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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria

by George Dennis

published by John Murray, Albemarle Street
London, 1848.

The text is in the public domain.


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Black-and‑white images are from Dennis; any color photos are mine © William P. Thayer

p212 Chapter XIV

BOMARZO.

Miremur periisse homines? — monumenta fatiscunt,

Mors etiam saxis nominibusque venit.

AUSON.

Ecce libet pisces Tyrrhenaque monstra

Dicere.

OVID.

About twelve miles east of Viterbo, on the same slope of the Ciminian, is the village of Bomarzo, in the immediate neighbourhood of an Etruscan town where extensive excavations have been carried on of late years. The direct road to it runs along the base of the mountain, but the excursion may be made more interesting by a détour to Férento. Both roads are quite impracticable for vehicles.

From Férento the path leads across a deep ravine, past the village of Le Grotte di Santo Stefano, whose name marks the existence of caves in its neighbourhood,1 and over the open heath towards Bomarzo. But before reaching that place, a wooded ravine, Fosso della Vezza, which forms a natural fosse to the Ciminian, has to be crossed, and here — Chi va piano va sano — must be borne in mind. A more steep, slippery, and dangerous track I remember not to have traversed in Italy. Stiff miry clay, in which the steeds will anchor fast; rocks shelving and smooth-faced, like inclined planes of ice, are the alternatives. Let the traveller take warning, and not pursue this track after p213heavy rains. It would be advisable, especially if ladies are of the party, to return from Férento to Viterbo, and to take the direct road thence to Bomarzo.

This is a village of considerable size situated on a wooded cliff-bound platform, with an old castle of the Borghese family at the verge of the precipice. It commands a glorious view of the vale of the Tiber, and the long chain of Umbrian and Sabine Apennines to the east; of the vast Etruscan plain to the north, with Monte Fiascone like a watch-tower in the midst, and the giant masses of Monte Cetona and Monte Amiata in the far horizon. Like most villages in the Papal State, Bomarzo is squalid in the extreme; so that as we rode down its main street not a house could we see whose exterior promised decent accommodation. We pulled up at one of the best, the Casa Fosci, to which we had been directed as a place where travellers were entertained.

One great point of contrast between France and Italy — I may say, between northern and southern Europe — is that in every French village or hamlet, be it ever so small, there is some one house, often several, where Pierre or Jean so-and‑so "donne à boire et à manger," or "loge à pied et à cheval;" but in Italy such signs are as rare as notice of spiritual refreshment and halting-places for the devotee are abundant. Here and there a withered bush at a doorway shows that wine may be had within; but as to an inn, except on the great highways — God save you! you might as well look for a railway-station. Some one or more of the most respectable inhabitants of these country-towns and villages is always, however — thank Mercury! — ready to entertain the traveller, for a consideration — for what will not an Italian do for gain? — especially the Romans, who, however unlike in most points, resemble their ancestors in thirst for foreign spoil. Omnia Romae p214cum pretio — holds good now as in Juvenal's day. This occasional Boniface is generally, as in this case, a man of decayed fortunes. The Fosci were among the first people of this vicinity a few generations since, but they lost their high estate through the amorous propensities of one of their ancestors; for such transgressions being serious breaches of the law in a land where the moral and political code are intimately blended, and the same will imposes religious ceremonies, enjoins moral duties, and enacts political laws, the guilty Fosci fell under the ban of his bishop, who by fines upon fines effected his ruin. The family now consists of a brother and sister alone, who will do everything that civility and attention can effect, and the slender resources of a country village will allow, to contribute to the traveller's comfort. The ruder sex may be content with their modicum of this, and thank God it is not less, but should ladies desire to explore the antiquities of Bomarzo I can scarcely recommend them to make more than a flying visit.

