Friday, April 27, 2012

In Search of the Etruscans - Part 2: Tarquinia

Tarquinia's famous winged horses, found in the ruins of a temple in the old Etruscan city

When I first drafted this post, I found myself writing quite a lot about the history of the Etruscans.  That, however, is not the task of this blog, which exists to talk about the process of historical fiction research, not its results.  If someone wants to know about the Etruscans, they have many options available to them, and I hope they will take advantage of them.

But for me, the relevant question here is:  What did I learn from being in Etruscan sites that I could not have learned from books?  What was it that I experienced that brought me closer to my goal - a stronger, more  intuitive understanding of this fascinating culture?

First, I learned something of what it means to live on a promontory.  Yes, I knew the Etruscans built on high ground.  Yes, I knew that they practiced divination by watching the flights of birds and by observing lightning.  But it wasn't until I stood on one of those high hills and looked down at all of the circling, spiralling birds that I had an inkling of how it might have appeared to a haruspex trying to divine the future through those swooping, graceful motions.

It wasn't until I watched a thunderstorm approach us over the plains and valleys and watched the lightning arc over the next hill that I had a feeling of how such phenomena actually looked and felt, and for an instant, I shared with the ancient Etruscans a sense of awe, and of the raw power of lightning.

I've read the disapproving words of the Romans as they wrote about their Etruscan neighbors - too pleasure-loving, too much freedom and power given to women, too violent (and this from the Romans?!?).  It's not exactly fair and balanced.  I've read the modern histories and archaeological reports, with their detailed descriptions of art - Greek influence, meaning, levels of skill.  I've seen the artifacts, removed from Etruscan tombs and displayed primly in museums with informative labels.

But nothing prepared me for the experience of walking down steps into a tomb dug out in the sixth century B.C. and seeing the pictures on those ancient walls:  the dancers, the musicians, the games, the animals, the feasting, the exotic clothing, the activities of everyday life, rendered with a vividness and an exuberance that stuns the observer.  You cannot walk away from those tombs without carrying with you a living, moving mental picture of the Etruscans.  And now that I've had that experience, nothing in the way I view the ancient world - not the Etruscans, the Romans, or the Greeks - will ever be quite the same.

Tomb of the Leopards

There.  That was what was important.  Now I give you the blog as I originally wrote it, for those who are interested.

Tarquinia.  This small Italian city, only about 60 miles north of Rome, has a venerable history.  The town we see today, medieval in appearance, is not situated at exactly the same location as the ancient Etruscan city (which the Etruscans called Tarchna and the Romans called Tarquinii).  Rather, today's city (which is that of the middle ages) is on the edge of the Monterozzi plateau where the Etruscan necropolis is located, and the deserted site of the ancient city is on the next hill over, the promontory known as Civita.

Looking at the site of the old city of Tarquinia from the Monterozzi necropolis

Today's Tarquinia was known as Corneto in the middle ages and renamed Corneto-Tarquinia in 1872, but in 1922 a resurgence of interest in Italy's distant past prompted the return to the ancient name of Tarquinia.  Both versions of the city, old and older, are near but not on the coast; a port called Gravisca allowed the Etruscans to be a major naval power and facilitated trade, yet the Tarquinians lived on a defensible hill nearby, away from the malaria-infested coastal lowlands. 

Tarquinia was a major player, perhaps the major player, among the twelve cities that defined Etruria (see map in previous post).  Fortunately situated in a rich agricultural region and with access to equally rich mineral resources, it became a wealthy and powerful city as early as 750 B.C.

Tarquinia's fertile surroundings

Fellow tourists in Chiusi
When D.H. Lawrence made his tour of Etruscan sites in 1927, he didn't seem particularly taken with Tarquinia as a city.   He complained about officials being officious, about the food, about transportation difficulties.  (At least he didn't have to join a third-grade class in order to get into a tomb, as we did at Chiusi a couple of years ago.)  He did, however, have a great deal to say in praise of the necropolis and its famous painted tombs, which show many exuberant and lively scenes from Etruscan life.

