Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world

Tarquinia's Etruscan Tombs: the Necropoli dei Monterozzi

by Lucy Hornberger

The most famous of the painted tombs - the beautiful Tomba dei Leopardi.The most famous of the painted tombs - the beautiful Tomba dei Leopardi.

It's a roasting hot Italian summer morning and we're standing on a grassy meadow dotted with small hut-like structures. Within each hut is a steep flight of steps leading down into invitingly cool darkness. "Don't go down there," growls a slightly wild-eyed American to my sons. "There are dead people down there".
We're at the Necropoli dei Monterozzi, an Etruscan 'city of the dead' that lies just outside the lovely walled hill town of Tarquinia. And although the bones of the original inhabitants are long turned to dust or removed, the American is right in a way, because the spirit of these 'dead people' remains - singing, dancing, eating, celebrating - immortalised in the glorious paintings that adorn the walls of their tombs.
The steps leading down are narrow but there's a handrail and it's not a difficult climb. What is a bit unnerving is that we seem to be heading down to nothingness, just blackness. My older son reaches the bottom first. He fumbles at a light switch and - hey presto - Etruscan figures appear, dancing across the walls, reclining at a banquet, watched over by pairs of symbolic (could they be heraldic?) animals - lions, leopards, and in one case, a pair of fine roosters.
There are several thousand Etruscan rock-cut burial chambers scattered across these hills, dating to between the sixth and first centuries BC. Just a few (archaeologists estimate around 3%) are painted, and the very best of these are clustered here at Monterozzi, a little beyond the walls of Tarquinia. About 20 of the tombs are accessible and open to visitors, the most famous and undeniably most impressive being the Tomba dei Leopardi, the Tomb of the Leopards.
Viewing this tomb is like stepping in on a lively banquet. The colours are still extraordinarily bright and vibrant, and although the painting style is relatively simple with large flat areas of colour, the figures have individual character and look drawn from life. Diners wearing leafy wreaths on their heads recline on couches while servants bring food and wine, and musicians and dancers provide entertainment. Presiding over the scene are two fierce leopards (from which the tomb gets its name), red tongs lolling from their mouths, and above it all the tent-like ceiling is decorated with colourful concentric circles and chequerboard patterns which look extraordinarily modern. Looking at the scene you can't help but be curious as to who these people - so clearly full of a love of life - really were.
The Etruscans were a pre-Roman people who, rather like the Egyptians, have left us vastly more information about their ways of death than about their ways of life. Their civilisation dates roughly to the period 800-300BC. We know that many Roman settlements had Etruscan origins, and numerous aspects of Roman culture appear to have been adopted from the Etruscans. But other than some wonderful art and artefacts, evidence about how the Etruscans lived, worshiped and organised their society remains tantalisingly elusive and Etruscan studies quickly falls back on vagaries. Unsurprisingly, most mainstream history books hardly mention them, other than perhaps noting that the soothsayer who warned Caesar of danger ('Beware the ides of March!') was an Etruscan.
Etruscan art immediately attracts you with its freshness, animation and love of life. The funerary art isn't limited to tomb painting either. As a child on a visit to the British Museum in London, I vividly remember the display of Etruscan sarcophagi - the inhabitants happily banqueting on top of their coffins!
Much Etruscan art seems to show the ideals of a wealthy aristocratic lifestyle, but even if this was more aspiration than daily reality for many, life looked good. The paintings in the Monterozzi tombs show not only banquets and celebrations, but performers and entertainers, athletes, wrestlers, hunters, fishermen, young people, brightly dressed women and old men with walking sticks. There are olive trees, chickens and elegant spotted deer. Colourful birds flutter among wreaths and garlands hung in the trees. A woman in a gauzy transparent skirt balances what looks like a small pillar (the sign board suggests that it is a candlestick) on her head, a handsome dark haired man wears a sumptuous red cloak. Musicians play lyres and Etruscan double pipes. Two gorgeous red lions with blue manes stand guard over one scene. In another dolphins frolic over the waves, reminding me strongly of the ones in the Palace of Knossos on Crete (although the Cretan ones were painted a thousand or more years earlier).
The Etruscans made their paint pigments from ingredients such as iron oxide, charcoal and lapis lazuli dust. In many tombs the paint remains extraordinarily bright and vibrant, and in an effort to preserve this, the tombs are isolated from visitors with a transparent viewing panel across the doorway. This means that although the visitor gets an excellent view of the back - and usually most impressive - wall of each tomb, it is difficult to see the side walls, and of course impossible to see the walls on each side of the doorway.
The Tomb of the Leopards has been dated to around 470BC, a time when tomb painting seemed to reach its peak. Later tombs have much less painting; the style tends to be cruder and the colours duller. The overall feeling is sombre, the joyfulness and freshness of earlier times seems to have given way to a harsher Greek-influenced mythology, including a belief in demons and Charun the fearsome hammer-wielding god of death.
These are not 'dead people' we want to spend much time with, so we hurry back out into the sunshine and over to the café before heading back into town for lunch. No matter, for both me and my sons it is the joyful scenes and the joie de vivre that will stay with us and that we will remember every time we think of the Etruscans.