Under the guidance of peasant named Tomasso,º who had been much employed in excavating, we visited the site of the Etruscan town, which lies on a platform nearly two miles to the north of Bomarzo, separated from it by the deep ravine of La Vezza. From the brow of the further height the valley of the Tiber opened beneath us, the royal river winding through it, washing the base of many a town-capt height, of which that of Mugnano was the nearest and most prominent, and that of Orte the most distant, while midway lay the Vadimonian lake, on whose shores the Roman eagle twice soared in triumph, and the fate of Etruria was doubly sealed as a dependent nation.2

p215 The first ruin which met our eye was some Roman baths, in three parallel vaults of opus incertum, very massive in character. Though vulgarly called Etruscan, they are clearly of Roman construction; for cement, though not unknown to the Etruscans, was rarely, if ever, used in their architecture — never to such an extent as to form the principal portion of the masonry. This ruin is without the ancient town, and the platform on which it stands, called Pian della Colonna, is united to that of the town by a narrow neck of land. Here Ruggieri of Viterbo has recently made excavations for Prince Borghese, and has found two hundred specchj,º besides the remains of a house which, from his description, must be Roman.

On passing this strait, fragments of pottery, bricks, and wrought stone strewn over the ground, showed us we were on the site of former habitation; but no more definite remains could I perceive than some fragments of red tessellated pavement — probably marking the site of an impluvium, or tank in the court of a private house. The town must have been of very small importance, for its size is limited by the natural boundaries of cliffs, save at the narrow neck already mentioned; and the space thus circumscribed forms a single field of no great dimensions. Of the ancient walls not one stone remains on another; but beneath the brow of the hill on the east lie a few of the blocks, of red tufo, and of the dimensions usual in Etruscan walls in the volcanic district. In the cliff, on the same side, are two sewers opening in the rock, and similar to those on other Etruscan sites.3

The name of this town in Etruscan times we have p216no means of determining. It has been supposed to be Maeonia, or Pneonia, but there is no authority for this in ancient writers.4 By others it has been thought to be Polimartium; but as this is a name mentioned only in works of the middle ages,5 it may have had no connection with the Etruscan town, but may have been simply the original of the village of Bomarzo.

The existence of an Etruscan town on this site had for ages been forgotten, when a few years since it was proved by the discovery of tombs containing articles of value and interest. Excavations were commenced in 1830, and have since been carried on almost every winter with various success.

The principal excavators have been Ruggieri of Viterbo, and Campanari of Toscanella; Fossati and Manzi of Corneto have also carried on operations here. The platforms to the south and west of the town seem to have been the chief depositories of its dead. A few tombs are in the cliffs beneath the walls, but the greater part are sunk deep below the surface of the ground as at Tarquinii and Vulci, and were entered by long narrow passages, descending obliquely. Though very many have been excavated, few now remain open; the greater part, p217as at Veii and Vulci, have been reclosed, in order to save for tillage the few yards of earth occupied by the entrance-passages. Were this in harmony with the character of the people it would command respect, however we might lament it; but when we remember that the Roman peasantry is among the most slothful in Europe, and that vast tracts of fertile land throughout the State are lying fallow from year to year; and, moreover, when we find that over many of these very tombs so closed no culture is carried forward, we cannot but feel vexed that these curious memorials of a past race should be lost through wantonness. Many tombs do not merit conservation, but on the other hand it is well known that some of the most interesting opened in former years in this and other cemeteries are not now to be entered, and their very sites are forgotten.

The principal group of tombs that still remain open, is on the edge of the hill facing Bomarzo.6 Two of them merit a few words of description. One is called

Grotta della Colonna,

from a massive pillar of Doric-like simplicity supporting the ceiling in the midst.7 The chamber is about thirteen feet square, and seven in height, with a roof slightly vaulted, in the form of what is called a camber-arch. The door is of the usual Etruscan form, smaller above than below, like the Egyptian and Doric doorways; and the p218wall on each side of it, within the tomb, is lined with masonry — a very rare feature in Etruscan tombs, especially in those of subterraneous excavation. The object of it in this case is not obvious; it may have been intended to support the wall on that side, which, on the excavation of the tomb, may have given signs of insecurity; or it may have been to mark more decidedly the separation from an adjoining sepulchre. It is of very massive character, and neatly rusticated, a clear proof that this style was used by the Etruscans; which fact is also attested, though less decidedly, by several other remains on Etruscan sites. It is highly probable that the Romans were indebted to this people for their rusticated masonry; and it is singular that this style, which seems to have originated in Etruria, should still be prevalent in this part of Italy; and the grand palaces of Florence and Siena, as imitations of those of Etruscan Lucumones, raised five-and‑twenty centuries ago.

