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Tarquinia - Into South Etruria

Updated: Feb 12, 2019

Summer was coming, and the sunflowers were beginning to bloom, as we headed into the rolling hills of Tuscia in search of the Etruscans!


Tarquinia, Monterozzi Necropolis - © 2018 James Green

Awaking on the morning of the 29th June is, for the modern Roman, oft a cause of joy, be he pious or profane, especially if it should fall on a weekday, as it did in 2018. For it is in Catholic Christendom the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and thus a solemnity of the highest importance, and Rome - knowing both as her patron saints - honours them with a public holiday. Awakening on the morning of the 29th was, for us too, a cause for joy, for it meant adventure anew and, for good measure, James's birthday.


It was to be a journey that gave James a great spring in his step, for we would be embarking on the road for a land he has long held dear, that of the Etruscans of old, and to a town where he celebrated his twenty first birthday, and where his long-held passion for the culture of Etruria was fired - Tarquinia. It was with a spring in our step, therefore, that we hurriedly made for Termini Station, and our escape to the country.


Termini, once a den of thievery and beggary, shows that old habits are loathe to die, even with the patrolling soldiers, and installation of glass screens to prevent the infiltration of train carriages by ne'er-do-wells operating under the guise of carrying your luggage. In recent years the station has undergone something of a makeover, cosmetically speaking. We were reflecting upon this fact, taking our morning cappuccino at the bar as we awaited the 10:12 to Pisa, when an upturned hand suddenly appeared in our midst. Not an uncommon occurrence in the Eternal City, where elderly women, bent with age and illness, and asking alms, are an all-to regular sight. Whirling around, we saw with a start that it was no aged lady, lined with years. It was a woman, perhaps at the turn of forty, dressed in brightly coloured and seemingly expensive garments, with a gold clasped handbag over her other arm. Her cheeks were faintly powdered in pink, and her lips shining with red. "C'é l'hai una moneta per favore?" ("Have you got any spare change"?), she asked, using the exact words one hears on a daily basis from a typical Roman beggar. Something simply did not compute. Had a desperate soul gone upmarket, or a fraud dispensed with disguise? The barrista (bartender) however, saved us embarrassment, as she shot an aggressive look at the woman, hissed through her teeth and shooed her away.


Fuelled up for the journey, we boarded the Regionale train bound for Pisa Centrale, Tarquinia lying perhaps halfway along the route. It being the principal train line of the western coastline of Italy, unoccupied seats in the carriages were in the shortest of supply. Mercifully, a couple of backpackers shifted their rucksacks and we seized our chance.


The Regionale trains call in at all stations along their lines, though even so, the journey to Tarquinia is a most respectable hour and a quarter. Respectable indeed, since much of Lazio beyond the confines of Rome is extraordinarily poorly served by public transport. Viterbo, the main urban centre of northern Lazio, lies an agonising two hours from the capital by the swiftest train, despite it being a mere forty miles away. Naples, by contrast, at around a hundred and ten miles from Rome, may be reached in a mere hour and twenty minutes. But then, if one wishes to find authenticity, one must be prepared to put in the hours to search for it.


The power socket, which so nobly and unexpectedly functioned at first, alas gave up the ghost before the rear of the train had even passed the signal box of Termini. Never mind, for the Sun shone brightly, and we were on a cappuccino-induced high.


Cypresses by Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

The journey was among the most pleasant we had enjoyed thus far. Upon finally bursting free of the tendrils of Roman suburbs, open countryside embraced us from all around. Sprawling, unkempt meadows dotted with tightly bound bales of hay unfurled as far as the eye could see. Summer was coming, as fields of distant gold became fields of sunflowers as we raced past, and raced along, the Tyrrhenian Sea. The traveller who is unfamiliar with these lands may be intrigued to know that the waters which span the Earth from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Suez Canal are only collectively known as the Mediterranean Sea. Individually they bear their own names and histories, and those which surround the Italian Peninsula are threefold. The Adriatic encompasses all that lies between the Venetian Lagoon and the Strait of Otranto, the Ionian separates the land of the Hellenes from their former colonies in Sicily and the instep of the Italian boot, while the Tyrrhenian is that which is bound by the western shores of Italy and the largest isles of the Mediterranean - Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica.


