‘Etruscan’ is one of those words most of us have heard many times but if pressed, couldn’t precisely explain. We might know they were a people, and connected somehow with Tuscany, but beyond this it tends to go hazy.
It seems unfair that popular awareness should be so slight when the Etruscans were for five hundred years Europe’s most advanced civilization outside Greece. It’s even stranger that most of us know so little of them when their innovations and lifestyle have had far more influence on how we live in modern-day Britain than anything our own ancestors the Druids or Celts ever did. We owe far more to the Etruscans than most of us imagine.
Wealthy international traders, the Etruscans made their home across a large swathe of central Italy (Tuscany, Umbria, Northern Lazio), from around the 8th century B.C. till the 1st century A.D. They spent much of their time founding tidy grid-plan cities, building mighty roads, constructing aqueducts, making wine, painting vases and creating superb, life-like sculptures. Hmmm… sounds an awful lot like the Romans, doesn’t it? Well it should.
The infant Roman civilization met the older Etruscan civilization around the 4th century B.C., and absorbed many of their ideas on art, law, religion, public institutions, water management and road-building. Roman numerals? Taken from the Etruscans. The Roman alphabet? Taken from the Etruscans (who had long ago taken it from their old trading partners the Greeks and modified it. Ever wondered why we’ve excessively got three different letters able to make the ‘K’ sound: C, K and Q? Because Etruscan speech made fine distinctions between this sound and needed three letters to show it. So Etruscan voices still echo in our own letter system today).
So why haven’t you heard more about these ancient high-achievers? Because they were completely overshadowed by the Romans. And because they chose to build in wood and plaster rather than stone. Time quickly made mincemeat of these flimsy materials, leaving nothing much behind to excite future historians and engage the popular imagination. Compare this to the innumerable crumbling Roman temples, amphitheatres and triumphal arches dotted all over Europe. You can’t ignore a people who leave all that behind.
The Etruscans were unlucky on the page too. While Etruscan literature was a firm fixture on the curriculum for Roman schoolboys, modern-day scholars can only understand a few hundred words of the language. Most Etruscan writing that could have helped linguists get to grips with the strange tongue was burnt to ashes by Christian Roman Emperors keen to stamp out paganism. The rest was put to the flames by devout early Muslims in North Africa.
Would the Etruscans have cared that we know so little about them now? Probably not. They seemed a fun-loving bunch who were happy to live for the moment. In the precious few frescos left which document their lives, we see banquets in bed, wine-throwing games, prancing dancers, eye-watering erotica. Turns out cheery Etruscan society had a rudimentary sexual equality too. Shame the Romans didn’t take that on board.
Academic study of Etruscan civilization only got going over the last century or two. Hard facts are thin on the ground and likely to remain so, but what is known is that the ancient Greeks spawned Etruscan civilization. Wily Greeks were exploring the Italian peninsula for minerals in the 8th century B.C. and encountered a relatively primitive people now called the ‘Villanovans’. The Greeks dazzled these Villanovans with new ideas, taught them to write, and introduced them to a raft of new technologies. The lives of the Villanovans were so altered by this amazing new input that they became a recognizably new civilization, worthy of a new name: the Etruscans.
In Greek-style ships, these Etruscans were soon whisking valuable raw materials to new trading partners around the Med – growing rich enough to support a great civilization wielding far-flung political power and encouraging all sorts of technological innovation at home. For centuries, the Etruscans were second only to the Greeks in invention and influence.
The beginning of the end came when a little town called Rome started to get ideas above its station. From the 4th century B.C., Romans began a slow, systematic conquest of Etruria. Their policy wasn’t slash and burn, but colonize and control. While many Etruscan cities resisted, others wisely allied themselves with the devastatingly organized newcomers. The last to fall to Roman control, in 264 B.C., was Velzna (modern-day Orvieto).
The Romans were fairly benign masters to the Etruscans, charmed as they were by their achievements and realizing that they could learn things from them. But a mutual esteem between the two cultures accelerated the loss of a distinct, exclusively ‘Etruscan’ people. Roman culture slowly subsumed Etruscan. In 89 B.C., all Etruscans were granted Roman citizenship, literally turning them all into Romans.
Etruscan-hunters can find relics of this great civilization all over central Italy, but for a true close encounter, there’s only one place to come. Fleur Kinson heads to Tarquinia.
