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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Travels through France and Italy

by Tobias Smollett

published by J. Mundell & Co.
Edinburgh, 1796.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p516  Letter XXXIV

Nice, April 2, 1765.

Dear Sir,

I have nothing to communicate touching the library of the Vatican, which, with respect to the apartments and their ornaments, is undoubtedly magnificent.

[image ALT: A large vaulted hall, very ornately painted. It is a small section of the Vatican Library in Rome.]

A very small part of the Vatican Library. It goes on like this for miles.

The number of books it contains does not exceed forty thousand volumes, which are all concealed from the view, and locked up in presses: as for the manuscripts, I saw none but such as are commonly presented to strangers of our nation; some very old copies of Virgil and Terence; two or three Missals curiously illuminated; the book De Septem Sacramentis, written in Latin by Henry VIII. against Luther; and some of that prince's love letters to Anne Boleyn. I likewise visited the Libreria Casanatense,º belonging to the convent of the church called S. Maria Sopra Minerva. I had a recommendation to the principal librarian, a Dominican friar, who received me very politely, and regaled me with a sight of several curious MSS. of the classics.

 p517  Having satisfied my curiosity at Rome, I prepared for my departure; and, as the road between Radicofani and Montefiascone is very stony and disagreeable, I asked the banker Barazzi if there was not a better way of returning to Florence, expressing a desire at the same time to see the cascade of Terni. He assured me that the road by Terni was forty miles shorter than the other, much more safe and easy, and accommodated with exceeding good auberges. Had I taken the trouble to cast my eyes upon the map, I must have seen, that the road by Terni, instead of being forty miles shorter, was much longer than the other: But this was not the only mistake of Signiore Barazzi. Great part of this way lies over steep mountains, or along the side of precipices, which render travelling in a carriage exceeding tedious, dreadful, and dangerous; and as for the public houses, they are in all respects the most execrable that ever I entered. I will venture to say that a common prisoner in the Marshalsea, or King's Bench, is more cleanly and commodiously lodged than we were in many places on this road. The houses are abominably nasty, and generally destitute of provision: When eatables were found, we almost poisoned by their cookery: their beds were without curtains or bedstead, and their windows without glass; and for this sort of entertainment we payed as much as if we had been genteelly lodged, and sumptuously treated. I repeat it again; of all the people I ever knew, the Italians are the most villainously rapacious. The first day, having passed Civita Castellana, a small town standing on the top of a hill, we put up at what was called an excellent inn, where cardinals, prelates, and princes, often lodged. Being meagre day, there was nothing but bread, eggs, and anchovies, in the house. I went to bed without supper, and lay in a pallet, where I was half devoured by vermin. Next day, our road, in some places, lay along precipices, which over-hang the Nera or Nar, celebrated in antiquity for its white foam, and the sulphureous quality of its waters.

Sulfureâ Nar albus aquâ, fontesque Velini.

[image ALT: A patch of river, about 15 meters long, flowing from left to right; the river itself is not much wider than that. The water occupies almost the entire photo, with foliage in the left foreground framing the scene, and the opposite bank in the background. It is a view of the Nar in Umbria.]

An almost pristine river, zealously guarded against pollution. This is its natural color.

It is a small, but rapid stream, which runs not far from hence  p518 into the Tyber. Passing Utricoli, near the ruins of the ancient Ocriculum, and the romantic town of Narni, situated on the top of a mountain, in the neighbourhood of which is still seen standing one arch of the stupendous bridge built by Augustus Caesar, we arrived at Terni, and hiring a couple of chaises before dinner, went to see the famous Cascata delle Marmore, which is at the distance of three miles. We ascended a steep mountain by a narrow road formed for a considerable way along the brink of a precipice, at the bottom of which brawls the furious river Nera, after having received the Velino. This last is the stream which, running from the Lago delle Marmore, forms the cascade by falling over a precipice about one hundred and sixty feet high. Such a body of water rushing down the mountain; the smoak, vapour, and thick white mist which it raises; the double rainbow which these particles continually exhibit while the sun shines;a the deafening sound of the cataract; the vicinity of a great number of other stupendous rocks and precipices, with the dashing, boiling, and foaming of the two rivers below, produce altogether an object of tremendous sublimity: yet great part of its effect is lost, for want of a proper point of view, from which it might be contemplated. The cascade would appear much more astonishing, were it not in some measure eclipsed by the superior height of the neighbouring mountains. You have not a front perspective; but are obliged to view it obliquely on one side, standing upon the brink of a precipice, which cannot be approached without horror.b This station might be rendered much more accessible, and altogether secure, for the expence of four or five zequines; and a small tax might be levied for the purpose from travellers by the aubergiste at Terni, who lets his calasses for half a zequine a piece to those that are curious to see this phaenomenon.