The Latin coast is the union of the heroic with the historic age. It was here that Aeneas did first make solemn landfall upon Italy, here where the great and good of Imperial Rome would build their villas and here where mighty ships of steel now unleash armies of travellers on the port of Civitavecchia. It was here that the aorta of Empire met its heart, as the tribute of the world flowed from three continents to the port of Ostia, bound for Rome. It was in these lands that Rome struggled through her infancy, warring famine, pestilence and treason as much as the tribes who surrounded her. Yet Latium of the most ancient times was a different land to the Lazio it has become today. The River Tiber which today penetrates Rome was once the boundary between Latium Vetus to the South, and Etruria, land of the Etruscans to the North. The once great city of Tarchuna, head of the Etruscan League, lies some fifty miles north of Rome. It would be the Romans who would Latinise the old Etruscan name to Tarquinii, medieval Italians who would move to the opposite hillside and found Corneto, and the Italy of the Duce which would rechristen Corneto as Tarquinia, hailing back to ancient glory.


Door Knocker in Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

Reaching Tarquinia in the twenty first century means charming views off to the right, and azure seas to the left, periodically interrupted by some of the most repugnantly ugly towns in Italy. Standing shamelessly tall above them all is Ladispoli, a monstrous ulcer of a town where are all of the deranged fantasies of 1960s developers are wed to a Soviet sense of aesthetics, and which inexplicably found funding. Chancing a glance at the town, it would seem that some great giant has taken a mouthful of concrete and chewed it, broken his teeth and then promptly vomited upon the shore. Even the sand there is black as night, doubtless tainted by some other unspeakable pollution. James had the misfortune of having to go there some years ago in order to change buses to reach the vastly more attractive Cerveteri, being forced to walk through most of it to find the inadequately indicated bus stop. Not a word may be said in its favour, other than it for now it remains somewhat small, like a patch of damp in the corner of an otherwise pristine ceiling. Pray that it grows no larger, and let us never speak of it again.


Before long the distant towers and striking skyline of Tarquinia strode boldly into view, atop a verdant ridge a little under three miles from the sea. It is a dramatic location. Rather like Rome itself, it was near enough the shore to benefit from maritime trade, yet just far enough away to discourage pirate raids and seaborne attack. The train gently pulled up at the station, about half way down the ridge, offering tantalising views up to the centro storico. The Comune di Tarquinia (Tarquinia City Council) helpfully runs a series of shuttle buses, generously coordinated with arriving trains, to ferry the visitor to either the Lido (waterfront) or the Città Vecchia (Old Town). So it was that a mere quarter of an hour later, we found ourselves and our luggage in the bright sunlight, the great stone gateway of Tarquinia before us, and a relaxed relief washed over us, knowing that the anxiety of travel was, for now, at an end.


Our lodgings, being just off Piazza Giacomo Matteoti, were rather austere but of unparalleled location, just on the edge of the town and forested cliff of the knoll upon which modern Tarquinia lies. The owner was a kindly lady, who happily pointed out "Per colazione bisogna solo scendere alla terrazza!" ("For breakfast, you just have to come out onto the terrace!"), words which perked Katrina's attention. Assurance of good fare in the morning is as the sweetest music to her ears. Our room was indeed set slightly above an impressively sized terrace, which itself overlooked the calming street of Via Dante Alighieri, sun drenched and home to a pair of quiet bars and an even quieter church.


