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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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 p462  Chapter XXIV


Urbes constituit aetas, hora dissolvit.

— Seneca.

A thousand years scarce serve to form a state,
An hour may lay it in the dust.

— Byron.

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Etruscan sites Ischia Italian squalor Farnese Castro Picturesque desolation Remains of antiquity Proverbial gloominess Site of Statonia disputed Valentano Lago Mezzano Lake of Statonia and its floating island

North of Toscanella lies a group of Etruscan sites. The road, which is scarcely carriageable, passes through the villages of Arlena, Tessenano, and Celere, none of which betray an antiquity higher than Roman times, and at the distance of twelve or fourteen miles reaches Ischia, whose position on a tongue of land between profound ravines, full of tombs, marks it as an Etruscan site. There is nothing of interest, however; the tombs are utterly defaced by their application to the uses of the inhabitants. The ancient name of the place is quite unknown. It was a small town, probably dependent on Tarquinii or Vulci. Its Etruscan character is not generally recognised; yet Campanari made excavations here a few years since.

As Ischia is on the way to Pitigliano and Sovana, it may be well to state that accommodation is to be had at the house of Sabetta Farolfi — tolerable enough considering the intense squalor of the town;

— quis enim non vicus abundat

Tristibus obscoenis? —

for here you meet with clean sheets, foul tables and tongues, unbounded civility and scanty comfort, wretched meals and good society. The house is patronised by the  p463 aristocracy of Ischia, and is the evening resort of the archpriest, the medico, the speziale, and other conscript fathers of the town, who showed their politeness by urging me, though impransus and way-worn, to a rubber of whist.

Two or three miles west of Ischia lies Farnese, a village in a similar, though less imposing, situation, and bearing the same evidences of Etruscan antiquity. As general on ancient sites where population has continued to exist, the sepulchres here in the cliffs have had their original character destroyed by their conversion to cattle-stalls and hogsties. Campanari has made slight excavations in the plain around Farnese. The village is more decent in appearance than Ischia, yet its osteria loses in comparison even with that of La Farolfi. The Chigi palace here was occupied, at the time of my visit, by Maréchal Bourmont, the hero of Algiers. Exiled from his country for the part he played in "the great days of July," he fixed his residence at Farnese, exchanging the stirring life of the camp, and the brilliant saloons of the Tuileries, for the seclusion, monotony, and death-like tranquillity of an Italian village.

The antiquity of Farnese has long been acknowledged. Mannert takes it to be Maternum, a station on the Via Clodia, or Statonia;​1 but Cluver inclines to think it Sudernum,​2 a town only incidentally mentioned by ancient writers, without any hint as to its locality.​3 This is  p464 mere conjecture, for no remains which throw light on the subject have been discovered on the spot.

Two or three miles west of Farnese lies Castro, another Etruscan site. The path to it runs through a ravine, and at one point passes over a hill, whose entire slope from base to summit is strewn with huge masses of lava, —

"Crags, knolls, and mounds confusedly hurl'd,
The fragments of an earlier world."

Castro lies in a wilderness — it is a city of desolation. You mount from the ravine to the plain, and see before you a dense wood, covering a narrow ridge between steep precipices. You enter the wood, not to thread your way over smooth turf or fallen leaves, but to scramble over heaps of ruins, broken columns, capitals, and rich cornices, mingled with coarser débris; through all which vegetation has forced its way, and is striving in turn to conceal the wrecks of art which had displaced it. A truer picture of the place can hardly be given than that Byron has drawn of the Palatine.

All this devastation is but of modern date. Two hundred years since Castro was a flourishing city; the capital of a Duchy, which comprised the greater part of the Etruscan plain, and which still gives a title to the king of Naples; but in 1647, Pope Innocent X rased it to the ground, because the bishop of the see had been murdered — it was supposed by the Duke Farnese, lord of Castro — and the bishopric was transferred to Acquapendente.