Besides the two postilions whom I payed for this excursion, at the rate of one stage in posting, there was a fellow who posted himself behind one of the chaises, by way of going to point out the different views of the cascade; and his demand amounted to four or five pauls. To give  p519 you an idea of the extortion of those villainous publicans, I must tell you that for a dinner and supper, which even hunger could not tempt us to eat, and a night's lodging in three truckle beds, I paid eighty pauls, amounting to forty shillings sterling. You ask me why I submitted to such imposition? I will tell you — I have more than once in my travels made a formal complaint of the exorbitancy of a publican, to the magistrate of the place; but I never received any satisfaction, and have lost abundance of time. Had I proceeded to manual correction, I should have alarmed and terrified the women: had I peremptorily refused to pay the sum total, the landlord, who was the post-master, would not have supplied me with horses to proceed on my journey. I tried the experiment at Muy in France, where I put myself into a violent passion, had abundance of trouble, was detained till it was almost night, and after all found myself obliged to submit, furnishing at the same time matter of infinite triumph to the mob, which had surrounded the coach, and interested themselves warmly in favour of their townsman. If some young patriot, in good health and spirits, would take the trouble as often as he is imposed upon by the road in traveling, to have recourse to the fountain-head, and prefer a regular complaint to the comptroller of the posts, either in France or Italy, he would have ample satisfaction, and do great service to the community. Terni is an agreeable town, pretty well built, and situated in a pleasant valley, between two branches of the river Nera, whence it was called by the ancients, Interamna. Here is an agreeable piazza, where stands a church that was of old a heathen temple. There are some valuable paintings in the church. The people are said to be very civil, and provisions to be extremely cheap. It was the birth-place of the emperor Tacitus, as well as of the historian of the same name.c In our journey from hence to Spoleto, we passed over a high mountain, called from its height, Somma, where it was necessary to have two additional horses to the carriage, and the road winds along a precipice, which is equally dangerous and dreadful.d We passed through part of Spoleto, the capital  p520 of Umbria, which is a pretty large city. Of this, however, I can give no other account from my own observation, but that I saw at a distance the famous Gothic aqueduct of brick: this is mentioned by Addison as a structure, which, for the height of its arches, is not equalled by any thing in Europe.e

[image ALT: A very large brick aqueduct, with nine arches showing, about 30 meters high, spanning a small wooded valley, with a tall rectangular tower on the far bank slightly separated from the aqueduct. It is the medieval aqueduct of Spoleto, in Umbria (central Italy).]

