Etruria, the luxurious necropolis
The Etruscans’ happiness of life… the genius of those peoples hunts like a word on the tip of the tongue. Recipes for happiness are in the back of everybody’s mind, but how many make it happen? The Etruscans did, against the odds of B.C. It took me two mediocre documentaries and a few in-depth articles to feel ready to peep through Etruscan keyholes. After all, who can resist a glimpse through the curtains left ajar while passing a low window? Fortunately, intrusive travelers are mostly excused as showing polite interest… though this time, we were going to stick my nose into places more private even than a restroom – I was going to sleek into graves, and I hoped the Etruscan souls wouldn’t mind.
From what I discovered, the ghosts should be rather easy-going. Their predecessors were reported to be inappropriately beautiful and scandalously equal in the ancient world where hierarchy and dominant males were just right. For a start, women were welcomed to gulp wine along at banquets otherwise reserved for the masculine. The husbands were of the kind that ‘doesn’t mind,’ without going into excessive detail. Free from pretense, as opposed to other accomplished civilizations of that time (and of these days…), the Etruscans appreciated fragrant, womanly presence at their intellectual drinking parties. It is true that the Etruscan ladies squandered quite a bit on makeup as well as body care & wear, but they also happened to be well educated. And yet, this revoltingly modern civilization was swept away in a period as short as two centuries!
On top of all that and against the elsewhere standards, the Etruscans went for shared gyms (to admit female potential, and/or to stare at its sweaty curves) and outfits so scanty they would be frowned upon even these days. Co-ed workouts were standard, meaning the seductively oiled, scarcely robed athletic bodies of both sexes were strolling around the gym yards. This sounds sane, since forbidding the Etruscan beauties to exhibit their exercised bodies and beautified visage for the sake of feigned morals would have been like spearing oneself in the leg. Putting all these pieces together, I reckon a commonly accepted shag was probably proceeded by a perfumed pick-up line borrowed from Socrates.
The phenomenon of by-gone Etruria, today Italian regions of Tuscany and northern Lazio, has been a thrilling head-scratcher for years. Apparently, not only did the Romans manage to get rid of their neighbors asap but also took care that there wouldn’t be much left for future reference. Even the little that has been excavated, as well as testimonies by ancient travel writers, afford a glimpse of the Etruscan society and their unworried, elegantly frivolous lives—too agreeable to create significant barriers between men and women, be they physical or intellectual. Their lightheartedness must have run very deep, as even the Etruscan necropolis strangely radiates with the joy of life—at a glance.
With all that in mind, the museum in Cerveteri—one of the most significant Etruscan metropoles—makes a perfect (both entertaining and informative) departure point. First, the interactive multimedia part lets the visitor touch an object on display, thus starting a 3D display accompanied by an audio description of the exhibit. This comes with curiosities from daily Etruscan life, a feature I wish every museum of antiquity could offer. Also, the objects are unusually well restored, meaning, even their rainbow-like colors have been brought back to life. The first floor gives away the intimate bits of daily habits, including a surprisingly familiar body care. (Yes, bio- and organic cosmetics manufacturers, you’ve been reinventing the wheel.)
Climbing two flights of stairs brings the visit to the more spiritual/intellectual level. Because, after all, what kind of guys were their gods who supported all that prosperity? Or what was it like to attend those intellectual and boozy banquets passing to the rhythm of flutes and lyres, laughs and discussions, smiles and erotic sighs? And then, one of the most wanted and oversized ancient drinking cups, Kylis of Euphronios, is here too, wrestled away right from New York. This storytelling collection is just the right size to stimulate imagination, yet too tiny to cause museal boredom.
Chimed with Etruscan culture, body, and minds, it’s time for the highlight, one of its kind: the necropolis, or the ‘city of the dead.’ However, the Etruscan joy of life must have been so rooted that strolling among the tombs felt more like visiting a village whose inhabitants have just gone away, leaving a fluffy horde of cuddly cats behind to keep an eye on possible invaders. The conical mounds, all brightly green most of the year, remind far more of a setting from Tolkien, or wine cellars, than of a postmortal hang-out hub. This impression might not be such a long shot since Etruscan wine tradition has been cherished up to this day.
The days of Etruria were never thirsty of wine. What is more, its acidic fame spread far beyond the empire’s borders. Even studies conducted on French amphorae confirm that most likely it was the Etruscan who trained the early French populations in wine production. Etruscan wine trading encouraged the development of wine tasting among different cultures, and Tuscany proudly continues their ancestors’ tradition. A mere thought of this herbs-seasoned vintage poured straight from the carefully ornamented amphorae makes you want to explore erstwhile Etruscan wineries.
A few glasses of fine Chianti or Brunello might have been an inspirational booster before getting lost in one of the necropoli surrounding the city. The Necropolis of the Banditaccia, a UNESCO Site since 2004, entrapped us with its maze of main and side roads, as well as tombs presenting themselves as if they were inhabited dwellings. The impression faded away, though, when we entered the mystic structure only to meet the most appalling of their many guards. Their neon-white, six-legged swollen bodies were hanging from eerily thick cobwebs above the beds and, inevitably, our heads. The blurred caption is the result of me struggling to stand still and capture that aesthetically bullied creature while suspiciously squinting up at the one just above me. Maybe their bloated condition is endemic to Etruscan graves because they keep their souls. Maybe one dies once in contact with these bulgy sausage-string legs. I would.
Having surpassed those, we could marvel at the diverse, less or more sophisticated decor of the accessible tombs. There was no mistaking their relative snugness, except for the ghastly ‘bubble spiders.’ Apparently, the Etruscans liked to accentuate their cheerfulness on all the aspects of their lives and did not want to fall into a gloomy mood on their hike across the immense city of the dead. The peaceful and untroubled aura filling even such a place is one more reason to fall in love with an Etruscan.
Since the necropolis spreads over two to three hours’ walk, with some of the tombs located outside the fenced area, I recommend a supply of time. A few optical, mind-puzzling surprises are waiting for those with flashlights. A murky weather would do too, for the mood, and some snacks for the Etruscan cats. After all, who knows how ancient they are and why they follow anyone who wanders into the darkest nooks.