Castro, as usual, stands on a tongue of land between two glens. Descend into them, and here, if a lover of  p465 nature, you will be charmed with the bold forms and rich colouring of the ilex-hung cliffs — with the varied covering of the slopes — with the picturesque windings of the sheep-tracks, the only signs of life in these wilds — with the meanderings of the rivulet, which "singeth its quiet tune," now to the darkling canopy of foliage, now to the bright blue sky. Or if a lover of antiquity, you will find interest in tombs hollowed in the rock — some of several chambers, some full of pigeon-holes, as at Toscanella, others mere niches, or long shelf-like recesses, one over the other, as are seen in the necropolis of Falerii — in fragments of rock-cut cornices — in the ruins of two bridges — and in vestiges of an ancient road.

High in the cliff, opposite the extremity of the town, a hundred feet or more above the stream, is a curious circular hole, inaccessible from below, which seems to be a window to a tomb sunk in the plain above. Such a feature I have observed on no other site.

The columbaria are generally in the cliffs immediately beneath the city-walls. Of the ancient fortifications I perceived no fragments, but considerable remains of mediaeval date are extant on the south side, in small cemented masonry cut from the yellow tufo cliffs on which they stand. In these walls are sundry apertures like tall arched doorways, which, from their position, can only be the mouths of sewers. More ancient drains also are not wanting, of the usual upright form, cut in the cliff itself, and determining the antiquity of the town.

I left Castro with something like disappointment. Not that it is not worthy of a visit; but my expectations had been too highly raised, and I looked for more numerous and curious relics of Etruscan antiquity. Yet the only verbal reports of it that had reached my ears were from the peasantry of the neighbouring villages, since I  p466 had never met with any antiquary, native or foreign, who had visited the spot; and as to written descriptions, the most recent I know is more than two hundred years old, from the pen of Cluver, which is but a translation of that by Leandro Alberti, who wrote nearly a century earlier. "Castro," says the latter, "is so encompassed about with rocks and caverns, that it seemeth to them that behold it, rather a dark den of wild beasts, than the abode of domesticated man."​4 To this Cluver adds, that similar caverns and marvellous fissures are to be seen at Farnese.​5 Now the truth is that there are comparatively few rock-sepulchres around Castro — not half so many as around Norchia, Bieda, Toscanella, Pitigliano, Sovana, and other Etruscan towns, similarly situated; and such as are found here are rude, and roughly hewn, and in no way remarkable. Yet the description is so far true, that Castro is a most gloomy site — one of the gloomiest I remember in Etruria. It is not its desolation alone, — Capena, Norchia, Férento, Tarquinii, Cosa, and other sites, are also uninhabited and deserted. It is not its overgrowth of wood, — Rusellae and part of Veii are similarly covered. It is its general aspect. Nowhere is the wood more dark and dense — nowhere are the cliffs blacker and more frowning — nowhere are the ravines more solemn and apparently endless, more impressively lonesome and silent — nowhere is there a more utter absence of habitation within ken — on no site does Nature more completely regain her dominion over Art — or the Past becloud the spirits with a deeper awe.

To the Etruscan name of this town we have no clue. Its present application seem to indicate its importance as a fortress in Roman times. Cluver regards it as the site  p467 of the ancient Statonia, but gives no satisfactory reasons for his opinion;​6 and until we have some more definite evidence, I fear we must be content to remain in the dark as to the ancient name of Castro.7

If not on this site, where shall we place the ancient Statonia? It is a question not to be answered definitely. Pliny indeed indicates a site not far from the sea,​8 though not actually on the coast.​9 From his and other notices of it in connection with Tarquinii, it seems highly probable that it stood close to, if not actually within the territory of  p468 that city, as Vitruvius appears to intimate.​10 There is every reason to believe that Statonia stood somewhere in this northern district of the Etruscan plain, but to which of the ancient sites in this quarter, of undetermined name, to assign it, we have yet no means of deciding.

