattoir was the 12th century fonte nova where we drank the freshest water while witnessing a gorgeous sunset looking out over the bay and Monte Argentario.
Santa Maria in Castello is a church whose title describes it exactly as being within the confines of the old castle. It is Tarquinia’s oldest and loveliest church and has an interior built in an almost Norman form of Romanesque architecture. I especially enjoyed the way that the arches supported one set of vaulting each on the aisles but combined in twos to support the main nave vaults.
The font was of the old full-immersion type and there was plenty to dazzle the eye including the cosmatesque floor. The ear was dazzled too, for that evening in Santa Maria was to be a concert by a string quartet extracted from the Abruzzi symphony orchestra and a soloist on the piano. Rachmaninov’s Romanza was followed by that almost Turkish-delight flavoured string quartet no, 2 by part-time composer (he was a chemist by profession) Borodin in an exquisite performance.
After a short break, where we attempted to cool down from the accumulated heat of the torrid day outside in the church square dominated by a watchtower, Chopin’s piano concerto no1 followed. The fact that a string quartet did not detract from the absence of the original full symphony orchestra scoring of this enchanting work proved to me that Chopin did well to concentrate on the solo piano for his mature compositions.
Walking back through the picturesque streets of Tarquinia by night, and hearing the different Lazio accent of the people, we concluded we’d had a great day one in our mini-holiday and decided we’d visit the beach first thing the next morning.