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My New Heartthrobs: The Mysterious, Enigmatic–and Underestimated–Etruscans

So remember that boyfriend you briefly dated your sophomore year at college, the one who seemed to drop out of nowhere one day, spent a few months listening to you pine after the campus heartthrob, and then seemed to vanish into the ether again?  And all these years later you stumble upon some love notes he wrote you during those months and you realize that you probably should have paid a little more attention to the guy, because he was actually really interesting and funny and smart and it’s not really that fair that the campus heartthrob was always getting all the attention.

Well, my friends, that’s pretty much the story of the Etruscans.  This mysterious ancient people surfaced in central Italy sometime after about 800 BC, from whence we still don’t really know, stuck around for a few centuries building a far flung and mighty confederation of city states spanning from near modern Venice to south of modern Naples dotted with walled towns and rich necropolises and trading with most of the Mediterranean, left us with with some of the most astoundingly beautiful bronze and goldwork, terracotta sculpture, and frescoes produced in the history of Italy and then, during the first century AD, vanished—completely absorbed by their conquering neighbors.  And what do they get for it?  Millenia of being ignored and underrated, and having to hear everyone harp on constantly about the Romans, whom, as history has taught us, have quite a bit to thank the Etruscans for, including laying the foundations for the city of Rome itself.

IN TVSCORVM IVRE PENE OMNIS ITALIA FVERAT (Nearly the whole of Italy was once under Etruscan Rule) – Cato 2nd century BC

Ipogeo dei Volumni

A visit to the Hypogeum of the Volumnii (Ipogeo dei Volumni) inside the Palazzone necropolis right outside of Perugia is to see all this in the microcosm of one archaeological site.  This ancient subterranean burial chamber—one of the most significant examples of Etruscan funerary architecture–was discovered by construction workers in 1840 who were building a road cutting right through the necropolis which is thickly covered with almost 200 modest chamber tombs…and, in keeping with a long and proud history of distain towards this ancient populace, just kept right on building the road.  In fact, a visit to the site now is punctuated with noise of traffic from the highway running above it and the trains passing on the railroad tracks adjacent.

The 19th century entrance to the archaeological site...note the highway overhead and the railway crossing to the right. No respect. (Photo by Cantalamessa)

The tomb itself is accessed through a 19th century “antiquarium”, crowded with row upon row of ornately carved travertine urns inside of which the ashes of the deceased were laid, wrapped in cloth.  These stone boxes with roof-shaped lids show how strongly Etruscan art and architecture were influenced by Greece in this period; the sculptures of the reclining deceased on the lids look like they could have come straight from Athens.  The front faces of the urns are often decorated with ornate reliefs depicting mythical scenes, referencing Greek mythology, or sea monsters, recalling one of the more dominant theories as to the origins of this people: a sea crossing from Troy.

An elegant reclining image of the deceased

A mythological sea monster relief

From there, the steep descent into the cool and dark tomb is captivating.  The burial site dates back to 3rd century BC and imitates the architecture and layout of a house, with faux wooden roof beams carved into the stone, an entrance hall, and bedrooms and antechambers.  At the end of the entrance hall is the “tablinum”, or chamber where urns containing the remains of members of the Velimna family remain still.  The urn from the last member of the family, from the 1st century AD, is the only example in marble, in the shape of a Roman temple, and inscribed in both Etruscan and Latin.  By this point, the ruling classes in Perugia were integrated into Roman culture, and the Etruscan culture which had dominated the area for centuries had disappeared completely.

The house-shaped tomb preserving ornately decorated family urns

There is a small museum on the necropolis grounds which displays some of the artifacts found in the surrounding tombs and burial chambers, but if you’ve caught the Etruscan bug (which I certainly did after a visit to the hypogeum) it’s more than worth your time to stop in at the newly renovated National Archaeological Museum in Perugia.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Umbria

The entrance to the museum through the San Domenico cloister (Photo by G. Dall'Orto)

Housed in the former convent of San Domenico—the entrance is through the elegant cloister—the museum has on display a variety of Etruscan artifacts found in excavations in the necropolises in and around Perugia.  Two of the most interesting of these are a travertine block used as a boundary marker and incribed with one of the longest examples of the Etruscan language, and the remains of a bronze chariot.  There are also breathtaking examples of glass and gold-work from the Etruscan period.

The Cippo Perugino, example of the Etruscan language (Photo by Louis Garden)

Etruscan bronzework taken from a chariot (Photo by G. Dall'Orto)

My only beef with the museum is that the incredibly interesting printed explanations of the displays still haven’t been translated into English, which is a crying shame.  They said they’re working on it…and they had better be.  After all these years, it’s time the Etruscans get the attention and respect they deserve.

For more information about Etruscan history and culture, you can take a look here.

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