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Bill Thayer

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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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p228 Chapter XV


a The Great Tomb.
b Tomb with inscription.
c Tomb with inscription (Ceises).
d Tomb with inscription (Urinates).
e Tomb with inscription (Titnei).
f Fallen mass of cornice belonging to c.
g Tomb with buttresses.
h Ancient roads hewn in the rock.
i Tomb and Sewer opening in one.
k Fragment of ancient walling.
l Site of ancient gate.

[image ALT: zzz]
	Tombs with façades.
- - Caves, formerly tombs.

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Sovr' a' sepolti le tombe terragne
Portan segnato quel ch' elli eran pria.

Dante. Purg.

Here man's departed steps are traced
But by his dust amid the solitude.


The best guide to the Etruscan antiquities of Viterbo and its neighbourhood, is Ruggieri, a caffetièreº of that city who, though a master-excavator himself, will condescend, for a consideration, to act the cicerone. As he happened to be on his travels, we provided ourselves with the second-best guide Viterbo could afford, in the person of a meagre barber, Giuseppe Perugini by name, with none of the garrulity and vivacity of Figaro, that type of tonsorial excellence, but taciturn, solemn, and grave as a cat, if there be truth in the proverb —

Chi sempre ride è matto,
Chi mai è di natura di gatto.

Under his auspices we made several excursions to Castel d'Asso,1 an Etruscan necropolis, which has already been p230made known to the English public by the lively description of Mrs. Hamilton Gray. It is about five miles to the west of Viterbo, and can be reached by the light vehicles of the country, though more easily on horseback.

From the gate of Viterbo, the road descends between low cliffs, here and there hollowed into sepulchres. At the extremity of this cleft is a large cave, called Grotta di Riello, once a sepulchre, and a spot long approached with mysterious awe, as the depository of hidden treasure guarded by demons. But a small Virgin having been erected at the corner of the road hard by, the worthy Viterbesi can now pass on their daily or nightly avocations without let or hindrance from spiritual foe. The same evil report is given of another sepulchral cavern, not far off, called Grotta del Cataletto.

About a mile and a half from Viterbo we entered on the open heath, and here columns of steam, issuing from the ground by the roadside, marked the Bulicame, a hot sulphureous spring, which has the honour of having been sung by Dante.2 It is apparently in a boiling state, but is not of intolerable heat.3 It is inclosed by a circular wall, and is carried off in small channels, and flows steaming across the plain. This is almost the only active intimation of those latent fires which, in past ages, have deposited the strata of this district. It lies midway between the Lake of Bolsena and that of Vico, both craters of extinct volcanoes. The high temperature and medicinal qualities of these waters have given rise to baths in their neighbourhood, p231and from the many ruins around, there seem to have been similar edifices in former ages, at least as far back as Roman times.

We were now on the great Etruscan plain, which was here and there darkened by wood, but unenlivened by towns or villages; no habitations visible on its vast expanse save the distant towers of Toscanella, and a lonely farm-house or crumbling ruin studding its surface at wide intervals. Our guide being then new in his trade — he knows it better now — mistook one of these ruins for another, and, after wandering a long time over the moor, fairly confessed he was at fault.

Si tienes boca
No digas à otro sopla —º
Have you a mouth of your own? —
Never say to another, blow on!

So we took the road, as the Spaniards say, into our own hands, and with much difficulty, in consequence of the numerous ravines with which the plain is intersected, reached the brink of the wide glen of Castel d'Asso. Just opposite the ruined castle of this name we found a smaller glen, opening at right angles into the large one, and here we descended, and presently came upon the object of our search. Tomb after tomb, hewn out of the cliffs, on either hand — a street of sepulchres; all with a strong house-like character! They were quite unlike any Etruscan tombs I had yet seen; not simply opening in the cliffs as at Sutri and Civita Castellana, nor fronted with arched porticoes as at Falleri, but hewn into square architectural façades, with bold cornices and mouldings in high relief, and many with inscriptions graven on their fronts, in the striking characters and mysterious language of Etruria.

