What helps to hold a journey together is the intent behind it. While it is pleasant to wander without aim, this is difficult to sustain. Travelling with a project in mind makes the journey richer allowing for a mix of intent and happenstance.
When I planned an extended time in Italy, I decided to learn as much as possible within my resources, about the Etruscans. I also wanted to become more fluent in Italian. I think I was more successful on the Etruscan front.
I had previously visited Orvieto and my visit to the Claudio Faina Archaeological Museum had inflamed my imagination. Over the next few years I dreamed of volunteering some time with an archaeological team working at the foothill of Orvieto. Unfortunately, finding a place on an archaeological dig, with a particular focus on Etruscan excavations, is difficult. I had to content myself with museums and public excavations, as well as the simple joy of exploring.
Orvieto was originally the Etruscan town of Velzna, thriving from the 7th to the 3rd centuries B.C. before being razed to the ground by the Romans in 246 B.C. leaving only a number of necropolis, the most famous being those concentrated around the Necropolis of the Tufa Crucifix (8th – 3rd centuries B.C.). Most of the artefacts have been moved to museums and the sites closed.
Many people are interested in following the tracks of pilgrims and, apart from an interest in religious art, this was a focus my friend brought into our time together. Our choices of activities were designed to accommodate both our interests. She had recently walked part of the Camino de Santiago de Composta with her husband and felt that her pilgrimage had not yet ended.
We met in Piombino, a town near the archaeological site of Populonia where an Etruscan necropolis can be found overlooking the Gulf of Baratti. We decided to walk from Punto Falcone to Populonia. We were under the impression that it would only take a couple of hours. There were breathtaking views from the top of the cliffs and the steep descent to small pebbly beaches where bronzed Italians lazed and swam provided opportunity to cool our hot feet. How did those people get down there with all their stuff and from where? We never found out even when we followed steep paths upwards. Secret beaches and their paths is an innate and secretive Italian knowledge. Intrepid cyclists jolted on their mountain bikes along the rough pathway, cussing and swearing. I gathered from their lamentations that they too were unsure of the route. One exhausted cyclist clearly had experienced double bad luck with his tyres. He flung his bike about in frustration, but his woes remained. Four hours later we arrived in Populonia where the signs to the necropolis were in short supply adding to our weariness. We wondered what had happened to the cyclist. But the walk had been worth it. The necropolis was an amazing glimpse into Etruscan industry and the changes over time to burial practices.
The large rondavel-like mounds initially served for burial before the Etruscans started placing the bodies and accoutrements into shafts dug into the side of the hills. I thought that these now lost people offered us a metaphor for our times. The shaft burial sites developed during the 4th century B.C., were possibly a noble prerogative, the miners being too busy digging for iron, casting the waste aside so that their city gradually disappeared under mine tailings. Had they thought that since they were burying themselves in life they should keep it up in death, death being central to Etruscan spiritual belief?
Of course one thinks one is pursuing one thing but a river has many tributaries and in Piombino we found a wealth of other discoveries that were neither about the Etruscans nor Pilgrims, although the Etruscan museum was fascinating. We spent several days discovering the history of the town now best known because it is the port from which ferries depart for Alba across the Thyrrenian Sea, but in previous eras was an important and powerful medieval city where Leonardo di Vinci played a part in town planning. A visit to Alba provides an insight to the driven personality of Napoleon who could not resist reorganising it while held prisoner before his escape.
Our walk through Tuscany was more successful than that of the walk to Populonia. We had booked a self-guided walk with directions, descriptions and proper walking maps that ensured that we arrived at our destinations without too much misadventure even if we never made it within the suggested time-frame. We started in Volterra, the site of the original Etruscan city of Velathri. On one of the days we walked from Colle Val d’Elsa to Sienna through Monteriggioni, along the Via Francigena, an original Pilgrim walk, thereby wetting my friend’s appetite and confirming that, for her, her pilgrimage had not yet ended. Monteriggione was originally a Sienese outpost built in 1203 to ward off those pesky Florentines. The layout of the town was an inspiration for Dante’s Inferno. I thought Orvieto, sitting on top of layers, cellars, walls and caves carved into the tufa rock on which it sits could have easily vied for that inspiration.
An interest in pilgrims and Saint Frances led us from Siena to Assisi, a city I might not have visited if left to my own devices, just as Piombino had not been hers. She was also interested in medieval art and was keen to see the Giotto frescoes and I was extremely grateful to her for that. In Assisi we also discovered the lovely monastery, formerly convent, of San Damiano where St. Francis died as well as the Bosco di San Francesco, neither throbbing with tourists.
The Bosco di San Francesco is a wooded area being regenerated by Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI). Today St. Francis would be disparaged as a greenie by some but would have been pleased to have witnessed 20 years of reparation of the 87 hectares of the previously degraded woodland sitting behind the Basilica. Hidden in this previously forgotten woodland the remnant buildings of the convent Santa Crocce have been found and are currently being restored. A centrepiece within the area is Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Il Terzo Paradiso, an organic installation of two intersecting infinities formed by olive tree plantings representing the past, present and future. In the centre a stainless steel pole, like a frond reaching to the sky, reflects the surrounding landscape. The walk through the woodland invites reflection about the lessons we have learnt and still need to learn from the Franciscans; lessons about attitudes and actions that offer care and protection to people regardless of creed or colour as well as the environment.
After my friend and I parted in Ravenna where she introduced me to those magnificent mosaics, I headed to Volterra via Bologna, a city of gothic architecture and buildings that seemed to lean into the narrow lanes and offered shade on hot days. I intended to spend more time with the Etruscans in Volterra but found a wealth of wonderful artefacts in the Bologna Museum.
I had rented a small apartment just beyond the medieval walls built within and in places incorporating the original walls of Velathri. The Etruscan city was much bigger than the medieval city of Volterra. Indeed, at the end of the empty green space in front of my apartment was an original Etruscan torre. The farm below had built a chicken coop and dog run against its supporting wall. I spent many pleasant hours tracing the original walls and dreaming Etruscan dreams. Indeed, one evening as I returned along a path just above the wall Sethlans was busy in the sky possibly hammering out a shield. He was too far away for me to hear but I saw the sheets of metal flashing and spears of flame rising from the hammer and anvil in the darkening, silent sky. Along the path, fireflies darted through the bushes and grass. Were they part of Fulfluns entertainment? Or were Menrva, Tinia and Uni entertaining and had I inadvertently crashed their banquet as I passed through?
Thoughts about the Etruscans
All this history trampled underfoot,
Buried in layers, each civilisation covering the last.
Stone walls crumbling, towers and temples decayed,
Torn down, burnt, destroyed.
Remnants become part of something new.
Each generation demolishes, alters, rebuilds and builds.
This is how it has been and will be again.
We will become history,
Leaving our rubble on top of what is already there.
Future generations will try to reconstruct
What was important?
What drove us?
What sustained us?
And try to make sense of what destroyed us.