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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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 p201  Chapter XIII


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Si te grata quies . . . . .

Delectat; si te pulvis strepitusque rotarum,

Si laedit caupona; Ferentinum ire jubebo.

— Horat.

The neighbourhood of Viterbo is particularly rich in antiquities. It was not usual with the Etruscans to build on the summits of lofty mountains, or even on the higher slopes — therefore no remains are found on the Ciminian itself — but all along its base stood city after city, now for the most part in utter desolation, yet whose pristine magnificence can be traced in the sepulchres around them. The vast plain, also, north of the Ciminian,  p202 now in great part uncultivated, and throughout most thinly inhabited, is covered with vestiges of long extinct civilisation.

Five miles north of Viterbo, on the left of the road to Monte Fiascone, and near the Ponte Fontanile, is a remarkable assemblage of ruins, commonly called Le Casacce del Bacucco. One is an edifice of two stories, by some thought a temple of Serapis, most probably because they fancied they could trace a corruption of this word in its name, Bagni delle Serpi.​1 It is more vulgarly called La Lettighetta, or the Warming-pan. Then there are several quadrilateral buildings, evidently baths; one retaining traces of some magnificence, being surmounted by an octagon which originally supported a cupola. From the character of these ruins, and the abundance of thermal springs in this district, it has been with great probability supposed that this is the site of the Aquae Passeris of antiquity.​2 All these ruins are clearly of Roman times; but there is one monument on this site apparently of Etruscan construction. It is a mound of tufo shaped into a cone, hollowed into a tomb, and walled round with rectangular masonry of travertine, like the tumuli of Tarquinii. Its interior is very plain.3

 p203  Considerably to the east of Bacucco, and about five miles north of Viterbo stand the ruins of an Etruscan city, now called Férento or Férenti. It is the ancient Ferentinum of Etruria,​4 the birthplace of the emperor Otho; and must not be confounded with a town of the same name in the land of the Hernici. That, the "Ferentinum of the rock," stands on the summit of a lofty hill, and to the traveller from Rome to Naples by the upper road, is an object of interest on account of its massive Cyclopean walls; this is on the level of the great Etruscan plain, girt about, however, as usual, by profound ravines. Nor must it be confounded with Ferentum in Apulia, a town also situated in a plain.5

We have no record of this town in Etruscan times, though the sepulchres around it give certain evidence of such an antiquity. It must have been a dependency of Volsinii.​6 The earliest mention of it is in the time of  p204 Augustus, when it was a Roman colony of small importance,​7 and, if the passage of Horace which heads this chapter refer to this town,​8 it was then a quiet, secluded country village. Then we hear of it as the birthplace of the Emperor Otho;​9 and as the site of a temple of Fortune,​10 probably the Etruscan goddess, Nurtia, who had a celebrated shrine at Volsinii, not many miles distant. It continued in existence after the fall of the Empire, and rose into the importance of an episcopal see,​11 but was utterly destroyed in the eleventh century, by the Viterbesi, in their zeal to exterminate a heresy with which its inhabitants were tinctured.​12 "Oh Religion, what crimes have been committed in thy name!"

The area of the town is covered with ruins of the three epochs into which its history may be divided. The greater part are foundations of houses and other structures of the middle ages. There are considerable remains of Roman pavement of polygonal blocks of basalt;​13 and several Roman structures in ruin, among which a tower with a vaulted roof is prominent. Some of the ruins of later date are raised on foundations of Roman antiquity. The walls of the town are in great part overthrown, but  p205 fragments of them remain, and many of the rectangular blocks which composed them, lie scattered on the slopes around.​14 The sites of several gates are distinctly traceable.

But the grand monument at Férento is the theatre. In its perfect state it must have been a truly imposing edifice; even now, though all the winds of heaven play through its open arches, it is a most majestic ruin, with every advantage of situation to increase its effect on the senses. For it stands on the brink of a precipice, overhanging a wooded and picturesque ravine, amid solitude, ruin, and desolation, where for centuries man has left his dwelling to the falcon, the owl, the bat, the viper, and the lizard, and where his foot or voice now rarely calls forth echoes — with the wide plain on every hand, the dark gloomy mass of the Ciminian in front, the swelling Mount of Fiascone behind, and the snowy ranges of the Umbrian Apennines in the horizon.

