You may wish to see an introduction to this section or a page on the Archaeological Museum of Palazzo Vitelleschi first.
Behind and beyond Corneto stretch the barren rugged
heights of the Monterozzi, the Necropolis of old Tarquinii.
Nothing is to be seen above-ground but low mounds
scattered over the table-land. (..) Above 2000 tombs have been opened, but only
a few can now be visited. (..) Beneath one of the tumuli of the Montarozzi, the Gonfaloniere of Corneto, Signor Carlo Avvolta, opened, in 1823,
the wonderful virgin tomb, whose discovery led to all the
other excavations near Corneto. He was digging for stones
for road mending, when he came upon a large slab of nenfro (a volcanic stone used by the Etruscans for their sarcophagi and statues).
Gazing through a crevice beneath it, he says: "I saw a warrior stretched on a bed of rock, and in a few minutes I
saw him vanish, as it were, under my eyes; for, as the atmosphere entered the tomb, the armour, entirely oxydized, crumbled away into the
most minute particles; so that in a short time scarcely a vestige of what
I had seen was left on the couch. ... Such was my astonishment, that
it would be impossible to express the effect produced upon my mind by
this sight; but I may safely affirm that it was the happiest moment of
Augustus J. C. Hare - Days Near Rome - 1875
We arranged for the guide to take us to the painted tombs, which are the real fame of Tarquinia. After lunch we set out, climbing to the top of the town, and passing through the south-west gate (Porta Tarquinia), on the level hillcrest. Looking back, the wall of the town, medieval, with a bit of more ancient black wall lower down, stands blank. Just outside the gate are one or two forlorn new houses, then ahead, the long, running tableland of the hill, with the white highway dipping and going on to Viterbo, inland.
'All this hill in front,' said the guide, 'is tombs! All tombs! The city of the dead.' (..) This is the necropolis. Once it had many a tumulus, and streets of tombs. Now there is no sign of any tombs: no tumulus, nothing but the rough bare hill-crest, with stones and short grass and flowers. (..) The guide steers across the hilltop, in the clear afternoon sun, towards another little hood of masonry. And one notices there is quite a number of these little gateways, built by the Government to cover the steps that lead down to the separate small tombs. It is utterly unlike Cerveteri, though the two places are not forty miles apart. Here there is no stately tumulus city, with its highroad between the tombs, and inside, rather noble, many-roomed houses of the dead, here the little one-room tombs seem scattered at random on the hilltop, here and there: though probably, if excavations were fully carried out, here also we should find a regular city of the dead, with its streets and crossways. And probably each tomb had its little tumulus of piled earth, so that even above-ground there were streets of mounds with tomb entrances. But even so, it would be different from Cerveteri, from Caere; the mounds would be so small, the streets surely irregular. Anyhow, today there are scattered little one-room tombs, and we dive down into them just like rabbits popping down a hole.
David Herbert Lawrence - Etruscan Places - Published in 1932, but based on a visit made in April 1927.
The bit of wall we see is a little hood of masonry with an iron gate, covering a little flight of steps leading down into the ground. One comes upon it all at once, in the rough nothingness of the hillside. The guide kneels down to light his acetylene lamp, and his old terrier lies down resignedly in the sun, in the breeze which rushes persistently from the southwest, over these long, exposed hilltops. The lamp begins to shine and smell, then to shine without smelling: the guide opens the iron gate, and we descend the steep steps down into the tomb. It seems a dark little hole underground: a dark little hole, after the sun of the upper world! But the guide's lamp begins to flare up, and we find ourselves in a little chamber in the rock, just a small, bare little cell of a room that some anchorite might have lived in. It is so small and bare and familiar, quite unlike the rather splendid spacious tombs at Cerveteri. (..) We come up the steps into the upper world, the sea-breeze and the sun. The old dog shambles to his feet, the guide blows out his lamp and locks the gate, we set off again, the dog trundling apathetic at his master's heels. Lawrence
The Tomba della Pulzella, or Tomb of the Maiden, has faded but vigorous figures at the banquet, and very ornate couch-covers in squares and the key-pattern, and very handsome mantles. (..) All the tombs are ruined to some degree by weather and vulgar vandalism, having been left and neglected like common holes, when they had been broken open again and rifled to the last gasp. Lawrence.
