Panthers, Horses and Bulls

The via dei principi (princes’ way) took us across dried-up fields where the corn had already been harvested. We walked to the tombs of the princess and that of the prince. Both tombs, capped by an earth tumulus, consisted of a semi-arched inner cell (the idea of semi-arches I had come across as far away as Orkney) and an outer vestibule. The atmosphere was filled with the perfume of wild fennel and the expansive views of gently rolling countryside towards the sea were quite lovely. We returned visiting the Luzi tomb.

In the late afternoon we joined a little group to visit tombs not normally open to the public. Our visit was the highlight of our Etruscan exploration. The tombs were among the most beautiful we’d ever seen and included the panthers’ tomb, the horses’ tomb and the bulls’ tomb.

Since Etruscan tombs range over a thousand years they did change over time and it is well to note briefly their typologies. In the first, Villanovan period, the dead were cremated and the ashes placed into pots. The second period introduces painted tombs with the dead laid on funerary beds in the vault, which was then sealed. The third brings the advent of sarcophagi in which the dead were placed inside the chamber. This method had the advantage that family members could be added to without hygiene problems.

The first tomb we saw, that of the Anina, is an example of this last period of Etruscan civilization. The tomb, discovered in 1967, dates back to the third century BC and has the dead placed in sarcophagi. I especially loved the figures of the two death demons painted on the inside of the entrance: Charun, the male demon, with his hammer ready to inflict pain on the souls of the dead and Vanth the female demon with a torch to light the way of the dead towards the other world.

The children in our group joined in an Etruscan workshop while we adults went off to see more tombs. We don’t know what they did in that workshop but we saw an Etruscan alphabet written up and some paints so I’m sure they had plenty to do.

The tomb of the panthers was only discovered in 1971 and is the earliest of Tarquinia’s painted tombs. The panthers (leopards really, but there is already a leopards tomb so it had to be called a different name) are painted in only two colours and the artist is clearly a ceramicist since the more developed painting style has not appeared yet. I found these animals more charming than ferocious.( Drawing of the panthers’ tomb courtesy of my other half, Alexandra.)

The tomb of the Baron has some wonderfully drawn horses and a lady whose evanescent farewell poignantly emphasises her separation from the world of the living.


The tomb of the bulls is notable for two things: first the representation of an episode from the Iliad (thus showing the close connection between Greek and Etruscan civilization) and, second, the erotic scenes of both types of love.

We returned that evening to the lovely church of Santa Maria in Castello for a superb concert of baroque cello – two cellos in fact. The practise of playing on period instruments has reached a truly stratospheric level in Italy after a late start.

The programme, which included sonatas by Vivaldi and Geminiani, was a great conclusion to the events of this, our last day in Tarquinia where we were enchanted by the greatest pleasures life can offer: sun, sea, mediaeval streets, Vivaldi, commedia dell’arte, fireworks displays, good food, great wines and, above all, those extraordinary painted Etruscan tombs.


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