The road from hence to Foligno, where we lay, is kept in good order,f and lies through a delightful plain, laid out into beautiful inclosures, abounding with wine, oil, corn,º and cattle, and watered by the pastoral streams of the famous river Clitumnus, which takes its rise in three or four separate rivulets issuing from a rock near the highway.g On the right-hand, we saw several towns situated on rising grounds, and among the rest, that of Assisio,h famous for the birth of St. Francis, whose body, being here deposited, occasions a great concourse of pilgrims. We met a Roman princess going thither with a grand retinue, in consequence of a vow she had made for the re-establishment of her health. Foligno, the Fulginium of the ancients, is a small town, not unpleasant, lying in the middle of mulberry plantations, vineyards, and corn-fields, and built on both sides of the little river Topino. In choosing our beds at the inn, I perceived one chamber locked, and desired it might be opened; upon which the cameriere declared with some reluctance, "Bisogna dire a su' eccellenza; poco fa, che una bestia è morta in questa camera, e non è ancora lustrata." "Your excellency must know that a filthy beast died lately in that chamber, and it is not yet purified and put in order." When I enquired what beast it was, he replied, "Un' eretico Inglese," "An English heretick." I suppose he would not have made so free with our country and religion, if he had not taken us for German catholics, as we afterwards learned from Mr. R–––––y. Next day, we crossed the Tyber, over a handsome bridge,i and in mounting the steep hill upon which the city of Perugia stands, our horses being exhausted, were dragged backwards by the weight of the carriage to the very edge of a precipice, where, happily for us, a man passing that way, placed a large stone behind one of the wheels, which stopped their motion, otherwise we should have been all dashed in pieces. We had another ugly hill to ascend within the city, which was more difficult and dangerous than the other: but the postilions and the other beasts made such efforts,  p521 that we mounted with the least stop, to the summit, where we found ourselves in a large piazza, where the horses are always changed. There being no relays at the post, we were obliged to stay the whole day and night at Perugia, which is a considerable city, built upon the acclivity of a hill, adorned with some elegant fountains, and several handsome churches, containing some valuable pictures by Guido, Raphael, his master Pietro Perugino, who was a native of this place.j The next stage is on the banks of the lake, which was the Thrasimene of the ancients, a beautiful piece of water, above thirty miles in circumference, having three islands, abounding with excellent fish: upon a peninsula of it, there is a town and castle. It was in this neighbourhood where the consul Flaminius was totally defeated with great slaughter by Hannibal.k From Perugia to Florence, the posts are all double, and the road is so bad that we never could travel above eight and twenty miles a day. We were often obliged to quit the carriage, and walk up steep mountains; and the way in general was so unequal and stony, that we were jolted even to the danger of our lives. I never felt any sort of exercise or fatigue so intolerable; and I did not fail to bestow an hundred benedictions per diem upon the banker Barazzi, by whose advice we had taken this road; yet there was no remedy but patience. If the coach had not been incredibly strong, it must have been shattered to pieces. The fifth night we passed at a place called Camoccia, a miserable cabaret, where we were fain to cook our own supper, and lay in a musty chamber, which had never known a fire, and indeed had no fire-place, and where we ran the risque of being devoured by rats. Next day one of the irons of the coach gave way at Arezzo, where we were detained two hours before it could be accommodated. I might have taken this opportunity to view the remains of the ancient Etruscan amphitheatre,l and the temple of Hercules, described by the cavalier Lorenzo Guazzesi, as standing in the neighbourhood of this place: but the blacksmith assured me his work would be finished in a few minutes; and as I had nothing so much at heart as the speedy accomplishment  p522 of this disagreeable journey, I chose to suppress my curiosity, rather than be the occasion of a moment's delay. But all the nights we had hitherto passed were comfortable in comparison to this, which we suffered at a small village, the name of which I do not remember. The house was dismal and dirty beyond all description; the bed-cloaths filthy enough to turn the stomach of a muleteer; and the victuals cooked in such a manner, that even a Hottentot could not have beheld them without loathing. We had sheets of our own, which were spread upon a mattrass, and here I took my repose wrapped in a great-coat, if that could be called repose which was interrupted by the innumerable stings of vermin. In the morning, I was seized with a dangerous fit of the hooping-cough, which terrified my wife, alarmed my people, and brought the whole community into the house. I had undergone just such another at Paris, about a year before. This forenoon, one of our coach wheels flew off in the neighbourhood of Ancisa, a small town, where we were detained above two hours by this accident; a delay which was productive of much disappointment, danger, vexation, and fatigue. There being no horses at the last post, we were obliged to wait until those which brought us thither were sufficiently refreshed to proceed. Understanding that all the gates of Florence are shut at six, except two that are kept open for the accommodation of travellers; and that to reach the nearest of these gates, it was necessary to pass the river Arno in a ferry-boat, which could not transport the carriage; I determined to send my servant before with a light chaise to enter the nearest gate before it was shut, and provide a coach to come and take us up at the side of the river, where we should be obliged to pass in the boat: for I could not bear the thoughts of lying another night in a common cabaret. Here, however, another difficulty occurred. There was but one chaise, and a dragoon officer, in the imperial troops, insisted upon his having bespoke it for himself and his servant. A long dispute ensued, which had like to have produced a quarrel: but, at length, I accommodated matters, by telling the  p523 officer that he should have a place in it gratis, and his servant might ride a-horseback. He accepted the offer without hesitation; but, in the mean time, we set out in the coach before them, and having proceeded about a couple of miles, the road was so deep from a heavy rain, and the beasts were so fatigued, that they could not proceed. The postilions scourging the poor animals with great barbarity, they made an effort, and