The Landscape of Tuscia from Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

91 years earlier, D.H. Lawrence had come to Tarquinia, entranced as we were by the Etruscans. He would find a rather deserted place, after struggling here against the ever-suspicious Fascist authorities. Yet while the Duce may be a memory today, Tarquinia remains sleepy, yet so intriguingly immaculate. The Tourist Information Office is helpful, and easy to find, and the many sights of the town are well signposted and promoted tastefully. A friend of James who spends the Summer months in Tarquinia once lamented that he had been fined for parking with his wheel but three inches over the line. "The Tarquiniesi are peasants", he remarked with a laugh in English, though with a tone which implied a long-held fondness for them. Often have we spoken of the mystery of Tarquinia's good governance, a rarity in Lazio. A touch of the Fascist remains in the order and organisation, but it is understated, bowled over by the all-encompassing sleepiness of the town.


The gentlest of walks brought us to the lookout, where Tarquinia abruptly stops on the ridge. The view which greeted us was a breathtaking ode to Tuscia, the rolling hills of Southern Etruria which spill into Lazio, spanning as far as the eye can see and beyond. Summer had dried the fields into golds and browns, bar dashes of green scrub, fed by the flowing waters of the River Marta. "A queer complication of hills", wrote Lawrence of this view, "there seems nothing of the modern world here - no houses, no contrivances, only a sort of fair wonder and stillness, an openness which has not been violated". Near a century on and his words remain true. Some manner of refinery stands at the foot of the hill, but it is not intrusive nor ruinous to the landscape. Readily can one see the men working the fields under the Sun by day, and retreating back to the town by night, safe and snug behind the imposing walls. It is a vista that once seen, will never be forgotten, and is an exalted reward for he who ventures beyond Rome.


'Nasone' fountain, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

The true jewel of Tarquinia, however, lies not in its panorama, irresistible though it is. Tearing ourselves away from the lookout, we stopped for a quick tramezzino at the basic yet welcoming café on the corner, before heading east to the Porta Tarquinia. A gentle incline swept us past the unusually angular façade of San Francesco and its impressive campanile, before we found ourselves at the city gates. But a small chugging sound caught our attention just off the right. Its origin was a contraption which oft inspires a laugh from strangers and warm feelings of the countryside from those who know it. It was of course an Ape 50, a vehicle rendered all the more ridiculous due to the unfortunate false friend in English, 'Ape' being the Italian word for 'bee'. Essentially a Vespa granted the girth of a third wheel, and chassis of a small van, the blessèd Ape has buzzed its way amid the hills of Tuscany and Tuscia since 1948, the proud workhorse of Italian rural labour.


Ape 50, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

The driver climbed out in a surprisingly dignified manner, no mean feat given how low the Ape sits on the road, such that a man might comfortably rest his head in his hands and his elbows in turn upon its roof. The driver eyed us and nodded, before strolling off into the distance. If his noble steed had a lock, he had not made use of it. Trust is clearly in ample supply in Tuscia. Such a thing would be ludicrously unthinkable in Rome. The Ape was battered beyond belief, to a degree that rather than driving it, the owner had might as well have rolled it through the town and fields. The Ape is ancient, small and decidedly un po' buffo (a bit laughable), yet also reliable, practical and easy to maintain. In three quarters of a century, all others have singularly failed to seize the Ape's grass crown.


Walls of Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

After a moment merrily dreaming of a fine life spent on some Tuscan farmstead, darting off to the fields in an emerald green Ape, we passed through the arching gate, and through the formidable medieval walls of what was once Corneto.


A leisurely walk of about a half mile brought us through the more modern suburb, which makes one wonder whether any day there feels like a Sunday afternoon, to the highest part of the Tarquinian plateau, where the land opens up once more into glorious Tuscia. To the right, patches of cultivated allotments charmed in the foreground, while the Tyrrhenian Sea glimmered in the Sun. To the left lay the great valley, and hillock beyond where the true ancient city of Tarchuna once stood. For it was the practice of the Etruscans, like the Romans who followed them, not to bury their dead within the city walls. They would be the first civilisation in Italy to indeed build cities at all, and would favour high ground for them. Ideal would be one hill across from another, such that the living might occupy one, and their dead the other. Thus it was that the Etruscans built necropoli in the true sense of the word - cities of the dead. Ironic indeed, that the medieval survivors would seek their future atop the dead city.