The character of this tomb is most solemn and imposing. The single pillar in the midst, more simple and severe than any Doric column — the bare, damp walls of dark rock — the massive blocks of masonry — the yawning sarcophagus with its lid overthrown, and the dust of the long-forgotten dead exposed to view — the deep gloom never broken but by the torch of the curious traveller — all strike the soul with a chill feeling of awe, not unmingled, it may be, with some admiration of the good taste which constructed so appropriate a home for the dead.

Grotta Dipinta.

Let us leave this tomb and enter another hard by. Can we retain this opinion? We are in a chamber whose walls, gaily painted, are alive with sea-horses snorting and plunging — p219water-snakes uprearing their crests and gliding along in slimy folds — dolphins sporting as in their native element — and, — can we believe our eyes? grim and hideous caricatures of the human face divine. One is the head of an old man, with eye starting from its socket, and mouth wide open as though smitten with terror. Another is a face oblongated into a coffin form, or like the head of an ox, with one eye blotted from his visage, and the other regarding you with a fixed stare, no nostrils visible, his mouth gaping above a shapeless chin, and his hair standing out stiffly from his head, as though electrified. Indeed the head of this Etruscan

Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum

reminds you of nothing so much as those scarecrow blocks, with long shaggy hair, which are used now-a‑days as electrical toys. I could not readily bring myself to believe that this caricature was of ancient execution; but, after minute examination, I was convinced that it was of the same date, and by the same hand, as the other paintings in this tomb, which are indubitably Etruscan.8 All are drawn in the same broad and careless style, with red and black crayons.

In the centre of one wall is a third head, no caricature, and probably the portrait of the individual, Velus Urinates by name, for whom the tomb was constructed, and whose ashes were found in his sarcophagus. The other two heads may represent respectively Charun and Typhon, i.e. the angel or minister of Death, and the principle of Destruction, both of whom are usually depicted as hideous as the imagination of the artist could conceive. A Spanish proverb says, "The devil so loved his own child that he p220knocked out his eye;" and this one-eyed monster is undoubtedly of demon breed.9a

Hippocampi and water-snakes are symbols frequently found in Etruscan tombs, rarely indeed depicted on the walls, but sculptured on sarcophagi and urns. They are generally regarded as emblematic of the passage of the soul from one state of existence to another, an opinion confirmed by the frequent representation of boys riding on their backs. This view is, moreover, borne out by their amphibious character — horse and fish, snake and fish — evidently referring to a double state of existence. The dolphins, which form a border round the apartment, painted alternately black and red, are a common sepulchral ornament, and are supposed to have a similar symbolical reference;10 though they have also been considered as "sea-kings" of antiquity.11 The rolling border beneath them represents the waves, in which they are supposed to be sporting —

circum clari delphines in orbem

Aequora verrebant caudis, aestumque secabant.

p221 Next to the Typhon-head is a large jar, sketched on the wall, out of which two serpents with forked tongues are rising. These confirm the demoniacal character of that head; for the deities or genii of Etruscan mythology are very commonly represented with these reptiles bound round their brows or waists, or brandishing them in their hands, and sometimes, as in this case, having them by their side. That snakes were also made use of by the Etruscan priests and soothsayers, as by the Egyptian, to establish their credit for superior powers in the minds of the people, as evincing control over the most deadly and untractable creatures in existence, may be learned from the painted tombs, as well as from history;12 and it is possible that those used in the service of the temples were kept in such jars as this.13

p222 In this tomb was found the curious sarcophagus, now in the British Museum, of temple-shape, with a pair of serpents, in knotted coils on the roof; and it appears highly probable, from this and other adornments of the sarcophagus, as well as from the serpent-jar painted on the wall, that this was the sepulchre of some augur or aruspex, some priest skilled in the mysteries of "the Etruscan Discipline," and in interpreting the will of Heaven. His name, we learn from his sarcophagus, was Vel. Urinates, a family name met with in other parts of Etruria; and his portrait is probably still seen on the right-hand wall.14

