The Mystery of Etruria

Odd as it may be, my looking forward to a project usually starts with looking back. In the case of my going to Italy next week to begin conversations with a new client, I find myself looking way back. And there the questions arise.

How can it be that a civilisation that lasted one thousand years, and founded itself on the concepts, methods and progress of the Greeks, left no examples of its own literature behind? The Etruscan language had no written form before the Greek alphabet was adopted in 700 BC. From then on their stories, myths and fables were recorded, but on a nearly ephemeral material; paper. Such was the nature of the Etruscans, they had a fondness for the transitory. Their religion and art reflected the mutability of life.

While their painting and sculpture was the only contemporary classical art apart from the Greek, most of that is gone, too. Were did all the art of Etruria go? In the case of its bronze sculpture, including pieces reportedly more than 50' tall, we know that it was tossed into the melting pot to make weapons. And who would have committed such a heinous, cultural crime? Who else but those dastardly Romans.

In the early days of the Roman empire Etruscan literature was still alive. The Roman aristocracy sent their sons to Etruria to learn the Etruscan tongue and lore. Roman comedy was based on Etruscan. But the Romans had a serious inferiority complex. Their solution to the problem was to dominate by invasion. Where the Etruscans traditionally exported produce and imported art, the Romans exported soldiers and imported slaves.

A people who housed themselves in modest wood-framed buildings, the Etruscans entombed their dearly departed in elaborate stone chambers carved from the bedrock limestone. There are a half-million tombs in southern Etruria. Many, even today, double as wine cellars and chicken coops. Much of what's known of Etruscan life comes from its painted representation on tomb walls. Etruscan women had a considerable degree of equality. Women spectated at athletic competitions and hosted drinking parties. Children were given both their mother and father's last name.

My main attraction to the Etruscans is their use of dry stone. The Romans adapted many of their methods of canalization. Corbelling was a much used building method in Etruria, especially in the north. I'm sure I'd be impressed by any civilization that flourished without using cement but Etruria has to be my favorite simply because of where it was located; the beautiful region of Italy now known as Tuscany.