The stage front of the theatre is one hundred and thirty-six feet in length, of massive masonry, of large rectangular volcanic blocks uncemented; not, as in the Etruscan walls already described, laid lengthways and endways in alternate courses, but like those in the northern division of the land, arranged rather with regard to the size and form of the blocks themselves than to any predetermined order or style of masonry. From its peculiar character, and its evidently superior antiquity to the  p206 rest of the structure, I am of opinion that this façade is Etruscan. The construction of its gates might be cited as an objection. There are seven of these, the largest in the centre, — all with flat architraves composed of cuneiform blocks holding together on the principle of the arch, though without cement; as is proved in one gateway, where, the masonry being dislocated, the keystone has slipt down several inches, yet is still supported by the contiguous blocks.​15 This mode of construction, like the arch itself, has generally been supposed a Roman invention; but there is now little doubt that the arch in Italy had an Etruscan origin, and that the Romans derived it from Etruria; therefore, seeing the perfection to which the arched vault had been brought at a very early age in the Cloaca Maxima, there is nothing in the particular style, or difficult construction of this flat arch which militates against its being of Etruscan formation; for the principle of cuneiform sustentation once discovered, the progress from one application of it to another must have been short and easy.

This massive masonry rises to the height of ten courses. On it rests a mass of Roman brickwork, with several arched openings, intended to admit light into the passage within. This passage, or postscenium, which runs the whole length of the façade, is about four feet wide, and its inner wall, or the scena, is also of red Roman brick. One vast mass of this wall has been loosened from its foundation, probably by the same convulsion of nature which dislocated the gateway, and reclines against the outer wall, adding much to the  p207 picturesque effect of the ruins. The passage must have been a means of communication for the actors behind the scenes, and in two parts it widens into a chamber — the parascenion of the Greek theatre — for their convenience in changing costumes. Within the theatre all is ruin — a chaos of fallen masonry, shapeless masses of rock and red brick-work, overgrown with weeds and moss — the orchestra filled up to the level of the stage — not a seat of the cavea remaining, and that part of the theatre is only to be distinguished by the semicircle of arches which inclosed it. These are of regular and most massive masonry, of a hard grey tufo whitened by lichen — a whiteness quite dazzling in the sunshine. The semicircle which they originally formed is not complete. Commencing with the first arch at the south-western angle of the arc, there are eleven in an unbroken series; then occurs a gap, where one has been destroyed; then follow nine more in succession; and six or seven are wanting to complete the semicircle. Attached to the first is another, at an angle with it, indicating the line of the chord of the arc, the division between the cavea and the proscenium; and its distance from the walls of the scena shows the depth of the stage. These arches are beautifully formed, the blocks shaped with uniformity, and fitted with great nicety, though without cement.​16 Cav. Canina, the Roman architect, regards them as an interior structure only, and thinks that there was an outer range of arches for the external adornment, as in the theatre of Pompeii, and of Marcellus at Rome. He says that, from its excellent  p208 state of preservation, the scena in this ruin gives us a more complete idea of that part in ancient theatres than can be derived from any other remain of the same description extant, particularly in the distinction between the "royal gate" in the centre, and the "stranger-gates" on either hand.​17 Canina has called this theatre a Roman structure, as late as the time of Otho; yet in his cursory notice of it,​18 he must have referred only to the arches and brickwork, for the lower part of the façade has an air of much superior antiquity, and from its resemblance to the masonry of other Etruscan sites, has very strong claims to be considered Etruscan.19