I can well understand the impressive effect such a scene p232is calculated to produce on a sensitive mind, especially on those to whom an Etruscan necropolis is a novel spectacle. The solemnity of the site — the burial-place of long-past generations, of a people of mysterious origin and indefinite antiquity — their empty sepulchres yawning at our feet, yet their monuments still standing, in eternal memorial of their extinct civilization, and their epitaphs mocking their dust that has long ago been trampled under foot or scattered to the winds — all this cannot fail to excite reflection. Then the loneliness, seclusion, and utter stillness of the scene — the absence of all habitation — nothing but the ruined and picturesque castle on the opposite precipice, and the grand dark mass of the Ciminian, looking down on the glen — tend to make this more imposing than other cemeteries which are in the immediate neighbourhood of modern habitations.

As I advanced down the glen I found that the tombs continued round the face of the cliffs, on either hand, into the great valley, in a line opposite the ruined castle. There might be thirty or forty of them — not all, however, preserving their monumental façades — occupying an extent of cliff nearly half a mile in length.4

[image ALT: An engraving of a blind door composed of a series of concentric rectangular moldings. It is the façade of an Etruscan tomb at Castel d' Asso in the Latium (central Italy).]
The façades are formed by the face of the cliffs being hewn to a smooth surface, save where the decorations are left in relief; the height of the cliff being that of the monuments, which vary, in this respect, from twelve to thirty feet. The imposing effect of these tombs is perhaps increased by their form, which is like that of Egyptian edifices and Doric doorways, narrower above than below, the front also retreating from the perpendicular — a p233form ordinary associated in our minds with the remotest antiquity. Still more of Egyptian character is seen in the massive horizontal cornices, which, however, depart from that type in receding, instead of projecting from the plane of the façade.5 These cornices, in many instances, are carried round the sides of the monument, and even where this is not the case, each tomb is quite isolated from its neighbours; a broad upright groove, or a flight of steps cut in the rock, and leading to the plain above, marking the separation. In the centre of each façade is a rod-moulding, describing the outline of a door; in some instances having panels recessed one within the other, as in the annexed woodcut. This is not the entrance, but merely the frontispiece to the tomb, and the title is generally engraved on the lower and most prominent fascia, or, in some cases, on the flat surface of the façade just over the moulded door.6 The letters are seldom six inches in height, though, from the depth of their intaglio, they can be read in the sunshine from a considerable distance. Not half the tombs have inscriptions, and not all of these are legible; yet, in proportion to the number of monuments, there are more inscribed façades at Castel d'Asso than in any p234other Etruscan necropolis, save, perhaps, Sovana. Most of these inscriptions seem to indicate the name of the individual or family buried below, but there are others, the precise meaning of which can be only conjectured.7

So much for the title-page of these sepulchres. The preface comes next, in the form of a chamber hollowed in the rock, receding, in most instances, a little from the face of the monument above it, and vaulted half over, by the rock being left to project at the base of the façade. The front seems to have been always open.8 On the inner wall, and directly beneath the moulded door of the façade, is a similar false door, sometimes with a niche in its centre.9 Here the funeral feast may have been held; or the corpse may have been laid out in this chamber, before its transfer to its last resting-place in the sepulchre beneath; or here the surviving relatives may have assembled to perform their annual festivities in honour of the dead; and the niche may have held a lamp, a cippus, or a vase of perfume to destroy the effluvium, or in it may have been left an offering to the infernal deities, or to the manes of the deceased.

Directly beneath this second moulded door, is the real entrance to the sepulchre, generally twenty, sometimes thirty or forty feet below the upper moulding. It is approached by a narrow and shelving passage, cut through the rock in front of the monument, running down at an angle of about forty degrees, and originally cut into steps. The door, like the false ones above it, tapers upwards, but is often arched. Forcing my way p235down these passages, mostly choked with rocks and bushes, and squeezing my body through the doorways, now often nearly reclosed with earth, by the aid of a taper, without which nothing would have been visible, I explored most of the sepulchres. They are now half filled with earth, and I had to crawl on all-fours, over upturned sarcophagi, fragments of pottery, and the bones and dust of the ancient dead.

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The tombs are of various sizes, some very spacious, others extremely small — all rudely hollowed in the rock, and most of a quadrilateral form. The ceilings are generally flat, though sometimes slightly vaulted; but I do not recollect an instance of beams and rafters in relief, so common in other cemeteries. The resemblance to houses is here external only. Some have the usual ledges of rock against the walls for the support of sarcophagi: in others are double rows of coffins, sunk in the rock, side by side, with a narrow passage down the middle, like beds in an hospital or workhouse, or, as Orioli suggests, like the bones in a fish's spine. In one tomb these sunken sarcophagi radiate from the centre. The bodies being laid in these hollows were probably covered with tiles.