Upon reaching Via Ripagretta, one might be wondering what all the fuss was about. Fine indeed is the view, but the meadow one finds here appears barren and featureless, bar a smattering of small huts, irregularly clustered and crowned with terracotta tiles. But seldom is treasure found at ground level, and at Tarquinia, it is the underland which harbours the finest jewels. Several of the huts were padlocked shut, others open, an inky blackness all that was visible within. We paid the signora (lady) in the ticket hut a modest sum, and made for the first open portal we could find.


Descent into a tomb at Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

Many of these tombs were discovered and broken into during the 19th century, others in the latter half of the 20th. Some are being excavated even now. When Lawrence came here, one would enter these places with a guide, a flaming torch and some wheezing hound. Today the introduction of electric lighting, and some token concessions to Health & Safety, such as hand railing, ease one's passage to the netherworld, yet the near total absence of others leaves the atmosphere pleasingly intact. Eerily, at the foot of the metal stair, a stone doorway stood alone, as if beckoning us into the night itself. A sudden coldness came, as we found ourselves pressed against a screen, the darkness ahead absolute. Finding a lone switch, Katrina pressed it, and at once light arced across the room, banishing the night and revealing a breathtaking sight.


Tomb of the Hunting and Fishing, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

An antechamber stretched out before us, still somewhat dark, but yet another archway offered a tantalising glimpse of the inner sanctum. A highly elegant and skilled depiction had been frescoed upon the wall, showing fisherman staring into the depths of the ocean, as a lone figure clad in white appeared to be wielding a sling, poised to dispatch a bird from the flock hovering above. Time has vented itself upon the wall, and much pigment has been lost, but the soul remains whole. Merry scenes of ordinary life dart across the wall where it meets the ceiling, with rich garlands and flowers embracing feminine figures. The Etruscans depicted themselves in a most unusual manner, with a dark red tone of flesh, something like a modern Italian of the South who has been out just a touch too long in the sun. We say Etruscan, though of course they used no such word to describe themselves, 'Etruscan' coming to English from the Latin Etruscus, meaning 'one who dwells in Etruria', a point of reference hailing entirely from Rome. Much remains a mystery today of the language of the Etruscans, though we know that the educated men of the Roman elite would be versed in it for many centuries after the fall of Tarchuna. Yet we know that the Etruscans spoke of themselves as the Rasenna, as recorded by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Of its pronunciation we may never be sure, but it may have had a silent 'e', and sounded rather like Rasná. The Greeks, who made contact with the Rasenna before Rome, called them the Τυρρηνοί, or Tyrrhenians, in their writings, and thus it was that the Tyrrhenian Sea would take her name. It is the sea of the Etruscans, all the more so since the Greeks would fear them as ruthless pirates, and able seamen.


Indeed, from where the Rasenna came we can claim no certainty. The Greeks and Romans tell us that they came from Lydia, in Asia Minor, and that they came to these shores to flee certain death. Herodotus wrote that eighteen years of famine plagued Lydia, and the King, who desired to spare his people further suffering, had them draw lots so as to divide them into two groups. One would remain in Lydia under his care, and the other would depart for foreign lands under his son, the Crown Prince Tyrrhenus. Tyrrhenus would lead the Lydian exiles to a land the Greeks called Hesperia, and which we now call Italy, and settle there, where they would found cities and build good lives. In the pages of Virgil, it is written that Tarchon, the brother of Tyrrhenus, would make war against Aeneas following the Fall of Troy. Ancient legend holds that a certain Tarchon would found the city of Tarchuna and grant it his name. If both were the same man, or father and son, then Tarchuna was founded around one thousand two hundred years before Christ. There is naught in the artefacts or ruins of Tarquinia which would suggest falsehood in this. What is clear, is that when Rome was a mere infant in the days of Romulus, Tarchuna was already a near half millennium old.