Here's Lawrence on the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing:

"...quick with life, spontaneous as only young life can be.  If only it were not so much damaged, one would be happy, because of the young liveliness of it.  There is nothing impressive or grand.  But through the paleness of time and the damage of men one still sees the quick ripple of life here, the eternity of the naive moment, which the Etruscans knew."

Tomb of Hunting and Fishing

Iron age funerary urns
We, on the other hand, loved the town.  Italy is replete with medieval cities that have been tarted up for the tourists, and Tarquinia is emphatically not one of those.  San Gimignano touts its towers, but Tarquinia has imposing towers as well.  Cortona, the City of Art, seems constantly to be posing for pictures, but Tarquinia is simply a town, a very old town, where people still live.  And when we asked one new friend how long her family had been there, she looked puzzled at the question and responded, with a shrug, "Sempre."  (Always.)  But they live as neighbors to Etruscan tombs dating back to the Iron Age (though the painted tombs first began to appear in the late seventh-early sixth century B.C.), and they live amid massive medieval buildings which often incorporated stones quarried from the ruins of the earlier Etruscan city.

Some images of Tarquinia:

What draws the tourists - though they are probably just day-tripping from Rome - today is the necropolis, and the painted tombs.  Tarquinia is home to perhaps as many as 6000 known tombs, though only 180 of these are painted.   Those 180 tombs comprise about 80% of the known painted tombs in all of Etruria.  (Numbers from Tarquiniia:  An Etruscan City by Robert Leighton.)  Of these, perhaps 30 are currently accessible, and around 15-20 are open to visitors on any given day.

These tombs, dotted all across the necropolis area, each consist of a mound, an underground tomb, and a modern hut leading to stairs down, where the visitor switches on a light and peers through a glass door to view the frescoes, many of which are startlingly vivid, despite their age.  The rich pigments include yellow from iron, blue from lapis lazuli (possibly imported from Egypt; its use is more prevalent in later frescoes), black from soot or charcoal, red from iron oxide, and green derived from some combination of copper, malachite, flint, and calcium.

Etruscan tomb, Monterozzi necropolis
Tomb of the Jugglers
Tomb of the Leopards

The Monterozzi necropolis is now a UNESCO site, with the tomb paintings protected and climate-controlled, but that is a fairly recent development, and centuries of weather erosion and tomb robbers have taken their toll.  Tomb robbing is still going on; there is a market for these antiquities, and it is virtually impossible to police the vast area of the necropolis effectively.  Little to nothing was left in most of the tombs of grave goods or human remains (though some few were, fortunately, discovered still intact), but the paintings remain, though some are badly damaged.  The frescoes from a few of them (the Tomb of the Triclinium, for example) have been removed from their original sites and installed in the archaeological museum in town.

Tomb of the Triclinium

We were fortunate in that during the time we were in Tarquinia it was possible to gain access to several tombs not usually open to the public, by hiring a guide.  We chose to do this, joining a charming Dutch couple, and followed Tarquinia local Claudia into a half dozen more tombs, in an area somewhat distant from the tombs open to the public.  Among these tombs was the oldest we saw, and my favorite, the Tomb of the Panthers.  I do not have a picture to post - we were not able to get a usable photo, and I could not find a copyright-free picture - but if you follow this link you will see these beautiful, stylized cats.

Also on this tour was the remarkable Tomb of the Bulls.  I've given you an image of one of the frescoes, and also our (rather blurry) photo of the tomb as seen from the doorway, to give you an idea of the context.  You will see the image on the far wall.

Tomb of the Bulls
Tomb of the Bulls (note image on far wall)

And with that, we bid a reluctant farewell to Tarquinia, a city I'll return to in a heartbeat if I get the chance. Next time we'll look at a very different kind of Etruscan necropolis, at Cerveteri.

Images in this post:  Winged horses from Wikimedia Commons,  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Other images either our own, or in the public domain.

Friday, April 20, 2012

In Search of the Etruscans - Part 1: Rome

Mars of Todi

We've just returned from a research trip to Italy, in search of the Etruscans.  It was absorbing, fascinating, fruitful, and completely unlike any other research trip I've taken in years.  In fact, it completely blew me away - not unlike the fellow shown above.  (He's known as the Mars of Todi, and his somewhat acephalic condition is due to a lightning strike.  Lightning being sacred to the Etruscans, he was then buried between two travertine slabs, not to be discovered for another two and a half millennia.)

