The Etruscans are a tantalizing mystery. No one knows where they came from (“or what they were doing” to quote Spinal Tap). They were the superpower of Italy when Rome was just a village. Thanks to their appetite for luxury goods, some of the most beautiful artwork we have from the ancient world was found in their graves. Appropriately, considering how much of their culture is hidden from us, our word ‘person’ comes from the Etruscan word phersu, meaning ‘masked man’.
On our last day in Rome, despite a week of frantic walking, there was so much that hadn’t been personally seen by me. I was almost fine with that but this particular mystery gnawed at my innards. It got to be four o’clock in the afternoon and it became clear I could not in good conscience leave the city without seeing the Etruscan museum.
According to the website, the museum was open until eight o’clock. I jogged over to the Roma Termini Metro station, trotted through its intestinal corridors echoing with the sound of a leonine Central African youth singing Reggae and hopped on Line A train to Flaminia station, jostling with sun-dressed tourists and sleek commuters. From there I took a tram to Ministero Marina and then, in the golden sunset, walked a few blocks to the northern tip of the giant park known as Villa Borghese, to a beautiful palace called Villa Giulia. This was built between 1551 and 1553 by Pope Julius III when this spot was right on the edge of Rome, between the city and the countryside.
The museum staff were very relaxed—the ticket seller told me I could take my backpack in (unusual for Roman galleries) and the ticket collector had her feet up on the counter as she browsed her cellphone. It was odd to see people so at home in such a luxurious setting—the floor was covered with beautiful tiles, the foyer door looked out on a formal garden, high walls, a lawn glowing bright green in the evening light. Even the birdsong seemed aristocratic—polished and discreet. Slipping through the door and entering a curved arcade open to a grassy courtyard, I saw beautiful faded frescos on a warm orange background. It was strange to think that it was now was just a setting for the museum, which I entered through a glass door.
According to the wordy introductory signs, despite our ignorance of most things Etruscan, there are some facts that can be asserted with confidence. Evidence of their culture dates from between the 7th and 4th centuries BCE, after which they started to be absorbed into the Roman Republic. Etruria occupied modern Tuscany as well as parts of Latium and Umbria, not as a nation but a collection of loosely affiliated towns. The area they occupied was rich in natural resources that included forests and ore deposits yielding copper, iron and tin. The people were skilled at metallurgy, agriculture and ship-building and dominated the seas on the western Italian coast, even making a name for themselves as pirates. Incidentally, the Greek word for Etruscans ‘Tyrrhenoi’, from which we get the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Just to drive home the seaward view and appealing oddity of Etruscan culture, one of the first objects on display was a man riding into the Afterlife on a giant seahorse.
Contact with Greece began when the first Greek colony in Italy was founded in the Bay of Naples (c. 775-750 BCE). From that time, many Greek and Middle Eastern objects were imported to Etruria. Etruscans especially valued Greek pottery from workshops in Sparta, Corinth, Eastern Greece and Attica.
Other objects discovered in Etruscan graves indicate they traded with many other peoples including those from Sardinia, Central Europe, the Balkans and the Cyclades. From the eighth century, they had trade ties with cultures in Phoenicia, Egypt, Ionia and the Near East. Foreign artisans even migrated to work at coastal trading posts called emporia, where they were free to set up their own sanctuaries and to practice their own religions. Examples of these trading posts include a port of Cerveteri, Vulci and Tarquinia.
Religion was of primary importance in everyday Etruscan life. Livy described them as “a nation devoted beyond all others to religious rites”. Towns were planned as grids encircled by a protective ‘sacred belt’ of temples and other religious areas. Priests consulted the Etrusca Disciplina, a collection of religious texts (now lost) that dictated when certain ceremonies should be performed, and that revealed the meaning of signs and omens. Haruspices perfected the art of reading entrails, and of augury, interpreting monstrous births or lightning. Religious rites might involve animal sacrifice, pouring of blood on the ground, playing music and dancing. Ordinary people placed offerings such as food or ceramic items in temples—for example in thousands of ceramic wombs have been unearthed in a temple consecrated to gods tied to fecundity.
The Etruscan pantheon was rather crowded, seeming to include a god for every possible contingency. The head god seems to have been Tin, who didn’t bother much with human affairs. The more approachable gods included Thanur (goddess of birth), Aita (god of the Underworld), Usil (the sun god) and Veltha (the national Etruscan god connected to vegetation). The Etrusca Disciplina were based on knowledge given to the Etruscans by two gods: the wise infant Tages, grandson of Tin, who miraculously appeared from a field in Tarquinia while it was being ploughed, and the nymph Vegoia (Vecui). Among lesser deities were the Vanth (winged girls acting as messengers of death) and Thesan, White Goddess of the Sea.
An indication of how seriously the Etruscans believed in the Afterlife was their insistence in surrounding the deceased with provisions needed for the journey, just as the Egyptians did. Men needed man-stuff such as an urn in the shape of a hut, weapons and things for hunting. Women needed spindles, whorls, distaffs and pretty jewels.
Wall paintings inside tombs show pleasant pastimes, anticipating the joy of the Afterlife —banquets, dancing, games and music. One of these games was kottabos, of Greek origin, in which the player (reclining on his couch after a banquet) used his right hand to flick his cup in such a way that a coherent gob of his leftover wine flew towards with a tiny statuette on top of a bronze stand. This little statuette held a small disc called a plastinix and the successful player managed to knock it off so it fell directly into a larger disc below called the manes. The resulting clang was proof of victory.
The Etruscans have not left behind any literature—no poems, plays or epics. Their language (Oscan) is mainly known through the 10,000 or so known inscriptions, mainly funerary inscriptions or on objects found in sanctuaries. Incidentally, the longest existing Etruscan text was found on the linen used to wrap the Zagreb mummy. A length of 1,300 words written in black ink on linen, it contains a calendar and instructions for sacrifice.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to finish my tour of the ‘language’ section of the museum because the three ladies downstairs had turned the lights off hoping for an early night. I was the only one in the museum and clearly had not been making enough noise.
“Uh, mi scusa!” I shrieked. “Hello! Sono qui ancora!” I clattered down the stairs in a hurry. As fascinated as I was by this culture, and as friendly as they seemed, I did not want to spend the night locked up with them.
The ladies looked at me aghast and apologized profusely. Secure in the knowledge that I would be able to exit after all, I assured them it was no problem and zoomed out of the palace as quickly as I could.