From the freedom of the sketches on the walls, from the Greek character of the ornaments,15 and the peculiar p223style of the sarcophagus, this tomb cannot be of very early date. It must be some centuries later than the Grotta Campana at Veii, coeval with most of the urns of Volterra, possibly subsequent to the conquest of Etruria, though betraying no foreign influence, save in its style of art, and the character of its adornments.

This is the only painted tomb yet found in this necropolis — not one in four or five hundred Etruscan sepulchres being so decorated. The generality on this site are quadrilateral, of moderate size, with a broad ledge or bench of rock round three sides, on which lay the bodies, sometimes in sarcophagi, sometimes uncoffined, with a lamp of terra-cotta or bronze at the head of each; and weapons, vases, and other sepulchral furniture around. These benches were occasionally hollowed into sarcophagi, which were covered by large sun-burnt tiles, three feet or more in length, precisely like those used at the present day in Italy. Body-niches, so common at Sutri, Civita Castellana, and Falleri, are seldom found on this site; and even small niches for lamps or vases are rare. I observed one tomb under the town-walls, which seems to have been circular, with a pillar in the centre — the usual form of the sepulchres of Volterra. In some instances, sarcophagi have been found not in tombs, but sunk like our modern coffins, a few feet below the surface of the ground, covered with large tiles, or stone slabs. These were for the bodies of the poor. At this site they did not always bury their dead; for vases are often found containing calcined ashes.16

p224 As every necropolis in Etruria has its peculiar style of tomb, so there is a variety also in the character of the sepulchral furniture. On this site the beautiful painted vases of Vulci and Tarquinii are not common; those, however, of the later style, with yellow figures, are not so rare as the more archaic, with black on a yellow ground; and it is singular that few or none have more than two handles, while at Vulci and Tarquinii vases with three are very common. Though figured paterae and tazze are found on this site, they are rarely in a high style of art. Articles of bronze, often of great richness and beauty, are peculiarly abundant; and are far more valuable, as proofs of native skill and records of the Etruscan mythological creed, showing comparatively little of that Hellenic character so predominant in the painted pottery. They consist principally of helmets, mostly gilt, shields, greaves, and other portions of armour; vases, frequently gilt; specchj, or mirrors, often beautifully figured with scenes from the Etruscan mythology; tripods and candelabra; and long thin plates of this metal gilt, covered with designs in relief. Besides these, have been found swords and bows of steel. But the most remarkable article in bronze here found is a circular shield, three feet in diameter, with a lance-thrust in it, and its lining of wood, and braces of leather still remaining, after the lapse of more than 2000 years. Do you doubt this? Go to the Gregorian Museum, and behold it suspended on the walls; for the Pope purchased it of Signor Ruggieri, the fortunate excavator, for the sum of 600 scudi, an immense price for Italy. It was found suspended from the wall, near the sarcophagus of its owner, and the rest of his armour hung there with it — his embossed helmet, and his greaves of bronze, and his wooden-hilted sword of steel. In one tomb on this site a skeleton was discovered still retaining fragments of its p225shroud; and in another a purple mantle was found covering two vases and a garland of box!17 In a third was a little cup of ordinary ware, but bearing on its foot an inscription, which proved to be no other than the Etruscan alphabet. What was the meaning of it in such a situation is hard to say — to us it is suggestive only of a present to a child. Though originally of little worth, it is now a rare treasure, being the sole instance yet found of an alphabet in the Etruscan character.18 Here is a fac-simile of it —


[image ALT: zzz]

