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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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p233 Chapter XLIII


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Proxima securum reserat Populonia litus

Qua naturalem ducit in arva sinum . . . . . .
Agnosci nequeunt aevi monumenta prioris

Grandia consumpsit moenia tempus edax.
Sola manent interceptis vestigia muris;

Ruderibus latis tecta sepulta jacent.


So long they travelled with little ease,
Till that at last they to a castle came,
built on a rocke adjoyning to the seas;
It was an auncient worke of ántique fame
And wondrous strong by nature and by skilful frame.


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Road to Populonia Ancient port The castle and its hospitable lords Area of the ancient city Its antiquity and importance Historical notices Local remains The specular mount Etruscan walls and tombs of Populonia Coins Gorgonion

He who would drive from Campiglia to Populonia must make a wide circuit by the Torre di San Vincenzio. I chose the direct track, which is practicable only on foot or horseback, and entered the jungle which stretches from p234the Leghorn road westward to the heights of Populonia. The wood was dense enough in parts, yet I could catch an occasional glimpse of the castle-crowned headland to which I was bound. The ground was swampy; the paths, mere tracks made by the cattle; yet such difficulties were in time overcome, and I was approaching Populonia, when I encountered a more formidable obstacle in a flock of sheep. Not that, like the knight of La Mancha, or his heroic prototype, Ajax Telamonius, I took them for foes to be subdued; but some half-a‑dozen dogs, their guardians, large and fierce as wolves, threatened to dispute my further progress. Seeing no shepherd at hand to calm their fury, and not caring to fight a passage, or to put Ulysses' example and Pliny's precept into practice, and sit down quietly amongst them,1 I made a détour by the sea-shore, where a range of sand-hills concealed me from their view. Here the sand, untrodden perhaps for ages, lay so loose and deep that I verified the truth of the saying —

Chi vuol patir nel mondo una gran pena,
Dorma diritto, o cammini per arena.a

This was the beach of the celebrated port of Populonia, once the chief mart of Etruscan commerce; but not a sail, not even a skiff now shadowed its waters, which reflected nothing but the girdle of yellow sand-hills, and the dark headland of Populonia, with the turreted ruins on its crest, and the lonely Tower of Baratti at its foot.

Let future travellers take warning, and trust to the legs of a horse or a mule, rather than to their own, in crossing this Maremma.

It is a steep ascent up the olive-clad slope to Populonia. p235Just before reaching the Castle, a portion of the ancient wall is passed, stretching along the brow of the hill; but this is by no means the finest fragment of the Etruscan fortifications.

The Castle of Populonia is an excellent specimen of the Italian feudal fortress; its turrets and machicolated battlements make it as picturesque an object as its situation renders it prominent in the scenery of this district. The ancient family of the Desiderj have been the hereditary lords of Populonia for centuries; and though the donjon and keep are no more, though the ramparts are not manned, and no warder winds his horn at the stranger's approach, the Desiderj still dwell within the castle walls, in the midst of their dependents, retaining all the patriarchal dignity and simplicity of the olden time, without its tyranny; and with hospitality in no age surpassed, welcome the traveller with open doors. I had not the good fortune to make the acquaintance of this amiable family, as they were in the metropolis at the time of my visit; but a friend, who in the previous spring had visited Populonia for the sake of its antiquities, was persuaded — compelled I may say — to stay a week at the Castle, finding it impossible to refuse the urgent hospitality of the Cavaliere. It is refreshing to experience such cordiality in a foreign land — to find that hospitality which we are too apt to regard as peculiarly of British growth, flourishing as luxuriantly in another soil. However reluctant to receive such attentions from strangers, in a case like this where there is no inn, nor so much as a wineshop where refreshment may be had, one feels at liberty to trespass a little. This dependence, however, on the good offices of others must interfere with liberty of action, and might be no slight inconvenience, were the antiquities of Populonia very extended or numerous. As it is, the traveller may p236drive over in the morning from Piombino, five miles distant, or even from Campiglia, see thoroughly the remains at Populonia, and return at an early hour the same day.

There are few relics of antiquity extant at Populonia beyond its walls, which may be traced in fragments along the brow of the hill, showing the Etruscan city to have had a circuit of little more than a mile and a half.2 The area thus inclosed is of the form of a shoulder of mutton, with the shank-end towards the north-east. These dimensions place Populonia in the rank of an inferior city, which must have derived its importance from its situation and commerce, rather than from the abundance of its population.