Wait, you may be saying.  You write about the middle ages, so what are you doing pestering the long-dead Etruscans, anyway?  And how can one research trip be that different from any other research trip?

As to why a medievalist is suddenly interested in Etruscans, I can only say that I do have other interests besides Dante's Florence, and every now and then one of them will demand attention. Once when I was in high school, a teacher spoke dismissively of people who studied the Arthurian legends, implying that such interests were irrelevant to today's world.  I gathered up my courage to speak (I was very shy) and finally stammered out something like, "But Arthurian legends are interesting things to be interested in... if you're interested in that sort of thing."

Okay, it wasn't my finest academic moment, but I felt it passionately, and my teacher was gracious enough to backpedal his position a bit.  And so my only excuse for this trip is that Etruscans are interesting people to be interested in, if you're interested in that sort of thing.  And I am.

As to why this trip was unlike other research trips, the main difference lay in my level of knowledge.  When it comes to Etruscans, I have very little.

With Dante's Florence it's different.  I've been studying this area for a lot of years now.  The last time we went to Florence, what I sought was specific information, such as whether someone at the top of a particular tower could see the end of the Ponte Vecchio or not, and how many people could have fit in the little piazza in front of a particular small church.  When I attended a series of evening lectures on the history of Florence in Dante's time, I looked down at my notebook at the end of the final session and found that all I had written was "Not that simple."  While I don't claim expertise, and there are still plenty of holes to plug in my knowledge, I'm not a beginner.

But with the Etruscans, I am.  I tried to learn everything I could before we made the trip, but time ran short and our departure date loomed well before I had sorted out all the differences between the archaic period and the hellenistic, for example, or could even remember the modern names of all of the twelve major Etruscan cities.

So off we went anyway, underprepared as I was, and I determined that the best thing to do was to open myself up as completely as I possibly could to what I saw and experienced, and just see where that took me.

Where it took me was somewhere wonderful, and someday I hope to write fiction about it and take other people there, too.

Our trip paralleled, in many ways, a trip taken by writer D.H. Lawrence in 1927.  In the last years of his life and facing health problems (he died in 1930), Lawrence was particularly receptive to Etruscan attitudes toward life and death - inescapable on such a trip, because all we have left of their culture is their spectacular array of tombs, carved and painted and utterly mysterious.  They lived in houses of wood, which have long since disappeared, but they - the wealthy among them, at least - housed their dead in elaborate dwellings carved into tufa and carefully prepared for a luxurious afterlife.

Their tomb paintings - of feasts and hunts, dancing men and women, musicians, rites of divination, food preparation, real and fantastic animals, supernatural beings, games and athletic contests, trees and garlands, tents and furnishings - tantalize us, telling us at once so much and yet so little about this vanished culture.  Little is left to us of Etruscan writing, and much of that concerns religious ritual or divination, so we must rely on these frescoed tombs (and on what remains of their contents after an onslaught of tomb robbery, souvenir hunting, and poorly-conceived archaeology across several centuries) to try to understand how the Etruscans lived.

From the Tomb of the Triclinio, Tarquinia
Lawrence saw in the Etruscans a people brimming over with life and energy.  Here's some of what he had to say about them, based on his impressions in 1927, exploring many of the same tombs we just saw:

"The curves of their limbs show pure pleasure in life, a pleasure that goes deeper still in the limbs of the dancers, in the big, long hands thrown out and dancing to the very ends of the fingers, a dance that surges from within, like a current in the sea.  It is as if the current of some strong different life swept through them, different from our shallow current today; as if they drew their vitality from different depths, that we are denied. ... To the Etruscan, all was alive:  the whole universe lived:  and the business of man was himself to live amid it all.  He had to draw life into himself, out of the wandering huge vitalities of the world.  The cosmos was alive, like a vast creature." (taken from Sketches of Etruscan Places, D.H. Lawrence)

We started our journey in Rome, mostly to see the Etruscan museum in the Vatican museum complex (having already seen Rome's other major Etruscan museum, the one at the Villa Giulia, on a previous trip).  While there, we made the obligatory visit to the Sistine Chapel, and I'd just like to point out that Michelangelo's blue Charon is thought by many to have been modelled on the Etruscan demon/guide Charu (as are the demons in some of Luca Signorelli's frescoes). Michelangelo is said to have explored some Etruscan tombs and to have been familiar with some Etruscan bronzes, and to have been influenced by them. 