Ferentum, though small, and probably at no time of political importance, was celebrated for the beauty of its public monuments. Vitruvius cites them as exhibiting "the infinite virtues" of a stone hewn from certain quarries, called "Anitianae,"​a in the territory of Tarquinii, and especially in the neighbourhood of the Volsinian Lake. This stone, says he, was similar to that of the Alban Mount in colour, i.e., it was grey like peperino; it was proof alike  p209 against the severity of frost and the action of fire, and of extreme hardness and durability, as might be seen from the monuments of Ferentum, which were made of it. "For there are noble statues of wondrous workman­ship, and likewise figures of smaller size, together with foliage and acanthi, delicately carved, which albeit they be ancient, appear as fresh as if they were but just now finished." The brass-founders, he adds, find this stone most useful for moulds. "Were these quarries near the City, it would be well to construct everything of this stone."​20 Pliny speaks of the stone in the same laudatory terms, but calls it a white silex.​21 Cav. Canina takes this stone to be nenfro;​22 but how can that be when nenfro was found at Gabii, and was much used at Rome? Moreover, it has not the requisite properties. Now when last at Férento, I sought particularly to obtain light on this subject. Among the numerous blocks with which the site is strewed, I remarked very few fragments of architectural decoration; nothing that would at all bear out the praises of Vitruvius.​23 The cliffs beneath the town are a sort of travertine; yet the masonry of the theatre is of a yellowish tufo, not unlike nenfro; and the town walls are composed of the same or of limestone. This latter, which is also found in abundance among the scattered masses, seems too hard for the chisel. I could perceive nothing which answers to the description of Vitruvius.

In the neighbourhood of Férento are sepulchres, some of  p210 Roman, but most of Etruscan construction. A few of these are tumuli, not of the large size seen at Veii, rather like those so common at Tarquinii; but the majority are caves hollowed in the rocks. Orioli mentions some remarkable tombs in a plain near the town, called Piano de' Pozzi, because they are entered by oblong wells or shafts sunk to a great depth in the earth, with niches cut in the side for the feet and hands,​b as in the tombs of Civita Castellana and Falleri. One of the shafts into which he descended, was eighty feet deep, another, one hundred and twenty; and at the bottom were horizontal passages, opening at intervals into sepulchral chambers.24

The visitor may vary his route on his return to Viterbo, by way of Vitorchiano, a small town three or four miles from Ferento. A competent guide, however, is requisite, for there is merely a foot-path. Vitorchiano seems to have been an Etruscan site, and slight excavations have been made in its neighbourhood. It possesses the singular and exclusive right of providing servants for the Senator of Rome — that solitary representative of the mighty body that once ruled the world. This privilege is derived, tradition asserts, from classic times, and was accorded in perpetuity to Vitorchiano by a certain emperor, because one of its townsmen extracted a thorn from his foot. In virtue thereof, every forty years, the principal families in the place assemble and draw lots for their order of annual service; each family sending one of its members to Rome in its turn, or selling the privilege, which custom has fixed at a certain price. The truth of this story may be tested by any one who chooses to inquire on the Capitol of the Senator's  p211 servants, distinguished by their red and yellow, beef-eating costume. The validity of the privilege was contested, some years since, and the Vitorchianesi came off with flying colours.


NoteBacucco, the site of Aquae Passeris.

This is the opinion of Cluver (II. p561). The Peutingerian Table places Aquae Passeris between Forum Cassii and Volsinii, twelve miles from the former, and nine from the latter. If Vetralla be the site of Forum Cassii, the distance to Bacucco is about correct, but thence to Volsinii is fourteen miles; and this distance Cluverius thinks was originally stated by the Table, but that XIIII was corrupted in transcribing into VIIII which might very easily occur.

Professor Orioli also, who has published a long Latin inscription relative to the springs and course of these "Aquae Passerianae," found near the convent of Sta. Maria ad Gradus, near Viterbo, is of opinion that the said baths occupied the site of Bacucco. The inscription speaks of a "villa Calvisiana" at these Waters. (Ann. Inst. 1829, p174‑179). Signor Camilli, of Viterbo, however, would make the Bulicame to be the site of the Aquae Passeris (Ann. Inst. 1835, p5); but he is answered by Orioli (Nouv. Ann. Inst. 1836, p34.)