All these articles are now in the possession of the Prince Borghese. The fullest description of the excavations at Bomarzo will be found in the work of Don Luigi Vittori, arch-priest of the village.19

We returned to Viterbo by the direct road along the foot of the Ciminian Mount. It presents many picturesque combinations of rock and wood, with striking views of the p226Etruscan plain, and the snow-capt mountains of Cetona and Amiata in the horizon. This district is said to be rich in remains of Etruscan roads, sepulchres, and buildings.20 I observed in one spot a singular line of rocks, which, at a short distance, seemed to be Cyclopean walls, but proved to be a natural arrangement;21 and I remarked some traces of an ancient road; but beyond this, I saw nothing — no tombs or other remains of Etruscan antiquity. About two miles from Viterbo is the village of Bagnaja, with the celebrated Villa Lante, and thence the curious in natural phenomena may ascend to the Menicatore, or rocking-stone, near the summit of the mountain — an enormous block of peperino, about twenty-two feet long, twenty wide, and nine high, calculated to weigh more than two hundred and twenty tons, and yet easily moved with a slight lever.

APPENDIX TO CHAPTER XIV.

Note I. — Polimartium.

The Padre Luigi Vittori, arch-priest of Bomarzo, who has recently published a monograph on that town, translates Polimartium as signifying "city of Mars;" and from this confessedly hybrid etymology deduces its "purely Etruscan origin," as indicating a language composed of roots partly Greek and partly Latin! (Memorie di Polimarzio, p10). The worthy arch-priest is bent on referring this name to Pagan times, though we might have expected one of his cloth to have looked for a p227Christian origin. How came it that he never happened to hit on πολλοὶ μάρτυρες? Surely "many martyrs" are as likely to have had part in the nomenclature of a town, whose origin can only be traced to the early ages of our era, as "many Marses" (plures Martes), which another antiquary opines may be the etymology of Polimartium, derived from the many battles which may (or may not) have been fought upon the site. The latter etymology, by the way, may also be rendered "many ferrets" or "polecats" — too odorous a version, as Mrs. Malaprop would say, for native nostrils. The name of Maeonia certainly has a traditional habitation in this district, as may be seen by medieval documents, and by the appellation long given to the site of this Etruscan town, Pian Meano, or Pian Meoniano, as Vittori (p9) has it. Perhaps those are not far out who have traced Meonia in the village of Mugnano, though Vittori is loath to admit this, as he claims for this town near Bomarzo, the honour of representing Maeonia — a city which he strives to prove was the original seat of the Lydians in Etruria; though, as already shown (ut supra, page 216), there is no evidence in ancient writers of a city of this name existing in the land.

Note II. — Sarcophagus in the British Museum.

This sarcophagus is unique. It seems from the sloping roof, joint-tiles and antefixae, to have represented a house or temple, yet nothing like a door is visible. The lid has a winged sphinx at each end of the ridge, and in the middle is a pair of serpents curiously knotted together like ropes. The antefixae are female heads, probably Larvae, as on the black pottery of Chiusi and Sarteano. At each end of the monument are griffons, or beasts of prey, devouring antelopes, and on the sides at each angle is a figure, also in relief, one representing Charun with his hammer and a crested snake in his hand; another, a winged female genius, with a drawn sword; a third, a similar figure, with an open scroll; and the fourth, a warrior, with sword and shield. The whole was originally covered with stucco and coloured, and traces of red, black, and blue, may still be detected. The name — Vel Urinates — is inscribed on one side just beneath the lid.

A plate of it is given, Mon. Ined. Instit. I. tav. XLII. For some observations on its adornments, see an article by Professor Migliarini, Ann. Inst. 1843, p367, et seq.


The Author's Notes:

1 I could not learn that excavations had been made here, though at Monte Calvello, about 1½ mile beyond, Ruggieri of Viterbo excavated in 1845 for Prince Doria, but with no great success. He found, however, another well-tomb, similar to those of Férento, the shaft to which was 127 palms deep.