There wasn't much to see of the Etruscans in Rome, outside of the museums.  Rome is quintessentially Roman.

Or is it?  

The Etruscans, after all, got there first.  They had thriving cities while Rome was a small village of salt-traders.  Three of the seven kings of Rome were Etruscan (Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus).  Perhaps - just possibly - they made their mark on Roman culture.  

Lictors?  Those Roman civil servants who acted as bodyguards to the VIPs who had imperium, or the right to command?  Very Roman, indeed, but the Etruscans had them first.  The twelve cities of Etruria, each of which used to have a lictor, determined the number of lictors that served Rome.

Fasces?  Those bundles of sticks with an axe in the middle?  Those, too, were Etruscan.  

The famous rape of Lucretia?  Done by an Etruscan, Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last king, Tarquinius Superbus.  (Maybe not such a good claim to fame, considering it resulted in his dad's exile, the end of the monarchy, and the beginning of the Roman republic, but still, there it is.)

Rape of Lucretia, by Jan Sanders van Hemessin (1500-1579)  (I know the story of her suicide, but I still think she's pointing that knife at the wrong person.)

It was an Etruscan haruspex, Titus Vestricius Spurinna, of a distinguished Etruscan clan, who gave Julius Caesar the famous warning about the Ides of March.

Emperor Claudius's first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla, was Etruscan (he divorced her for adultery), and he wrote a history of the Etruscans, unfortunately lost.

The first of the Etruscan kings, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, established the Circus Maximus and constructed the Cloaca Maxima (Great Sewer).  He was the first to celebrate a Roman triumph, wearing the robe of purple and gold that was an Etruscan tradition.

Even the Capitoline she-wolf, that ultimate symbol of Rome, has long been said to be an Etruscan statue (though recent scientific dating suggests that it may instead be medieval in origin, and even though those results are not yet clear, the two suckling infants are certainly not original, and in fact are probably Renaissance additions, often attributed to Pollaiolo).

Some art historians may tell you that many of the themes and motifs we are familiar with in Roman, medieval, and Renaissance art originated with the Etruscans:  nursing mothers, mothers with their children, couples, winged figures, demons, ghosts, dismemberment, and human sacrifice among them.

Rome whetted our appetite, but the next stop - far from Rome's frantic traffic and crowds - was little Tarquinia, only 28 miles from Rome, and yet a world away.

Next time, In Search of the Etruscans - Part 2, Tarquinia.  Please join me.

Images in this post:  The map of Etruria is from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  All other images are either in the public domain or are our own photos.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lots and Lots of Pots

We are just back from a research trip to Italy, in which we were hot on the trail of the Etruscans.


Why, you may ask, would a medievalist be pursuing a people who flourished two and a half millennia ago?  Never fear, I will attempt to explain, but I need a little more time to pull that post together:  my husband took 1700 photos, and it's taking a while to sort them all out.

Meanwhile, I wanted to confess to a serious flaw in my scholarly endeavors, brought into sharp focus by this trip.

It is this:  I don't do pots.

A pot

Oh, I try.  I understand the importance of pottery in dating and interpreting archaeological finds.  I do appreciate the artistry and skill that have gone into the making of many of them and the stories of trade and commerce they can tell us, and the wealth of information they can provide about life in distant times and places.

I've seen pots that are breathtakingly beautiful, or clearly valuable, or amusing, or whimsical, or pornographic, or all of these at once.  

A duck pot

And I did learn some things.  I saw how the Etruscans valued Greek pottery and then emulated it, with subtle changes.  I saw how thick-walled black bucchero ware eventually replaced thin-walled, and I saw the difference between red- and black-figure painting techniques.

A bucchero pot

But in spite of all that, when I encounter a room in a museum which is filled with nothing but pots, I blanch.  Especially when it's followed by three or four more rooms, also full of pots.