Tips & notes
  • The Necropoli dei Monterozzi is open from 8:30am to late afternoon. It is closed on Mondays.
  • Go early… or late! The heat is fierce from late spring to autumn and there is very little shade outside the tombs, so you risk losing the will to check out the whole site (the Tomb of the Leopards is at the far extreme of the site!) if you visit in the middle of the day. Arriving before (or after) the crowds and tour groups also allows you to appreciate the paintings at your leisure, and in a more atmospheric environment.
  • Each tomb is closed off from visitors by a transparent Perspex panel, making photography tricky. Flash is useless as it bounces off the screen. Reasonable photos are possible, however, but be ready to check each picture for focus and to take several in order to get a good one.
  • Visiting with children: an important aspect of the tombs at Monterozzi - especially if you are in the business of encouraging reluctant kids who would rather have gone straight to the beach - is that all the tombs in the necropolis are underground. Yes, I know this might sound obvious, however this fact somehow escaped my sons until we were actually at the head of the first flight of steps. When they did finally realise, it had an extremely positive effect on their motivation, which lasted pretty much to the end of our visit.
    Take note of the poses and rather strange arm and hand gestures (arm held out, bent at elbow with hand pointing back towards head - seems most unnatural!) made by some of the figures. It's fun to copy the poses and take photos.
  • A small café within the site sells coffee and a small selection of ice creams and snack bars. There didn't seem to be much in the way of food available, but it the site would be a lovely place to have a picnic, if it isn't too hot (there are only a very few areas of shade on the site).
  • There is a small, but well stocked shop (including a selection of books in English) and decent toilet facilities. There are also a few stalls outside the gates, selling reproductions and tourist trinkets.

  • Book list:
    There are relatively few accessible 'easy read' books on the Etruscans for non-specialists, and some of the ones that look promising from their covers are actually very dry and 'archaeological'. An honourable exception is The Etruscans: A Very Short Introduction (2014) which makes a good introduction to the culture, and Etruscan Art (World of Art books, 1997) is well illustrated and worth tracking down.
    There are very few factual children's books on the Etruscans, however we picked up a copy of the informative and nicely illustrated The Etruscans by Neil Morris (2009 McRae Books Srl, Florence) from the site shop. Regarding picture books and Etruscan-theme fiction, Vulca the Etruscan (by Roberta Angeletti, British Museum Press 1998, out of print, but usually available cheaply via Amazon Marketplace; an Italian version is sometimes also available) suffers from a weak storyline, but has lovely pictures for younger children and was the initial inspiration for our visit to Tarquinia.
    For older children On Etruscan Time (by Tracy Barrett, 2015) looks promising: an 11 year old American boy goes back in time to help an Etruscan boy about to be sacrificed to the Etruscan gods…!

    How to get to the Necropoli dei Monterozzi:
    Despite a slightly awkward train timetable, it is definitely possible to visit Tarquinia as a day trip from Rome, and a visit to the Necropolis combines beautifully with sightseeing in the town itself (and a visit to the excellent Etruscan museum), plus - for those so inclined - a trip to the beach. For information on how to get to Tarquinia see Tarquinia: Day Trip from Rome.
    I have been told that Tarquinia can be an excellent and easy self-organised shore trip for cruise passengers docking at Civitavecchia Port.
    Once in the central, historic part of Tarquinia, it is a short bus ride or easy 15-20 minute walk to the tombs, which are located on the SP43 minor road, a little to the south-east of the town walls. There are signs to the tombs throughout the town.

    Staying overnight in Tarquinia: This is a great idea, as Tarquinia is a lovely place with lots of little corners to explore. There are lots of affordable accommodation options, see Tarquinia: a great excursion from Rome.

    Other places to visit: The other major Etruscan tomb site is the Necropoli della Banditaccia in Cerveteri, which is located south of Tarquinia, closer to Rome.


    The Monterozzi site, with its grassy hillocks and modern huts protecting the tomb entrances, has little to suggest the treasures awaiting below ground.The Monterozzi site, with its grassy hillocks and modern huts protecting the tomb entrances, has little to suggest the treasures awaiting below ground.

    An artist's impression of how the tombs looked in the Etruscan period (Museo Nazionale Tarquiniense).An artist's impression of how the tombs looked in the Etruscan period (Museo Nazionale Tarquiniense).

    Entering a tomb… and heading down into blackness.Entering a tomb… and heading down into blackness.

    Push the light switch (upper right) and - hey presto - the paintings appear!Push the light switch (upper right) and - hey presto - the paintings appear!

    The Tomba de Giocolieri (tomb of the jugglers). The seated man to the right of the back wall is probably the deceased himself, enjoying his own funerary games.The Tomba de Giocolieri (tomb of the jugglers). The seated man to the right of the back wall is probably the deceased himself, enjoying his own funerary games.