pulled the coach to the brink of a precipice, or rather a kind of hollow-way, which might be about seven or eight feet lower than the road. Here my wife and I leaped out, and stood under the rain up to the ancles in mud; while the postilions still exercising their whips, one of the fore-horses fairly tumbled down the descent, and hung by the neck, so that he was almost strangled before he could be disengaged from the traces, by the assistance of some foot travellers that happened to pass. While we remained in this dilemma, the chaise, with the officer and my servant, coming up, we exchanged places; my wife and I proceeded in the chaise, and left them with Miss C— and Mr. R—, to follow in the coach. The road from hence to Florence is nothing but a succession of steep mountains, paved and constructed in such a manner, that one would imagine the design had been to render it impracticable by any sort of wheel-carriage. Notwithstanding all our endeavours, I found it would be impossible to enter Florence before the gates were shut. I flattered and threatened the driver by turns: but the fellow, who had been remarkably civil at first, grew sullen and impertinent. He told me I must not think of reaching Florence: that the boat would not take the carriage on board; and that from the other side, I must walk five miles before I should reach the gate that was open: but he would carry me to an excellent osteria, where I should be entertained and lodged like a prince. I was now convinced that he had lingered on purpose to serve this inn-keeper; and I took it for granted that what he told me of the distance between the ferry and the gate was a lie. It was eight o'clock when we arranged at his inn. I alighted with my wife to view the chambers, desiring he would  p524 not put up his horses. Finding it was a villainous house, we came forth, and, by this time, the horses were put up. I asked the fellow how he durst presume to contradict my orders, and commanded him to put them to the chaise. He asked in his turn if I was mad? If I thought I and the lady had strength and courage enough to walk five miles in the dark, through a road which we did not know, and which was broke up by a continued rain of two days? I told him he was an impertinent rascal, and as he still hesitated, I collared him with one hand, and shook my cane over his head with the other. It was the only weapon I had, either offensive or defensive; for I had left my sword, and musquetoon in the coach. At length the fellow obeyed, though with great reluctance, cracking many severe jokes upon us in the mean time, and being joined in his raillery by the inn-keeper, who had the external marks of a ruffian. The house stood in a solitary situation, and not a soul appeared but these two miscreants, so that they might have murdered us without fear of detection. "You do not like the apartments? (said one) to be sure they were not fitted up for persons of your rank and quality!" "You will be glad of a worse chamber, (continued the other) before you get to bed." "If you walk to Florence to night, you will sleep so sound, that the fleas will not disturb you." "Take care you do not take up your night's lodging in the middle of the road, or in the ditch of the city-wall." I fired inwardly at these sarcasms, to which, however, I made no reply; and my wife was almost dead with fear. In the road from hence to the boat, we met with an ill-looking fellow, who offered his service to conduct us into the city, and such was our situation, that I was fain to accept his proposal, especially as we had two small boxes in the chaise by accident, containing some caps and laces belonging to my wife. I still hoped the postilion had exaggerated in the distance between the boat and the city gate, and was confirmed in this opinion by the ferryman, who said we had not above half a league to walk. Behold us then in this expedition; myself wrapped up in a very heavy  p525 great-coat, and my cane in my hand. I did not imagine I could have walked a couple of miles in this equipage, had my life been depending; my wife a delicate creature, who had scarce ever walked a mile in her life; and the ragamuffin before us with our boxes under his arm. The night was dark and wet; the road slippery and dirty; not a soul was seen, nor a sound was heard: all was silent, dreary, and horrible. I laid my account with a violent fit of illness from the cold I should infallibly catch, if I escaped assassination, the fears of which were the more troublesome as I had no weapon to defend our lives. While I laboured under the weight of my great-coat, which made the streams of sweat flow down my face and shoulders, I was plunged in the mud, up to the mid-leg at every step; and at the same time obliged to support my wife, who wept in silence, half dead with terror and fatigue. To crown our vexation, our conductor walked so fast, that he was often out of sight, and I imagined he had run away with the boxes. All I could do, on these occasions, was to hollow as loud as I could, and swear horribly that I would blow his brains out. I did not know but these oaths and menaces might keep other rogues in awe. In this manner did we travel three long miles, making almost an entire circuit of the city-wall, without seeing the face of a human creature, and at length reached the gate, where we were examined by the guard, and allowed to pass, after they had told us it was a long mile from thence to the house of Vanini, where we proposed to lodge. No matter, being now fairly within the city, I plucked up my spirits, and performed the rest of the journey with such ease, that I am persuaded, I could have walked at the same pace all night long, without being very much fatigued. It was near ten at night, when we entered the auberge in such a draggled and miserable condition, that Mrs. Vanini almost fainted at the sight of us, on the supposition that we had met with some terrible disaster, and that rest of the company were killed. My wife and I were immediately accommodated with dry stockings and shoes, a warm apartment, and a good supper, which I ate with great satisfaction,  p526 arising not only from our having happily survived the adventure, but also from a conviction that my strength and constitution were wonderfully repaired: not but that I still expected a severe cold, attended with a terrible fit of the asthma: but in this I was luckily disappointed. I now for the first time drank to the health of my physician Barazzi, fully persuaded that the hardships and violent exercise I underwent by following his advice, had greatly contributed to the re-establishment of my health. In this particular, I imitate the gratitude of Tavernier, who was radically cured of the gout by a Turkish aga in Egypt, who gave him the bastinado, because he would not look at the head of the bashaw of Cairo, which the aga carried in a bag, to be presented to the grand signior at Constantinople.