 Another pot

While a better scholar might be absorbing the details of the glaze on a particular type of pottery, I am merely glazing over.  Pots are my own personal scholarly Kryptonite.  I simply cannot look at a case full of the things and see anything but - too many pots.

Yet another pot

And I miss a lot because of it.  The Etruscan pottery we saw on this trip was covered with wonderful mythological stories, deities and heroes, animals both realistic and fantastic, beautiful geometric designs, and so much more.

Pot (with friends)

I can study images of these pots in a book, but when confronted with hundreds of them all at once, I simply can't focus on them.  I want to go look at armor, or jewelry, or go get a coffee.  Maybe two.

Pot (canopic jar, actually)

It's different when they're interspersed with other exhibits.  If I can look at a case and say, "Oh, what a lovely bracelet.  And that comb!  Maybe they both belonged to the same woman who owned that mirror, and who used that strainer to clarify the wine she kept in that pot..." then I'm okay with that.  But when that pot appears with several dozen of its fellows, it's as if I just can't see it anymore.

Why, look - it's a pot

It occurs to me that making that sort of speculative connection is more the job of the historical novelist than the job of the historian, the archaeologist, or the museum curator ("Just the facts, ma'am," as the hardboiled detective used to say in a television show that was popular many years ago).  But I still wish I had more tolerance for the things, for there's so much to be learned from them, and how will I ever make those connections if I can't make myself really look at the pots?

I do believe it's another pot

I've even thought sometimes that it might help if I took up making pottery, but I fear that the whole concept of throwing pots would take on a whole new meaning in my hands.

Even the souvenir stands have lots of pots

I'm not yet writing about the Etruscans, but sooner or later I'm going to have to confront their pots.  After all, they didn't eat out of styrofoam carryout containers, or cook in microwaves.

For now, I guess I just have to admit that I've come up against a limitation.  Fortunately, I have a much greater tolerance for pottery in my main period of interest, but then, there's not so terribly much of it.  I'll say this for the makers of classical pottery - they had no concept of planned obsolescence.  That stuff is here to stay.

 First image:  Museo Guarnacci (Volterra) by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Other images:  personal photos.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Planning a Research Trip (Part 2)

Found art, Venice

Last time, we talked about some of the things that make planning a research trip a bit different from planning a pleasure trip (not that I don't find research a pleasure, you understand). We discussed planning your research activities, planning your time, how to get around, and where to stay. This time, we'll take a look at some other things to consider as you set up your research trip.


How can food possibly be different for a research trip than it is for any other kind of trip? It isn't, really, but there are a couple of things worth keeping in mind. First, it's probably worth carrying something lightweight and indestructible (energy bars, nuts, etc.)
so that if you're off exploring someplace, away from your rented kitchen and from restaurants and stores, you won't need to cut a research expedition short on account of imminent starvation.

If you are using an apartment kitchen, you will find cooking equipment and dishes. The supplies can range from minimal to elaborate, but usually you will have at least enough to manage to heat a couple of things at once on the stovetop and serve a meal for the number of people sleeping in the apartment. Sometimes you will find condiments, spices, tea and coffee waiting for you; other times the cupboards will be bare. Shopping
in local stores can be interesting and satisfying, though, and you may well make some useful discoveries in terms of local produce, cheeses, and prepared foods from a deli. If you keep it simple (we eat a lot of boxed soups, local breads and cheeses), it won't take much cooking time.

Don't neglect local markets, especially the outdoor variety. You'll find fascinating products, and it will be a quick course in local culture as well.

Sometimes your research activities mean you need food at unorthodox times. If you're in Italy, for example, and you desperately need a meal but the restaurants are not going to be open for another two hours, consider looking for ethnic restaurants. A kebab shop or a Chinese restaurant is more likely to be open than a regular Italian restaurant or trattoria, and it can be fun to see such fare translated into Italian. Egg rolls, for example, are among the "antipasti" and all Chinese noodle dishes tend to be called "spaghetti."

