Do you know the Etruscans ? I first learned of them through my father’s novel, ‘The Crime of Giovanni Venturi”, a romp of a tale about a Trastevere trattoria owner who discovers the magnificent tomb of an Etruscan king under his restaurant.
Rome is fortunate in its immediate proximity to at least ten major Etruscan sites, and we include them often in our clients’ Travel Plans. Clients visit these by train or with car and driver, sometimes with our archeologist guides or sometimes on their own but with our materials. Others explore on day trips from one of our Tuscan coastal villas or special hotels. For ourselves and Rome-based clients, the drive is just 40 minutes away, and we know we are close when the sea glistens blue to our left and a steep road to the right guides us up to our site.
Cerveteri, our favorite Etruscan place, is fragrant year-round with fennel, mint and wild chamomile. This month poppies and malva, sweet pea and buttercups are on display, springing from the porous tufa stone. One of the charms of the site is that no one shows any interest in beating back the exuberant show of wild flowers that blooms throughout the year.
When you visit Cerveteri (or Tarquinia or Vulci or Tuscania or Norchia or our other local favorites) we always suggest that you take a succulent picnic (and will tell you where to obtain it.) Cerveteri’s bar provides an excellent espresso and homemade liqueurs. Where will you begin ? Our specific Cerveteri destination is Banditaccia, a necropolis of the 9th – 1st centuries BC, and containing thousands of tombs. Some of these are trenches cut in rock; others mole-hill-shaped tumuli of various sizes with a fairy book quality to them. Some, also carved in the soft volcanic tufa rock, are in the shape of huts or houses with a wealth of structural detailing.
Cerveteri provides the only surviving evidence of Etruscan residential architecture. Our children always stop when they first come in, and soak in the place, because Cerveteri has a special magic. While it is a city of the dead, it is arranged as a city of the living, with tombs arranged along streets, sometimes branching off laterally into smaller lanes, on small squares and in neighbourhoods. Many have ornamental facades with cornices. Climbing in and out of the tombs, none of which is remotely scary (though sometimes one feels a bit invasive) is a fascinating experience. The interiors, arranged in presumably the form of an Etruscan house, with a multiple of rooms, offer singular architectural and decorative features, and each one is a discovery : some offer reliefs (like roof mouldings or timbering), nearly all have single or double couches (often with stone pillows or cushions), occasionally with arm chairs with or without attached foot stools.
The children wander in and out. What will they find ? Both have flashlights. A relief of a three-headed dog (Cerberus) ? Long and surprisingly inviting beds with artfully arranged pillows, almost cozy enough to settle down upon for a little rest before emerging back again into the light of day ? They love chasing multicolored butterflies and lizards, and wandering freely without a set agenda.
The Tomb of the Reliefs offers a remarkable insight into the Etruscan domestic world, with sculpted domestic objects “hung” on the wall like objects on a pegboard in a kitchen.
A cat, duck and goose are also there, as is an Etruscan dice game called astagali. Armor, tweezers, cords, ladles, pitchers, knives, skewers, tables… Frescoes here are multi colored, and the couches are like a train’s sleeping car compartments, and each ornamented with a red silk canopy.
Sheep wander around the site, as do dairy cows and a friendly collection of cats and dogs. Cerveteri , a United Nations World Heritage Site, is open every day but Monday from 9 until one hour before sunset.