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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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 p471  Chapter XXV


Nihil privatim, nihil publice stabile est; tam hominum, quam urbium, fata volvuntur.


Ay, now am I in Arden: when I was at home I was in a better place; but travellers must be content.

— As You like it.

These headings of the author's are used here as local links to text on this webpage.
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Phantom perils Pitigliano and its "Baby" Etruscan remains Walls, roads, and tombs Beauty of the ravines Popular legends Sorano Casa Farfanti Nox ambrosia Romantic scenery Few antiquities

The places described in the last chapter lie within the Roman State. On the other side of the frontier is Pitigliano, an Etruscan site, and now the principal town in this part of Tuscany. The road to it from Valentano has already been mentioned. With a competent guide it may be reached also from Castro or Farnese, twelve miles distant; but woe to the traveller who would "take the track into his own hands." Before leaving the Roman State, it would be well to have passports en règle, though he may never be questioned, "Whence or Whither?" Certain it is he will meet no doganiere at the frontier, which he will cross at a brook in a lonely wood. More likely would he be to encounter an unlicensed collector of taxes, for border-districts are proverbially unsafe, and this in particular is said to be the resort of outlaws from both States. Yet for the traveller's comfort, let me add that these are Will-o'-the-Wisp perils, ever distant when approached. The country here, however, is not suggestive of security, as it is peculiarly wild, — dense, gloomy woods, or open moors on every hand, and not a house by the wayside, save a farm on a green spot, about half-way to Pitigliano.

 p472  This town stands on the northern limits of the great Etruscan plain, which is here bounded by a range of mountains, among which the snowy peak of Monte Amiata towers supreme in the north, and the nearer heights sink gradually in the east to the long-drawn ridge round the Lake of Bolsena. In the west, a line of mist marks the course of the deep-sunk Fiora, and leads the eye southwards across the plain to the bare crests of the Monti di Canino, which rise like an island from a sea of foliage, with the blue Mediterranean gleaming beyond on one hand, and the grey mass of the Ciminian bounding the horizon on the other.

At a little distance, Pitigliano seems to stand on the unbroken level of the plain, but as usual occupies a tongue of land, surrounded by ravines; so that when you seem just at its gates, a deep chasm yawns at your feet, which must be traversed to its lowest depths ere you can reach the town. When you have surmounted the long steep, and passed the line of fortifications, which, as at Nepi, cross the root of the tongue — nature on every other side affording sufficient protection — seek incontinently for Il Bimbo. This "Baby" is no sign-post — no painted effigy of sucking humanity, rocked by the breezes — nor even a living specimen of that "best philosopher, mighty prophet, seer blest," whom Wordsworth apostrophises — though to ordinary mortals he appears "mewling and puking in his nurse's arms," — but is represented by the mature and portly person of that respectable townsman, Giuseppe Bertocci.

Pitigliano is a place of considerable importance, with some 3000 inhabitants, of whom more than a tithe are Jews,​a led to congregate here, as at Gibraltar, by the annoyances and persecutions they are subjected to in the neighbouring State. In spite of the wealth thus created,  p473 Pitigliano is a mean and dirty town, without any interest inside its gates. A glance beyond them will convince you that it is an Etruscan site; though being never visited by antiquaries, it has not been recognised as such.​1 Its ancient name, even under the Romans, is quite unknown;​2 and its very existence is unrecorded before the eleventh century, when it is mentioned in a Papal bull as Pitilianum.

If you leave the town by the Porta di Sotto, you have, immediately on your right, a fine fragment of emplecton masonry of tufo blocks, eight courses high — precisely similar to the walls of Sutri, Nepi, Falleri, and Bieda.​3 As you descend the steep road you have tombs on every hand — from the brow of the town-crested height, down to the banks of the stream, and again up the opposite side of the ravine — slope, cliff, and ledge, are honeycombed with sepulchres. Here too are portions of the ancient road, sunk in the tufo, with water-channel at its side, and niches in its walls. The tombs here, beyond the columbaria, which are unusually numerous, are not now worthy of particular notice. Whatever may have been their external or  p474 internal decorations, nearly two thousand years of profanation have well nigh effaced their original character, and left them as problems to be solved only by the antiquary. Thus it always happens where population has most flourished and longest endured. It is at the long-deserted sites of Castel d'Asso and Norchia that the sepulchres are best preserved. Man is ever the worst foe to the works of man.

The table-lands around Pitigliano are full of tombs, especially on the west, where, for miles, the plain is undermined with them. No excavations have been made; but accident, from time to time, brings sepulchres to light.4

Though there is little to interest the antiquary at Pitigliano,​b there is food enough for the artist. Few towns in volcanic Etruria are more imposingly situated, and in the midst of finer scenery. The spot that produced and inspired a Zuccherelli​c should have some claims to beauty. Its ravines, though darkly, damply profound​5 — grand as are their tall impending cliffs — stern and solemn as are their silent recesses — are at all seasons highly picturesque, at some even truly beautiful. In what rich and harmonious colouring were they decked when I beheld them! The many-tinted rocks had their blended warmth cooled and shadowed by the drapery of foliage — the tender green of the budding vegetation, the darker verdure of the ilex and ivy, the pale blue of the aloe; while, like silver bands on a mantle of green velvet, the streamlets flowed through the wooded hollows, here spanned by a rustic mill, there by a ruined bridge. One of these rivulets leaps at one bound  p475 from the plain to the depths of the ravine. Omit not to visit this "Cascatella;" it is worthy a place in your sketch-book, and cascades do not often adorn the plains of Etruria. Though little more than a brook, the stream makes the most of itself in its plunge, and roars, raves, and foams in very decent imitation of its betters, which make more noise in the world. At some distance, however, you perceive not this assumption, but have an elegant waving sheet of foam, murmuring on a dark wall of rock.