2 See Chapter IX. on Horta. Mugnano claims to be the birthplace of Biagio Sinibaldi, a famous traveller of the olden time, who visited Ceylon, Japan, the Eastern Archipelago, China and Tartary, at a date when Europe imported little from the East but fables and the plague. May not his own existence be called into question? — may he not be an European embodiment of the oriental myth of Sinbad the Sailor?

3 They are of sugar-loaf form, about 8 ft. high, and 2 ft. wide at the base.

4 Bullett. dell' Inst. 1830, p234 (Camilli); 1832, p195; and 1834, p50 (Gerhard). The only mention of such a town in Etruria that I can find, is in the Catonis Origines of Annio of Viterbo, who calls it Maeonum (p69, ed. 1512); but such authority is not worthy of the least confidence. The said opinion is most probably founded on the name by which the site is known — Pianmeano — in which they may think to trace the ancient appellation. Annio (Quaest. VIII. p155), says the site bore this name in his day — Meani planumplanum Maeonianum — and that remains of the ancient town were then extant, a town which he fancied was mentioned by Ovid (Metam. III.583) — patria Maeonia est (cf. v. 624). Dempster, Mariani, and others, have made a similar blunder in reference to this passage, but Niebuhr (I. p42) shows that it refers not to Etruria at all, but to Lydia; the Tyrrhene pirates of the legend being Lydian Pelasgi.

5 Dempster de Etrur. Reg. II. p110. See Note I. in the Appendix to this chapter.

6 They are generally arranged in quincunx order.

7 The pillar is singularly formed — the side facing the door is rounded, the back squared. The shaft is 5 ft. high, and 1½ wide, with a plain base; and is surmounted by a capital, 2 ft. square, the lower edge of which is bevelled off towards the shaft. The whole is crowned by an abacus, more than 4 ft. square, and like the capital, about 1 ft. deep. Lenoir (Ann. Inst. 1832, p269) speaks of several other tombs with similar pillars having been found on this site.

8 Padre Vittori (Memorie di Polimarzio, p36), who was present at the opening of this tomb, says this head was then on the walls.

9 Typhon is here, as elsewhere, used conventionally, to express a divinity of Etruscan mythology, whose name has not yet been ascertained, but who bears some analogy to the Typhon of Egyptian and Greek mythology. See Chap. XVIII.

10 Gori Mus. Etr. II. p236; Inghirami Mon. Etrus. I p160. Some have imagined that the dolphins so frequently introduced on Etruscan sepulchral monuments have reference to the story of Dionysos, told by the Homeridan Hymn to that god, who when seized by some Tyrrhene pirates, assumed the form of a lion (v. 44), or, as Apollodorus has it, turned the mast and oars into serpents, and filled the ship with ivy and the music of pipes, which so terrified the crew that they leaped into the sea, and were transformed into dolphins. Apollod. III.5.3. cf. Ovid. Met. III.575, et seq.; Serv. Aen. I.67; Hyginus, 134; Nonnus, Dionys. XLV. p1164 ed. Hanov. 1605; Eurip. Cycl. 112. But it is clear that these pirates were Tyrrhene Pelasgi, of the Lydian coast, not Etruscans. See Niebuhr, I. p42; Müller, Etrus. einl. 2, 4, and I.4, 4. The dolphin was called from this fable — Tyrrhenus piscis — Seneca, Agam. 451. cf. Stat. Achil. I.56. The dolphin is also an emblem of Apollo, who once assumed its form, and drove a ship from Crete to Crissa. Hom. Hym. Apollo. 401, et seq.

11 Τυῤῥηνοὶ θαλαττοκρατοῦντες.º Diod. Sic. V. p295, 316; Strabo V. p222.

12 Livy (VII.17) records that the Etruscan priests made use of these animals to strike terror into their foes. See also Florus I.12, and Front. Strat. II.4, 17.

