Weit offen die Totenkammern sind
Und schön bemalt vom Sonnenschein…
Wide open are the chambers of the dead
And beautifully painted with sunshine…
– Georg Trakl, “Im Herbst” (1913)
Set aside, for a moment at least, the insensitive materialism of this apathetic and aesthetically squalid modern world of ours, and instead allow the following scene, which took place in northern Italy some 2,500 years ago, to pass before your mind’s eye. Imagine that you are walking along the banks of the river Mincio, following its southeasterly course away from the bustling Etruscan city of Mantua, and towards its confluence with the main stem of the Po. After an hour’s riverside stroll, you pass through a thicket of densely woven foliage and enter into a vast wetland, the Vallazza, home to a succession of white willow groves, and stands of poplars, alders, and elms, tall and ample, rising together with oaks and hornbeams, ashes and hazels, beeches and firs, all looming over thickset canebrakes and overgrown shrub-lands dotted with false indigo and hibiscus. Further downriver lies another Etruscan community, Forcello, first settled around 540 B.C., and noteworthy for its neat, orthogonally arranged streets, distinctive pale yellow wattle-and-daub dwellings, well-stocked warehouses, and blazing kilns spread over 12 hectares. But from where you stand, beside the lush Vallazza, the collective din of Mantua’s haggling merchants and Forcello’s hammering blacksmiths remains out of earshot. What you can hear is the soft, soughing sound of the wind passing through the canopy, the frankly ludicrous grunting coming from a cormorant rookery, and the surprisingly gentle mating calls of amorous Lataste’s frogs perched on waxen water-lily leaves.
It is a primeval place, the likes of which D.H. Lawrence would describe in his 1920 poem “Sicilian Cyclamens,” as “spumed with mud” and full of “ancient instinctive life,” teeming with “pagan, rosy-muzzled violets” and
Slow toads, and cyclamen leaves
Stickily glistening with eternal shadow
If you listen carefully, you can make out another sound, omnipresent and constantly thrumming: the vibro-acoustics of honeybees fanning out in search of pollen. Following the flight paths of these tireless insects, you are surprised to find them returning not to nests in the hollows of the nearby trees, and not to artificial apiaries in the neighboring hamlets, but rather to a barge moored in the midst of the Mincio. This boat is laden down not with amphorae, metal ingots, or timber, nothing so banal as all that, but with beehives, carefully crafted from wickerwork, fennel stems, and cork oak bark, and smeared with cow dung, from which the female worker bees emerge to explore the flora of this abundant marshland, and to which they return, their hairy pollen baskets caked with precious yellow pellets. Pliny the Elder, in his encyclopedic Naturalis historia, will later conjure up such a scene:
There is a village, called Hostilia, on the banks of the River Padus: the inhabitants of it, when food fails the bees in their vicinity, place the hives in boats and convey them some five miles up the river at night. At dawn, the bees come out and feed, returning every day to the boats, which change their position until, when they have sunk low in the water under the mere weight, it is understood that the hives are full, and then they are taken back and the honey is extracted.
This is the sublime image that I hope has come to rest in the gaze of your mind’s eye: an Etruscan honey boat gently rocking on the Mincio, sinking into the water little by little as tens of thousands of bees fill their queen’s wax combs with pollen and nectar and honeydew. It is a vignette so picturesque as to be almost beyond belief, but such vessels really did ply the waters of ancient Padanian Etruria, as evidenced by recent excavations at the Forcello di Bagnolo San Vito archaeological park. The Etruscan town of Forcello was, in the sterile language of modern archaeologists, “abandoned c. 375 bce, perhaps in connection with the movement of transalpine populations into northern Italy,” a roundabout way of saying that it was sacked by bloodthirsty, woad-painted Gauls and burned to the ground, its inhabitants impaled on ash-wood spears or carted off as chattel. All the evidence suggests that the settlement of Forcello was, according to Silvia Amicone, Enrico Croce, Lorenzo Castellano, and Giovanni Vezzoli, authors of the 2020 Archaeometry article “Building Forcello: Etruscan wattle-and-daub technique in the Po Plain,” “ended by a violent conflagration, which sintered part of the daub and destroyed the structures and contents of the building, including wooden features.” Few residents of the village would have survived the Gallic onslaught unscathed, but intriguing aspects of their lives were fortuitously laid up in the store of time, sealed beneath the heap of calcined debris that was once their home.