Populonia has been supposed one of the Twelve chief cities of the Etruscan Confederation,3 but without adequate grounds. Nothing said of it by ancient writers marks it as of such importance; and the only statement that can in any way be construed to favour such a view, is made by Livy, who mentions it among the principal cities of Etruria, but at a time when the whole of that state had long been subject to Roman domination.4 The authority of Servius, indeed, is directly opposed to that view, in the three traditions he records of it:— first, that it was founded by the Corsicans, "after the establishment of the Twelve cities of Etruria;" secondly, that it was a colony of Volaterrae; and thirdly, that the Volaterrani took it from p237the Corsicans.5 At any rate, it was an inferior and dependent town in Etruscan times, and its consequence arose from its commerce, from its being a great naval station, and also from the strength of its position, which enabled it to defy the attacks of pirates, to which cities of the coast were then subject.6 Moreover, it was the grand depôt and factory of the iron of Elba, which, as at the present day, was not smelted in the island, but brought for that purpose to the neighbouring continent.7

The antiquity of Populonia is undoubted. Virgil represents it sending forces to the assistance of Aeneas, and bears testimony to its importance in early times.8 Yet we find no historical mention of this city till the end of the Second Punic War. When Scipio made a demand on the resources of the province of Etruria to supply his fleet, each of the principal cities furnished that in which it abounded — Caere sent cornº and other provisions; Tarquinii, sailcloth; Volaterrae, ship-tackle and corn; Arretium, corn, weapons, and sundry implements; Perusia, Clusium, and Rusellae, corn and fir for ship-building; and Populonia, iron.9

p238 Like Volaterrae, Populonia sustained a siege from the forces of Sylla, and was almost destroyed by the victor; for Strabo, who visited it nearly a century afterwards, says the place would have been an utter desert, were it not that the temples and a few of the houses were still standing;10 even the port at the foot of the hill was better inhabited. It seems never to have recovered from this blow, though we find it subsequently mentioned among the coast-towns of Etruria.11 At the beginning of the fifth century of our era it was in utter ruin, and the description of Rutilius is quite applicable to its present condition.12 Micali ascribes its final destruction to the Saracens in A.D. 826 and 828;13 but Repetti makes it more than two centuries earlier, referring it to the Lombards in the time of Gregory the Great.14

Within the walls of Populonia are to be seen a line of six parallel vaults, concamerationes, sometimes erroneously called an amphitheatre; a curious piece of mosaic, with a variety of fishes;15 and some reservoirs of water — all of Roman times. Nothing is Etruscan within the walls. On the highest ground is a tower, where the French established a telegraph.b Strabo tells us that in his time there was a look-out tower on this promontory, to watch the arrival of the tunny-fish;16 just as is the practice p239at the present day along the coasts of Italy. It may have stood on this height, which commands a wide view of the Mediterranean, though Repetti thinks it probably occupied the eastern cliff, which is still known by the name of Punto della Tonnarella. From this "Specular mount" you perceive that Populonia is situated, as Strabo describes it, "on a lofty promontory, sinking abruptly to the sea, and forming a peninsula." The Castle hides the view of the bay; but on the north the coast is seen trending away in a long low line towards the mountains around Leghorn; and even the snowy Apennines above the Gulf of Spezia may be descried in clear weather. As the eye sweeps round the horizon of waters, it meets the steep rock of Gorgona, then the larger and nearer island of Capraja, and, if the weather be very clear, the mountain-crests of Corsica beyond. But those of Sardinia are not visible, though Strabo has recorded his experience to the contrary, and Macaulay, on his authority, has sung of

                "sea-girt Populonia,

Whose sentinels descry
Sardinia's snowy mountain-tops

Fringing the southern sky."

Even were the distance not too great, the broad mass of Elba which fills the south-western horizon, would effectually conceal them from the view. That island rises in a long line of dark peaks, the loftiest of which on the right is Monte Campana; and the highest at the other end of the range, is crowned by the town of Rio. p240Midway lies the bay of Portoferrajo, so called from its shipments of iron ore; and the town itself, the court of the exiled Emperor,º is visible on a rock jutting into the bay.17

The finest portions of the Etruscan walls lie on this western side of Populonia, and from the magnitude of the masonry are appropriately termed "I Massi."18 They are formed of blocks, perhaps less rectangular than those of Volterra, but laid horizontally, though with little regularity. More care seems to have been bestowed on smoothing the surface of the masonry than on its arrangement; and it is often vain to attempt to count the number of courses, as blocks of very different heights lie side by side. None of them are of the vast dimensions of some at Fiesole and Volterra.19 But the frequent splitting of the rock often p241renders it difficult to determine their original size and form; and in parts gives them a very irregular character.20 In other parts, more to the south, the walls are composed of long and very shallow courses, the rock having there a tendency to split in thin laminae. As in all other Etruscan walling, there is an entire absence of cement or cramping.

