Friday, May 25, 2012

In Search of the Etruscans - Part 4: Orvieto

Cippus:  Head of a Warrior, from Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis, Orvieto

Orvieto (Velzna to the Etruscans, Volsinii to the Romans) was one of the  important Etruscan cities that flourished in the seven centuries before the Common Era.  Later a thriving medieval city and then a refuge for popes in the Renaissance, Orvieto is dramatically situated on top of a steep butte formed of volcanic tufa, giving it spectacular views from all sides.

View from Orvieto

At the foot of a sheer cliff on the north side of the city is the Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis.  Only partially excavated, the necropolis consists of over 100 rectangular chamber tombs laid out in orderly streets, sharing walls with their neighbors like townhouses or apartments.  Originally each was closed with a stone door, and an appropriate cippus, like the one shown at the top of this post, placed atop the tomb, which was sealed with clay and earth.  Each tomb entrance is carved with the name of the person interred there.

Row of tombs, Crocifisso del Tufo

Tomb entrance

These are small tombs, most meant to hold a single body, and the townhouse-style graves do not contain frescoes like those at Tarquinia.  They did yield some grave goods, however, such as the oddly lovable gorgon pictured below, and there are some nearby tombs that are larger, more elaborate, and painted, like the Golini 1 tomb, whose frescoes have been detached and are on display in Orvieto's archaeological museum. 


The Etruscan city of Velzna stood apart from the burial area, as was typical.  Velzna was probably located where the modern city of Orvieto stands, which has limited archaeologists' ability to conduct excavations.  Bits of Etruscan buildings do survive, however, such as the fragments of the Temple of Belvedere, below.

Temple of Belvedere

The walk from the city of Orvieto along the steep wall and down to the necropolis below is quite spectacular.

On the way down to the necropolis

 One can look down and see the straight lines of the necropolis, divided into tidy avenues.

Crocifisso del Tufo, from path above

Even the carved names above tomb entrances have yielded quite a bit of information about Velzna.  For instance, it must have been a very multicultural city:  names are not only Etruscan, but Greek, Latin, Umbrian, and even Gothic. Maybe it was that cosmopolitan flavor that inspired me to sit on the grass among the tombs scribbling haiku into a small notebook.

Necropolis at foot of cliff, with Orvieto in background
Heavy with time, crumbling, still, forgotten.
Yet a lizard scampers. 

Ancient names carved over web-screened portals.
Birdsong, trees in blossom.

Row of tombs
In this house of ancient dead
I whisper "Permesso," and descend.

The modern city of Orvieto sits atop a sort of tufa mesa which is riddled with tunnels and caverns.  Many of them were dug by the Etruscans, and then later expanded and stabilized by their medieval descendants.  These spaces include deep wells, to provide water for the city perched so high above ground level, and channels for moving that water to where it was needed.

The tour of Underground Orvieto, which is well worth taking if you get the chance, points out other spaces which may have been Etruscan in origin but were used by medieval people as wine storage and a place to press olive oil (two things that benefited from the constant temperatures underground), and for dovecotes - the birds would nest in niches in the cliffs beneath the city's walls, and all the residents then needed to do to procure a squab dinner was go into their basement and take the young birds out of the nest.  (As our guide pointed out, the birds no longer inhabit those niches:  "Maybe they don't like tourists," she said, "or maybe they got smarter.")

Underground caverns

Olive press, which used to be powered by a donkey


Wine storage (reconstructed)

I have many pictures of the modern city of Orvieto (well, mostly medieval, but it's all relative), and I will do another post soon with those.  I don't really have much in a research motif to say about later Orvieto, but it is a fascinating city, and really, the pictures are too good not to use them.

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