Whichever way you approach Orvieto there are intriguing glimpses to be had that appear and disappear through the trees and hedges, dips and rises, that eventually give way to the open floor of the valley. Each time, and from whatever approach, I try hard to imagine what it might have been like for those intrepid travellers more than 2 thousand years ago; what would this monolith have looked like then with no rising structures, no clearly defined roads beyond donkey tracks and little cultivation around the base as keeping it cleared would have been critical to the view from the top of intending marauders. What was it that captured the imagination then in that contrastingly slow advance, with time to observe and assess? Of course, around the Villanovan Period (8thC B.C.) there were many small groups of inhabitants moving around the rock, maybe venturing into the single long cleft that gave natural access to the soaring plateau above, but never remaining or establishing much of a community, not until, the arrival of those strange and enigmatic settlers expanding east from the west coast, around the 6th century B.C.
As part of a great “country” of Etruscan City States and many, many smaller allied villages and towns inhabited by the groups with similar cultural/linguistic/devotional traditions, Orvieto eventually rose to be one of the most important economic/political cities in the land area designated as “Etruria”. Some short distance from the base of the rock was one of the single most important temples in the “Fanum Voltumnae”, a temple devoted to a great Etruscan divinity that also offered up an annual festivity where representatives from all the major centres would come each year to discuss issues and elect the representatives for the benefit of all. This was not as a means of “governing” or “ruling” over all but rather as a focus to address all issues that threatened any form of existence across a scattered number of tribes or villages and other main centres, from Bologna in the north to south of Rome and from the east coast across to the foothills of the Apennine in the west.
Orvieto (Velzna or Volsinii as the ancient names go), however, was unique. While Etruscan towns were typically built on rising bluffs – not inaccessible hilltops and not in open flat valleys that were more conducive to agricultural produce – Orvieto sat atop a flat, if irregular, plain of a monolith, rising out of the valley floor to a height of 195m. This great rise out of the valley and the surrounding area within the valley created an environment both compelling to its allies and deeply threatening to its enemies, mainly the Latins (Romans). If you take a moment to visualise the path from Rome through to the northern reaches of the peninsula, you can at once begin to comprehend the nuisance value to an army on that trek; advancing through the natural green and fertile valley pathways was a relatively easy trek as opposed to diverting over the rugged Apennine to follow the west coast or in mounting a huge expedition to go by sea along the eastern shore (a journey not without its own dangers and threats in any case). In Rome’s great expansionist plans, Orvieto (and all of the Etruscan identity) was a thorn in its side and had to go. Orvieto was the last great Etruscan City State to fall and with great Roman acumen in its conquering/absorbing approach to all other cultures, the Etruscan identity faded quickly, leaving only traces in the great tombs and archaeological sites that only came into view in that great century (19th) of resolute archaeology, and it continues today with many “live” digs all over the land that was once the “country” of Etruria.
On the rock of Orvieto we have a number of subtle and seductive remains, most of which are hidden from view but all offering that special glimpse into a fascinating world of real people, real emotions with skills and means for living that were not just to do with survival, as seems to have been the case with the earlier primitive tribes. Many of these sites and relics receive scant attention from tourists who amaze at the stunning gothic/renaissance cathedral, marvel at the quaint medieval streets, become distracted by the shops of colours and lustres – all good and worthwhile (though some more than others) - but who miss the underlying richness that makes sense of it all. Even taking a guided tour to the fabulous underground Etruscan/Medieval caves sometimes has that kind of “Disney theme park” feel to it and, while there are many stunning and precious relics to see in the museums, most do very little to allow a true journey of discovery for the average tourist with very little translated into English. One private set of amazing caves and artefacts (though now more Medieval than Etruscan) is the Pozzo della Cava. This offers a quiet journey through the layers with brief but clear descriptions in several languages and it is to be applauded for this insight into how people like to journey and discover for themselves. But that being said, it is the other two great repositories of Etruscan treasures, the Archaeological Museum and the Museo Faina, that offer that very special vision into what it was like to be Etruscan, but this can only be brought to any real appreciation with an empathetic guiding hand.