From our own vantage point, we can seek out that sinuous rill, and examine where it might still lead, and the depths it might reach, if only we would follow.
It was in 2017, nearly two and a half millennia after the town met its tragic end, that excavators at Forcello stumbled upon an ancient cache of charred honeycombs, along with the mixture of pollen and honey evocatively known as bee-bread. Palynological analysis revealed that the microscopic grains in the bee bread came from wild grapevines and fringed water lilies, plants not present in the village itself, but plentiful along the banks of the Mincio and the Po, and accessible only by boat. Pliny had known of what he wrote. The Hostilia he described was a mere 20 miles from Forcello, and the two towns must have shared this unique and altogether charming approach to apiculture. It seems a shame that we can only read of, and not taste, the wild grapevine and water-lily honey for which the Etruscans must have been so renowned, but we can still marvel at the ingenuity of what the poet Virgil called the “sweet labours” of those beekeepers and their bees, “a mighty Pomp, tho’ made of little Things.”
The novelist Will Self has noted how our modern culture exists “in contra-flow to the passage of time; this explains why we now find ourselves on the mud flats embanking just one of the exhausted rivulets of silted-up delta; meanwhile, back at the source, the sinuous rill continues to convolute a multitude of non-analysable forms.” Much closer to that selfsame source were the Etruscans, for whom it was as if, in the words of D.H. Lawrence, “the current of some strong different life swept through them, different from our shallow current today, as if they drew their vitality from different depths that we are denied.” From our own vantage point, mired as we are in the miasmic, silted-up cultural delta of modern life, we can look back to the Vallazza of the Etruscans, back to the charms of long-lost Mantua and Forcello, back to the softly swaying honey barges of the aquatic beekeepers, and we can seek out that sinuous rill, and examine where it might still lead, and the depths it might reach, if only we would follow.
Now it is springtime in 1846, and the Florence-born archaeologist Alessandro François is investigating a promising site a mile or so northeast of Chiusi, called Poggio Renzo, or alternatively La Pellegrina, where an Etruscan tomb had remained hidden for some 25 centuries, accessible only through a dank tunnel dug through the porous tufa beneath an old oaken hill. As François enters the burial chamber and passes his lamp along the walls of the four chambers that make up this cruciform sepulcher, he is astounded at the painted scenes suddenly illuminated all around him. Practically every surface of the crypt is emblazoned with polychrome frescoes illustrating the palaestral games of the ancient denizens of Tuscany. Among the participants are wrestlers, boxers, chariot racers, gladiators, minstrels, aulos players with their double-reeded flutes, and dancing girls with towering incense burners on their heads. This lively performance takes place under the watchful eyes of a lone spectator, a high-born lady whose almond-shaped eyes are shielded by a delicate veil, and who sits comfortably beneath a parasol, resting her feet on a stool as she takes in the dizzying spectacle. Under the projecting lintel of one of the doors squats a painted monkey chained to a rock, giving the crypt its name — the Tomba della Scimmia, or “Tomb of the Monkey.” Ever since the catacomb was sealed firmly shut, only the ghostly shades dwelling therein had been able to appreciate the artistic mastery on display, but now Alessandro François has thrown wide open the gates to this chamber of the dead for all to see.
The English explorer George Dennis would hasten to visit the newly discovered site, providing a memorable description of it in his mammoth 1,085-page account Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria (1848). He found himself
struck with the mediaeval character of much of this scene. It requires no great exercise of the imagination to see a castle-yard in the days of chivalry. There is the warder with his horn, the minstrel with his lyre, the knight in armour, the nun with her rosary, the dwarfs and monkey — and even some of the other figures would not be out of place. Yet the style of art, bearing a close resemblance to that of the Grotta delle Iscrizioni at Corneto, proves this to be without a doubt the most ancient of the painted tombs of Chiusi, and at least four or five centuries before the Christian era.
Everywhere Dennis went during his extensive Italian travels, he was spellbound by Etruscan art. Gazing upon the “ash-chests” or cinerary urns of Volterra, some lines of Wordsworth came to mind: “the touches of Nature on these Etruscan urns, so simply but eloquently expressed, must appeal to the sympathies of all — they are chords to which every heart must respond; and I envy not the man who can walk through this Museum unmoved, without feeling a tear rise to his eye, ‘And recognising ever and anon / The breeze of Nature stirring in his soul.’”
