Italy: the painted Etruscan tombs of Tarquinia- perhaps Italy’s most impressive sight

What?
2500 year old Etruscan tombs, decorated with banquet scenes, dancers, and some XXX-rated imagery.

Why visit?
The Etruscans simply rock- when the Romans were still running around in loin clothes, these sophisticated people ruled central Italy and buried their death in grand style.

In a country spoiled for choice when it comes to ancient artifacts, the Etruscan tombs stand out not only for their age (600 years older than the Coliseum and a full 2000 years older than Michelangelo’s work) but also their amazing artistry. 

Bragging rights do count: Outside of Egypt, these will probably be the oldest paintings you'll ever see. 

Where?
Just outside the town of Tarquinia, about an hour north of Rome. Map.

MINOR SIGHTS HAS expressed its passion for the Etruscans before: these ancient people were living the good life in Central Italy, and even ruled Rome in its early days, before they were eventually overrun by the more practically-minded Romans with their superior engineering and military skills.

There are Etruscan sights and sites in Vulci, Tuscania, as well as a host of other places all over Etruria- a region comprising Northern Lazio and most of Tuscany. (For more on the etymological roots of Etruria, Tuscany and Tuscania, see here.)

But the crowning glory of what's left of the Etruscans' achievements, and in my opinion one of the finest sights in Italy, is in Tarquinia. In comparison, the Forum Romanum is a recently built shopping arcade, and the Sistine Chapel a work of modern art.

These painted tombs are simply older than practically anything else you’ll come across in Italy, yet they shine with brilliant colours and enchanting scenes.

These were of course burial places- but to ensure the deceased would go out in style their burial chambers were decorated with scenes from grandiose banquets, replete with dancers and musicians, as well their favourite pastimes, which included hunting and, ahem, anal sex.

The town of Tarquinia, sitting pretty on a hill overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, is a modern contraption. It was settled in the early middle ages and used to be called Corneto. It only received its current name, Tarquinia, in 1922, as an homage to the first Etruscan kings of Rome, (616-509 BC) and as gentle reminder to modern-day Romans that the Etruscans used to call the shots in Italy.

The Etruscan town was actually located on the next hill (marked on maps as Ara della Regina), and its remains are difficult to visit. But, like contemporary Italians, the Etruscans buried their dead outside their cities, and as such they created a gigantic necropolis on a hill known as Monterozzi, which has the current town at its western tip, and which is said to be home to more than 6000 tombs.

Of these, about 20 tombs are open to visitors.
'Necropolis' sounds gloomy but as you can see, that's not the case. Each little hut hides a tomb entrance. 
These tombs were mostly discovered in the 19th century, and all of them take the form of an underground burial chamber accessible by a narrow staircase. Which means that visiting the tombs is a great activity on a hot summer day as you’ll be constantly exploring cool, dark, underground spaces.

In each tomb you will arrive at a dark glass panel at the bottom of the staircase. But push a button, and voilà, the light goes on, and a 2500 year old room emerges in front of you. Each tomb is different. Most contain paintings, some in great state, others less so. Some only have painted ceilings, others have fully decorated walls.
Etruscans shakin' their booty. 
Pass me the wine please! Like the Romans after them, the Etruscans feasted lying down, which obviously was convenient if you drank too much. 
Most tombs contain stone berths for eternal sleeping, and some have room enough to house an extended family.
The death bide goodbye to their family, as the door to the Underworld beckons on the left.
Tomb of the Lioness- notice the lioness's boobies up high. 
False door recur frequently- the represent the passage to the Underworld. Notice the 'guardian angels' - a concept later recycled in Christian imagery. 
Hit me baby one more time: Etruscan S&M in the Tomb of the Whipping (Tomba della Fustigatizone)
The necropolis had already been in use before the Etruscans moved in- one of the first things you’ll see is a bunch of prehistoric urns, dating back the Villanovan civilization of the Iron age, at around 1000 BC, which in turn makes the Etruscans look like the new kids on the block…
Don’t forget to pay your respects at the National Museum in Tarquinia itself. This splendid 15th century palazzo contains many of the best artifacts, including a large collection of solid stone sarcophagi, many inscribed with the names of the deceased in Etruscan script, which oddly resembles the runes used in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Getting there:
It is entirely possible to visit Tarquinia as a day trip from Rome. Frequent trains run to Tarquinia’s train station, where a shuttle bus will await you to bring you up to the old town. The necropolis is about a kilometre outside the medieval city walls.

However, don’t rush: the old town, encircled by medieval walls, is also a great place to spend the night.

Useful links:
Official web site with opening hours etc.

Every Etruscophile should pick up a copy of DH Lawrence’s Etruscan Places, which can be downloaded for free at several places, including here. Or try the Kindle version.

Another must-read is George Dennis’s 1848 classic Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, which, being also wel past its copyright date, can be read for free here.

4 comments:

  1. Would be a perfect daytrip for cruise passengers from Civitavecchia, if only the two towns had better bus service connecting them.

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    Replies
    1. Hi MJ, thanks for your comment. Yes, Tarquinia is close enough to Civitavecchia- on the other hand, the atmosphere of the necropolis would change tremendously if busloads of cruise-tourists started dropping in daily...

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    2. Totally agree with that. Our cruise ship did offer an excursion to Tarquinia and Cerveteri but I got the sense that only the most informed cared to go. Those who did probably treated the sites with the respect they deserve. I'm thinking it's a good thing that Rome is within easy reach of the port.

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    3. Thanks Linda. Feel free to paste a link to your Civitavecchia article here- may be useful to those exploring Tarquinia and surrounds. Ciao ciao.

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