The conservation of the paintings after the opening of the underground funerary chambers was initially recognized as very difficult to achieve in the original environment and a number of paintings, including a fragment of the Tomb of the Maiden, were detached and moved to the museum in Palazzo Vitelleschi. Today it has become possible to guarantee adequate protection and conservation to the frescoes without detaching them from their original historical and environmental context. Visitors see the tombs through a specially designed glass door which ensures appropriate humidity and temperature conditions and avoids vandalism. This approach however impairs the view of the side walls.
The lamp flares bright, we get used to the change of light, and see the paintings on the little walls. It is the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, so called from the pictures on the walls, and it is supposed to date from the sixth century B.C. It is very badly damaged, pieces of the wall have fallen away, damp has eaten into the colours, nothing seems to be left. Yet in the dimness we perceive flights of birds flying through the haze, with the draught of life still in their wings. (..) The little tomb is empty, save for its shadowy paintings. It had no bed of rock around it: only a deep niche for holding vases, perhaps vases of precious things. The sarcophagus on the floor, perhaps under the slinger on the end wall. And it stood alone, for this is an individual tomb, for one person only, as is usual in the older tombs of this necropolis. Lawrence
And as we take heart and look closer we see the little room is frescoed all round with hazy sky and sea, with birds flying and fishes leaping, and little men hunting, fishing, rowing in boats. The lower part of the wall is all a blue-green of sea with a silhouette surface that ripples all round the room. From the sea rises a tall rock, off which a naked man, shadowy but still distinct, is beautifully and cleanly diving into the sea (see the Diver of Paestum), while a companion climbs up the rock after him (..). Meanwhile a flight of birds soars upwards to pass the rock, in the clear air. (..) Men are nearly always painted a darkish red, which is the colour of many Italians when they go naked in the sun, as the Etruscans went. Women are coloured paler, because women did not go naked in the sun. At the end of the room, where there is a recess in the wall, is painted another rock rising from the sea, and on it a man with a sling is taking aim at the birds which rise scattering this way and that. A boat with a big paddle oar is holding off from the rock, a naked man amidships is giving a queer salute to the slinger, a man kneels over the bows with his back to the others, and is letting down a net. The prow of the boat has a beautifully painted eye, so the vessel shall see where it is going. (..) The birds fly, and the garlands hang from the border. It is all small and gay and quick with life, spontaneous as only young life can be. If only it were not so much damaged, one would be happy, because here is the real Etruscan liveliness and naturalness. It is not impressive or grand. But if you are content with just a sense of the quick ripple of life, then here it is. Lawrence
Lovely again is the Tomba delle Leonesse, the Tomb of the Lionesses. In its gable two spotted lionesses swing their bell-like udders, heraldically facing one another across the altar. Beneath is a great vase, and a flute-player playing to it on one side, a zither-player on the other, making music to its sacred contents. Then on either side of these goes a narrow frieze of dancers, very strong and lively in their prancing. Under the frieze of dancers is a lotus dado, and below that again, all round the room, the dolphins are leaping, leaping all downwards into the rippling sea, while birds fly between the fishes. Lawrence
We are diving down into another tomb, called, says the guide, the Tomb of the Leopards. Every tomb has been given a name, to distinguish it from its neighbours. The Tomb of the Leopards has two spotted leopards in the triangle of the end wall, between the roof-slopes. Hence its name. The Tomb of the Leopards is a charming, cosy little room, and the paintings on the walls have not been so very much damaged. (..) The walls of this little tomb are a dance of real delight. The room seems inhabited still by Etruscans of the sixth century before Christ, a vivid, life-accepting people, who must have lived with real fullness. On come the dancers and the music-players, moving in a broad frieze towards the front wall of the tomb, the wall facing us as we enter from the dark stairs, and where the banquet is going on in all its glory (see that at Paestum). (..) And the ceiling of rock has chequered slopes of red and black and yellow and blue squares, with a roof-beam painted with coloured circles, dark red and blue and yellow. So that all is colour, and we do not seem to be underground at all, but in some gay chamber of the past. (..) The feasters recline upon a checked or tartan couch-cover, on the banqueting couch, and in the open air, for they have little trees behind them. (..) They lie in pairs, man and woman, reclining equally on the couch, curiously friendly. The two end women are called hetaerae, courtesans; chiefly because they have yellow hair, which seems to have been a favourite feature in a woman of pleasure. The men are dark and ruddy, and naked to the waist. The women, sketched in on the creamy rock, are fair, and wear thin gowns, with rich mantles round their hips. They have a certain free bold look, and perhaps really are courtesans. Lawrence