We gazed in peaceful silence at the colourful scene before us, and around the so-called 'Tomb of Hunting & Fishing'. Archaeologists, after all, are seldom blessed with imagination when it comes to nomenclature. Alas that students of Bronze Age Greece (James once being one) must collectively wince as they refer to the great writing of Mycenaean Greece - the Hellas of the days of Agamemnon - as 'Linear B'. Or that the indigenous Italians of the Iron Age are still preposterously referred to as 'Villanovans', by merit simply that the first trace of them was located near the otherwise entirely inconsequential town of Villanova. No less an absurdity would be, should some great calamity wipe out our civilisations today, a future archaeologist happening across the hill fort of Maiden Castle in Dorset, and henceforth referring to British culture spanning the pre-Roman conquest to the charge of the huscarls at Hastings as the 'Dorchester civilisation'. However, at least we adopt the language of their contemporary foes when referring to the Rasenna as 'Etruscans'.


Tomb of the Lionesses - © 2018 James Green

This tomb was painted at some point in the late 6th century BC, some years before Brutus usurped the Monarchy of Rome. It was at this point that the skill of Etruscan painters began to flourish, as they confidently depicted vibrant figures dancing around the walls in all forms of merriment. A stone's throw away, we found more joviality in the Tomb of the Lionesses, also ineptly named, since the great cats at the roof of the chamber are quite clearly leopards. Dolphins dance in and out of the waves, and two Etruscans serenade the scene with the music of a lyre, and a double flute. Besides the musicians, there is not a human in the tomb who is not dancing or otherwise engaged in leisure, either baring red flesh or displaying vibrant clothing. While the Romans were publicly the epitome of conservative, the Etruscans embraced the worship of one thing above all - life.


When the Duce sought to remould the Italians into the Romans of old, and had Corneto renamed Tarquinia, Lawrence scoffed, "For of all the Italian people that ever lived, the Etruscans were surely the least Roman. Just as, of all the people that ever rose up in Italy, the Romans of ancient Rome were surely the most un-Italian, judging from the natives of today". There is indeed a certain joie de vivre that the modern Italian so expertly exudes, and of which the Roman of old would profoundly disapprove. Everything, and nothing, has changed since the Golden Age of Etruria.


Tomb 5513, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

The warm June sunlight bathed our faces once more as we surfaced, breathing in the fresh Tuscia air. We were rather enjoying the thrill of diving underground to Etruria of old, before coming up for periodic doses of 21st century Latium. Wondering what lay behind so many dark and occasionally locked doors had scarcely been so intriguing. It was as though the hill crest was some manner of great advent calendar, with treasures far greater than chocolates behind each portal.


After many a carefree moment relishing the view and soft breeze that rippled the meadow's grass, we headed further up the hillock, to the easternmost burial grounds which could be entered. It was there that we came across a tomb that was unknown to Lawrence, it having been discovered only in 1967.


How utterly depressing a picture it paints of postwar scholarship, that the finest title archaeology could muster for this beautiful sepulchre is 'Tomb 5513'. At least in the 19th century the names chosen for other tombs gave some indication of the frescoes inside, even if it was an educated guess. Here some poor soul has distilled art, life and death and human achievement into a serial number, with all of the vigour and excitement of a dichiarazione di reddito (tax return). Let us rechristen it, between ourselves and you, dear reader, the Tomb of the Symposium, or the Tomb of the Dinner Party, for that is what truly lies within. Somewhat orgiastic scenes run down the side walls, leading to a merry depiction of an after-dinner party, something like the Symposium of Classical Greece, where noble conversation would be had, poetry recited and music played, along with a good game or two. Meanwhile a bird and other tame beasts prowl below the benches, picking at scraps of discarded food. Once again, red dominates the scene, and the flesh of the Rasenna.