There are remaining structures that can be visited both on the rock and off, with one fascinating journey down through the layers under the collegiate church of Sant’Andrea with its marvel of shadowy remains, showing from the older church foundation, to the earliest paleo-christian church, to a Roman mosaic flooring down to the tufa-block streets of the Etruscan town. All are a true palimpsest and clear illustration to how this city – and any city – develops in continuity through the ages, one layer over the other, marvellous to see. Sadly, it is almost impossible for the hapless tourist passing through to know it exists, let alone make the arrangements to visit. That is not a comment on the sad state of touristic endeavours in this city (although there are many examples elsewhere) but rather an acknowledgement that it is simply impossible to open everything up to everyone and some places do require a stricter supervision and also a clear guiding hand to make sense of what is there to see and interpret. But there are others, like the remains of the temple, hidden a little within the gardens on the eastern edge of the rock, that are accessible and with the right tools in hand and a genuine enthusiasm for discovery, it is possible to find that little bit of magic that transports you back in time, to the real identities that made up this ancient country. For me, it is in the dark regions of the “city of the dead” that make it all spring into life.
While Tarquinia, in particular, offers more conspicuous examples with the imaginative and colourful tomb pictures revealing an inner psyche and a freer, less moralistic approach to life that was altogether different from the more puritanical Romans, it is in the tombs of the Etruscan necropolis in Orvieto, without any distractions of lively depictions of a life lived to the full, that one can truly “feel” and experience the reality of these sensitive, reflective and intelligent people. Once in the “streets” of the necropolis, you may choose which rectangular darkness calls you in and descend, slowly, looking for a hand grip to steady your foot fall on the moss-laden, crudely worn steps, down into the darkness to the clay floor, with only the thinning shaft of light coming from above and behind. Once in the depths, steady your footing, close your eyes and empty your mind from the bright day outside and the distant murmuring of modern day noises. Feel the dank moist clamminess and pace your way back into a quiet ceremony of bringing forth the corpse of a loved one, elder, sister, mother, child. Watch while the now lifeless, wrapped body is placed tenderly on the shelf made just for this purpose and distribute around it the everyday objects of life and work, of love and joy, meaning and sustenance, of play and war – and of course, of the divinities worshipped – ready to be transported with the deceased as they plunge into the after-life, as much a reality as the one you are standing in, so much an integral part of the working day of every Etruscan soul.
Think then of the person whose remains lie there. Who were they? what were they? what did they mean to those who carry out the sacred rituals, who lay them to rest, who prepare them for there onward journey and who mourn them as tragically and desperately as we mourn our own losses today? What objects would you choose to place around your loved ones or choose for yourself? If you can feel any of this in the musty ancient darkness then you will experience something that brings these ancient people to life. They will live again as you become to understand them as real people, people who lived and flourished, who loved life, who respected all genders and races equally and who fought valiantly, if not cruelly, against anyone who attempted to disrupt that precious gift of life – and culture. These are the Etruscans - these people, these individuals who were loved and mourned - and not just the artefacts that lie in museums. The phantasm of these objects, in this dark space, are the reality of possessions of living that we otherwise view with a certain distant parsimony through glass cases - ancient cookware, jewels, personal adornments and practical clothing fixings, armoury and objects of devotion – and children’s toys. These items were real enough to their owners, useful and personal, playthings and war things, all placed lovingly, with honour and reverence.
Taking this time, making this moment, allowing these reflections are all means in getting to “experience” them, to understand that the people of this marvellous “country of Etruria” are still as real as we are ourselves, not just objectified, faded entities that are the subject of endless treatise. In the words of DH Lawrence,
. . . who wants object lessons about vanished races? What one wants is a contact. The Etruscans are not a theory or a thesis. If they are anything, they are an experience. Etruscan Places 1986, p155.
Any satisfying journey of discovery requires a commitment to a certain amount of effort on our behalf. Sometimes that means finding a sympathetic person who possesses not only a certain knowledge but also an empathy and a desire to pass on that knowledge in a meaningful way. History is not only about dates and places, it is about people and their thoughts and daily lives and loves told through anecdotal stories, relevant context and visual aids. With time, desire and a little determination, we can get to those very special places that allows us a full experience of what it was like, in this story, to be an Etruscan in the age of Volsinii.
At Discovering Italy, this is always our approach to history - in reliving and creating new experiences from past riches – and it is what we specialise in. Ask us HOW . . .
Judith Greenaway. Principal Director & Guide. www.DiscoveringItaly.com
September 28, 2015