IN THE HEART OF ETRUSCAN COUNTRY

One of my favorite day trips from Rome is heading north into the dreamy scenery of Etruscan country, that area of northern Lazio and bits of Tuscany and Umbria where the Etruscans once roamed.
Our first stop one summer day was Vitorchiano a tiny town, set on a cliff between two ravines. It was originally a Roman fort and the inhabitants haven’t forgotten their history – they still regard themselves as Roman. We paused at a local market set up near a fountain to browse the irresistible selection of fruit. 
But our pleasure was tempered by an angel casting its shadow on the names of the dead from World War I, a typical melancholy reminder of Italy’s troubled past found in every town.
After passing through the ancient city walls we poked around in churches and shops, enjoying a gelato before heading down the steep and winding road toward Vetralla, our destination.
An odd sight confronted us by the side of the road as we zipped by: a statue in the style of those from Easter Island. If anyone can explain this mystery please let me know.
My friend in Vetralla, Mary Jane Cryan, is a long-time resident of the small city, and writer of the popular blog, Fifty Years in Italy (50yearsinitaly.blogspot.com). Vetralla has a curious history. Part of the Etruscan triangle of Tarquinia and Tuscania, some inhabitants still have Etruscan DNA, but it is also the only place in the world outside the UK that was under the “protection” of the English crown as proclaimed by Henry VIII in 1512, followed by a long association with the exiled Stuart monarchy in the 1770s. It is interesting to contemplate what would happen if Italy and the UK went to war. Would Margaret Thatcher have sent in the troops?
Ms. Cryan lives in an enormous apartment in one of the Renaissance palazzi fronting the ancient Roman road, the Via Cassia that runs down the middle of town. Vetralla is also set high on a cliff like Vitorchiano and most other towns in the area, and as typical, the back sides of most of the buildings loom over the rich farmland below. Her splendid apartment is filled with books and memorabilia, but it is the terrace, with its sweeping views, that makes the home a place of enchantment. 
While we sat in the sun the talk naturally turned to food. (Is there any conversation in Italy that doesn’t include food?) Mary Jane mentioned that a friend, Fulvio Ferri, had recently published a cookbook filled with family recipes. Unable to resist an addition to my Italian collection we came home with Olio e Ricordi in Cucina – loosely translated as Grandmother’s Recipes, along with a copy of Mary Jane’s latest book, Etruria, Travel, History and Itineraries in Central Italy. If you are interested in either book you can go to www.elegantetruria.com.
Although we don’t have olive oil from Vetralla in Seattle we tried out some of the recipes. We particularly liked the one for roast potatoes, Patate al Forno con Rosmarino o Finocchio, often found on Italian menus but not so often in cookbooks:
Here’s our take on the recipe which serves 4 – 6:
10 medium-size thin-skinned boiling potatoes
Sprigs of fresh rosemary (we didn’t use fennel)
2-3 cloves of garlic
Salt & pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil
Pre-heat oven to 360 F or 180 C.
Peel potatoes and put in cold water so they don’t darken.
Place the mixture of oil, salt, pepper, finely-chopped rosemary and garlic in a bowl large enough to toss the potatoes.
Dry potatoes, cut into wedges one inch thick, coat with the mixture, and arrange in a single layer on non-stick baking pan.
Bake until just tender (varies from 30 minutes to an hour).
Crisp the potatoes for a few minutes by turning on the oven fan.

Serve hot. And plan another trip to Italy!
Copyrite Judith Works. All photos by author except for view of Vetralla by Mary Jane Cryan
  

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THE CYCLE OF TIME – Tuscania

My friend and I drove to Tuscania through the countryside full of empty carved rock tombs, some so eroded that the steps leading to them now only reach empty sky – the heavens where perhaps Etruscan souls reside. But as we neared the town we could see that some of the tombs alongside the road were still in use, the hollowed area blocked off with doors hiding small cars or vats of wine.