Four or five miles west of Ischia lies Valentano, on a hill of black ashes, part of the lip of the great crater-lake of Bolsena. It is larger than Ischia or Farnese, but can offer no better accommodation to the traveller. From a terrace outside the walls a magnificent view of the lake is to be had, but I saw it in lowering weather, when the clouds lay like a grey pall on its waters, and only when they occasionally broke could I catch a glimpse of its broad, leaden surface, with its two islets of fabulous renown, and the headland of Capo di Monte appearing like a third.

The town is supposed by Cluver to be the representative of Verentum, a place of which no express mention is made, but which he conjectures to have existed, from the persuasion of a corruption in the text of Pliny. But I cannot think he has adequate ground for this opinion.​11 I perceived  p469 no traces of ancient habitation on this site, Etruscan or Roman, nor could I learn that such exist. The walls are wholly mediaeval, and tombs there are none; in truth, the volcanic ashes and scoriae of which the hill is composed would render it impracticable to construct tombs here in the usual manner of the Etruscans.

From Valentano there is a track, a mere bridle-path, to Pitigliano, within the Tuscan frontier, about twelve miles distant. About midway it passes the Lake of Mezzano, a small piece of water embosomed among wooded hills, which is pronounced by Cluver to be the Lacus Statoniensis.​12 That lake, however, is said by Pliny and Seneca to have contained an island, which this of Mezzano does not, so that we must either reject Cluver's conclusion, or suppose that the island has since disappeared. As there is no other lake in central Etruria which can answer to the Statonian, we must take the alternative, and consider the island to have floated, as it is described,​13 and to have become eventually attached to the shores of the lake. Such seems to have been the case with the Vadimonian lake, which is now almost choked by the encroachment of its banks on the water; and a similar process is going forward in the Lacus Cutiliae, in Sabina, and in the sulphureous lakes below  p470 Tivoli; where masses of vegetable matter, floating on the water, assume the appearance of islands, and having had their cruise awhile, become entangled at length by some prominent rock or tree on the shore, attach themselves permanently to it, and settle down into respectable portions of terra firma.14

The Author's Notes:

1 Mannert, Geog. pp384, 388. Cramer (Ancient Italy, I p245) thinks it was Maternum; which is thus marked in the Peutingerian Table:—

Foro Clodo  
Blera XVI
Tuscana VIIII
Materno XII
Saturnia XVIII
Succosa VIII

2 Cluver. Ital. Ant. II. p517. Cluver is at least satisfied that Maternum is Farnese, but is not so sure that it is identical with Sudertum. Holstenius (Annot. ad Cluver. p41) thinks Madernum the same as Sudernum, and says the site is now called "Maderni," on the left side of the Fiora, a few miles below Castro, and has many remains.

3 Liv. XXVI.23. Pliny (III.8) calls its inhabitants "Subertani," though some editions have it "Sudertani." Ptolemy (Geog. p72, ed. Bert.) writes it Σούδερνον; its position, according to (p464)his reckoning, taking it relatively to other sites — the only mode of interpretation that can fairly be applied to him — would be nearer to Tarquinii than to any other city of Etruria.

4 Descrittione d'Italia, p58, ed. 1551. It must be remembered that in Alberti's and even in Cluver's time, Castro was inhabited. It was perhaps the only similar Etruscan site Alberti had ever seen.