Martial (VI. epig. 42) mentions the "fervidi fluctus Passeris" as one of the hot springs of Etruria.

The Author's Notes:

1 Camilli, who has described it in his Monumenti di Viterbo, p57, does not attempt to decide whether it was bath, temple or sepulchre (vide Ann. Inst. 1829, p179; Orioli). Excavations were made here in 1830, and statues and mosaic pavements were brought to light. Bull. Inst., 1831, p84; Ann. Inst. 1835, 1‑7. Camilli. At Bagnaccio, a mile or so nearer Viterbo, is a pool called Il Naviso, which Annio and other antiquaries mistook for the Vadimonian Lake. Even Orioli was led into this error, but afterwards recanted.

2 See Appendix at the end of the chapter.

3 Bull. Inst. 1831, p85. It is considered by Lenoir (Annali dell' Inst. 1832, p277), from the character of its mouldings, to be of Roman construction, in imitation of tombs genuinely Etruscan; but I have already shown, in treating of the tombs of Falleri, that a resemblance to Roman architecture is not necessarily an evidence against an Etruscan origin; and it is clear that the Romans could as well imitate the Etruscans in the mouldings as in the general character of the tomb. Yet should the architectural adornments be such as bespeak a late date, and strong Greek influence, the monument must be regarded as Roman; for works of architecture, as of painting and sculpture, bear in themselves the best evidence of antiquity, as it is the nature of art not to revert from the complex to the simple, from the free and masterly to the stiff and imperfect. For an illustration of this tomb, see Mon. Ined., Inst. I. tav. XLI.16.

4 By Strabo (V. p226), Tacitus (Hist. II.50), Pliny (III.8), and Suetonius (Otho I.), it is called Ferentinum; by Ptolemy (Geog. p72, ed. Bertii) Pherentia; by Vitruvius (II.7) Ferentum. It may also be referred to as Ferentum by Suetonius (Vespas. 3); as Cluver (III p984) is inclined to think. It seems to have given name to an Etruscan family, mentioned on a sepulchral urn of Perugia — "Arnth Phrentinate Pisice." It is strange that Vermiglioli, who gives this inscription (Iscriz. Perug. I.319), should have thought of an analogy with the Frentani of Samnium (Strab. V. p241; Liv. IX.45), or with the Ferentinates of Latium, rather than with the town of Etruria. Müller (Etrusk. I p455) admits its derivation from Ferentinum.

Thayer's Note: Given the notorious problems in manuscript transmission of proper nouns and the likelihood of variation and confusion among the ancients themselves over a span of several hundred years, the discussion seems otiose to me. For example, the online text of Suetonius' life of Otho that I link to above has Ferentium.


— arvum

Pingue tenent humilis Ferenti. —

(Hor. III., Od. 4, 15.)

Cav. Canina (Ann. Inst. 1837, 2, p62) incorrectly refers this passage to the Etruscan town.

6 This connection is evident from its proximity, and seems to be implied also by a passage in Dionysius (Excerp. Mai, XII.48), which speaks of a certain Oblacus, whose cognomen was Volsinius, the chief of the people of Ferentum, who was slain in the Tarentine war.

7 Strabo, V.p226; Frontinus (de Colon.) also calls it a colony; and Vitruvius (l.c.) and Tacitus (Hist. II.50) a municipium.

8 Cluver (II p563) is decidedly of this opinion; and shows that it could not have applied to the other Ferentinum, which was precisely amid the dust and the noise of that great thoroughfare, the Latin Way. Cramer (I. p225) follows his opinion.

9 Sueton. Otho I.; Tacit. Hist. II.50; Aur. Vict. Imp. Otho.

10 Tacit. Annal. XV.53.

11 Martyrologium Romanum, and Gregorius Magnus, ap. Cluver. II p562.

12 Camilli, Mon. di Viterbo, p62, 84. The heresy, according to Alberti (Descrit. d'Ital. p62), was this, that the inhabitants represented Christ on the cross with his eyes open, instead of being orthodoxly closed! Verily the dispute about the broad and narrow end of the egg finds here its counterpart.