The small city, in business since about the 8th century BC was founded by the Etruscans is interesting with its medieval and Renaissance buildings, although our visit would be focused on two churches now located about a mile from the walled old city. In the Etruscan era an earlier version of these walls enclosed a much larger city extending to include the site where the most distant church now stands. Over the centuries sieges and the Black Death so reduced the population that the city shrunk to a shadow of its former importance.

In present times, instead of defending against marauders, portions of the “new” city wall support stone sarcophagi, their lids carved with the likeness of the deceased. Some visages are still so crisp they appear as though they were chiseled the previous day. Others look melted as if time unhurriedly softened them. There are so many sarcophagi that the city may once have been a center for the coffin industry, all ready to go except for the heads which you or your descendants could have made in your likeness.

Santa Maria Maggiore, the church at the bottom of the former Etruscan acropolis, was constructed over a Roman temple, a typical practice. Academics argue dates because it’s such a disorderly and asymmetrical composite of styles, materials and décor. Here a Pisan or Luccan touch, there Umbrian, or an idea borrowed from churches in the mountains of the Abruzzi. Some see elements from the Auvergne in France or those that could be Norman-Sicilian in derivation. The Romanesque style leads experts to guess that the church and its bell tower were created between 1000 and 1200 with pieces taken from other churches and temples, perhaps after earthquakes destroyed them.

I can never resist stopping to study the façade, especially the extraordinary Madonna and Child hung over the main doorway. The poor things are a perfect example of the decline in craftsmanship during the Dark Ages. The Madonna’s huge hands don’t have much of a hold on the child, who has no baby attributes except for size. Her peculiar face could have been carved by Picasso when he was influenced by African masks – elongated, expressionless, uncaring and unseeing.

How the ancient Roman sculptors would have laughed at her and the rest of the façade with such a jumble that along with Christian symbols there is an eroded marble panel below St. Peter suggesting a very pagan Green Man, emblematic of the earth’s renewal in spring long before the concept of Easter, along with another one on a side door.

           

The solemn interior has another selection of marble reminders of the past – from a primitive bishop’s throne and a pulpit assembled from carvings made in many eras, to a beautiful Renaissance-era baptismal font.  Taken together, the ensemble shows evidence of labor interrupted and taken up anew. The work continues: a technician, intent on restoring the octagonal font, didn’t look up as we watched his painstaking work to reverse the destructive passage of time and neglect, and scaffolding-lined walls. A few faded frescoes are still visible including an enormous Last Judgment with graphic depictions of tortures so loved by Church fathers for those they consigned to Hell. Too depressing to contemplate on a sunny day when it was nearly lunch time.

Moving our gaze to the figures on the right side of God who were on their way to Heaven improved our outlook and moved us to return to our time and find a suitable trattoria like they probably did after being released from Purgatory. We found one in the shadow of the town’s walls, Il Peperoncino. Ravioli made by the owner’s granny and roast chicken with rosemary were on the menu along with local wine. We stepped in to rest our feet and brains and please our stomachs. Heavenly indeed.

Last and best on the day’s agenda was the Basilica of San Pietro, set on top of the ancient Etruscan acropolis, its foundations resting on the remains of a temple that preceded it by a thousand years. Specialists in the last century believed it was from the 700s but now the consensus has moved the date forward some three hundred years, still not exactly new by my standards. Whatever the date it remains monumental, solitary and enduring as it dominates the surrounding countryside graced with Etruscan tombs, vines and groves.

Screaming jackdaws circled fortification towers as we crossed the grassy piazza to enter.

The disused bishop’s palace was the place to pay the small entry fee. A crone in black nodded and smiled as she took our euros. She was so ancient that she might have been resting on a sarcophagus just a few minutes earlier, only coming to life when we showed up. Like most other churches, it was empty of worshipers but in this case full of interest. Franco Zeffirelli found it so evocative that he used it to film a number of scenes in Romeo and Juliet. Sarcophagi line one side wall to complement those resting on the grounds and the city wall.

Stone benches fitted between the squat pillars face each other across the nave. They were used for meetings, no doubt frequently concerned with how to ward off invaders. Faded but still lovely Cosmati floors curl along the center of the nave. A few faint frescoes remaining after disastrous earthquakes lacerated the walls over the centuries – the latest in 1971 – are illuminated by dusty light as the sun gently moves from scene to scene.