In every part of the circuit, the walls of Populonia are embankments only, never rising above the level of the city, as is sometimes the case at Volterra. In no part are they now to be seen more than ten or twelve feet in height.

The other Etruscan remains of Populonia are a few tombs in the surrounding slopes. About a quarter of a mile below the walls to the south, are some sepulchres, called, like the vaults in the theatre of Fiesole, Le Buche delle Fate — "the Fairies' Dens." They are hollowed in low cliffs of yellow sandstone, and have passages cut down to them, as in the southern part of Etruria, but have no monumental façade. They seem to have been circular, but the rock is so friable that the original form is nearly destroyed. How long they have been opened I could not learn. They are not to be found without a guide, as the path to them lies through a dense wood of tall lentiscus.

p242 On the hill to the east of Populonia, and about one mile from the castle, are other tombs, opened in 1840 by Signor François; and known by the name of Le Grotte. They are within a tumulus; and other similar mounds, probably containing tombs, rise on this spot.21 They had already been rifled of their most precious contents in former ages, so that little was learnt of the sepulchral furniture of Populonia. Some painted vases, however, are said to have been found in the neighbourhood, near the chapel of San Cerboni, at the foot of the hill.

Not a vestige now remains of the docks or slips which Strabo tells us anciently existed at Populonia.22

We learn from coins that the Etruscan name of this city was "Pupluna,"23 — a name which seems to be derived from the Etruscan Bacchus — "Phuphluns;"24 as Mantua was from the Etruscan Pluto — Mantus; if it be not rather a compound word; for "Luna" being found in the names of three Etruscan towns, all on the coast — Luna, Pup-luna, Vet-luna — seems significant of a maritime character.25

Populonia is one of the few Etruscan cities of which coins, unquestionably genuine, have been found. They are p243of gold and silver, as well as of copper, and generally have one or two small crosses, which mark their value. The emblems are often significant of the commerce of the town. The head of Vulcan; a hammer and tongs, on the reverse — in allusion to its iron-foundries. The head of Mercury; a caduceus and trident — indicative of its commerce and maritime importance. The head of Minerva; an owl, with a crescent moon and two stars.26 But the most remarkable type on the coins of Populonia is the Gorgonion; not here "the head of the fair-cheeked Medusa —"27

"A woman's countenance with serpent locks," —

as it is represented by the sculptors of later Greece, and by Leonardo da Vinci, in his celebrated picture; but a monstrous fiend-like visage, just as in the subjoined woodcut,28 p244with snaky hair, with gnashing tusks, and tongue lolling out of

"The open mouth, that seemed to containe
A full good pecke within the utmost brim,
All set with yron teeth in raunges twaine,
That terrifide his foes, and armed him,
Appearing like the mouth of Orcus griesly grim."

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The Author's Notes:

1 Homer (Odys. XIV.31) tells us that Ulysses, on being attacked by the dogs of Eumaeus, knowingly sat down, and let his stick drop. Pliny (VIII.61) [
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	[Link to a page in English]] also says that you may calm dogs' fury by sitting down on the ground.

2 Micali's Plan of Populonia (Ant. Pop. Ital. tav. II) makes the circuit of walls to be more than 8000 feet.

3 Dempster, II. p56.

4 Liv. XXVIII.45. Livy can only mean that Populonia at the time referred to was among the first cities of the Roman province of Etruria. It is not improbable, however, as Niebuhr (I. p118, Eng. trans.) suggests, that Populonia, though not one of the original Twelve Cities, may in after times have taken the place of some one already extinct — perhaps Vetulonia, "if the topography be correct which places Vetulonia near it."

5 Serv. ad Virg. Aen. X.172. Millingen (Numis. Anc. Ital. p163), from the character of certain coins of Populonia, attributes the foundation of the town to the Phocaeans, during their settlement in Corsica, and thinks it possible that they may have long held possession of it.