I did not expect to see the rest of our company that night, as I never doubted but they would stay with the coach at the inn on the other side of the Arno: but at mid-night we were joined by Miss C— and Mr. R—, who had left the carriage at the inn, under the auspices of the captain and my servant, and followed our foot-steps by walking from the ferry-boat to Florence, conducted by one of the boatmen. Mr. R— seemed to be much ruffled and chagrined; but, as he did not only think proper to explain the cause, he had no right to expect that I should give him satisfaction for some insult he had received from my servant. They had been exposed to a variety of disagreeable adventures from the impracticability of the road. The coach had been several times in the most imminent hazard of being lost with all our baggage; and at one place, it was necessary to hire a dozen of oxen, and as many men, to disengage it from the holes into which it had run. It was in the confusion of these adventures, that the captain and his valet, Mr. R— and my servant, had like to have gone all by the ears together. The peace was with difficulty preserved by the interposition of Miss C—, who suffered incredibly from cold and wet, terror, vexation, and fatigue: yet happily no bad consequence ensued. The coach and baggage were brought safely into Florence next  p527 morning, when all of us found ourselves well refreshed, and in good spirits. I am afraid this is not the case with you, who must by this time be quite jaded with this long epistle, which shall therefore be closed without further ceremony by,

Yours always.

Thayer's Notes:

a First of all, this is not true: I have seen the falls from widely different vantage points (the Upper Belvedere, the Lower Belvedere, and Mussolini's gallery about midway down), and saw no secondary rainbow, although I occasionally saw some single bows.

Secondly, Smollett's innocent-sounding statement just could not be true no matter what. The optics of rainbows are complex, but simply put, no rainbow of any kind can be seen unless light and water meet within a certain range of angles. For a full treatment of it all — both our modern understanding of it and the various theories of the rainbow thru the centuries, see Carl B. Boyer: The Rainbow From Myth to Mathematics (Princeton University Press, 1987: ISBN 0‑691‑08457‑2).

As it happens, of the 7 double rainbows I have seen in my life, one was in Terni, just 8 km from the Cascata delle Marmore, and I happened to have a camera at hand (surprise, surprise): see this page for the photo, links to three diary entries including a photo of one of my other doubles, also in Umbria; and links to about a dozen photos of double rainbows by various other people; although none of them have anything to do with waterfalls. For a (single) rainbow caused by spray, see here.

b Pope Pius VI seems to have agreed with Smollett. Just 16 years after this letter, the pontiff had a handsome, solid and convenient observation post built right across from the falls, which is still in use today.

c Most of this is very uncertain, although the modern town colludes with it, and the central square, a train service and a restaurant among other things are named Tacitus or Tacito.

