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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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 p263  Chapter XLVI


Cyclopum moenia conspicio.

— Virgil.

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Orbetello and its fortifications The lagoon Polygonal walls Etruscan tombs Antiquity of the site The modern town and its hostelry

Orbetello makes a threatening front to the stranger. A strong line of fortifications crosses the sandy isthmus by which he approaches it; principally with hand of the Spaniards, who possessed the town for a hundred and fifty years — from 1557 to 1707. On every other side it is fenced in by a stout sea-wall. But its chief strength lies in its position in the midst of the wide lagoon, protected from all attacks by sea by the two necks of sand which unite Monte Argentaro to the mainland; and to be otherwise approached only by the narrow tongue, on whose tip it stands — a position singularly like that of Mexico.1

This Stagno, or lagoon, the "sea-marsh" of Strabo,2 is a vast expanse of stagnant salt-water, so shallow that it may be forded in parts, yet never dried up by the hottest summer; the curse of the country around, for the foul and pestilential vapours, and the swarms of musquitoes and other insects it generates at that season, yet blessing the inhabitants with an abundance of fish.3

 p264  Orbetello has further interest for the antiquary. The foundations of the sea-wall which surround it on three sides, are of vast polygonal blocks, just such as are seen on many ancient sites of Central Italy — Norba, Segni, Palestrina, to wit — and such as compose the walls of the neighbouring Cosa. That these blocks are of ancient shaping no one acquainted with the so‑called Pelasgic remains of Italy can for a moment doubt;a and that they are also in great measure of ancient arrangement, is equally manifest; but that they have been in some parts rebuilt, especially in the upper courses, is also obvious from the wide interstices between them, now stopt with mortar and bricks. The masonry tells its tale as clearly as stones can speak — that the ancient fortifications, having fallen into decay, were rebuilt with the old materials, but by much less skilful hands, the defects in the reconstruction being stopt up with mortar and rubble — that the blocks, even where they retain their original positions, have suffered so much from the action of the elements, especially from the salt waves of the lake, which often violently lash the walls, as to have lost much of that smoothness of surface, and that close, neat fitting of joints, which characterise this sort of masonry; and that the hollows and interstices thus formed have been in many parts plastered over with mortar.4 Ancient masonry of  p265 this description never had and never needed cement; holding together by the enormous weight of its masses.

It seems highly probable from the character of this masonry, and the position of the town on the level of the shore, that Orbetello, like Pisa, Pyrgi, and Alsium, was originally founded by the Pelasgi; to whom I would attribute the construction of these walls. But that it was also occupied by the Etruscans is abundantly proved by the tombs of that people, which have been discovered in the close vicinity of the city, on the isthmus of sand which connects it with the mainland. Most of them were found in the vineyard of Signor Raffael de Wit, an inhabitant of the town, who has made a collection of their contents. No tombs now remain open; in truth, the soil is so loose that they are found with their roofs fallen in, and their contents buried in the earth. The articles brought to light are, sarcophagi of nenfro, though the dead were generally laid uncoffined on a slab of rock, and covered with tiles — vases, seldom painted, and then coarsely, like those of Volterra rather than of Vulci — tripods, and other articles in bronze; but nothing of extraordinary beauty or value.5

Orbetello, then, by these remains is clearly proved an Etruscan site. What was its name? Some take it to have been the Succosa of the Peutingerian Table;6 but I hesitate  p266 to assent to this opinion, and am rather inclined to regard it as an Etruscan town, the name of which has not come down to us. That it was also inhabited in Roman times is proved by columns, altars, cippi, and other remains which have been found here. Its ancient name cannot be traced in its modern appellation, which is apparently a mere corruption of urbicula,7 unless it be significant of its antiquity — urbs vetus. It must suffice for us at present to know that here has stood an ancient town, originally, it may be, Pelasgic, certainly Etruscan, and afterwards Roman.8

Orbetello is now a place of some size, having nearly 3000 inhabitants, and among Maremma towns, is second only to Grosseto.9 Instead of one good inn, it has two indifferent ones, called Locanda dell' Ussero, and that of  p267 La Chiave d'Oro. There is little difference, I believe, in their merits; but I have generally heard the former preferred. At the supper-table I met the arch-priest of Telamone, a sprightly, courteous young pastor, whom I had seen in the morning among his flock, and a motley group of proprietors, or country gentlemen, wild boar hunters, commercial travellers, bumpkins, and vetturini; among whom the priest, on account of his cloth, and I as a foreigner, received the most attention. Travelling in this primitive land levels all distinctions of rank. The landlord's niece, who waited on us, presuming on her good looks, chatted familiarly with her guests, and directed her smartest banter against the young priest, ridiculing his vows of celibacy, and often in such terms as would have driven an English female from the room. Yet Rosinetta was scarcely sixteen!

