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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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 p430  Chapter XXII


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Magni stat nominis umbra.

— Lucan.

Quicquid sub terrâ est in apricum proferet aetas.

— Horat.

These headings of the author's are used here as local links to text on this webpage.
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Hints and warnings to travellers A surprise Canino A caution Lucien Bonaparte's villa at Musignano Cabinet of vases Bronzes Flesh-hooks Portraits of the Bonaparte family Interesting sarcophagus

Appendix. Eyes on the painted vases Two singular sarcophagi

Three or four days may be pleasantly spent at Vulci, in exploring the neighbourhood and watching the progress of the excavations; returning every evening to Montalto, to secure the two greatest bye-road luxuries in Italy — a decent dinner and a flealess bed. Let no one conceive that he may pernoctate at the Ponte della Badia with impunity. My fellow-traveller, on a previous visit to Vulci, had been induced to take up his quarters for the night in the guard-room of the castle, where the soldiers did their best to accommodate them; but he was presently attacked in his camp by legions of sharp-shooters, sure of aim and swift of foot — who compelled him, sighing for the skin of Achilles, to beat a precipitate retreat and take up a position in the court-yard of the castle — sub Jove frigido — for the rest of the night. As the nearest resting-places are Montalto and Canino, both seven or eight miles distant,  p431 and as in the latter village the traveller will find but an hospitium miserabile, with a slight diminution of the said annoyances, his better plan is to drive back nightly to Montalto, Cesarini, and comfort.

Let the traveller also provide himself at the inn with such cold viands as he may, for the sustenance of his inner man during those day-long excursions. Not a mouthful will he otherwise procure for love or money; and a keen appetite, be it remembered, is the perquisite of hunters of antiquities and the picturesque, in common with their brethren in quest of ignobler game. With what relish, when the hour of twelve arrived, were we wont to throw our portfolios aside, and reclining in Etruscan fashion on our elbows, fall to an humble banquet of hard-boiled eggs, cold chicken, or cutlets, basking all the while "in the blue noon divine!" and we would pledge one another in draughts from the Flora, with as much gusto as ever prince or Lucumo emptied his patera of choice Graviscan or Caeritan, or as luxurious Roman quaffed

"His wines of Setia, Cales, and Falerne,
Chios or Crete."

The even tenour of our life at Vulci was on one such occasion agreeably diversified. We were stretched on the grass beneath the colossal bridge, when we were surprised by a party of visitors. Any such interruption would have astonished us on this secluded spot, where we had hitherto seen no signs of life beyond the half-dozen doganieri on duty, and, very rarely, a drover passing with his herd. A couple of ladies, therefore, in riding-habits — a sight to stare at even in the great cities of Italy — raised our amazement to the utmost. They were escorted by a party of gentlemen in the height of Roman fashion, foremost of whom was a high dignitary of the church, in unmistakeable  p432 costume, with a pair of footmen in patch-work liveries at his heels. Our interest in the party increased when we learned that the ladies were daughters of Lucien Bonaparte, and we thought to trace in their handsome and mirthful faces the features of their Imperial uncle. They had ridden over from Musignano to do the honours of the bridge — of their bridge — to their friend, the Monsignore, and presently retraced their steps and left the scene to its usual loneliness and silence.

Among the videnda of this neighbourhood, Musignano, the villa of the late Prince of Canino, and the residence of his widow, claims a visit from the traveller. An introduction is of course necessary. This our worthy friend Carlo Avvolta of Corneto had supplied us with, in the shape of a note to the Padre Maurizio, the Princess's chaplain, which in case of his absence was to be available for us to the Princess herself.

Our road thither from Vulci lay across the plain, a treeless expanse of pasture or corn-land,º till we approached the hills at whose foot lay the villa, embosomed in dense groves. These hills, called Monti di Canino, rise nearly 1500 feet above the sea, an isolated limestone mass in the midst of the volcanic plain — an inferior and tamer Soracte. As it was late in the day we passed the villa, and continued to Canino two or three miles further. This village, which gives its name to the principality, is of considerable size, the abode chiefly of those employed in the iron-foundries in the neighbourhood. It is built on the verge of a ravine, which bears in its cliffs traces of tombs, leaving little doubt that here stood an Etruscan town, whose name has long been forgotten. The only accommodation for the traveller is in a miserable hovel, assuming the title of "Locanda," the resort of carriers and iron-smelters, where, in the midst of a thousand discomforts, we were fain to  p433 pass the night.​1 In the morning we drove back to Musignano.

