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Tarchuna to Tarquinia

Updated: Feb 11, 2019

Fresh from the ancient Necropolis, we turn to Tarquinia itself, a town of towers, walls and sun-drenched siestas!


The Historic Centre of Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

The visitor to Tarquinia today will most probably come here because of its tombs. Others perhaps because of family or friends who make it their home. Yet greatly overlooked, and worthy of far greater attention than what it receives, is the city of Tarquinia itself, Corneto of old. What the visitor sees of the town today is mostly the fruit of the Tarquinesi builders of the 11th-15th centuries, ever-conscious of the powers which lurked beyond their borders.


Like many of their kin across Northern and Central Italy, they would seek the prestige of the Commune, a concept built with considerable expertise in the Peninsula in the first centuries of the second millennium since Christ. The concept of the Commune is one that lies at the core of the psychology of the modern Italian, with roots far back in time and with varying manifestations, and thus is not easily or swiftly explained to the foreigner. The Commune was, at the most rudimentary level, the City-State. Rudimentary indeed, for while on a map of Europe it would have appeared that these Communes were what we might term 'sovereign states' today, with powers to shape their own laws and arrange their own defence, in practice all of them obeyed some grander allegiance, be it to the Emperors who followed Charlemagne in the north, or to Papal Rome. The Commune was, however, something of an alternative to the feudalism, the latter Germanic in origin and nature, which spread across the West and the British Isles, and to Southern Italy by the arms of the House of Normandy. Where feudal kingdoms were tightly hierarchical, but offered considerable autonomy to the lands which formed them, the Commune was a microstate focused upon a single city, and largely mercantile by nature. The great feudal armies of the north marshalled the flower of chivalry, men-at-arms and mounted knights, loyal to their lord and king, while those of the Communes were largely citizen levies, augmented by mercenaries of dubious reputation, loyal strictly to coin. The peasantry of the north would work the great landed estates and manors, and the wealth of the kingdom depended on the harvest. Their brethren in the Commune of Italy dwelled within great walled cities, and sought fortune in the trade of goods. The former would be vulnerable to the caprices of Mother Nature, the latter to shifts in geopolitics. For centuries the Communes would welcome the flows of tremendous wealth, from trade with Constantinople and Alexandria, and the currency of pilgrimage, as the faithful flocked to Rome. Power, it appeared, was local, and government none too distant. It is for this state of affairs that the modern Italian is nostalgic, like an aged grandmother wistfully leafing through an old family album.


In the end, it would be the northern manner of rule which would demonstrate its superiority. The Italian states would prove unable to affect the events beyond their peninsula to a meaningful degree, individually too weak to impose their will, collectively too riven by petty rivalries and strife to face the monolithic powers of France and Spain. The increasing professionalisation of armies of the great powers would decisively trump the comparatively amateur levies of Italy, and all too often, delusions of independence would inspire acts of fatal hubris by the leaders of the Communes.


Tarquinia out to the Tyrrhenian - © 2018 James Green

Tarquinia, seduced by the phenomenon of Commune, would declare itself as such in the mid twelfth century. It was around this time that the wheat fields of Tarquinia would reign near-unmatched for the bounty of their yields, much bound for other shores from the ancient port of Graviscae, now called Porto Clementino. Alas the small Commune, like Tarchuna before it, would prove unable to resist the thrusts of Rome, as the ruthless Cardinal Albornoz would subjugate it in 1355, stamping out Tarquinian independence once and for all.


Passing once more beneath the mighty gate, a rather beautiful vista opened up, the gentle waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea cresting in the far distance over the wall. The ancient Rasenna may first have come to these lands upon these shores, and the medieval Cornetano set off over the horizon in pursuit of wealth. How fickle the passage of time can be.


With the light beginning to turn the marvellous hue of gold that it is wont to do in the Italian late afternoon, we soon found ourselves back once more in Piazza Trento e Trieste, one of the most beautiful piazze of any town in Central Italy, even more so now with the arrival of la sera (the late afternoon/evening). There was scarcely time to sit and admire it with the time it invites, however, as we were heading for another dose of Tarquinia's true treasure.


