Dennis of Etruria: A Celebration

By Potter, T. W. | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview
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Dennis of Etruria: A Celebration


Potter, T. W., Antiquity


George Dennis' The cities and cemeteries of Etruria, a massive two-volume work of over 1000 pages, was published towards the end of 1848, the British Museum's copy (now the British Library's) being received on 18 January 1849. It was quickly acclaimed as a literary and archaeological masterpiece (Rhodes 1973: 52-5; Pallottino 1955: 126, n. 1), which brought the then little-known Etruscans to life in the most vivid of ways. The fruit, in Dennis' word, of extensive travelling in Etruria between 1842 and 1847, and of much work in the libraries of, in particular, Rome, it remains 150 years later an indispensable topographical source. Indeed, a 2nd, revised, edition appeared in 1878 (reprinted in 1883, but misleadingly entitled a 3rd edition), and a further version of the 1848 volume was published in J.M. Dent's highly regarded 'Everyman' series in 1907. This was nine years after Dennis' death, on 15 November 1898, when he was 84. Yet the conundrum is to explain why Dennis' extraordinary contribution to scholarship is now so little appreciated in, especially, the English-speaking world, notwithstanding a fine biography (Rhodes 1973), and a well-crafted abridgement (Hemphill 1985). He has been accorded no entry in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), and his acute understanding of topographical matters finds rather scant praise in standard surveys of archaeological historiography, even that of Glyn Daniel (1952: 81, 111-12). This is despite an earlier celebratory article in ANTIQUITY, commemorating the centenary of the publication of Cities and cemeteries (Bradford 1948: 16061), and a delightfully acerbic remark concerning the DNB by Denys Haynes, Keeper of the Greek and Roman Department at the British Museum, in his preface to Rhodes' volume (1973: 12), which runs:

Can it really be, one wonders irreverently, that James Blatch Piggot Dennis's paper 'On the mode of Flight of the Sterodactyles of the Coprolite bed near Cambridge is more deserving of national commemoration than Cities and Cemeteries?

Here it will be suggested that his contribution to the development of topographical studies was much more profound than is commonly recognized, certainly in Britain, and that those who have disregarded his contribution are influenced by a school of thought, both ancient and modern, that regards the Etruscan achievement as second-rate and derivative.

Dennis, who was born in 1814, was briefly educated for just two years at Charterhouse, always a distinguished school, but did not go on to university. Instead, in 1829, aged 15, he entered his father's section at the Excise Office as a clerk, and remained there for the next 20 years. It was an uncongenial job, but his father permitted him an extraordinarily generous allocation of leave, perhaps recognizing his son's potential. This enabled Dennis to commence his travels, at length to Spain (which resulted in a 850-page book, A summer in Andalucia, published in 1839), and later to Switzerland and northern Italy. As his published works, and the references that he cites, show, he must have had a flair for languages. Despite the apparent brevity of his formal education, Latin and Greek were no obstacle; nor were modern tongues, which he seems to have picked up - at least eight of them - with enormous ease (Rhodes 1973: 17). He was extremely well versed in both the ancient and modern sources and, employing the help of a camera lucida (Dennis 1848: 281), was also a talented artist. So too was his travelling companion in the first years of his exploration of Etruria (1842-43), Samuel Ainsley, a number of whose fine drawings were used in Cities and cemeteries [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1 & 2 OMITTED]: 112 of these were bequeathed to the British Museum in 1874, and provide a fascinating documentation of their travels (Binyon 1898: 1, 3-14).

It is astonishing that researching and writing Cities and cemeteries took a mere six years of his spare time, and Dennis was thus just 35 when it was published in 1848.

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