The villa is a very plain building, with no pretensions to external magnificence, very unlike the palazzo of an Italian prince. It was originally an abbey, giving its name — La Badia — to the famous bridge, and it retains much of a gloomy monastic air; or, were it in England, it would pass for a mad-house. The ponderous gateway is flanked by Etruscan lions and griffons in stone, and in the quadrangle within are several similar objects of antiquity — relics from the Cucumella. We were disappointed of finding the Padre Maurizio within, but were fortunate enough to meet with a substitute in Signore Valentini, the son-in‑law of the Princess, who received us courteously, and showed us what vases and other relics the Princess's cabinet at that time contained. Few of the treasures of this unrivalled mine of Etruscan wealth are retained on the spot. The finest vases are bought by the Pope for the Gregorian Museum, or find their way into foreign countries, for the Princess has agents in many of the capitals of Europe; and the richest and rarest articles of gold and jewellery find ready purchasers in the Cavaliere Campana, and a few other kindred collectors of antique treasures. Thus, while the glories of Vulcian art adorn so many of the public and private museums of Europe — scarcely a ray brightens the spot where they arose.

The few vases in the Princess's cabinet were such as could not find a ready sale on account of their imperfect  p434 state. Most of this pottery had been found in fragments, and had been cemented together by an artist in the pay of the Princess. Articles thus restored are not unsaleable, nor indeed materially lessened in value, if the paintings themselves be not injured; and even when these are imperfect, if the part deficient be not so large as to destroy the whole beauty and meaning of the subject; or if it be such as may be easily restored by a skilful pencil, the vase will not be greatly depreciated. Articles in a very imperfect state will sometimes fetch enormous prices. The King of Bavaria, it is said, gave several thousands of crowns for a fragment of a patera; and has offered as much more for the missing portion, if it be discovered. So skilful are some of these restorers, that they will make imperfect vases pass for perfect, so as almost to deceive the best judges. The fractures are sometimes only to be detected by aqua fortis.

Several of these vases had the mysterious eyes painted on them, which are so often found on the pottery of Vulci; and a curious specimen of which is given in the woodcut at the head of this chapter, copied from an amphora in the British Museum.2

[image ALT: An engraving of two bronze objects each consisting of a group of hooks mounted on one end of a handle. They are ancient Etruscan or Roman harpagones found at or near Vulci in Etruria; their purpose is further discussed in the accompanying text.]
The bronze articles in the cabinet, though not numerous, were in excellent preservation, and some of great beauty; indeed the bronzes of Vulci are inferior to none  p435 in elegance of form, and in the design and execution of their adornments. Here were some choice candelabra; figured specula, or mirrors, with mythological subjects; elegant bronze handles to cauldrons or to wooden furniture, which had long since perished; and several creagrae, or flesh-hooks, with six or eight long curved prongs, like grappling-irons, which have long puzzled modern sages.3

The cabinet of Egyptian articles, once to be seen at Musignano, has  p436 been removed to Rome, and is now in the possession of Dr. Braun.4

As to the interior of this mansion, I may not satisfy curiosity further than to remark, that it was rather French than Italian, and that the drawing-room was hung with pictures — principally family portraits. There was Lucien himself at full length, the original of the well-known prints — his lady, who still survives him — and their handsome children, in family groups. There was the great Corsican in various periods of his career — the venerable Madame Letitia,​a whose remains lie at Corneto — her brother, the Cardinal — the beautiful Pauline — and all, or nearly all, the members of this renowned family. This portrait-gallery is alone worthy of a visit to Musignano.

The grounds attached to the villa are laid out in the English style; and the park-like scenery tempts the traveller to linger. Here, among scattered sarcophagi, whose recumbent figures accord with the repose of the scenery, is one which arrests the attention. It bears a female figure, as large as life, rudely but boldly executed, not reclining as usual on her elbow, but stretched on her back, like the effigies on mediaeval monuments. The bas-relief below, displays one of those scenes of domestic bereavement, so frequently and touchingly represented on the Etruscan urns of Volterra and Chiusi. Two winged  p437 genii, ministers of death, whose office is betokened by the snakes twisted round their arms, have seized upon a young female​5 — the same probably whose effigy reclines on the lid — and are about to lead her away, when a majestic figure, her father it must be, interposes, and with outstretched hands seems imploring them to release her; while her mother, with younger children in her arms and at her side, looks on in motionless woe. On one side of this group, but in a separate compartment, stands a winged Charun, resting on his oar, as if awaiting the coming of the spirit; and at the other side stands a similar figure with hammer uplifted, ready to strike the fatal blow.​6 At each end of the sarcophagus is a winged griffon — a Bacchic emblem, intended at the same time as a figurative guardian of the sarcophagus.