13 The serpent was an object of divination among the Romans, (Aelian. Nat. An. XI. cap. 16) and probably also among the Etruscans, as it still continues to be among certain people of Asia and Africa. Serpents were worshipped by the Egyptians, and cherished in their temples, says Aelian (X. cap. 31, XI.17, XVII.5), and the Greeks kept representations of them in the temples of Bacchus (Schol. ad Aristoph. Plut. III. sc. 2, 690), probably because this reptile was a symbol of regeneration and renovation; though some would account for its connection with Bacchus, by its habit of frequenting vineyard. Ann. Inst. 1840, p135. The serpent is also a well-known emblem of Apollo, of his son Aesculapius, and of Minerva in her character of Hygieia.

The Romans also connected the serpent with the worship of the Lares; this reptile being always found on the Lararia of the houses at Pompeii. The serpent indeed seems to have been used by the Romans as a mark of sacredness. They were wont to paint it on walls for the same purpose that the modern Italians paint crosses or souls in purgatory.

Pinge duos angues: pueri, locus est sacer: extra, &c.

says Persius (Sat. I.113). Whether it be a traditional custom, or a mere coincidence, I know not, but the modern Italians, especially the Romans, are very fond of chalking huge serpents on walls, generally chained to a post.

Serpents were regarded by the ancients as genii of the place where they were found; or as ministers to the dead; as when Aeneas sees one issue from the tomb of his father he was

Incertus geniumne loci, famulumne parentis
Esse putet.

— Aen. V.95.

So also Val. Flacc. Argon. III.458. — Umbrarum famuli. So says Isidore (Orig. XII.4) Angues apud gentiles, pro geniis locorum erant habiti semper. Seneca (de Irâ II.31) speaks of them at banquets, gliding among the goblets on the table; so Virgil describes the serpent mentioned above, taking part in the funeral feast (Aen. V.90.)

— agmine longo

Tandem inter pateras et levia pocula serpens,

Libavitque dapes . . . . . .

cf. Val. Flacc. loc. cit. Gerhard (Ann. Inst. 1833, p350) thinks the serpent was introduced on the painted vases, often as a simple expression of fear; but is it not enough that it was a funereal emblem, the vases being sepulchral furniture? Yet it is certain that the serpent was often made use of to inspire awe and terror — the Furies being described or delineated by the ancients, as having those reptiles bound about their brows, or as brandishing them in their hands. See Chapter XVIII. Inghirami (Mon. Etr. VI p16), who is very fond of astronomical interpretation, thinks the serpent on Etruscan monuments indicates the time of the annual inferiae, held at the autumnal equinox, when the sun approached the constellation of Serpentarius.º

14 For a description of this sarcophagus, see Note II. in the Appendix. Urinates is inscribed on a rock-tomb at Castel d'Asso. It occurs also among the Etruscan family names of Perugia. Müller (Etrusk. I p455) is of opinion that, like Etruscan names in general with this termination, it is a derivative of some place, which, in this case, would be Urinum. The tomb is 18 ft. long by 15 wide, and nearly 7 high in the middle; the ceiling is cut as usual into the form of the roof of a house, with the beam in relief along the centre, and rafters sloping from it downwards on either side. The floor is said to have been covered with cement (Vittori, p35). The walls are coated with a fine white stucco to receive the colour, not here, as at Veii and Chiusi, laid on the rock itself.

15 The wave ornament is at once recognised as Greek. On the right hand wall is an anthemion or honeysuckle of large size, with buds alternately black and red: a similar flower is painted on the inner wall, depending from the end of the beam of the ceiling.

16 One tomb in this necropolis, now unfortunately reclosed, was remarkable for a peculiar connexion between it and its contents. Over one of its doorways was inscribed "PELE" (Peleus) in Etruscan characters, and just below it stood a painted vase, bearing the subject of Peleus seizing Thetis (Bull. Inst. 1831, p6, Fossati and Manzi); though this statement has been denied by Ruggieri (loc. cit. p90), and questioned by Orioli (Ann. Inst. 1833, p49).