Piazza Trento e Trieste, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

At the very entrance of the town, a mere stone's throw from the 19th century gate, is a vast and imposing palace, a square loggia rising on one side, and finely rusticated stone running all around it. This is the Palazzo Vitelleschi, named for the once powerful family which dwelled in Tarquinia, and above all for Cardinal Giovanni Maria Vitelleschi, a ruthless soldier clad in the red of a Prince of the Church. Alas that his home would fall afoul of an Allied bomb in '44, for it was once among the finest palazzi in Lazio. The Tarquinesi, however, have conducted a noble work restoring it, and it forms a glorious home to some glorious artefacts indeed.


Lawrence found it to be "exceedingly interesting and delightful", and we would agree. Unusually among small town museums, it boasts an awe-inspiring collection formed entirely from its own finds, and has no need of imports torn from their contexts to fill the space. After all, museums are at their heart a compromise between the atmosphere of the sites from which the artefacts they contain were found, and the ease of access and understanding that a single building may theoretically provide. Alas that so many fail so spectacularly in the former, and thus jeopardise the latter. But the Palazzo Vitelleschi is a pleasant surprise, Once the seat of the local Papal government, today it is the throne of Tarquinia's glorious ancient past.


Statue at Palazzo Vitelleschi, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

The first striking observation one makes here are the intriguing sarcophagi of the Rasenna. Far from being featureless basins of stone, one finds oneself face to face with the men and women of Etruria of old, for atop each is hewn from the rock an effigy of the deceased within, warts and all, reclining as though looking up from the dining table. At times the men might hold a patera, a circular dish used in the pouring of libations, to show his faith and piety, in the manner of a medieval knight whose hands are clasped to prayer. Of who these men were we know little, but it is probable that they were of the ruling classes of Ancient Etruria, arrayed as it was into a Confederation of Twelve, known as the Dodecapolis, which allied the twelve most prominent of their cities, headed by Tarchuna. The great Rasenna lords, the Lauchume, or Lucumones as the Romans called them, were something akin to the Latin concept of Rex (king), though they were high priests first, and secular rulers second, rather as the Popes of medieval Europe. By the time these sarcophagi which we could see before us had been crafted, Tarchuna had perhaps already fallen to Roman armies, after a savage war of conquest which would see atrocities on both sides. Perhaps in these deathless eyes, these men stare out defiantly, nostalgic for earlier times.


Sarcophagus of an Etruscan - © 2018 James Green

Up the wide stone staircase, we found a vast array of vases, both of Etruscan manufacture and those imported from Greece. Several of them will in a single fell swoop obliterate any notion the casual visitor may have of our ancient ancestors being prudish and dull, for one will find more than a few to be painted with scenes of such an explicit nature that even 21st century moralism, still somewhat shackled by Victorian modesty, will double take upon viewing them. Only the most Puritan of folk will be unmoved to laughter when viewing these men and women, contorted in all manner of positions, performing acts the Holy See would denounce as sin.


By far the grandest relic of ancient Tarchuna which survives today, however, is the mighty terracotta which was unearthed at the Altar of the Queen in the first weekend of September, 1938, and thus still unknown when Lawrence visited. The Winged Horses, proud and tall, are a formidable sight, watching over the visitors to their domain on the upper floor. We stood as still as the stallions, admiring the scale and detail of the finest work of the Rasenna. The ribs on their flanks, the rippling manes and feathered wings, all intricate and captivating, embrace the awe of the piece, which succeeds so beautifully at depicting the majesty of the Pegasi. Crafted for the great temple in the fourth century before Christ, they hail back to an age when the prestige of Tarchuna was both at its apex and in its twilight, when the great citadel ruled the hills and plains behind over six miles of walls, though when the power of Rome was unleashed upon the Samnites to the south east. It would come for Etruria next.