Two other sarcophagi of singular interest were recently to be seen at Musignano, and are described in the Appendix to this Chapter.


Note I. — Eyes on the Painted Vases.

The meaning of these eyes on the painted vases has not been satisfactorily determined. They are generally termed "mystic," and they are at least mysterious. They are found not only on vases of undoubted Greek origin, as on those of Nola, Sicily, and Adria, but are also often scratched on the black relieved ware of Chiusi and Sarteano, which has every evidence of a purely Etruscan character. It has been thought that they have a Bacchic import — an opinion which finds support in the figures or subjects with which they are often connected; such as vine or ivy branches — bunches of grapes — the god of wine himself standing, goblet in hand, between the eyes, or his head alone in that position — Fauns and Menades dancing — Silenus on his ass — Gorgons' heads, which are symbols of the infernal Bacchus — or subjects bearing reference to some one or other of the attributes and character of this great divinity of the ancients. They have been found also in the form of panthers' heads. The Bacchic nature of the scene in the woodcut at page 430, and the relation of Mercury, Apollo, and Diana to Dionysus, are set forth by Micali (Ant. Pop. Ital., III. p129). But the subject is sometimes such as cannot easily be interpreted as Bacchic — as, the deeds of Hercules, or other Greek myths — chimaeras — Pegasi — athletes exercising — Furies, or other winged deities, as shown in the woodcut at the head of the last Chapter, page 397.

There is some plausibility in the opinion that this eyes were charms against the evil eye, in which the ancients believed as strongly as the modern southrons of Europe. We know that the Gorgonion was supposed to have the power of averting evil (Lucian. Philopatris, p1120, ed. Bourdel.), and these eyes may be those of Gorgons, for they are evidently intended to represent a face, the other features being even introduced. Micali opines that the eyed vases were δῶρα ὀπτηρία — presents made by the bridegroom on seeing his bride unveiled (Mon. Ined. p268).

The introduction of eyes in such cases may perhaps be more satisfactorily accounted for by the resemblance and relation of vases to boats. The presence of eyes on the bows of ancient vessels, perhaps originating in the fancied analogy with fish, is well known. The names of several  p439 sorts of goblets — such as σκύφος, σκάφη, κύμβη, κύπελλον, καρχήσιον, ἄκατος, ἀκάτιον — are common to them with vessels; and it is on vases of this description that eyes are most frequently painted. This analogy between boats and cups is greatly confirmed by the fables of Hercules crossing the sea to Spain in a goblet (Apollod. II p100, ed. 1599; Athen. XI. p469; Macrob. Saturn. V.21) — the proto­type of St. Raymund.

Singular Sarcophagi.

These two sarcophagi were found at Vulci, in the winter of 1845‑6, and thence transported to Musignano. They are about seven feet in length. One is of a material very unusual in this part of Etruria — alabaster — whether from Volterra, or from the Circaean promontory, I cannot say, not having seen the monuments. It bears on its lid not a single figure, but a pair, a wedded pair, clasped in each other's arms —

gremio jacuit nova nupta mariti —

lying half-draped in that loving posture, described in the Canticles — "His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me." Satisfactory, doubtless, to their Manes was this petrifaction of their conjugal fondness, but posterity could have taken it for granted — ciò s'intende bene. This most unusual attitude seems to hint at some tragical event that cut down both at one stroke. The relief below represents, as if for contrast, a combat between Greeks and Amazons; and at the ends of the monument are lions and griffons devouring cattle.

The other sarcophagus is of peperino, and bears a similar pair on its lid. Its relief is in a superior style of art. In the centre is a matronly female, embracing and perhaps taking leave of a youth. Other figures stand on either side. Behind this female is another, bearing a hydria on her head, and a cantharus in her hand; a third with a large fan (ῥιπίςflabellum), exactly like the Indian fans of the present day; and a fourth with lyre and plectrum. Behind the youth stands a male with a folding-stool (ὀκλαδίαςplicatilis); another with a lituus or augur's wand; a third with a trumpet; and a female flute-player with double-pipes and a chaplet. At one end of the monument is a fond couple drawn in a biga, and in the act of embracing, which suggests, even more strongly than the recumbent figures on the lid, that the deceased pair were cut off at once; for the chariot indicates the passage to the other world, while the fatal event is also symbolised by an accompanying Fate or Fury with snakes wound round her arms. At each end of the lid are three female heads, set in flowers.