17 Vittori, Mem. Polim. p38.

18 A little pot was discovered at Cervetri some few years since, inscribed with an alphabet and primer; and a tomb at Colle, near Volterra, opened two or three centuries ago, had a somewhat similar epigraph on its walls. But in both those cases the letters were determined to be Pelasgic, not Etruscan. Here, however, is an alphabet, which is admitted to be in the latter character. The order adopted is singular. In Roman letters it runs thus:— A, C, E, V, Z, H, TH, I, L, M, N, P, S, R, T, U, TH, CH, PH. The fifth, or the zeta, is of a very rare form. I have only seen it twice elsewhere of this form — in an inscription of Chiusi (Museo Chiusino, II. p222), where it is reversed, and on a fibula of gold in the possession of Cav. Campana. Bull. Inst. 1846, p8. The usual form of the Etruscan zeta is . It will be observed that there are two thetas; the ante-penultimate letter in the alphabet may also be a phi. The difference between the two sigmas is supposed by Lepsius to consist in the first being accented, and the other not — but they are often used indifferently in the same word.

19 For other particulars regarding the tombs and excavations on this site, I refer the reader to the publications of the Archaeological Institute of Rome. Annali dell' Inst. 1831, p116 (Gerhard); 1832, p284 (Camilli); 1832, p269 (Lenoir); Bullettini dell' Inst. 1830, p233 (Camilli); 1831, p6 (Fossati and Manzi); p85; p90; 1832, p195; 1834, p50 (Gerhard).

20 Ann. Inst. 1832, p282 (Knapp).

21 It must be these same rocks which are mentioned in the Memorie dell' Instituto (I. p79, 83), as Cyclopean walls existing about half way on the road to Bomarzo.

At Corviano, about three miles from Bomarzo, on this road, there is said to be a singular tomb, composed of a very long corridor lined with masonry, ending in a narrow passage which terminates in a well. On the corridor open four chambers. Orioli, who describes it, could not pronounce whether it was Etruscan, Roman, or of the Low Empire. (ap. Ingh. IV. p189, tav. XXXXI.2) The passage and shaft are quite Etruscan features.


Thayer's Note:

a monster of demon breed: To anyone who has been to Bomarzo, and to most of those who have heard the name of this town before reading this text, our author appears to have made the most glaring omission: how can one talk about it without so much as mentioning the Parco dei Mostri for which it is so famous?

The answer is one George Dennis would have loved. Though Count Orsini created his "Sacred Wood" in the mid‑16c, by Dennis's time it was lost to human memory; it would not be rediscovered until 1930, when it was publicized by Salvador Dali. Given the Etruscan feel of many of Orsini's sculptures, it is very tempting to read the passages about caricatures and Typhons, and certainly the long excursus about serpents, as showing an intuitive awareness of the creepy genius loci of this little town overlooking the Tiber.

Another answer is very tempting, to me at least: that the Sacro Bosco does not date to the 16c, and was not discovered by Dali, but rather made by him. Dennis, then, would not have known of it because it didn't exist.

I must underscore that the only positive evidence in favor of this theory is the mischievous and eccentric temperament of the 20c artist, combined with his amazing technical gifts. On the other hand there is a piece of negative evidence:


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Fresco on the ceiling of the Sala Regia in the Palazzo Comunale of Viterbo.

The Sala Regia of Viterbo was painted by Baldassare Croce (1563‑1638), thus just after the Sacro Bosco is supposed to have been built. This depiction of Bomarzo does not show the park, although the Sala Regia's little album of towns dependent on Viterbo is very much like my own online gazetteer, clearly designed to represent the most striking aspects of each town, in thumbnail images as it were.

Finally, I have yet to learn of any evidence against my little theory: that is, that the park at Bomarzo was indeed a 16c work I do not know from any primary source, just from the endless parrotings of guidebooks copying each other. Considering the obvious playfulness of the park, I would not be surprised to find some hanky-panky, and Dali, who is known to have been associated with this place, is the ideal candidate to have perpetrated it.


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Page updated: 31 Oct 08