Hîc nullus verbis pudor, aut reverentia mensae.

The Author's Notes:

1 I have here described its original position. The causeway which now connects it with Monte Argentaro, is of very recent construction, completed only a few years since.

2 Strabo, V.p225. — λιμνοθάλαττα.

3 The fishery is generally carried on at night, and in the way often practised in Italy and Sicily — by harpooning the fish which are attracted by a light in the prow of the boat. It is a curious sight, says Repetti (III. p675), to see on calm nights hundreds of these little skiffs or canoes wandering about with their lights, and making an ever moving illumination of the surface of the lake.

4 Hoare (Class. Tour, I. p61) came to the conclusion that the blocks in these fortifications must have been brought, either from some Roman road, or from the neighbouring ruins of Cosa. But they are of larger size, and of much greater depth than the ancient paving-stones; nor are they of basalt, the usual material in roads. Still less likely is it that they have been brought from Cosa, for the walls of that city on this side, and towards the sea generally, are too perfect to have supplied so great a mass of material; and again the masonry of Cosa is wholly of limestone; that of Orbetello is principally of crag, or marine conglomerate, as though it had been quarried near the shore.

5 Bull. Inst. 1829, p7; 1830, p254. Here was found a sistrum, with a little cow on the top, representing Isis, in whose worship these instruments were used. Micali (Mon. Ined. p109, tav. XVII.10) says it was found not far from Cosa. It is now in the Laboratory of the Duke of Tuscany. In Signor De Wit's garden there is the capital of a column, taken from an Etruscan tomb, which resembles that of Paris and Helen in Campanari's Garden at Toscanella (Vol. I p451), in having human heads between the volutes.

6 Gerhard, Bull. Inst. 1830, pp251, 254; Memor. Inst. III. p83; Repetti, III. p665. The Peutingerian Table, which alone makes mention of Succosa (see Vol. I p388), places it two miles to the east of Cosa, while Orbetello is four or five miles to the west. The correctness of these Itineraries may indeed often be questioned. But I think it more probable that Succosa, or Subcosa, was a station at the foot of the hill on which Cosa stands, only called into existence after the ruin of that Etruscan city. See Abeken, Mittelitalien, p34. Some have even taken Orbetello to be the site of Cosa itself. Mionnet. Suppl. I. p197.

7 So called, it may be, to distinguish it from the larger city of Cosa on the neighbouring heights. Certainly the name cannot be derived, as has been suggested, "from the rotundity of its walls, which form a perfect circle," (Viag. Antiq. Via Aurelia, p50); seeing that the said walls form a truncated cone in outline, without any curve whatever. There is nothing round about Orbetello. Nor is it more likely to be derived from Orbicum and Tellus, as Repetti (III. p665) proposes in preference to the Urbs Vitelli, suggested by Lami. That it was derived from urbicula, or urbicella, seems confirmed by the fact of its being called Orbicellum in a papal bull of the thirteenth century. Dempster, II. p432.

8 That such a town is not mentioned by Strabo or Mela, by Pliny or Ptolemy, in their lists of places along this coast, is explained by its distance from the sea, from which it could not be approached. It must have been regarded as an inland town, and may be mentioned under some one of those names of Etruscan towns, for which no site has yet been determined.

9 It is a proof how much population tends to salubrity in the Maremma, that Orbetello, though in the midst of a stagnant lagoon, ten square miles in extent, is comparatively healthy, and has almost doubled its population in 24 years; while Telamone, and other small places along this coast, are almost deserted in summer, and the few people that remain become bloated like wine-skins, or yellow as lizards. Repetti, III. p680.

Thayer's Note:

a Norba, and the antiquity of the so‑called Pelasgic remains of Italy: but see Pfeiffer & Ashby, Suppl. Papers, Am. Sch. of Class. Studies, Vol. I, pp89‑90; also, Dennis himself reports in Ch. 47 that some experts thought the walls of Norba were Roman.

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