6 Strabo (V. p223), and Pliny (III.8) tell us it was the only one of the ancient Etruscan cities which was situated, properly speak, on the sea. Whence it is evident that Telamon, Graviscae, Pyrgi, and the other places on this coast were not cities; probably mere landing-places — ports to the great cities in their vicinity. Even Cosa, though similarly situated to Populonia, was not, from its small size, entitled to rank as a city. See Müller's remarks, Etrusk. I p348.

7 Strabo, loc. cit.; Varro, ap. Serv. ad Aen. X.174; Pseudo-Aristot. de Mirab. Auscult. c95.

8 Virg. Aen. X.172. Whereas the whole island of Elba sent only 300 warriors, Populonia sent 600 —

Sexcentos illi dederat Populonia mater

Expertos belli juvenes; ast Ilva trecentos.

9 Liv. XXVIII.45. It is subsequently mentioned in the year 552, when Claudius Nero the consul took refuge in this harbour from a storm. Liv. XXX.39.

10 Juno had a temple at Populonia, Macrob. Sat. III.11. And there was a very ancient and curious statue of Jupiter here, hewn from the trunk of an enormous vine. Pliny (XIV.2) speaks of it as extant in his day, though of great antiquity — tot aevis incorruptum.

11 Mela II.4; Plin. III.8; Ptolemy (p68, ed. Bert.) even calls it a city.

12 Rutil. Itin. I.401‑412. See the heading to this Chapter.

13 Micali, Ant. Pop. Ital. I p150.

14 Repetti, IV. p580.

15 See Bull. Inst. 1843, p150, for an account of this mosaic from the pen of Inghirami, who mentions the various fish under their scientific names.

16 Strabo, loc. cit.θυννοσκοπεῖον. Holstenius (Annot. ad Cluv. p29) interprets this word as piscatio thumnorum; and does not think there was any tower. But he stands alone in this opinion. It was probably this same tower which was standing in the time of Rutilius, four centuries later, who speaks of a beacon-tower on the fortifications, instead of a Pharos built as usual on the mole; so that a double purpose was served (I.403‑8):—

Non illic positas extollit in aethera moles

Lumine nocturno conspicienda Pharos;
Sed speculam, validae rupis sortita vetustas,

Qua fluctus domitos arduus urget apex.
Castellum geminos hominum fundavit in usus,

Praesidium terris, indiciumque fretis.

17 Portoferrajo is 20 miles from Populonia, but the nearest point of Elba is not more than 15 miles. He who would cross to that island must do so from Follonica or Piombino — better from the latter from which it is only 8 miles distant, and whence there is a regular communication. As the island belonged to the Etruscans, remains of that people may be expected to exist there, but I have never heard of such being discovered; and I have had no opportunity of visiting it for personal research. Sir Richard C. Hoare describes some ancient remains at Le Grotte, opposite Portoferrajo, and on Capo Castello, where they are called the "Palazzo della Regina dell' Elba," — both he considers to be of the same date, and his description seems to indicate them as Roman. — Classical Tour, I. pp23, 26. But he who would gain information on the antiquities of Elba, should seek an introduction to Signor François, the experienced and successful excavator of Tuscan Etruria, who is now a resident at Portoferrajo. Elba, however, has more interest for the naturalist than for the antiquary. It is, as Repetti observes, "the best stored mineralogical cabinet in Tuscany." Its iron mines have been renowned from the days of the Romans (ut supra, page 237), and Virgil (Aen. X.174) truly calls Elba,

Insula inexhaustis chalybum generosa metallis.

For an account of this beautiful island and its productions see Repetti, II. v. Isola dell' Elba.

18 It is this portion of the walls which is represented in the woodcut at the head of this Chapter. The block marked a is 6 ft. 6 in. by 2 ft. 6 in. — that marked b is 5 ft. 4 in. by 2 ft. 2 in.

19 The largest I could find was 7 feet in length; few are more than 2 feet in height, and many much less than one. It may be observed here, as at Volterra and other sites in northern Etruria, that the smallest and shallowest blocks are generally at the bottom, as if to make a good foundation for the larger masses.

20 The walls of Populonia have been styled polygonal (Gerhard, Memor. Inst. I. p79); but I could perceive nothing to warrant such a nomenclature. It is true that small pieces are often inserted to fill the interstices, and few blocks are strictly rectangular; but if carefully examined it will be generally found that the most irregular are mere splittings from larger blocks, for the rock, a schistose sand-stone, has split, perhaps from the superincumbent weight, and often diagonally, so as to convert a quadrangular mass into two or more of triangular form; an example of which is shown in the woodcut at the head of this Chapter. In truth, it is singular to observe how closely this masonry in some parts resembles the natural rock, when split by time or the elements. The most irregular masses, however, are trapezoidal are triangular; and horizontality is throughout the distinctive character of the masonry.