A very lovely dance tomb is the Tomba del Triclinio, or del Convito, both of which mean: Tomb of the Feast. In size and shape this is much the same as the other tombs we have seen. (..) It is again a tomb for one person, like nearly all the old painted tombs here. So there is no inner furnishing (..) the tomb has only its painted walls and ceiling. And how lovely these have been, and still are! (..) The end wall has a banqueting scene, rather damaged, but still interesting. We see two separate couches, and a man and a woman on each. The woman this time is dark-haired, so she need not be a courtesan. The Etruscans shared the banqueting bench with their wives; which is more than the Greeks or Romans did, at this period. (..) This lovely tomb has a pattern of ivy and ivy berries, the ivy of the underworld Bacchus, along the roof-beam and in a border round the top of the walls. The roof-slopes are chequered in red and black, white, blue, brown, and yellow squares. Lawrence
The band of dancing figures that go round the room still is bright in colour, fresh, the women in thin spotted dresses of linen muslin and coloured mantles with fine borders, the men merely in a scarf. (..) This tomb has been open since 1830, and is still fresh. Lawrence
We climb up to the world, and pass for a few minutes through the open day. Then down we go again. In the Tomb of the Bacchanti the colours have almost gone. But still we see, on the end wall, a strange wondering dancer out of the mists of time carrying his zither, and beyond him, beyond the little tree, a man of the dim ancient world, a man with a short beard, strong and mysteriously male, is reaching for a wild archaic maiden who throws up her hands and turns back to him her excited, subtle face. It is wonderful, the strength and mystery of old life that comes out of these faded figures. The Etruscans are still there, upon the wall. Above the figures, in the gable angle, two spotted deer are prancing heraldically towards one another, on either side the altar, and behind them two dark lions, with pale manes and with tongues hanging out, are putting up a paw to seize them on the haunch. So the old story repeats itself. From the striped border rude garlands are hanging, and on the roof are little painted stars, or four-petalled flowers. So much has vanished! Yet even in the last breath of colour and form, how much life there is! Lawrence
The scene is natural as life, and yet it has a heavy archaic fullness of meaning. It is the death-banquet; and at the same time it is the dead man banqueting in the underworld; for the underworld of the Etruscans was a gay place. While the living feasted out of doors, at the tomb of the dead, the dead himself feasted in like manner, with a lady to offer him garlands and slaves to bring him wine, away in the underworld. For the life on earth was so good, the life below could but be a continuance of it. This profound belief in life, acceptance of life, seems characteristic of the Etruscans. It is still vivid in the painted tombs. There is a certain dance and glamour in all the movements. Lawrence
So we go on, seeing tomb after tomb, dimness after dimness, divided between the pleasure of finding so much and the disappointment that so little remains. One tomb after another, and nearly everything faded or eaten away, or corroded with alkali, or broken wilfully. Fragments of people at banquets, limbs that dance without dancers, birds that fly in nowhere, lions whose devouring heads are devoured away! Once it was all bright and dancing: the delight of the underworld; honouring the dead with wine, and flutes playing for a dance, and limbs whirling and pressing. Lawrence
But we can hardly see any more tombs. The upper air seems pallid and bodiless, as we emerge once more, white with the light of the sea and the coming evening. And spent and slow the old dog rises once more to follow after. (..) We cannot see either world any more, the Etruscan underworld nor the common day. Silently, tired, we walk back in the wind to the town, the old dog padding stoically behind. And the guide promises to take us to the other tombs tomorrow. Lawrence
The paintings of a small number of tombs depart from the general theme of funerary banquets, dances and games and throw some light on the religious aspects of the passage to the Underworld. The entrance to it was guarded by Charun, a minor figure of the Etruscan pantheon, who had a role similar to that of Greek Charon, but was not portrayed as the ferryman across the Acheron River. He was usually depicted near the Gate of the Underworld and holding a hammer, the purpose of which is debated by archaeologists. In some paintings he has wings.
This tomb is dated IIIrd century BC and the figures are dressed as Romans. It shows Vanth, a female Etruscan deity escorting the dead to the Underworld which is guarded by Charun. In the Greek religion this psychopomp (guide of the souls) task was performed by Hermes as shown in the Euphronios Krater found at Cerveteri.
From "Nostalgia" - (slightly edited) translation by LiteraryJoint
The image used as background for this page shows a detail of the Tomb of the Deer.
You may wish to see the Etruscan Necropolis of Cerveteri.