I was greatly surprised at the studied economy of space displayed in these sepulchres — a fact which entirely sets aside the notion that none but the most illustrious of the nation were here interred. The truth is, that the tombs with the largest and grandest façades have generally the meanest interiors. The last tomb in the great glen, in the direction of Viterbo, is externally the largest of all, and a truly magnificent monument, its façade rising nearly thirty feet above the upper chamber;10 and it is natural to conclude that it was appropriated to some p236great chieftain, hero, or high-priest; yet, like all its neighbours, it was not a mausoleum for a single individual but a family-vault, for it contains eight or ten sarcophagi of nenfro. Unlike the figure-lidded sarcophagi and urns, so common in Etruscan cemeteries, these correspond with the tombs themselves in their simple, massive, and archaic character. They have no bas-reliefs or other ornaments, and, in their general form, are not unlike the stone coffins of early England.11 I did not observe a single instance of a niche within the tomb itself, but in the wall of the passage, just outside the door, there is often one, which was probably for the cippus, inscribed with the name of the family to whom the sepulchre belonged.

From their exposed position, there is every reason to conclude that these tombs, like those of Sutri, Civita Castellana, and Falleri, were rifled at a very early period. As soon as the sacredness attaching to them as the resting-place of the dead had worn off, they must have fallen prey to plunderers. Then their site being always indicated by their superincumbent monuments, whatever of their contents the earlier spoiler might have spared must inevitably have been carried off or destroyed by those of subsequent ages. It is absurd to space that anything of value should be found in our day in these open tombs. But in others excavated of late years in the plain above, have been found various articles of metal, specchj with figures and inscriptions, tripods, vases, large studs representing lions' heads, besides articles of gold and jewellery, scarabaei, &c., with painted vases, some of great beauty and archaic Greek design.12

p237 Only one tomb did I perceive which, in any striking particular, varied from those already described. It is in the narrow glen. On each side of the false door of the façade is a squared buttress projecting at right angles, and cut out of the rock which formed the roof of the upper and open chamber. These buttresses are surmounted by cornices, and have a small door-moulding on their inner sides, like that on the façade. The sepulchre itself, in this instance, is of an unusual form — elliptical. Orioli has described a singular sepulchre at Castel d'Asso, which differs wholly from those already mentioned, being a cavity for a body, sunk in the surface of the plain and surmounted by an ornamental pattern, cut in the tufo.13 I looked in vain for this; but nearly opposite the castle, I remarked a deep well or shaft sunk in the plain, which, I have little doubt, was the entrance to a tomb, such as exist at Férento. There can be no doubt, from the analogy of other sites, and from the excavations already made, that sepulchres abound beneath the surface of the plain.

In a country like our own, where intelligence is so widely diffused, and news travels with telegraphic rapidity, it were scarcely possible that monuments of former ages, of the most striking character, should exist in the open air, be seen daily by the peasantry, and yet remain unknown to the rest of the world for many ages. So it is, however, in Italy.a Here is a site abounding in most imposing p238remains of the olden time, bearing at every step indisputable traces of by-gone civilisation, scarcely six miles from the great thoroughfare of Italy, and from Viterbo, the largest city in all this district; and yet it remained unknown to the world at large till the year 1808, when Professor Orioli, of Bologna, and the Padre Pio Semería, of the Minerva, Viterbo, had their attention directed to the wonders of this glen, almost at the very threshold of the latter.14 I am persuaded that Italy is not yet half explored — that very much remains to be brought to light; a persuasion founded on such discoveries as this, which are still, from time to time, being made, of which I may cite the Etruscan necropolis of Sovana, recently discovered by my fellow-traveller, Mr. Ainsley — even more remarkable than this of Castel d'Asso — and sundry monuments of the same antiquity, which it has been my lot to make known to the world. In fact, ruins and remains of ancient art are of so common occurrence in Italy as to excite no particular attention. To whatever age they may belong — mediaeval, Imperial, Republican, or ante-historical — the peasant knows them only as "muraccia," and he shelters his flock amid their walls, ploughs the land around them, daily slumbers beneath their shade, or even dwells within their precincts from year to year; and the world at large knows no more of their existence than if they were situated in the heart of the Great Desert.

