...who came first???
"The Etruscans are at the very beginning of the history book, right near the Egyptians and the Jews."
But tell me, Dad! Who do you think are older?"
"The Etruscans or the Jews?”
The Garden of the Finzi Continis
Aerial View of the Etruscan Necropolis at Cerveteri.
Giannina, a nine year-old Roman girl, asks this seemingly ingenuous question in the opening paragraphs of Bassani’s great novel, The Garden of the Finzi Continis. On a Sunday jaunt to the Etruscan Necropolis at Cerveteri, barely an hour’s drive from the city.
But Bassani's book is about Jews, not Etruscans. And Giannina's query triggers a flashback in the author’s mind—transporting him to the Jewish cemetery in his hometown of
. Then his real story begins… Ferrara
View of the Etruscan Necropolis at Cerveteri.
View of the Jewish Cemetery in Ferrara.
The Etruscans were a distinct people with their own language and culture, famed for their wealth and their luxurious way of life. They dominated much of Central Italy for hundreds of years (from the 8th through the 4th centuries, B.C.) Then they gradually adopted the Latin language and Roman ways, losing their identity as a unique society.
For Giorgio Bassani back in 1957 (when the famous excursion to Cerveteri took place), the "real Etruscans" were largely beside the point. For him, they evoked a mythic past beyond time - or at least, before Roman hegemony. (In Giannina's school book, it is presumably with the Romans that the historical narrative begins.)
A Modern Map of the Etruscan Homeland,
extending from Fiesole (north of Florence)
to Cerveteri (north of Rome)
When we hear the word "Etruscan", the first adjective that comes to mind is usually "mysterious". And why is that?
Most immediately, we react to the haunting glamour of a "vanished people"... But Etruria isn't Atlantis and the Etruscans never "vanished" at all. They were absorbed into the present-day Italian population - and in some places, they allegedly dominate the local gene pool.
Two inscribed sheets of gold from Pyrgi, in the territory of Cerveteri, commemorating the dedication of a temple.
Then there is the odd and elusive Etruscan language, which was deciphered by scholars only within the last hundred years. We have many thousands of surviving texts and inscriptions, regarding religious ceremonies; sacrifices and divination; death and the hereafter. But no popular literature and few records of everyday life.
From Cerveteri, the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple,
now in Villa Giulia (Rome)
In fact, our response to the Etruscans is overwhelmingly aesthetic and more than a little romantic. They look so wonderfully mysterious with their Archaic smiles, their aristocratic poise and their seeming indifference to the passage of time. The Sarcophagus of the Married Couple (from Cerveteri) is the iconic expression of the Etruscans as we want them to be - as confirmed by the Italian Government on a recent postage stamp.
AND A MISCELLANEOUS FOOTNOTE...
A tomb from the historic Jewish Cemetery in Florence,
in the style of an Etruscan funerary urn.
Two Views of Cerveteri (illustrations 1 and 3) and the Etruscan-Jewish tomb in Florence © Lyle Goldberg
Other images from the web.
Other images from the web.