Etruscan Faces

Italian painting starts in Tarquinia. A UNESCO world heritage site, the Etruscan necropolis contains wonderful frescoed tombs dating back to the ninth century BC and giving us quite detailed insights into the life and times of those mysterious people – in particular what they looked like!

Unfortunately, time and crime have reduced many of the tombs to a pale shadow of what they were but enough remains to give us a good idea of the pleasures to be expected in these celebrations of the after-life, which, to the Etruscans was to be full of good things: banquets, hunting, sex, fishing (and so, incidentally, telling us something about what the good things in their lives were too).

The necropolis is on the same hill as Tarquinia and we reached it with a twenty minute walk from centre of town which was bustling with a lively market in its gorgeous central square festooned with stalls, churches, the town hall, a lovely fountain and an excellent baker, among a million other things.

At the top of Tarquinia was a belvedere ornamented by little painted majolicas overlooking what DH Lawrence described as “one of the most delightful landscapes I have ever seen.”

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At the city of the dead itself, what looked like entrances to air-raid shelters were, in fact, modern constructions protecting access to the tombs which were first discovered in the eighteenth century and which continue to be discovered today. We managed to visit about twenty of them, not having time to see all the other two hundred-odd painted ones and the thousands of unpainted ones.

Each tomb is well-documented with a sign which gives you its name, when it was discovered, its main features etc.

It’s incredibly difficult to take pictures of the tombs’ interiors since each one is protected at its entrance by a thick glass door which reflects any flash and which, if taken without flash, subdues the often vivid colours. So you really must take everything you see in and store it in your mind’s eye to get the true picture.

What pleasantly surprised me about the tombs was the fact that this major world heritage sight was still administered within human proportions. What I mean is that, whereas other places, like Stonehenge, are overwhelmed by massive car parks, catering establishments, exhibitions and the rest of that culture-commercial paraphernalia which so takes away from my enjoyment of the purity of the site itself, Tarquinia necropolis still manages to preserve that atmosphere of domesticity and intimacy which so pleased DH Lawrence when he visited it and where he wrote those unsurpassable descriptions of its paintings.

I recently looked at an ancient photo of me and my parents at Stonehenge. We were sitting on one of those fallen great stones, eating sandwiches and next to us was our pet dachshund. Those were the days! I don’t think I’d ever want to go to that place again if I can’t eat my sandwiches on one the stones or touch them with my hands…

We’d seen the city of the dead. Now we were off to see the city of the living and it was not the Tarquinia we had just come from. The Etruscan Tarquinia lies on a long ridge lying behind the Necropolis and the “modern” town which interposes itself between it and the sea.

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Etruscan Tarquinia is not sign-posted, has to be searched out with some difficulty and, then, is only accessible via a “white” i.e. un-metalled road. We arrived in the middle of a landscape, gentle and arcane, and started walking. After about twenty minutes a sign pointed us to the Ara della Regina, or Queen’s altar. This where the stupendous winged horses we saw in the archaeological museum were found.

I was quite amazed by what I came across – the walls and podium of the largest Etruscan temple ever (dedicated to that percursor of the Virgin Mary, the goddess Diana) with cyclopean blocks (hewn from a local calcareous stone called “macco”) miraculously put together and a magic silence over all, apart from the plaintive bleating of a flock of sheep led through the tall grass by a shepherd and his dog, just like three thousand years ago.

As I sat on the unfathomable sanctum sanctorum of the temple’s fallen magnificence I felt a strange force entering my whole being – so much so that I could not tear myself away from this mysterious spot for some time.

Eventually, I did manage it else I would not be writing this!

We returned to another spectacular sunset framed by the arches of an ancient aqueduct.

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In the evening we attended a more modern religious sight when the Assumption of the Virgin was celebrated at Tarquinia’s lido. She took to the sea in a ceremony evocative of that ancient Etruscan ritual painted on one of the tombs we had visited earlier.

Plus ça change…

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