The general style of these monuments — their simplicity p239and massive grandeur, and strong Egyptian features — testify to their high antiquity; and this is confirmed by the remarkable plainness of the sarcophagi, and by the archaic character of the rest of their furniture, as far as it is possible to judge of it.15

This ancient cemetery clearly implies the existence of an Etruscan town in its near neighbourhood; and the eye of the antiquary needs not the extant remains to point out the site on the opposite cliff, just at that part where a tongue of land is formed in the plateau, by the intersection of a deep glen opening obliquely into the great valley. Here, accordingly, beside numerous remains of the middle ages, to which the castle wholly belongs, may be traced the outline of a town, almost utterly destroyed, indeed, but, on one side, towards the east, retaining a fragment of its walls in several courses of rectangular tufo blocks, uncemented, which have every appearance of an Etruscan origin. The site is worthy of a visit for the fine view it commands of the tomb-hewn cliffs opposite. The extent of the town, which is clearly marked by the nature of the ground, was very small, about half a mile in circuit. What may have been its ancient name is not easy to determine. By some it has been conjectured to be the Fanum Voltumnae, the shrine of the great goddess of the Etruscans, where the princes of Etruria were wont to meet in a grand national council; but it has already been shown that Viterbo has stronger claims to that honour, and still stronger will hereafter be urged for another site. It has been conceived, and I think with high probability, that p240it may be the site of the Castellum Axia, mentioned by Cicero.16 Its very small size shows it could never have been more than a mere fortress. This could have been only its Roman name; as to its Etruscan appellation, we are still at a loss. It is not improbable, however, that it bore a somewhat similar name in Etruscan times. Acsi we know, from a tomb at Perugia, to have been a family name among that people; and it was not uncommon for them, as well as the Romans and other nations, to derive proper names from those of countries, cities, towns, or rivers.

At the mouth of the wide glen of Castel d'Asso, is a mass of rock hewn into a sort of cone, and hollowed into a tomb, with a flight of steps cut out of the rock at the side, leading to the flat summit of the cone, which, it is conjectured, was surmounted by a statue.17 About a mile from Castel d'Asso is a very fine tomb, with decorated front, called Grotta Colonna,18 which is near enough to have p241formed part of this same necropolis; and two or three miles further west from Viterbo, at a site called Castel Cardinale, or Macchia del Conte, is a remarkable tomb, of similar character to those of Castel d'Asso, but with square holes like windows in its façade.


Note I. — Mouldings.

[image ALT: Cross-sections of three complex moldings found in Etruscan tombs at Castel d'Asso, in Viterbo province (Lazio, central Italy).]
Fig. 1 shows the moulding of the façade of the great tomb, mentioned at page 235. This arrangement is that generally followed at Castel d'Asso, but with varieties in the proportions of the parts, and in the boldness of the general character — as seen in fig. 2. A few of the monuments are moulded as in fig. 3; but this arrangement, in which a half-torus is substituted for the ogee and upper lip-moulding, is more common at Norchia, where, however, the former system also obtains. These three mouldings are not on an uniform scale. All the façades on this site fall slightly back, as in the annexed cuts.

The specimens of mouldings from this necropolis, published by Sir W. Gell, and copied by Mrs. Hamilton Gray, are extremely incorrect; though Sir William flattered himself that they were "the only specimens of real Etruscan mouldings that have ever been seen in our country." He copied them from Inghirami, Mon. Etrus. IV. tav. 34, who is also incorrect in tav. 35, 36, but much better in tav. 38, 40, 42.

p242 Note II. — Inscriptions.

The inscriptions at Castel d'Asso are the following, which I give in Roman letters:— On a tomb on the left of the small glen, "Arnthal Ceises."

On one at the mouth of this glen on the same side is "Ecasuth. . ." which is but the commencement of the inscription.

On a tomb on the opposite side of the glen, ". . . . . rinate . . . lvies. ." The initial of the first word was very probably U, as the name Urinate occurs in other inscriptions — the sarcophagus from Bomarzo, for instance, now in the British Museum. See page 222.