Pictures: hearty breakfast in the Netherlands; Sicilian olives from the market; fresh pizza machine in the Palermo airport.
What to pack

If you're travelling during cool weather (and the shoulder seasons are economical for many destinations), consider wearing layers. My personal favorite is silk - it can be washed in a sink and it will dry overnight, and it weighs almost nothing and takes up little room in your baggage. For me, a black microfiber sweater and silk turtlenecks in several different colors can keep me comfortable, and I don't feel as if I'm wearing the same thing every day.

Don't forget raingear. It may make the difference between seeing something you want to see, and missing it altogether. Travel rainjackets that pack in a pouch will not take up much room, and some of them can double as a regular jacket on days when the weather looks iffy. Personally, I wouldn't bother with an umbrella. It's just one more thing to carry. (But if you'd like to have one, consider a travel-size umbrella that will fit in a purse or backpack.)

You will need comfortable shoes. Don't skimp on this, and don't forget to pack extra laces. Yes, you could find them wherever you are, eventually, but do you really want to take the extra time?

Pack a hat, to protect you from sun or cold or both. This is one I always forget, and as a result I keep buying cheap ones from souvenir stands. I own a baseball cap with a horn-helmeted Viking on it from Norway, and a knitted cap with earflaps that says "Souvenir of Amsterdam." I didn't like wearing the silly things at the time, and I don't wear them now. Take something reasonable with you instead.

My other two must-bring items are a pair of opera glasses (much less bulky than binoculars, but they'll help you see things you would otherwise miss), and a small flashlight. I call mine my crypt light, because we once found ourselves in a crypt under a small Italian church and the guys upstairs forgot we were there and turned the lights off. Do you have any idea how dark it can be in a crypt? Since then, I've always carried a light.

What to buy

This will, of course, depend on your budget and your interests. You may find souvenirs that evoke the place for you, serving as writing talismans. Shop the local flea markets and antique fairs for this sort of thing. Buy the local crafts. You may well find gifts for people back at home, or for yourself.

A well-travelled friend of mine says that if you see something you know you want, you should buy it then. Don't count on finding it again later, either somewhere else or where you've first seen it. That way lies disappointment.

Don't forget to shop for postcards; especially if there are places where indoor photography is frowned upon or impractical, the cards can give you a good visual record of what you've seen, very possibly showing more detail than you could have captured anyway.

Books are an obvious purchase. You will probably find books on your topic, or related to it, that you would never see at home. These are the things to snap up while you have the chance. Look at children's books, as well. Many of the best of them are lavishly and accurately illustrated, and may be of use to you. If you take an interest in a church, castle, or other site that has a minimal selection, do look in nearby bookstores. They may be taking advantage of their proximity to the attraction and stocking relevant books.

(Note: I don't recommend doing much shopping at the sort of places illustrated here.)

Pictures: Schlock shopping in Florence (first two), Taormina, and Venice. In Taormina they sell little busts of Mussolini made of volcanic rock.
Disappointments and surprises...

Sometimes it doesn't work out the way you want it to. Something important is closed for remodeling, or there's a train strike at a critical time, or your exotic location doesn't look quite like it did in the brochure. It happens; just roll with it. There'll always be one that got away. (They were polishing the floors in the Edinburgh museum on the one day I had available to see the Lewis chesspieces housed there. I missed the statue that was on the cover of my high school Spanish book when an entire floor of a Madrid museum was closed. They were dredging the canal next to our place in Venice. Our apartment on "the most beautiful piazza in Italy" - Arezzo - looked out on a major street remodeling project we hadn't known about.) If you travel during the off season, these things are more likely to happen to you; after all, they've got to do maintenance sometime, and the height of the tourist season is not going to seem like the best time.

This is what a canal in Venice looks like when they're dredging it
(Fortunately, I can't show you what it smells like)

The most beautiful piazza in Italy

...And why they don't really matter

You've gone somewhere wonderful. You're pursuing an interest you're passionate about. You're having new experiences. How can you possibly go wrong? You've been disciplined and organized about your planning; now's the time to relax and enjoy. Follow your whims. Talk to people - they'll have a lot to tell you. Soak it all up, take pictures, jot down notes so you won't forget anything. Have a wonderful trip, and a wonderful time putting all your new knowledge to use once you're back home. Buon viaggio!