If you want to come face to face with the Etruscans, visit the handsome town of Tarquinia in northern Lazio. Elaborate frescos decorate the walls of the underground Etruscan necropolis here, offering the most detailed and vivid insights into Etruscan life available anywhere in the world. The town's excellent museum, meanwhile, has one of Italy's best collections of Etruscan artefacts. In Tarquinia, perhaps more than anywhere else, the enigmatic Etruscans finally take on flesh, step forward, and tell us about themselves.
Founded 3,000 years ago, this originally Villanovan settlement grew into one of the most powerful of Etruscan cities. At its height it housed 100,000 people inside a city wall eight miles round. The ancient city was concentrated on a large hillside, now empty save for farmers' crops and the very sketchy footprints of buildings, gates, and once gigantic temples.
A parallel hillside, used by ancient Tarquinians for burying their dead, is currently the spot that holds all the excitement. Across this high plateau spreads a warren of 6,000 subterranean tomb-rooms – 200 of them decorated with wall paintings. The recovery of these burial chambers constitutes some of the world's first historical excavation-work; some were unearthed as early as 1489! The majority, however, were brought to light in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it's thought there are many still to be revealed. Only about a dozen frescoed rooms are open to the public at any one time.
The frescos, the earliest examples of pictorial art in Italy, are wonderfully lively and colourful – showing animated figures full of personality. There are scenes of hunting and fishing, of banqueting and ceremonies, of dancing and game-playing, even of sexual acts. All were put there to remind the dead of what it was to be alive. In other tombs, mythical figures and fabulous beasts set a different tone. The oldest paintings date from the 7th or 8th centuries B.C., and ideas on appropriate subject matter seem to have changed over time.
When they weren't painting figures or animals, the Etruscan artists were busily decorating their tomb interiors with bold patterns and little abstract designs. The effect, believe it or not, can be strikingly suburban – neat rooms adorned with dados, regency stripes, borders, chequerboards, polka dots, and friezes. And while we're on intimations of modernity, keep an eye out for the pugilist painted in one of the tombs. His boots are absolutely indistinguishable in appearance from modern-day boxers' boots, and make 25 centuries suddenly seem like no time at all!
Fifteen minutes' walk from the necropolis site, the more modern town of Tarquinia is interesting in its own right. Partly walled, and dotted with medieval towers, it's set on an elevated spot commanding fine views down to the Mediterranean three miles away. In the opposite direction, great hilly swathes of farmland roll off into the distance. Chief among the town's attractions is the Museo Nazionale Tarquiniese or National Museum of Tarquinia. A former palace, the Gothic-Renaissance building housing the museum includes a charming central courtyard and offers stunning views from its uppermost floor. (Note that the strangely long, low steps that take you there were designed to allow horse-riders to move through the building!)
The museum's ground floor is dominated by weighty stone sarcophagi topped with sculpted portraits of Etruscans reclining propped up on one elbow (the traditional posture of guests at a banquet). On the upper floors, numerous rooms display: Villanovan artefacts; exotic objects indicating the Etruscans' contact with far-flung peoples; exquisite Etruscan gold jewellery, bronzes, painted ceramics and figures; two tomb-rooms with especially lively frescos transplanted here from the necropolis to prevent further decay; plus a collection of superb Greek pottery.
The museum's show-stopper, however, is the pair of terracotta winged horses saved from a local 3rd century B.C. temple – the largest Etruscan temple ever identified anywhere. Rendered with perfect realism, and almost life-sized, the horses seem bristling with impatience to trot onward. They were but a tiny detail on the original temple – what on earth must the rest of it have been like?
Lovers of Art Nouveau, by the way, should try to spot an astonishing Etruscan ceramic jug tucked away amongst dozens of other pots in a large display case. Its ribbed, pumpkin-like body and stylized organic neck could easily have been the work of Lalique or Tiffany. Indeed it seems almost miraculous that this near-definitive example of a very distinctive design movement could have been fashioned in isolation more than 2,000 years before that movement took place! Brown and about a foot tall, you'll need some luck to spot the jug amongst all the museum's other treasures, but you'll know immediately it's the right one when you see it.
Tarquinia’s museum and necropolis offer a discounted joint entry ticket. Both are open every day of the week except Monday. For current opening times, call the Tourist Information Office on (00 39) 0766-856384.