Only now are we getting a sense of just how vibrant and coruscating the Etruscan world really was.
D.H. Lawrence, following in Dennis’ footsteps, would likewise feel the pull of that lost civilization. He admitted in his masterly travelogue Sketches of Etruscan Places (posthumously published in 1932) to having wearied of the “aesthetic quality” of High Classical art, “which takes the edge off everything, and makes it seem ‘boiled down.’” Far preferable were the frescoes of La Pellegrina and the urns of Volterra, which were “like an open book of life” that could “warm one up, like being in the midst of life.” The French Etruscologist Marie-Françoise Briguet, for her part, has readily admitted that the art of ancient Etruria was “modest in ambition and attainment,” but this is precisely what makes it so intriguing, for
The beauty or ugliness of such works, both of which are frequently and unexpectedly present, their lack of sophistication, their sense of humor, and the daring stylization of forms all appeal directly to the viewer. This technical carelessness and extreme simplification aims at representing the fleeting moment, translating directly the movements of the heart — and perhaps also a certain selfish individualism — and appealing to the senses. The Greek form is an idea; the Etruscan form is an impression, deeply felt, even when represented in an incomplete, unfinished manner. This is perhaps the secret of its appeal to us today.
At the Tomb of the Monkey, we encounter a fresh style that is, to borrow Lawrence’s imagery, perfectly al dente, and as a result, the site remains as full of vim and vigor as it was on that day, some two and a half millennia ago, when an unknown painter quickly and confidently applied his buon fresco pigments to the freshly laid lime plaster spread upon the hidden sepulcher’s walls.
Or so it would seem. The Etruscan paintings discovered by François and his fellow archaeologists, however stunning, are in actuality shadows of their former selves. At a January 8, 2021, virtual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies, Gloria Adinolfi of the Pegaso Srl Archeologia Arte Archeometria revealed how multi-illumination hyperspectral extraction (MHX) has revolutionized the study of Etruscan wall paintings like those of the Tomba della Scimmia. “A major issue is the significant loss of information on the polychromy of the preserved paintings, with special regard to some specific colors owing to their physical chemical composition,” remarked Adinolfi, but by taking images that included infrared and ultraviolet bands of light, she demonstrated how faded colors like Egyptian blue, which “has a very specific response in a single spectral band,” could be detected by MHX analysis. New palettes of colors have been uncovered, entire scenes of the Etruscan underworld have come to light, and what once were indistinct red smudges on the frescoes at La Pellegrina have been identified as figural representations. Only now are we getting a sense of just how vibrant and coruscating the Etruscan world really was, and how the “incomplete, unfinished manner” of its art may, at least in part, be a distortion caused by the ravages of time.
Regardless of the often desolate state of its preservation, there has always been something singularly compelling about the civilization of the extinct Etruscans. The first to realize this, naturally, were the ancient Romans, whose early history was inextricably tied to their neighbors, having been ruled by the Etruscan Tarquin dynasty from 616 to 509 B.C. before throwing off the Etruscan yoke and eventually conquering their neighbors by 264 B.C.. The humanist Florentine historian Leonardo Bruni, in his 12-book History of the Florentine People, catalogued the many Roman appropriations of Etruscan culture:
The Romans took from the Etruscans the toga praetexta and the phalera; the painted togas and embroidered tunics; the rings of office; the handsome golden chariots used in triumphs; the fasces, the lictors, the trumpets and curule chairs, and all the other insignia of kings and magistrates … Roman boys, before the period when they were given instruction in Greek literature, were commonly taught Etruscan literature. The Romans also adopted their religious ceremonial and cultic practices from the Etruscans — and in these arts the Tuscans are reported to have excelled all other nations — doing this in such a way that they left the older rites in the charge of their Etruscan inventors…. All such knowledge of religious matters was referred to by the Romans as “Etruscan learning.”
However much the Etruscans may have bequeathed to their conquerors, they could still be considered, at least as far as the 20th-century Italian writer and painter Alberto Savinio was concerned, fundamentally anti-Roman in their naturalism and sprezzatura, making them the true “romantic fathers” of modern Italy. In his art and his essays, Savinio sought to “give the underside of things the same amount of dignity as their facade,” and it was hardly surprising that the Etruscans, obsessed as they were with divination, the underworld, and funerary art, would appeal to him. D.H. Lawrence was also intrigued by the Etruscans’ “shadowy monomania,” their “dusky, slim marrow-thought” that cut right to the heart of things. “We have buried too much of the delicate magic of life,” Lawrence lamented, but fortunately the legacy of the Etruscans is still “alive and kicking in some people.”