13 The "Via Publica Ferentiensis" is mentioned in an ancient inscription found at Viterbo. Ann. Inst. 1829, p176; cf. Nouvelles Annales de l'Institut, 1836, p35, n4.

14 The extant portions of the walls are generally of small masonry, either Roman or of "the low times;" but there are fragments on the northern side, of more ancient date and more massive character. They are indeed very peculiar, the blocks being nearly square, without any regularity in size or arrangement, and being often let into one another, — more like the masonry of that singular quadrangle on the Via Appia, which Gell called the "Campus Sacer Horatiorum," (I. voce Appia), but which Cav. Canina, with much more probability, regards as an ustrina, than any other ancient walling in Etruria; though there is also some resemblance to the pier of a ruined bridge at Veii, mentioned at page 16 of this work.

15 This has since fallen, and the architrave is destroyed. Nov. 1846. Its place is seen in the left in the woodcut at page 201.

The central gate, which is represented in the woodcut, is more than 12 ft. in height, and is 10 ft. 2 in. wide; the next on either hand, 8 ft. 1 in.; the next two, 7 ft. 6 in.; and the outer gates, 7 ft. 3 in. in width.

16 These arches vary from 7½ ft. to 9 ft. in span. They are based on pillars about 3 ft. square, each a single block of stone, supporting a simple lip-impost, also a single block; as is likewise the mass raised on it, from which springs the arch on either side. The length of the chord of the arc, or the greatest width of the theatre, according to my measurement, is exactly 200 English feet. The depth of the stage I make 33 feet.

17 Vitruv. V.6. The seven gates in the outer wall are a very unusual number; but in the scena there is only the legitimate number of three; the rest opening into the proscenium alone. There are no traces of a portico in front, or rather at the back of the theatre, as was common in Greek edifices of this description. Vitruv. V.9.

This is certainly the best preserved scena in Italy; but that of Taormina in Sicily is more perfect, having a second story; and that of Aspendus in Pamphylia is entire, with three stories inside, and four outside, as I learn from the drawings of that enterprising traveller, Mr. Edward Falkener.

18 Ann. Inst. 1837, 2, p62‑64. The plan of this theatre, and its measurements in Tuscan braccia, are given in the Annals of the Institute 1839. Tav. d'Agg. F.

19 The semicircle of arches, though of the same material as this façade, and very massive, seems, from the regularity of its masonry, to be of later date. I regard it as Roman. That the brickwork is but a repair of a more ancient structure is most clear, from the irregularity of the upper line of the masonry below it, and from the brickwork filling up its deficiencies. See the woodcut at page 201. The original Etruscan theatre had fallen into decay, and Otho, or one of the early emperors, put it into repair.

20 Vitruv. II.7.

21 Plin. Nat. Hist. XXXVI.49.

22 Canina, Arch. Ant. VIII. p86. Abeken (Mittelital. p16) also holds the same opinion.

23 Canina perceived architectural fragments among the ruins of the more modern buildings, which he says were in the old Etruscan Doric style, whence he infers the antiquity of the town. — Ann. Inst. 1837, 2, p64.

There is a stone, quarried at Manziana, near the Lake of Bracciano, which has some of the same properties mentioned by Vitruvius and Pliny, and is much used in Rome, at the present day, for moulds for metal-casting.

24 Orioli ap. Inghir, Monumenti Etruschi IV. p189. In Magna Graecia also such tombs have been found, the shafts to which are sunk sometimes perpendicularly, like wells, sometimes obliquely, as in the Egyptian pyramids. — De Jorio. Sepol. Ant. p10.

Thayer's Notes:

a Anitianae: In the editions I have online of the passage (II.7) cited, Vitruvius is made to spell "Anician" (lapidicinae . . . Anicianae).

b chimneys with small niches cut for the hands and feet: Although I have not visited these particular tombs, I've seen the exact type of shaft with footholds that Dennis describes, in an Etruscan-built cave in Orvieto: see this page for further discussion and a rather good photograph of one.

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