Of Etruria and What Came After

It all goes back to the Etruscans.

Well perhaps not all, but some of it anyway. Tuscania is the town we are in now, but despite the name, it isn’t in Tuscany. It’s in the northern reaches of Lazio, one of the 20 Italian regions, known to most as home to Rome.

This area is ancient, having been settled since neolithic times, which makes these iron-age funerary urns in nearby Tarquinia relatively young. The town of Tuscania itself, however, is even younger, having been founded about the 7th century BC.

This week I learned that, when it comes to the region of Tuscany, the name comes from the word “Etruscan,” which was the term assigned to the people who lived there by Ancient Romans. I’m not fully certain of this, but I’m guessing the name of this town, Tuscania, has a similar provenance.

Much of our knowledge of the Etruscans comes from the Greeks and Romans, as we aren’t fully able to translate the Etruscan language. We don’t really know much about their settlements either, it seems, although they have a lot of burial sites. Apparently they died. Quite a bit. (Yes, this is a tomb)

View toward Tuscania from San Pietro. That’s Santa Maria Maggiore in the foreground

Although the Romans had frequent ongoing battles with the Etruscans over the preceding centuries, they finally completed their conquest of Etruria in 264 AD. I find this interesting because many of the Etruscan relics date from after this year. As I think about it however, it’s not really illogical, because the culture continued for a time after the Roman victory.

Flora took us first to San Pietro church, a majestic old cathedral that stands well outside of town with a view of the city in the distance. Built in the 11th century, it features both Romanesque and Gothic elements (the latter I think primarily in the facade). As with so many similar structures, it seems to have been built on the site of an ancient Etruscan Acropolis.

Within, the roof soars high, and at our feet the central marble floor is an amazing mosaic of brilliant confetti spirals.

Along the side aisles are a series of Etruscan sarcophagi, with their finely carved lids. I think I read somewhere that there is so much Etruscan material here that they don’t quite know what to do with it all.

As we strolled through the church, we found ourselves being escorted by a cat, who is the unofficial guide for visitors here.

Below the altar is the crypt, supported by a beautiful array of mismatched columns scavenged from elsewhere, each a unique delicate pillar underpinning the floor above. I have seen this before, the pattern of reuse (practical) and of columnar alignment. It is magnificent.

We moved on, then, to Santa Maria Maggiore, slightly lower on the hillside. The presence of a church here dates to 852, but as with many such ancient sites, the church has been rebuilt several times, as its consecration is recorded as 1206.

The church here is small and humble, but straining toward majesty with tiny columns radiating from the center of the rosette that reach out like bony fingers. And the age of this site is palpable both outside and in, with the weight of so many viscous years clinging to the stone and soaking into the surrounding area like water dripping from a saturated sponge.

Inside, scaffolding bedecks the nave, appearing at places to support the wooden beams above.

Far at the end of the church, surrounding the apse, is a grand fresco depicting the last judgement with gruesome detail to the right.

Our morning finished up with a trip to the Etruscan museum in town. The collection is baffling and enlightening.

Flora helps fill in some of the gaps, pointing out that the Etruscans ate while reclining, and so had specially formed plates for this purpose. You can see them here.

And on this sarcophagus, the figure of the deceased holds a similar plate.

So the visit went, passing from room to room, examining artifacts and reading blurbs until lunch approached. It was then that we departed from the museum, leaving just enough time to take Guccio for a walk along the town walls, where we could see the churches in the distance.

And then we returned home for a delicious lunch of tortellini in brodo (Flora’s homemade stock was divine) before an afternoon diving even deeper into Etruscan history.

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