I should very much like to include myself in such company. Indeed some of my own fondest memories include meandering through the galleries of the Museo Nazionale Etrusco at the Villa Giulia in Rome, marveling at the savagery of the frieze that depicts Tydeus devouring the brain of his enemy Melanippus, or at the haunting affection shared between the husband and wife portrayed atop the justly renowned Sarcophagus of the Spouses. I will seek out Etruscan art wherever I can, for even modest museum collections often contain overlooked gems, like the Cleveland Art Museum’s bronze cista handle featuring Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death) carrying the mangled body of Sarpedon like a pair of battlefield stretcher-bearers, or the Walters Art Museum’s terracotta antefix with its bulbous-nosed Head of Silenus, dusted with the barest hint of surviving red pigmentation, suggesting drinker’s nose. Standing before these masterpieces, I can feel that Etruscan breeze stirring in my soul, and inevitably I think of the Anglo-Irish novelist J.G. Farrell’s question: “We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us…but what if we are only an afterglow of them?” And I can still recall, a quarter of a century later, discussing Etruscan art with the brilliant translator Jeremy Leggatt as we stood together in the Louvre Museum, between the Cour du Sphinx and the Petite Galerie, surrounded by a superabundance of sarcophagi, figurines, and amphorae, and how he wondered aloud, with his characteristic frankness: “It’s all been s— since the Etruscans, hasn’t it?” An entire weltanschauung, summed up in less than 10 words.
The Tomb of the Monkey was not Alessandro François’ first great discovery, nor would it be his last. Before his investigation of La Pellegrina, the Italian archaeologist was best known for his unearthing of the François Vase, an exquisite Attic volute krater bearing various aristocratic and mythological motifs that turned up during excavations at the Fonte Rotelle necropolis near Chiusi. The vase was discovered in a fragmentary state, and was painstakingly restored, only to be smashed into 638 pieces by a deranged museum guard in 1900, and it took until 1973 for the krater to be fully reconstructed and placed on display, somewhat worse for wear, in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence. His appetite only whetted by the finds at Fonte Rotelle and then at La Pellegrina, François moved on to the Ponte Rotto necropolis near Vulci, where in 1857, alongside his fellow Etruscologist Adolphe Noël des Vergers, he made his most impressive find of all, a frescoed burial chamber now called the Tomba François. The pioneering Italian archaeologist would soon be entombed himself, having ignored George Dennis’ warning that the region around Vulci was “almost uninhabited, so deadly is the summer-scourge of malaria,” but his legacy had been firmly secured.
Few will dispute the charms of the Tomb of the Monkey frescoes, with their acrobats, flautists, festooned dancers, and royal ladies, but the François Tomb provides a glimpse at another, more discomfiting side of Etruscan civilization. The French classicist Marie-Louis-Antoine-Gaston Boissier was impressed, but also unsettled, by the tomb’s masterly frescoes:
A tomb discovered at Vulci by Alexandre François is adorned with excellent painting, comparable in execution to the finest remaining to use from antiquity. The subject was drawn from the Iliad, but by a strange and lugubrious caprice the artist has seen fit to choose from the Homeric poem that scene which shocks us the most — that where Achilles, having taken twelve noble and brave Trojans in the River Xanthe, brings them “like young fawns trembling with fear,” and with his own hand immolates them at the tomb of his friend Patroclus. Homer seems only to speak with repugnance of this action of his hero, and condemns him in relating it….How happens it that several centuries later, in the full bloom of civilization, a painter has chosen to reproduce precisely what the simple poet of a barbarous age would have palliated?
This is a scene of operatic violence, erupting from the Cimmerian depths of darkness inside the Etruscan psyche.