Worn steps led us down to the frescoed crypt. The space is supported by a forest of pillars, none matching another in height, shape or style. The layout reminded me of the rows of columns found in the great mosque in Cordoba.

Here too are frescoes, one still brilliantly depicting local patron saints, Secondianus, Marcellianus and Veranius. Whoever they might have been, they are still stylish with red caps rimmed with white and white earmuffs with a red ball hanging below their ears. It was damp and cold in the crypt, then and now.


The exterior displays a conglomerate of styles more harmonious to me than that of Santa Maria Maggiore although it also includes pre-Christian carvings. Along with a typical large rose window and the four Evangelists, a plaque showing either an Atlas holding up the world or an Etruscan priest in a worship posture complements the décor.  Surrounding one of the two pillared windows sculpted lush vines spring from the mouth of another Green Man.

Gazing at the deserted church, I found it was easy to imagine the industrious builders scouring the countryside for whatever bits and pieces from a long forgotten pagan past that they could drag to the hilltop to embellish their homage to a Medieval God. Perhaps at some point it will become a center of worship again to continue the endless cycle of time.

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Via Etrusca

I have a friend who lives in a small town an hour north of Rome. Her home is on Via Etrusca, a perfect name for visualizing the area’s continuing Etruscan influence even though the Romans had finished them off by the Third Century BC. The town, set high on a cliff, has no tourist attractions but is kept alive by commuters and city dwellers who have restored their former family home for weekend use. The ancient row houses are thought to be between four to six centuries old, the year the buildings were actually erected long forgotten. To ensure that the structures stay in place for at least another half-millennium, the buildings are supported by arches vaulting over the narrow stone-paved streets. 

Late in the evening when there are only glowing embers in the fireplace flickering on the ancient oak beams and the art work resting in niches, and the red wine bottle is emptied to the dregs, the silence is as complete as it must have been when my friend’s home was new.

A few lights shine over empty streets, through the arches and the closed shutters of my bedroom. I sleep, dreamless. But early in the morning I awake to the sound of Vespa engines. It’s time for workers to get going and for me to open the shutters and let in the day. Instead I drowsily think about all the people who might have lived in this home in times past.

 

Later, my friend and I walk a few blocks to the small shopping street. If we get going too early the bar owner is still firing up his espresso maker for those dashing to the train station in the valley far below the centro storico perched on its rock. The giornalaio is putting up his rack with the day’s papers blaring out the latest political scandal, while fruit and flower vendors are pulling up their metal shutters and moving their wares outside in the clear light. Life begins anew for commuters hurrying to their jobs in Rome and for us to plan another day of sightseeing in nearby towns like tiny one-street Sovana, Bomarzo with its strange monster sculptures, or Viterbo’s papal palace.

Like all small towns in Italy life goes on for the remaining residents. I can peek through open windows and doors to see remodeled kitchens, new televisions and other indications of renewal. By mid-morning a delectable smell of pasta sauce comes from kitchen windows and from unpretentious shops where fresh lasagna is prepared for those who don’t have time or inclination to cook. Shoppers are eyeing flowers, vegetables and fruit carefully arranged in the minuscule shops sandwiched between offices of the various political parties or those of the pompe funebri, undertakers. Artisans are busy making picture frames, mending shoes or painting ceramics. Butcher shops and tintorias, dry cleaners, bustle with business. Women buy knitting supplies in the merceria where thread, hosiery and shoulder pads for the home seamstress are displayed behind the counter.

But despite the liveliness, the unstoppable passage of time is always evident. Large death notices are pasted on walls between fading and tattered posters for the small circuses that had come to town in past years. When summer is over old men, wearing heavy sweaters under their jackets along with scarves and caps, will follow the sun as it passes around the piazza. They are living sundials as they move like dozing cats, smoking and discussing how the hometown soccer team is faring.

But I still have many places to go before I, too, want to doze in the sun.

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