The former man was in Terni when called to his brief reign as emperor; he found it useful to cultivate a connection with the long-dead historian of the same name, although there probably was none; and as a result it is now said that the latter was born in Terni, for which there is no evidence.

d The Valico di Somma was one of the main inconveniences of the E branch of the Via Flaminia (from Narni to Foligno via Spoleto); some scholars hold that the W branch (from Narni to Foligno via Bevagna) was built afterwards, mostly to avoid this steep hill. Other scholars disagree.

e The 13c aqueduct is the most beautiful monument in Spoleto; relatively few people see it because you have to go out of town, preferably on foot. Opinion is sharply divided about just how medieval it is, some scholars believing that the base of the piers, and thus the essential engineering, is Roman.

f From Rome to Foligno, although he never says it, Smollett has followed the ancient Via Flaminia, which was indeed kept in remarkable order, considering it was built just over 2000 years before he writes. Thus, we mustn't get the impression Smollett actually wanted to see Ocriculum or Narni: these places are right on the Flaminia, and that accounts for what he saw on his trip. By way of proof, Smollett writes that he "passes" Civita Castellana; which in fact lies near the Flaminia but not actually on it. Similarly, and showing that he wasn't really doing any serious tourism, he goes by Spoleto without so much as stopping to look at its major tourist attraction, the great medieval aqueduct: it too is off the road.

The roads from Rome to Florence are still not very good even now. Faced with the same question, I would have given the same answer that Mr Barazzi did: the Via Flaminia was in fact the best maintained road north, and certainly the road you need to take to go see the Falls at Marmore. Smollett is a curmudgeon — but I'm hardly the first person to point that out.

g This small stream is indeed famous, disproportionately so. Although Propertius professes to believe that its waters turn cattle white, it's in fact not so much the watercourse that is celebrated as the very springs that Smollett mentions. The springs of the Clitumnus are referred to by several ancient authors, chief of whom is Pliny the Younger in a famous letter, but also Vergil in three lines of the Georgics (2.146‑48), Juvenal, Silius Italicus, Statius and Claudian in his Panegyric on the Sixth Consulate of Honorius (line 506).

Because of all these ancient associations, the springs have been very carefully tended, self-consciously even. Smollett's report is accurate, and since he wrote, neither they nor the road have moved, so the actual springs from the rock can be found above the whizzing cars of highway SS3, the modern Via Flaminia, which still coincides here with the ancient road, in the comune of Campello; yet they now cross it channelled in underground pipes, to reëmerge in a manicured little park, a pool planted with trees and decorated with statues. In essence, the Fonti del Clitunno have become a beautiful example of Italian garden design.

Quite a few modern poets have also fastened on this idyllic acre, the best example being Giosué Carducci, who spoke of it as "the green heart of Italy". Over the years this felicitous phrase has been extended to all of Umbria, degenerating into a tourist slogan.

h This is of course Assisi; it is not before Foligno, but about 18 km N of that town. This slip suggests that Smollett dashed past both cities as fast as he could — which I find quite understandable in each case although on two very different grounds — and wrote much later from imperfect notes.

i Probably at Ponte S. Giovanni, a town, now a suburb of Perugia, named after its bridge. Thousands of visitors to Umbria will know it better for its train station, since this is where most riders have to change lines to get to Perugia-S. Anna, the station nearest downtown.

j Not quite. Pietro Vannucci was a native of the small town of Città della Pieve, 43 km away to the WSW, but found it convenient to let himself be known as "the man from Perugia", which was and still is a much larger and more famous town.

k Smollett's statements here are compressed to the point of confusion. Lake Trasimene, to give it our 21c spelling (Italian: Lago Trasimeno) is indeed a beautiful piece of water, and there are two principal places that qualify as peninsulas with a town and castle: on the E shore, the area of Monte del Lago and Zocco; and the place Smollett is much more likely to have been thinking of, the largish town of Castiglione del Lago on the W shore. See this page for a (minimal!) personal account, but a good collection of further links.

Flaminius, on the other hand, was undone by the Carthaginians in a different area, somewhere on what was then the N shore of the Trasimeno. The lake has receded since, and despite various assertions, the site is only approximately known: it is probably somewhere around the modern town of Tuoro. See this page for a personal account and further links to Tuoro and the Battle of Lake Trasimene.

l Although Arezzo had been an Etruscan city, the amphitheatre is not Etruscan but Roman.

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