Boissier expressed particular dismay at how the anonymous fresco painter somehow did not find “the subject repulsive enough for him, for he has felt it necessary to add the hideous and bestial figure of Charun,” the Etruscan blue-skinned death demon, shown here as he “stands beside Achilles, and seems to incite him to accomplish the bloody immolation,” and looking for all the world like one of the oni ogres of Japanese Buddhist temples. This is a scene of operatic violence, erupting from the Cimmerian depths of darkness inside the Etruscan psyche. It is easy to luxuriate in the presence of Etruscan painting when the subject matter involves, say, flute-playing youths riding dolphins, or symposium scenes, or sumptuous representations of pomegranates and lotus blossoms; the François Tomb’s Iliad panel instead challenges the viewer with its depiction of merciless brutality. (READ MORE FROM MATTHEW OMOLESKY: Darkening Senses: John Donne, Byung-Chul Han, and the Palliative Society)
As much esteem as I have for Lawrence’s Etruscan Places, I will be the first to admit that its author had a misconceived tendency to portray ancient Etruria as a bucolic paradise wholly in thrall to the joys of dolce far niente, and the Etruscans as victims of their own irenic predispositions. “You cannot dance gaily to the double flute and at the same time conquer nations or rake in large sums of money,” the English novelist suggested as “the reason for the utter destruction and annihilation of the Etruscan consciousness” by the Romans. For Lawrence, the triumph of Rome over the Etruscan city-states was a victory of barbarism over civilization: “Because a fool kills a nightingale with a stone, is he therefore greater than the nightingale?” Yet the Etruscans were not mere furtive thrushes. They were warlike and piratical. They reveled in ritualized funereal gladiatorial combat, a tradition they passed on to the Romans. Their priests would, as Boissier noted, pour out from their city gates and fling themselves upon their enemies “with blazing torches, with serpents in their hands, and aspects of fury,” which must have been quite a spectacle to behold. “Is it not curious,” asked Boissier, “that this country, which four or five centuries before Christ concerned itself so much with the other life, and made such horrible pictures of hell and its inhabitants, should be the one where, in the Middle Ages, the poem of Dante and the frescoes of Orcagna were produced? In every epoch the Devil filled it with the same terrors.” Here in the Etruscan Inferno we are a long way from the charming naturalistic artwork so beloved by Lawrence, which left his “breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life.”
The François Tomb happened to have been painted, one notes with interest, around the same time as the notorious Caere forum incident of 356 B.C., when the Tarquinian Etruscans put 307 Romans to death, either as a form of human sacrifice or an exercise in machtpolitik. A year later, unsurprisingly, the vengeful Romans bludgeoned 358 Etruscan noblemen with iron rods in their own forum. Perhaps the Iliad scenes in the Ponte Rotto necropolis were meant to commemorate the former, or to lament the latter. We should also bear in mind that, like the Romans, the Etruscans considered themselves to be descendants of the Trojans (though Herodotus and other classical historians were sure they hailed from Lydia, elsewhere in Asia Minor, while a 2021 analysis of DNA extracted from the remains of 82 Etruscan individuals has intriguingly found “Indo-European–associated steppe ancestry” and a “lack of recent Anatolian-related admixture among the putative non–Indo-European–speaking Etruscans”). In any event, the terrible slaughter of the prisoners by the River Xanthe, from the Etruscan perspective, takes on an even more disturbing aspect. It is a presentiment of the Etruscans’ doom. It had happened before, and it would happen again.
Fatalism was a hallmark of Etruscan religious life. According to the 20th-century German Etruscologist Otto-Wilhelm von Vacano,
The Etruscans believed that different peoples each had an existence of a predetermined duration, with a beginning and an end in between which they grew, flourished and faded away, just as the different ages of man are all steps on his road to death. The Nomen Etruscum [the combined twelve Etruscan cities or nations] was supposed to have been assigned eight, or according to other traditions, ten saecula and it is a strange fact that Etruscanism as an entity in culture and history actually did begin to disappear from sight and to merge into the Roman Empire in the years in which its destiny was, according to this doctrine, fulfilled.
The expected end, when it did come, was swift. “On the very day,” von Vacano observed, “on which Veii was taken by the Romans the Gallic tribes of Insubres, Boii and Semnones are alleged to have conquered and destroyed Melpum, the wealthy Etruscan city situated in the plain of the Po.” The sacred effigy of Veii’s patron goddess, Queen Uni, was removed from her temple and sent to Rome, where she would find a home in the Temple of Juno Regina on the Aventine. Uni’s graven image was saved, but other showpieces like the terracotta Apollo of Veii, now in the Villa Giulia, were “thrown down from the temple roof and fell among the rubbish,” as von Vacano put it, for they were “mere earthenware roof ornaments and votive gifts and to them was attributed [by the Romans] neither special intrinsic value nor protective sanctity.”
