How northwards did the Etruscans spread their civilization? I’d always thought Tuscany marked the northern borders of these perplexing people. So it was quite a shock when, having crossed the main watershed of the Apennines to descend into the Po river plain, we saw a sign pointing to an ancient Etruscan city, Misa: a place which flourished between the fourth and fifth centuries BC and which was eventually destroyed by a Celtic invasion.
The site museum was still closed for its afternoon siesta. There was a couple having an aperitif at the museum’s bar. He’d come here for a concert by a ‘fifties singer, Luciano Virgilio, who to me was completely unknown. She was smitten by the Etruscans and had dragged him to the archaeological site. We conversed about Etruscan things – she certainly knew her stuff, although a lawyer by profession and even pointed out to me that the language closest to ancient Etruscan language was modern Albanian.
The site itself did not look very promising – just a flat field which, in my opinion, would have made an excellent rugger pitch. There seemed to be nothing to see.
Then we started walking and wonders began to unfold. First, the foundations of a city gateway – then a necropolis with cassoned tombs, several of them crowned with the Etruscan egg – symbol of re-generation and eternity – the same egg held up by the reclining young man we’d seen in the tomb of the banquet at Tarquinia just a few days before.
There would have been more tombs to view but many of them had been covered over again to preserve them. Archaeology is essentially a destructive science: it kills the thing it loves, like so many of us tend to do.
The late afternoon was still rather hot but we persevered across the site to come across the Etruscan city itself, grid-planned with main and side streets and serviced by drainage channels – a system the Romans would take over and claim as their own. It was the clearest Etruscan street plan we’d ever come across and the best preserved city of the living we’d seen so far – the Etruscans are largely known to us only through their cities of the dead but they were a people whose love for life, its beauties and its pleasures, were far more sensitive than the heavy Roman moral universe which engulfed them. It’s, therefore, somewhat one-sided that most of what the Etruscans left are their necropoli but, them this is the fate of so many civilizations – we only know about them through their funerary monuments.
But the greatest discovery still awaited us: a sign pointed to the Acropolis; we crossed a wooden bridge over the main road, began to climb and found ourselves in front of the exquisitely carved podium of a temple, one of several to crown the site. I mounted the same steps used by the priests over two thousand years previously to divine augurs of the future by examination of a sacrificed animal’s entrails (usually the liver, as Italians today judge their future state of health by the condition of the same body part).
We returned to find the museum open and further surprises awaiting us in its excellent collection of finds and an exhibition on what the Etruscans ate and how they prepared it.
There were several outstanding exhibits – the best ones being, undoubtedly, the bronze statuettes of finest craftsmanship.
An old photograph of a museum case carried the ominous caption “the museum before its destruction.” So even this quiet spot had been scourged by the red-hot rake of WWII… Yet much still remained.
This Etruscan site of Misa should have been highlighted to a far greater extent. As the girl had emphatically told me it was a unique site both for its street plan and for its northerly location. As it was, we almost missed it – the second time round. For we’d been there once before, in the pouring rain, with the museum closed, not bothered walking and seen absolutely nothing.
Italy has such a plethora of ancient cities and archaeological sites that a surfeit of them can so easily cause indigestion both to the visitor who explores them and the authorities who are supposed to look after them. Nonetheless, each one has something to offer us and something to teach us. Misa is yet another of these learning experiences and its location among the Apennines is quite beautiful. We are glad we found it again perhaps drawn to it, as the girl suggested, by the Etruscan gods.