Winged Horses of Tarchuna - © 2018 James Green

A handful of the more delicate tomb paintings from the necropolis were dismantled in the late '40s and brought here to Palazzo Vitelleschi, where they have been intriguingly reassembled in a noble yet inevitably futile attempt to reforge the atmosphere of that place. Of particular beauty is the so called Tomb of the Triclinium, which bears such resemblance to the Tomb of the Symposium that it may well have been painted by the same workers.


It was around that time that a room warden appeared out of nowhere, gesturing towards his watch with a "Mi 'spiace ragazzi, ma stiamo per chiudere" ("I'm sorry guys, but we're about to close"). Never mind, we thought, for we had seen wonderful things in the space of a day, and it was indeed time for dinner.


Dining in Tarquinia is a rather modest and unpretentious affair, her cuisine having been largely fused with that of Rome. Thus many a menu will serve the carbonara or cacio e pepe which we eat in abundant quantities back home. Yet there are a few welcome twists. Tarquinia, after all, looks over the Tyrrhenian Sea, and one may find decent seafood. In contrast to the dizzying array of trattorie and ristoranti in the Eternal City, Tarquinia offers just enough choice to inspire curiosity, but not so many as to induce indecision. Thus we took little time in choosing a place just off Piazza Trento e Trieste, with a welcome arrangement of tables pouring out into the street, all bathed in that golden glow which Italian towns emit by night. All the more striking, however, was the vast flock of birds which soared overhead, in their hundreds and perhaps even thousands, at times so densely that they might have been some threatening raincloud were it not for the playful chirping which reverberated around the streets. Unlike the millions of starlings which descend upon Rome annually, the spectacle we witnessed above could be enjoyed without diving for cover, for fear of being plastered in a cascade of defecation.


Tarquinia by night - © 2018 James Green

James's friend Antonio, who passes the long summer months at Tarquinia, had once spoken of the rich tradition of finocchio (fennel) in Tarquinia, with the herb's yellow flowers having been a common sight in the valleys around for centuries. The sweet crunch of un po' di finocchio gifts a distinct edge to the dishes of South Etruria, and we happily ordered some. Antonio had explained that at times there was even a Sagra del finocchio, a veritable festival dedicated to the herb, when the Tarquinesi would come together to give thanks and express their appreciation for this contorno (side dish). Now, the notion of a Sagra del finocchio would likely summon a boisterous laugh from some Italians, a restrained one from others, and a curious smile from the more naive, finocchio doubling in the Italian tongue as a rather disparaging slang term for a homosexual. The authoritative reason for such a double meaning appears to have been lost in the mists of time. Nonetheless, it is believed by lexicologists that in the medieval age, when ordinary folk could ill afford the prices of Oriental spices, they would use fennel to spice their salami and add flavour, in a manner deemed a second rate substitute. Thus the term came to be used for a person deemed 'second rate', 'false' or 'not really a man', and for this reason it is insulting today.


Double entrende aside, the finocchio selvatico (wild fennel) was perfectly delightful, and the atmosphere all the more convivial by the laughter of birthday celebrations, and the arrival of a most enthusiastic puppy, which proceeded to run rings around both its owners and the waiters, and made a beeline for James, its lead rattling on the cobblestones as it went. Not for naught did Diogenes hold that the dogs were a finer beings than men, having no time nor inclination for pretence, dishonesty or malice, and being able to separate friend from foe without words. Just as James bent down to stroke the excitable hound, out came the wine. Another great yield of Tarquinia fields is the Tarquinia Rosso DOP, a dry red wine boasting the coveted DOP, or Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Denomination of Protected Origin). Being anything but experts in the field of viticulture, we may offer the reader little more than the fact that we simply enjoyed it, and passed a most wonderful meal to celebrate James' 29th year, on the 29th June, 2018.