This was in 396 B.C. Forcello would fall a few years later, and the rest of the Etruscan city-states in the decades to come. Little would remain of their material culture — mostly terracotta roof ornaments, vases, and those eerily elongated bronze figurines that would so inspire the sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Since the Etruscans did not bury their dead within the walls of their cities, however, they were obliged to build expansive necropolises, with their vaulted sepulchral chambers and painted walls, their funerary vessels and lapis manalis, or “soul’s stones” that sealed the shrines shut. It is largely thanks to these sprawling cities of the dead that we have a passable understanding of Etruscan life and afterlife, though admittedly the barrier between those two states was decidedly permeable. As Lawrence elegantly summarized it, “death, to the Etruscans, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance. It was neither an ecstasy of bliss, a heaven, nor a purgatory of torment. It was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life. Everything was in terms of life, of living.”
As a consequence, the carnage depicted on the walls of the François Tomb, and the atrocities that attended the well-known fall of Veii or the lesser-known sack of Forcello — these horrors would not be allowed to define Etruscan civilization. To paraphrase Jonathan Meades describing the achievements of the virtuoso architect Cuthbert Brodrick, the Etruscans built forever, thus they are forever. Their unique combination of jouissance and grim fatalism was perhaps unique in world history, and they seem to have anticipated, better than any people before or since, the truth of Schopenhauer’s dictum, that “there is some wisdom in taking a gloomy view, in looking upon the world as a kind of Hell, and in confining one’s efforts to securing a little room that shall not be exposed to the fire,” for as long as possible, until the saeculae have run their course and a new journey begins.
It is at a crucial juncture in Antal Szerb’s evocative 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight that the protagonist Mihály finds himself in the Villa Giulia, delighting in “the graves and the sarcophagi, with their lids supporting terracotta statues of the old Etruscan dead enjoying their lives — eating, drinking, embracing their spouses, and proclaiming their Etruscan philosophy.” Mihály’s guide, the classicist Rudi Waldheim, directs his attention to a set of figurines displayed in a vitrine, “dreamy-eyed men, being led onwards by women, and dreamy-eyed women led, or clutched at, by satyrs.” As Waldheim explains, “that’s death. Or rather, dying. They’re not the same thing. Those women luring the men on, and those satyrs clutching at the women, are death-demons. Are you with men? The male demons take the women, and the female demons the men. Those Etruscans were perfectly aware that dying is an erotic act.” These people, the scholar continues,
probably feared death even more than we do. Our civilisation presents us with marvelous mental machinery designed to help us forget, for most of our lives, that one day we too will die. In time we manage to push death out of our consciousness, just as we have done with the existence of God. That’s what civilisation does. But for these archaic peoples nothing was more immediately apparent than death and the dead, I mean actual dead people, whose mysterious para-existence, fate, and vengeful fury constantly preoccupied them. They had a tremendous horror of death and the dead. But then of course in their minds everything was more ambiguous than it is for us. Opposites sat much closer. The fear of death and the desire for death were intimately juxtaposed in their minds, and the fear was often a form of desire, the desire a form of fear.
Szerb’s description of Etruscan funerary art, and Etruscan culture in general, was characteristically perceptive. For that extinct civilization, opposites indeed “sat much closer” to one another, whereas our increasingly digitalized, etiolated existences have been polarized to the point of gnosticism.
Like the fictitious Mihály, I experience a certain thrill whenever I enter Room 71 of the British Museum, “Etruscan World, 800-100 B.C.,” where my eyes will be instantly drawn to the painted baked-clay panels extracted from the walls of the Boccanera Tomb at La Banditaccia, or the terracotta sarcophagus featuring the life-sized reclining figure of a noblewoman with the rather pretty name of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa. But nestled in the Etruscan gallery, between all the serried ranks of funerary sculptures and bronze votive figures, is an undeservedly obscure masterpiece of Etruscan funerary art, a suitable subject for one of Rudi Waldheim’s lofty flights of eloquence. It is the Stamnos of the Aleria Painter, a sort of squat amphora, barely a foot tall, and graced with delicately drawn egg moulding, tongue patterns, flowers, palmettes, and, most importantly, two unforgettable depictions of the Etruscan afterlife.