21 Inghirami, Bull. Inst. 1843, p148.

22 Strabo, V.p223.

23 It is sometimes written "Puplana", or contracted into "Pup." The town was called Populonia by Virgil, Servius, Mela, and Rutilius — Populonii, by Livy — and Poplonium, or Populonium, by Strabo, the Pseudo-Aristotle, Stephanus, Pliny,º Ptolemy, and the Itineraries.

24 Bacchus is so designated on several Etruscan mirrors — e. g. that which forms the frontispiece to Vol. I of this work. See Gerhard, Etrusk. Spieg. taf. LXXXIII. LXXXIV. XC. Micali (Ant. Pop. Ital. III p173) would derive Populonia from this source; and so also Gerhard (Ann. Inst. 1833, p193; Gottheiten der Etrusker, p29). But may it not be, on the contrary, that the god took this name from the town, as Venus did hers of Cypris and Cytherea, from her favourite islands? It is not improbable that the Etruscan name "Pupli," "Puplina," (Publius) had some affinity to "Pupluna." For the distinction between Phuphluns and Tinia, see Grotefend, Ann. Inst. 1835, pp274‑8.

25 Ut supra, page 83.

26 Another type of Populonia is a female head, helmeted, with a fish by its side; this Lanzi thinks refers to the tunny fishes mentioned by Strabo. Other coins have a wild-boar — an apt emblem of the Maremma; or a lion, about to seize his prey, which Millingen thinks is an evident imitation of an Ionic coin. One mentioned by Eckhel with a female head covered with a lion's skin, and a club on the reverse, Müller considers significant of the Lydian origin of the Etruscans. Many of the coins of Populonia have the peculiarity of having the reverse quite bare. For descriptions and illustrations of the coins of Populonia, see Passeri, Paralip. in Dempst. tab. V.3‑5; Lanzi, Saggio, II. pp27, 81, tav. II.1‑3; Micali, Ant. Pop. Ital. tav. CXV; Ital. av. Rom. tav. LIX‑LXI; Müller, Etrusk. I pp323, 330; Mionnet, Med. Ant. I. pp101‑2; Suppl. I. pp199‑203; Sestini, Geog. Numis. II. p5; Millingen, Numis. Anc. Italie, p163, et seq.; cf. Capranesi, Ann. Inst. 1840, p204; Abeken, Mittelitalien, taf. XI.1‑3; Micali, Mon. Ined. p348, et seq. tav. LIV.

27 Pindar, Pyth. XII.28.

28 This cut is taken from a vase from Chiusi, but it is characteristic of the Etruscan Gorgonion.

The Gorgon's head, according to the Orphic doctrines, was a symbol of the lunar disk. Epigenes, ap. Clem. Alexand. Strom. V. p676, ed. Potter.

A singular opinion has been broached by Dr. Levezow of Berlin — that the type of the Gorgon of antiquity was nothing but an ape or ourang-outang, seen on the African coast by some early Greek or Phoenician mariner;c and that its ferocious air, its horrible tusks, its features and form caricaturing humanity, seized on his imagination, which reproduced the monster in the series of his myths. See a review of Levezow's work by the Duc de Luynes, Ann. Inst., 1834, pp311‑332.

Thayer's Notes:

a One of the few untranslated such quotes in the book:

Whoso wishes to do something unpleasant on land,

Let him sleep standing, or walk in the sand.

b telegraph: although Dennis is writing just after the invention of what we now call the telegraph (1840), he means a station of Claude Chappe's optical telegraph, set up here for military use during the Napoleonic occupation of Italy; which would of course have required a tall building.

c theory that the Gorgon was an ape or orangutan seen on the African coast by some Greek or Phoenician mariner: Sloppy language; the orangutan is not an African but an Asian animal. Quibbling aside, for a more careful, very detailed version of this theory, see this fascinating page on Gorgons or gorillas in Hanno's Periple. I am indebted to James Eason for the heads-up on this one: see his page on the Afro-Gorgonian connection, with a most peculiar engraving. Hanno's own succinct account may be found at Livius.Org; the gorillas are in §18.

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