These sarcophagi, I am told, have just been purchased by the Papal Government for the Gregorian Museum, for about £350.

The Author's Notes:

1 Let me caution the traveller against passing the night at Canino. By leaving Montalto early in the day, he will have ample time to visit Musignano, and return the same night, or to push on to Toscanella — the next site of Etruscan interest. In the latter case, let him, on alighting at Musignano, send his vehicle on to Canino to bait the horses, and he can follow on foot at his leisure. It is a pleasant walk through the grounds.

2 This scene is remarkable, inasmuch as the eyes are made to represent the winged bodies of monsters, conventionally called Syrens, though here of both sexes. Such Syrens are commonly supposed to be emblems of souls; but Micali (Ant. Pop. Ital. III p129) regards them in this instance to be Bacchus and Libera, or the great infernal deities. Between them stands Apollo playing the lyre, with the hind at his feet; and behind them are Diana with her bow, and Mercury with his petasus, caduceus, and talaria. On the other side of the amphora, the pair of human-headed, eye-bodied birds is repeated, but between them is the favourite subject of Peleus and Thetis (see Micali, loc. cit. tav. LXXXIV). Such eyes have been found in the form of panthers' heads. For further remarks on the eyed vases, see the Appendix, Note 1.

3 These hooks were at first supposed to be instruments of torture, with which the early Christians had their flesh torn from their bodies. But being frequently found in tombs purely Etruscan, that notion was repudiated; and it remains a question whether they were mere kitchen-utensils, or implements used in sacrifices, either for taking up or turning over the burnt flesh, as such instruments were employed by the Jews (I. Sam. II.13) — for offering the entrails to the divinity — or for putting out the fire by pieces of fat at the end of the prongs — or were employed at the funeral pyre for separating from the embers the ashes of the deceased. Bull. Inst. 1840, p59. There is no doubt that they are the creagraeἀπὸ τοῦ τὰ κρέα ἀγρεύειν — referred to by Aristophanes (Equit. 768‑9), and described by the Scholiast (ad locum) as culinary instruments; though also mentioned by the great comedian (Eccles. 994, Vesp. 1150), as serving more general purposes of grappling or holding fast. It has been supposed, from the small ring to which the lower prong is often attached, — not clearly shown in the above woodcut, fig. 1, — that they may have served as torch-holders, especially as the handle proves them to have been generally attached to a pole of wood. But many are without this ring, and have a claw instead, as shown in fig. 2: besides, it would be difficult to account for the prongs at all on this supposition. From the prongs being sometimes blunted, it is argued that they were for mere show, and served no practical purpose. Yet in all those I have seen so blunted, it has been clear that this was not their original form, but that the prongs had been broken off. These creagrae were called by the Romans harpagones; and it must have been a similar instrument on a larger scale which was used for grappling ships, and was sometimes termed an "iron hand" — ferrea manus — (Liv. XXVI.39; cf. Liv. XXX.10; Flor. II.2; Frontin. Strat. II.3, 23; Lucan. III.635; Dion Cass. XLIX.3; L. 32, 34), and figuratively "a wolf." Hesych. v. λύκος. They are said to have been an invention of Pericles. Plin. VII.56,º ad fin.

4 These articles have been described and illustrated in the last Chapter, under the head of "Grotta d'Iside."

5 Micali, who has described this sarcophagus (Mon. Ined. p303), is in error when he represents the two genii as "the good and bad demons, distinguished by their attributes — those of the latter being two serpents;" for the other genius also holds a serpent; as shown in his plate of the monument (tav. XLVIII.1).

6 Dr. Braun (Ann. Inst. 1843, p365) calls both these figures, Charun.

Thayer's Note:

a the venerable Madame Letitia: Although Dennis likes to use "venerable" as a synonym for "ancient" or "celebrated", here he is being precise. Napoleon's mother, who while her son was emperor was known for her common sense, plain manners, and lack of illusions, ended her life in the odor of sanctity: Pope Pius VIII said of her, "This holy woman is worthy of being venerated by the princes of the earth."

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