Lone Traveller, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

When Dawn arose over Tarquinia the following morning, it did so to another spectacular day, as sunlight poured through the persiane (shutters). Without a moment to lose, we rushed out onto the terrace to soak up the rays of sunshine more brilliant than we had yet experienced so far in the year, and to Katrina's uttermost delight, the most exquisite array of dishes had been laid out across the tables there. Such a banquet before noon had never been seen, as though the goddess Ceres had upended her cornucopia upon the terrace, with crostate (tarts), ciambelloni (a large, doughnut shaped sponge cake often found at breakfast in Italy), cornetti, biscotti, cereals, jams, honeys, yogurts, mortadella (a kind of sausage made from pork luncheon meat) and an assortment of other homemade cakes. "Allora, volete un' caffè?" ("So, would you like a coffee?"), enquired a friendly looking lady in jeans and a shirt. She may as well have asked Katrina if she would like the sun to continue shining, for a negative response to such a question is theoretical only. We asked about the great flocks of birds the night before. "Eh si, impressionante eh? È un vero spettacolo!" ("Oh yes, incredible huh? It's quite a sight!) the lady replied. "Ma cosa sono?" ("But what are they?"), we curiously asked. "Boh, ma infatti che sono, forse sono i rondini?" ("Dunno, well indeed what are they, perhaps swallows?"), she replied with a puzzled expression, turning to a more middle aged lady who had suddenly appeared. "Beh si, sono i rondini! Sono dappertutto qui ormai!" ("Well yes, it's the swallows! They're all over the place now!"), the signora replied excitedly. The two ladies continued to discuss the matter of the swallow flights for a good ten minutes, and from it we extracted that the birds had not always come in such numbers.


Now this was the life, we thought, merrily overindulging in our favourite dolci, sunbathing as we did. It was a pity indeed, that it would be our last morning in Tarquinia for some time, for today our next adventure beckoned. There was, however, just time for pleasant stroll through the medieval borgo (historic town) before the bus for Viterbo.


Piazza San Martino, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

Corso Vittorio Emanuele slices through the heart of Tarquinia, Corneto as was, rending the historic centre almost perfectly in half. Heading east of it will bring one to the necropolis of Monterozzi, where we had been the day before. The western half, therefore, may easily be neglected by the casual visitor or day-tripper, and forgivably so. It almost seems hidden, and to scarcely exist, being largely concealed by the vast Palazzo del Comune. But a charming medieval archway which tunnels right through it lead us into almost a different town altogether, the true borgo of medieval Corneto, and my, what an atmospheric dream of a place it is. Not a single unsightly perspective exists, as every single alley which snakes off ahead is entirely inviting. Not only is it deeply peaceful, but it is clearly very much a living borgo. A little butchers' shop here, a studio medico (doctor's) there, and an array of modestly sized yet exquisitely beautiful houses everywhere, bedecked in the most resplendently colourful flora. Rather like the more famous San Gimignano of Tuscany, great towers of stone soar above the street level, testament to an age when the prestige of a great family within a Commune was most visibly played out in the height of their tower, in a grandiose game of 'Mine's bigger than yours'.


Before long, after gliding in an almost trancelike state deeper into the borgo, we came to a charming little clearing, the Piazza San Martino, so named for the elegantly frescoed and atmospheric Church of San Martino along its eastern flank - indeed the oldest church in all Tarquinia. Yet the piazza, with its potted plants dotted around both the square and the balconies around, its nasone (drinking water fountain) and wooden benches, exudes homeliness, and one can happily imagine taking a nap for many an hour there. Alas we had not many an hour, but it takes but a glance to remember such a place forever.


Via delle Torri, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

Pink Ribbon, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

A little further on, beyond another great phallic tower, lies another breathtaking sight, the Via delle Torri, a street that may have been lifted straight from the capricci of the eighteenth century painters. To the eye it appears ruined, yet to the soul it feels warm, immaculately polished cars parked within cleanly painted spaces all lined up between edifices raised some six centuries before the conception of the motor car. Weeds and bushes thrust their way out from among the many cracks and offset bricks and blocks, and the occasional pigeon flapped in the shadows. Yet here and there we also spotted numerous pink ribbons tied to anywhere there was a convenient space, and even on some aerials. Apparently this was all in the name of cancro al seno (breast cancer). Such awareness campaigns are a recent novelty in Italy, and to see such civic dedication in rural Lazio was quite the surprise.