On one side of the stamnos we see the demon Charun, who we last encountered back in the François Tomb as a blue-skinned demon in military garb, urging Achilles to slaughter the sons of Troy. Here Charun is portrayed as a muscle-bound nude figure reminiscent of Vulcan Hephaestus but in a prominently ithyphallic state, and wielding a massive hammer with which he is about to bludgeon his victim, a paunchy, balding, and likewise evidently concupiscent middle-aged man. On the reverse side is a well-proportioned, contemplative-looking younger man seated upon a rock, a sheathed sword upon his lap, whose shoulder is stroked by a winsome winged female figure clothed in a long girt chiton and holding a torch. Here we are in the presence of Vanth, the Etruscan psychopomp or “soul-guide” who will be leading the youth through the caverns and over the rivers of the Etruscan underworld towards the great unknown. The Aleria Painter has visualized those eternal dichotomies: profane time or sacred time? Decadence, or renaissance? Squalor, or grandeur? Charun, or Vanth? The choice, he seems to say, is ours.
The sensation that the Etruscans left behind in their paintings, sculptures, and bronzework can likewise be felt corporeally, viscerally, in the flesh, the heart, the bowels, the very marrow deep in the cavities of your bones.
Today we find this stamnos locked away in a glass cabinet in Bloomsbury, illuminated by the phosphor-converted white light of overhead LEDs. Perhaps it should still be in situ, in a workshop in Vulci or a tomb in Orbetello, but those sites have all been looted by grave robbers or excavated by archaeologists, and have subsequently been taken over by tourists. D.H. Lawrence, standing inside an emptied-out Etruscan tumulus at Cerveteri, felt that “there is nothing left” there, like “a house that has been swept bare: the inmates have left,” and “now it waits for the next comer. But whoever it is that has departed, they have left a pleasant feeling behind them, warm to the heart, and kindly to the bowels.” William Butler Yeats, Lawrence’s rough contemporary, articulated in his short essay “The Thinking of the Body” how the artistic achievements of ancient civilizations make our thoughts “rush out to the edges of our flesh,” “whether the Victory of Samothrace which reminds the soles of our feet of swiftness, or the Odyssey that would send us out under the salt wind, or the young horsemen on the Parthenon, that seem happier than our boyhood ever was, and in our boyhood’s way. Art bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world.” The sensation that the Etruscans left behind in their paintings, sculptures, and bronzework can likewise be felt corporeally, viscerally, in the flesh, the heart, the bowels, the very marrow deep in the cavities of your bones. As George Dennis realized as he explored the Tomb della Scimmia, the culture of ancient Etruria “must appeal to the sympathies of all,” for the Etruscans were playing “chords to which every heart must respond,” provided we pay proper attention, and attune ourselves to the harmony of those beguiling ancient strains.
On March 15, 1913, one of the finest works ever produced by the precocious Austrian expressionist poet Georg Trakl, “Im Park,” appeared in the pages of the bi-monthly Innsbruck-based literary magazine Der Brenner. By the following autumn, Trakl would be dead of a cocaine overdose, self-administered to relieve the effects of shell shock acquired while heroically serving as a medic on the Eastern Front. The world around Trakl had descended into madness, a self-destructive madness of civilizational felo de se from which, more than a century later, in many ways we have yet to emerge, a raving madness in which we, to borrow once more D.H. Lawrence’s imagery, pelt nightingales, pelt each other, and pelt ourselves while proving nothing. But like Trakl, we can still hearken back to a time before the delicate magic of life was buried beneath the dross heap of modernity, so let us call to mind the pastoral idyll of the Vallazza, the unsurpassed elegance of the Tomba della Scimmia, and the sad foretokens of the Tomba François, and then let us go:
Wieder wandelnd im alten Park,
O! Stille gelb und roter Blumen.
Ihr auch trauert, ihr sanften Götter,
Und das herbstliche Gold der Ulme.
Reglos ragt am bläulichen Weiher
Das Rohr, verstummt am Abend die Drossel.
O! dann neige auch du die Stirne
Vor der Ahnen verfallenem Marmor.
Walking in the old park once again,
O! the stillness of blossoms yellow and red.
You also mourn, you gentle gods,
Amidst the autumn gold of the elm.
Motionless in the bluish pond
The reeds rise, the thrush falls silent at eventide.
O! then you too bow your head
Before the decayed marble of your ancestors.
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