Near this is a tomb, part of whose cornice has fallen. On the fragment yet standing, you read "ecasu;" and on the prostrate mass is the rest of the inscription, "inesl. titnie," so that the inscription, when entire, read thus:

[image ALT: zzz]

On a tomb in the great valley is "inesl," which is but a fragment.

On a fallen mass Orioli read ". . . . uthin . sl . . ."

Orioli (ap. Ingh. iv. p218. Ann. Inst. 1833, pp34, 52) says he read on two tombs these numerals, IIΛXX and IIIIIIIΛXX, which he at first took to intimate the number of dead interred in the respective sepulchres, yet found it not to correspond with the number of the sarcophagi, or rock-hewn couches; he afterwards thought it might signify the measure of the sacred space in front of the tomb.

The recurrence of "ecasuthinesl" shows it to be a formula. It is found also on other sites, and has given rise to much conjecture. Lanzi (II. pp481, 494) derived "suthi" from σωτηρία, in which he is followed by Vermiglioli (Iscriz. Perug. I. p133) and Campanari (Urna d' Arunte), who deduced the formula from ἥκα and σωτήρ. One antiquary (Bibliot. Ital. Magg. 1817) sought it in the Latin — hic subtus inest. Another spoken of as the "Maestro di color che sanno," in Etruscan interpretation, whom I at once recognise to be Professor Migliarini of Florence, also seeks a Latin analogy — ecce situs, or hic situs est (Bull. Inst. 1847, p86). The "Ulster king-at‑arms," (Etruria Celtica, I. p38) finds it to be choice Erse, and to signify "eternal houses of death!" Whatever it mean, it can hardly be a proper name, as has been conjectured (Bull. Inst. 1847, p83). Beyond this, we must own with Orioli (Ann. Inst. 1833, p52), that "we know nothing about it, and our wisest plan is to confess our ignorance."

The Author's Notes:

1 It is first found under this name in the works of Annio of Viterbo. Orioli (Ann. dell' Inst. 1833, p23) asserts that its true name is Castellaccio, as it has always been, and is still, so called by the lower orders of Viterbo; but the Chevalier Bunsen, on the other hand, maintains that, though there is a ruined tower some miles distant called Castellaccio, this site is always mentioned by the shepherds and peasantry as Castel d'Asso. Bullett. dell' Inst. 1833, p97. My own experience agrees with that of Orioli, and I have found peasants who did not understand the name of Castel d'Asso, but instantly comprehended what I meant by Castellaccio.

2 Inferno, XII.117, and XIV.79.

3 Fazio degli Uberti, in his Dittamundi, lib. III. cap. 10, says it is so hot, that in less time than a man can walk a quarter of a mile, you may boil all the flesh of a sheep, so as to leave it a mere skeleton —

"Ma gittato un monton dentro si cosse
In men che un huom andasse un quarto miglio
Ch' altro non se vedea che propie l' osse."

The heat is said to be not greater than 50° Reaumur. Ann. Inst. 1835, p5.

4 Orioli (ap. Inghir. Mon. Etrus. IV.p175) makes it to be a mile and a half in length, but the learned Professor has here decidedly stretched a point. A general view of the monuments in the small glen is given in Mon. Ined. Inst. I. tav. 60.

5 The mouldings of the cornice are the torus, the fascia, the ogee, and the becco di civetta, or lip-moulding, generally arranged in the same relative order, but varying considerably in proportions and boldness. See the Appendix, Note I.

6 This system of false doors in the façades of tombs, obtains in the ancient rock-hewn sepulchres of Phrygia, which, indeed, have many other points of analogy with those of Etruria (see Steuart's Ancient Monuments of Lydia and Phrygia, Lond. 1842), and also in those of Lycia, which have often recessed panellings. See Sir C. Fellows' works, and the monuments from Xanthus now in the British Museum. Moulded doorways often occur also in Egyptian monuments, and sometimes with recessed panellings, as in the above wood-cut; as on a granite sarcophagus in the Museum of Leyden. Orioli (Ann. Inst. 1833, p29) takes such panellings to represent a series of inner chambers, seen in perspective.