Ironically, the newest structure in the borgo is the Duomo. Though founded in 1260, what one sees today is largely the product of a major refurbishment in 1879, bar some rather wonderful, if awkward to view, frescoes depicting the coronation of the Virgin, by Antonio del Massaro, which had most fortunately been restored only a year earlier. Initially a modest church to Santa Margherita, it was Pope Eugene IV who declared it a cathedral in 1435, and granted Corneto a bishop, cementing the authority of Rome. 1986 would see Tarquinia lose this prestige to be jointly ruled with Civitavecchia as a single diocese, directly subject to the Holy See. While Civitavecchia may be the official seat of the bishop today, Antonio had informed James with a smile, "The bishop actually tends to reside most of the time here in Tarquinia - I don't know why?", before a knowing laugh. Since Civitavecchia is only marginally more attractive than Ladispoli, which could petrify a Gorgon, the preferences of the bishop seemed entirely understandable. The Duomo is certainly a place of quiet prayer, cavernous and rather austere, illuminated by little more than a plain glass window above the pipe organ. The façade is rather too big for the small piazza onto which it fronts, and is decidedly out of place in the otherwise deeply medieval Tarquinia, though pleasing when considered on its own merit.


Duomo of Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

Stepping out from the great wooden doors was dazzling, with the late morning sun scorching down, and we swiftly made for cover and shade. Time was alas against us, and we had to head back for our bags. But as we did so, we heard a most beautiful sound. Song, not of some swallow or other bird, but crafted in human voices. Rounding a corner, we came across the surreal sight of a docile dog, spread eagled in the middle of the glowing alley, the music emanating out of some window above. We approached, and the dog flicked an eyelid up, considering us for a moment, not entirely out of the sleep from which our arrival had woken it. Yawning widely, it rolled over and considered the potted plants and bench beside it, the thought of challenging us not at all on its mind. Suddenly a score of other voices joined in the song, and we realised that it was not some eccentric soul in the shower, but a choir practice which was in full gusto, once again a rare occurrence in small town Italy. The voices were enthusiastic, and quite angelic, both male and female. Whether it was their beauty, or the beating rays of the sun, which were inducing such torpor in the hound, we did not know. A few strikes of piano keys rang out, and a new piece began. We stood transfixed at this beauty, intriguingly hidden from our eyes, yet embracing our ears. What a charmed life is that of Tarquinia today.


Sleepy Street - © 2018 James Green

The encroaching hours of lunch heralded the imminent departure of our coach, so we swiftly made back to the hotel for our bags, before heading back down the Corso, towards the city gate. In a mere two hundred yards, what a dosage of Italian life emerged! High above, a nonna was resting on her balcony, observing the folk below, and us, with a glum face and eagle eye. A young lady on her phone, sitting in her parked car, was gesticulating passionately to the unseen other, "....pizza, scusa ma perché io devo portare la pasta?"("...pizza, sorry but why do I have to bring the pasta?"). We had scarcely time to laugh before yet another nonna came into view, leading a weeping girl by the arm. With great tenderness and an encouraging smile, she gently asked, "una pezzettina di pizza, ma cosa vuoi?" ("A bit of pizza? What would you like?"). Food is diplomacy in Italy, and to scorn it is to risk a grave figuraccia (bad impression), whether you be fresh from the cradle or approaching the grave.


Thus it was that still laughing, we got aboard the bright blue bus with the flashing orange 'Viterbo'. Be they the children of the Rasenna or of the Romans, we wondered, as the coach pulled past a beautiful panorama of the borgo, the Tarquinesi are still most certainly Italians.


Tarquinia/Corneto - © 2018 James Green

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