    Tomba dei Giocolieri: on the left a musician plays the typically Etruscan double pipe. The woman in the centre - wearing an interesting transparent skirt - balances a candelabra on her head as the man on the right passes her rings, presumably for a juggling act.Tomba dei Giocolieri: on the left a musician plays the typically Etruscan double pipe. The woman in the centre - wearing an interesting transparent skirt - balances a candelabra on her head as the man on the right passes her rings, presumably for a juggling act.

    Tomba dei Giocolieri: a naked athlete sprints, while an old man and his young helper follows on behind.Tomba dei Giocolieri: a naked athlete sprints, while an old man and his young helper follows on behind.

    The Tomba delle Leonesse (tomb of the lionesses). A large crater jar (containing wine?) is flanked by musicians and dancers. Beneath the scene dolphins leap above the waves.The Tomba delle Leonesse (tomb of the lionesses). A large crater jar (containing wine?) is flanked by musicians and dancers. Beneath the scene dolphins leap above the waves.

    The Tomba delle Leonesse: this elaborately dressed dancer wears pointy shoes and big disc earrings. The strange arm position -  bent back towards the body, with the hand awkwardly bent at the wrist - seems typically Etruscan and appears in many other places.The Tomba delle Leonesse: this elaborately dressed dancer wears pointy shoes and big disc earrings. The strange arm position - bent back towards the body, with the hand awkwardly bent at the wrist - seems typically Etruscan and appears in many other places.

    The double rooms of the Tomba della Caccia e della Pesca (tomb of hunters and fishermen) has a sacred grove - with wreaths and garlands hanging from the trees - in the anteroom, and a fishing boat and duck hunters on the rearmost wall.The double rooms of the Tomba della Caccia e della Pesca (tomb of hunters and fishermen) has a sacred grove - with wreaths and garlands hanging from the trees - in the anteroom, and a fishing boat and duck hunters on the rearmost wall.

    The Tomba dei Leopardi (tomb of the leopards). This is probably the most famous and certainly one of the most beautiful of the Etruscan painted tombs. A banquet is in progress and the three reclining couples are attended by two serving boys.The Tomba dei Leopardi (tomb of the leopards). This is probably the most famous and certainly one of the most beautiful of the Etruscan painted tombs. A banquet is in progress and the three reclining couples are attended by two serving boys.

    The Tomba dei Leopardi: the brown-skinned reclining figure is male, and the pale-skinned one female. This is typical of Etruscan art, as is the strange hand and arm position.The Tomba dei Leopardi: the brown-skinned reclining figure is male, and the pale-skinned one female. This is typical of Etruscan art, as is the strange hand and arm position.

    The Tomba dei Leopardi: a man holds a ceremonial dish while another strides forwards playing the Etruscan double pipes. The pipe player becomes the main character in the children's book 'Vulca the Etruscan' (see book list).The Tomba dei Leopardi: a man holds a ceremonial dish while another strides forwards playing the Etruscan double pipes. The pipe player becomes the main character in the children's book 'Vulca the Etruscan' (see book list).

    The Tomba dei Leopardi: the lyre player.The Tomba dei Leopardi: the lyre player.

    The Tomba dei Fiorellini (tomb of the flowers). One of the handsome cockerels on the gable of the tomb.The Tomba dei Fiorellini (tomb of the flowers). One of the handsome cockerels on the gable of the tomb.

    The Tomba dei Baccanti (tomb of the Bacchanalians, followers of Dionysus). Musicians and dancers celebrate in a sacred grove, while lions hunt deer above. The couple on the right of the rear wall are probably the deceased owners of the tomb.The Tomba dei Baccanti (tomb of the Bacchanalians, followers of Dionysus). Musicians and dancers celebrate in a sacred grove, while lions hunt deer above. The couple on the right of the rear wall are probably the deceased owners of the tomb.

    The Tomba dei Baccanti: a lion readies itself to catch a beautiful spotted deer.The Tomba dei Baccanti: a lion readies itself to catch a beautiful spotted deer.

    Tomba 5636. This tomb is several hundred years later than the brightly painted ones and beliefs and artistic styles have changed dramatically. On the left is the door to the underworld, guarded by Charun, the snake-haired, hammer wielding god of death. Two already deceased members of the family are greeting two newly deceased, an adult and a child, who have been brought there by Vanth, the female demon of death.Tomba 5636. This tomb is several hundred years later than the brightly painted ones and beliefs and artistic styles have changed dramatically. On the left is the door to the underworld, guarded by Charun, the snake-haired, hammer wielding god of death. Two already deceased members of the family are greeting two newly deceased, an adult and a child, who have been brought there by Vanth, the female demon of death.

    Tomba 5636: here again is Charun, lord of the underworld, snake-haired and wielding his hammer.Tomba 5636: here again is Charun, lord of the underworld, snake-haired and wielding his hammer.

    A wonderful National Geographic illustration of what an Etruscan funeral may have looked like.A wonderful National Geographic illustration of what an Etruscan funeral may have looked like.

    Article & photos posted March 2nd, 2016

    Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.


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