7 All the inscriptions that remain legible will be given in the Appendix, Note II.

8 Some of the smaller tombs are without this open chamber, and have the entrance-passage immediately below the façade. This intermediate chamber is a feature almost peculiar to the tombs of Castel d'Asso, and Norchia. It is seen also in the Grotta Colonna.

9 As in the wood-cut in Chap. XVII. page 270.

10 It is seen on the right hand in the annexed lithograph, which shows the range of cliff-hewn tombs in the glen opposite the Castle.

11 They are about 7 ft. in length. The penthouse form of lid of these sarcophagi is said to be that usual in those of Lydia and Phrygia. Steuart, p5.

12 Orioli, Ann. Inst. 1833, p33, and ap. Inghir. Mon. Etrus. IV.p188. Urlichs, Bull. Inst. 1839, p75. The best vases here found were two amphorae with black figures — one representing Hercules and the boar of Erymanthus, the other Minerva in a quadriga. The former was in the possession of Thorwaldsen. Abeken (Mittelitalien, p256) is mistaken in supposing these articles were found in the façaded tombs.

13 Orioli, ap. Inghir. Mon. Etr. IV.p189, tav. XXXIX.3. The same writer (p209) speaks of a tomb on this site, which had two phalli scratched on its walls. I did not perceive such symbols in any of these tombs.

14 The gentleman who has the honour of having indicated the site to Orioli, is Signor Luigi Anselmi, of Viterbo, who is well stored with local antiquarian knowledge. He has also made excavations in the necropolis of Castel d'Asso. The place had been long known as the site of a ruined castle, and was even mentioned under its present name by Annio of Viterbo, in the fifteenth century; indeed, the name is painted on the ceiling of the principal hall of the Palazzo Comunale, at Viterbo, which must be more than 200 years old (Orioli, Ann. Inst., 1833, p24), but it was not known to be the site of an Etruscan necropolis till the year 1808.

15 Orioli (ap. Inghir. Mon. Etrus. IV.p207) considers these tombs, as well as the similar ones at Norchia, to be not anterior to the fourth or fifth century of Rome. They must be rather earlier than later, and must be referred, I think, to a period before the independence of Etruria was threatened by the encroachments of her neighbours.

16 Cluver (II p521) could not determine the site of Castellum Axia; but Mariani (de Etrur. Metrop. p45) as early as 1728, declared it to be Castel d'Asso. Orioli (ap. Inghir. Mon. Etrus. IV.p176) at first held this opinion, but afterwards (Ann. Instit. 1833, p24) renounced it I cannot think on adequate grounds. The reason he assigns for changing his opinion is, the Castel d'Asso is too distant from Tarquinii to be included within its territory, as the Castellum Axia seems to have been. (Cic. pro Caecinâ; compare cap. IV and VII) But this is no valid objection, for Tarquinii, as the metropolis of the land, most probably had a more extended ager than usual; besides the lake of Bolsena, which is equally remote from that city, is called by Pliny (Nat. His. II.95), — lacus Tarquiniensis — and by Vitruvius (II.7) is said to be — in finibus Tarquiniensium. If the strong resemblance of the name, the agreement in the distance from Rome, said by Cicero (loc. cit. cap. X) to be less than 53 miles (i.e. by the Via Cassia), as well as in the position on a height (cap. VII) be taken into account, there seems a high probability that this is really the site of the Castellum Axia. Stephanus of Byzantium mentions Axia as a city of Italy.

17 Lenoir, Annali dell' Inst. 1832, p276. See also Mon. Ined. Inst. I. tav. XLI.15.

18 The Grotta Colonna is very spacious — nearly 70 feet long by 16 wide. It contains a double row of coffins sunk in the rock, with a passage down the middle. Orioli, ap. Ingh. Mon. Etr. IV.p197, 218. See also tav. XXXVIII.3.

Thayer's Note:

a In England, where intelligence is so widely diffused. . .: Before the gentle reader dashes in where our English writer appears to lead so insouciantly, viz. that Italy of course is a country of grossly uneducated people starved of communication, it will be better to point out — and our author will eventually say it — that the chief difference between England and Italy is in fact the overwhelming riches of the latter in art and antiquities. What in England might be an exceptional ancient monument, in Italy is merely one of hundreds; and that, in a nutshell, is what accounts for both the vast number of sites still being discovered today, and the difficulty of preserving them, caring for them, and preventing the theft of cultural heritage.

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