5 Cluver. Ital. Ant. II. p518.

6 Cluver. loc. cit. p517. His opinion rests principally on the vicinity of Castro to the Lago Mezzano, which he says is without doubt the Lacus Statoniensis of antiquity. Supposing he is correct in this particular, Castro is not so near that lake as Ischia, Farnese, Pitigliano, Sorano, and Grotte San Lorenzo, all Etruscan sites, any one of which has on this score a stronger claim to be considered the representative of Statonia. Then he says that ancient inscriptions have been discovered at Castro, which prove its antiquity; but he does not tell us that one of these bears reference to Statonia. An additional reason urged by him is that here, as well as at Farnese, are quarries of white rock, which he identifies with the lapidicinae of silex, of which Vitruvius (II.7) and Pliny (XXXVI.49) speak as existing in the territory of Statonia. This stone, as already mentioned (Chap. XIII. p208), was proof against the action of fire and frost, peculiarly adapted to moulds for metal-casting, and of such hardness and durability as to render it invaluable for statues and architectural adornments. Now it is true that there are cliffs of a whitish rock to the east of Castro; but they prove nothing as to the identity of that town with Statonia; first, because the rock described by Vitruvius was not white, but a greenish grey, like the Alban stone, or peperino, though Pliny or his transcribers seem to have blundered in copying albi for Albani; and next, because the rocks at Castro are of a soft, volcanic character, with none of the properties of the silex — a term usually applied by the Romans to the lava or basalt of their paved roads (Liv. XLI.27; Tibul. I.7, 60), and occasionally to hard limestone, as in the well-known inscription on the walls of Ferentinum. It would not seem that the — viridis silex nusquam copiosus, et ubi invenitur lapis non saxum — mentioned by Pliny in the same chapter with these quarries, was also in the neighbourhood of Statonia. These quarries, again, are not said to have been at the town of Statonia, but merely in its ager, just as those round the Volsinian lake were in the ager of Tarquinii.

Thayer's Note: Statonia is still not certainly identified, although the best minds concentrating on it these days feel it is Bomarzo.

7 Mannert (Geog. p388) thinks Statonia was at Castro or Farnese; Cramer (Ancient Italy, I p223) and Abeken (Mittelitalien, p34), following Cluver, recognise it in Castro.

8 Plin. XIV.8, 5. He records the renown of its wine.

9 Plin. III.8; cf. Strab. V. p226.

10 Vitruv. II.7; Plin. XXXVI.49; Varro, de Re Rust. III.12. The last-named writer says there were immense preserves of hares, stags, and wild sheep, in the ager of Statonia. Cluver thinks that Statonia could not have stood in the direct line between Tarquinii and the lake of Volsinii, because the ager Tarquiniensis extended up to the lake. Dempster offers no opinion of his own.

11 Cluver. II p516. He thinks that in Pliny's catalogue of Roman colonies in Etruria (III.8), the "Veientani" of the ordinary version should be "Verentani," as some readings have it, both because it comes next in the list to VesentiniVesentum being the island Bisentino, in the lake of Bolsena — and because Veii had ceased to exist before Pliny's time. But I must venture here to differ entirely from Cluver: Pliny's list is clearly alphabetical, and has no reference to topographical relations; and Veii, a century before Pliny's day, had been recolonised by the Romans (ut supra, p21) and was then existing as a municipium. The balance is also greatly in favour of "Veientani," inasmuch as Pliny in his catalogue would surely not omit all mention of that colony, which was the nearest of all, almost within sight of the Seven Hills, and whose past history was so intimately interwoven with that of Rome. If this be the correct reading, there is no proof (p469)of the existence of such a town as Verentum. Cramer (I. p223) follows Cluver's opinion.

12 Cluver. II p517. He speaks of it as undoubted — haud dubium est. Mannert (Geog. p388) and Cramer (loc. cit.) agree with him.

13 Plin. II.96; Seneca, Nat. Quaest. III.25. There are only four other lakes in Etruria which contain, or are said to have contained, islands — the Volsinian, the Vadimonian, the Thrasymene, and the Lacus Prilis or Prelius. The first two are mentioned by Pliny, and the second by Seneca, in addition to the Lake of Statonia, so that it cannot be confounded with them. The Thrasymene is too much inland, seeing that Statonia was not far from the coast. And of the Lacus Prilis, now Lago Castiglione, may be said, what will apply with equal force to the Thrasymene, that it is much too remote from Tarquinii; for Statonia, as already shown, was either close to or within the ager of that city.

14 See Chapter IX. p170.

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