Weekend Breaks: What Did the Etruscans Ever Do for Us? ; They Painted, Carved, and Built, Creating Amazing Decor with Themes That Were Wildly Erotic. and They Did It All Hundreds of Years before the Romans Got Their Act Together. Michael Church's Eyes Are Opened as He Ventures into Deepest Etruria

By Church, Michael | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), April 4, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Weekend Breaks: What Did the Etruscans Ever Do for Us? ; They Painted, Carved, and Built, Creating Amazing Decor with Themes That Were Wildly Erotic. and They Did It All Hundreds of Years before the Romans Got Their Act Together. Michael Church's Eyes Are Opened as He Ventures into Deepest Etruria


Church, Michael, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


It's a hot summer night in Marta and the dark streets by the waterfront are full of expectant chatter. Any time now, the patron saint will arrive on the waves and the whole town is ready to receive her. Correction: we should have said half the town, not the whole of it, because in this corner of peasant Etruria the Catholic- Communist divide still cuts like a knife.

Little girls with white wings sprouting from their shoulders are escorted by middle-aged nuns in uncharacteristically expansive mood; small boys try their strength hoisting their fathers' giant lanterns; the band tunes up with a tremendous din.

"Precisely when and where will she hit land?" we ask three old men at their cafe table. Three contemptuous shrugs - they have no idea. Finally a boat covered with fairy lights appears in the blackness, and to ecstatic cries of "Che bellezza!" the saint is shouldered ashore. Then, with the Catholic half of town - including young dads pushing empty prams in the hope of their being filled by divine intervention - we follow her stately progress through the streets, endlessly repeating the same devotional chant to the strains of the band. And strain is the word, because though it keeps the rhythm, the band has a problem with pitch. When the bishop has given his blessing and the ritual is over, the band plays us home with "My Way", each player defiantly doing just that.

Marta is one of the medieval towns ringing Lake Bolsena, the inland sea - replete with fish - which is the focus for this blissful region untouched by tourism. Tuscania may be another of those towns, but Tuscany - as we now understand the word - lies 50 miles to the north: Etruria, home of the Etruscans, is a world apart. Etruscan Places was the encomium D H Lawrence was busy writing when he died: for him, the Romans were the Prussians of antiquity, who ground underfoot the ancient flower of Etruria. He loved the shining muscularity of the Etruscans' paintings, and the amoral innocence of their "obscene" sexual images: from 700-300BC, these settlers from Asia Minor had lived as he thought we all should live. Their civilisation was closer to the Greek than the Roman, but from the evidence of their tombs, which is all we have to go on, it had a gutsy vitality all its own.

And everywhere you stumble on their tracks. Visiting medieval Tuscania with its magnificent Romanesque churches, we meet a young farmer called Lorenzo Caponetti who insists that we refer to this as the New Town. The old one is to be found on his farm in a nearby valley, as he shows us: when the eye gets used to decoding the scrubby contours, every mound and hillock is revealed as a tomb, and of the 2,000 in this necropolis, 1,850 are still to be excavated. He shows us shards left by medieval inhabitants who adapted these dead- houses for living use; he points out the stones of the Via Clodia along which passed Charlemagne, Francis of Assisi, and Dante. The universities of Rome and Oregon are soon to do a dig, but the larger question of how to open it all to the public, as opposed to Caponetti's bed-and-breakfast guests, remains unanswered. His family owns the surface, but the subsoil belongs to us all. One thing leads to another: go down the road and talk to Walter Maioli, says Caponetti, and suddenly we're magically close to those Etruscans. For Maioli is an ethno- musicologist who has recreated the Etruscans' musical instruments - their lyres, flutes, tambourines and drums. He and his daughter, Luce, perform on these as though they've stepped out of the paintings and carvings which are their source-material. Moreover, they've just released a CD, The Etruscan Flutes (www.soundcenter.it). The sound-world it evokes is haunting.

Time now to get a fix on the pristine beauty of these vaults hewn out of the rock: time to visit Tarquinia. Overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, this city with its square defensive towers looks like a medieval New York, and the hill above is dotted with military-style bunkers.

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Weekend Breaks: What Did the Etruscans Ever Do for Us? ; They Painted, Carved, and Built, Creating Amazing Decor with Themes That Were Wildly Erotic. and They Did It All Hundreds of Years before the Romans Got Their Act Together. Michael Church's Eyes Are Opened as He Ventures into Deepest Etruria
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