Tomb of the Leopards, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

Emerging once more from the darkness, we made for what we believed was our last tomb of the day, the most famous of the necropolis. Thankfully discovered in 1875, the Tomb of the Leopards promises much, and it does not disappoint. Upon descending the metal staircase and throwing the switch, the senses are at once besieged by all colours conceivable. We were immediately struck by the ceiling, checkered with greens, reds and blues, and giving the distinct impression that we were not in some underground chamber, but rather a lively marquee. A pair of white leopards face each other, snarling with their tongues out, and crowning a scene not unlike the later Roman triclinium. Three couples are seated in the ancient fashion, eating with their hands and engaging with each other. It was the Etruscan way to depict ladies in the fairest of colour, since they did not bare themselves in the Sun, and there they sit, almost ghostly white against the raw reds of the men. Ladies, however, held considerable prominence in the culture of the Rasenna in a most un-Roman manner, being literate and able to inherit property in their own right.


The gentleman on the far right extends an egg above his head, as a symbol of new life and the rebirth of life, or in other words, hope for the deceased. He does so before his fellow guests, and before a pair of servants who stand naked among the tables, and under the branches of olive trees. It perhaps indeed depicts a meal al fresco, under the cover of a colourful awning. What a fine culture the Rasenna of the fifth century before Christ strove to defend, and what a tragedy it was when the iron boot of Rome would stamp it out.


Bartoccini Tomb, Tarquinia - © 2018 James Green

Katrina by this point being in need of un bel macchiato, we decided to make our way back towards Tarquinia. But just then, on as we traversed the meadow, James spotted a tomb which had been locked the last time he had come. Exchanging a brief, and conflicted glance, we knew the coffee was to be cast aside in favour of Carpe Diem.


Now this tomb, unearthed in 1959, named for Renato Bartoccini, once Superintendent of Antiquities, turned out to be quite a shock. It had already been pillaged when archaeologists first broke into it, but something extraordinary lay there. The tomb was carved out of the rock in the fourth century before Christ, yet there, plain as day, was a Christian cross scratched on the lintel. But it was not alone. An entire host of graffiti had been scratched into the fresco, including an image of what appeared to be a siege engine, and various phrases of vernacular Italian. Brief study and research revealed one such inscription as "Vi[cenzo] iura - questa grota" ("Vincenzo swore an oath in this cave"). Another ended in "Otem", which it is believed is a contraction of Ordinis Templi - in other words, the Knights Templar. Just what were warrior monks doing in a pagan tomb of times millennia before their own?


Yet it was the next that stunned us into silence, entirely too dumbstruck to laugh. "Ego f[rater] Meliosus sì fote[o] in questa g[r]ota", quothed the script. For the sake of propriety and decorum, let us translate it as "I, Brother Meliosus, enjoyed a moment of unbridled passion in this cave". The original is entirely more explicit. It is not alone - a swathe of similar declarations have been etched into the wall, with various names mentioned. There was even a Maria in one of them, revealed as one with whom 'deeds were done'. Another mentions a Johannis Magistri, and rumour has it that this may refer to John, the Magister Romae, Tusciae et Sardiniae, who served as a kind of provincial magistrate of the Templar Order between 1218 and 1222. Whether he is simply named or he actually took part, one cannot know, yet the imagination is wont to run riot in such a suggestive setting. In the 13th century, this tomb would have been exceedingly difficult to reach, and it is likely such doodling was never intended to have been found. Oh how the briefest of detours on an archaeological site can turn the world upon its head. Somewhat stunned, and beginning to laugh, we declared this to truly be our last tomb of the day, lest we be forever beguiled by the revelations of this city of the dead. For the Monterozzi necropolis of Tarquinia, indeed, is one of the most unique and exciting archaeological sites in Italy. How many of the other estimated six thousand tombs here had hosted knightly visits, we dared not imagine.


There were many things that both of us had expected to come across in the hills of Tuscia, we thought as we cheerily waved goodbye to the Signora on our way out. An ancient Etruscan tomb, which had served as a secret den of ritual sex acts between unruly Templar Knights, however, was most certainly not one of them.


Tuscia from Monterozzi - © 2018 James Green

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