On this height, called the Poggio Strozzoni, once stood the villa of the Counts Orsini, for more than three centuries the feudal lords of Pitigliano; but not one stone of their mansion now remains on another. Vestiges of former magnificence, however, mark the spot, in two colossal recumbent figures hewn from the living rock. The popular voice calls them "Orlano (Orlando) and his wife," — the Roland of chivalry and song — he whose brand "was worth a hundred of Death's scythes," — he who

"With many a Paladin and Peer,
In Roncesvalles died —"

a hero whose name is attached to many a marvel of nature and of art, by the peasantry of Italy. These are not chivalresque but allegorical figures, of the cinque cento times. "Orlano" has not Durindana but a cornucopia by his side, and spills nothing but fruit and flowers. Tradition thus accounts for the ruin of the villa:—

The last count kept a mistress at Sorano, yet was extremely jealous of his wife. She, fond and faithful, viewed his visits to the neighbouring town with great suspicion. On his return one day, finding her from home, he went to Pitigliano to seek her, and met her on the bridge which crosses the stream, just above the cascade. "What  p476 have they been doing at Pitigliano to‑day? asked he. "Much the same as at Sorano, I suppose," was the innocent reply. A guilty conscience and his jealous disposition caused him to misinterpret this answer, and regarding it as a confession, he seized her in his wrath, and hurled her into the headlong torrent. He fled, and was never heard of more; and his villa fell into utter ruin. So says tradition — history may tell another tale.6

Pitigliano, like Toscanella, is an excellent point d'appui, whence to make radiating excursions to the neighbouring sites of interest — Saturnia, Sovana, Sorano, Castro, to wit;​7 and if fortunate in having a decent hospitium. "The Baby" belies his name, for he is a stout fellow, equally removed from first and second childhood; and his wife, Lisa, is one of the most buxom, lively, obliging landladies that ever welcome traveller, or ruled the frying-pan —

Che donna fu di più gaia sembianza?

Their house is no inn — such a convenience exists not at Pitigliano; it is a casa particolare, where you may be entertained for a consideration, moderate enough.

The traveller will not fare so well at Sorano, another Etruscan site, four or five miles to the north-east of Pitigliano. Inn, of course, there is none — for who visits this secluded spot? — but there is its usual substitute, where shelter may be had for the night. Ask for the house of La Farfanti, detta La Livornesa. Here, one large smoke-dried serves for kitchen and salle à manger; and on the upper floor a single chamber, crowded with beds, accommodates the family and guests. I turned from the door to  p477 seek most comfort elsewhere, but in vain; the rain was descending in torrents, and I was fain to return, stipulating for the sole possession of one of the beds — an unheard-of, fantastic demand, which excited great ridicule at my expense, and was not granted without much hesitation. But with a proverb I carried my point — Le ortiche non fan buona salsa, e due piedi non istan bene in una scarpa — "Nettles don't make good sauce, nor can two feet stand well in one shoe." Here accordingly I passed the night, in company with eight men and two women — the former being knights of the spade and plough, who, reeking from their labours, shuffled off their habiliments, and kept up a tuneful chorus of such tibiae pares as nature had furnished them with, till daylight recalled them to the field. Travelling, like "poverty, makes us acquainted with strange bed-fellows."

Let me however do La Farfanti justice, as I did the supper she provided, which would have done credit to the cuisine of the first hotel of Livorno, her native town, and went far to atone for other discomforts. "God never strikes with both hands," says the Spanish proverb. Rarely indeed does the bye-way traveller in Italy meet with such

Mundae sub lare pauperum

as fell to my lot at Sorano.

Sorano stands on a tongue of land at the extreme verge of the Etruscan plain. Cross the deep ravines around it, and you are at once among the mountains. On this side you have volcanic formation — on that, aqueous deposit. Its elevation preserves Sorano from the pestiferous atmosphere, which has depopulated the neighbouring Sovana. The town is small, mean, and filthy, with streets steep, narrow, and tortuous. In the centre rises a precipitous  p478 mass of rock, whose summit commands one of the most romantic scenes in this part of Italy. The town clustering round the base of the height — the grand old feudal castle, with its hoary battlements, crowning the cliffs behind — the fearful precipices and profound chasms at your feet — and the ranges of mountains in front, rising in grades of altitude and majesty, to the sublime icy crest of Monte Amiata.

But the romantic and picturesque beauties of Sorano are not less when seen from below; especially from the road leading to Castel Ottieri, whence the view of the town and castle-crowned cliffs can hardly be rivalled in Italy — that land of rock, ruin, and ravine.

Of antiquities, Sorano has little or nothing to show. There are some traces of an ancient road sunk in the rock beneath the then, which has been supplanted by a modern corkscrew gallery. There are vestiges also of a Roman road in the hollow, in blocks of lava, which lie in the stream. Tombs are not abundant, and with the exception of columbaria, which are unusually numerous, often at great and now inaccessible elevations in the cliffs, they are of no interest, beyond serving to establish the Etruscan antiquity of the site. Most of them are so defaced as to be hardly distinguishable from natural caverns. In the ravine to the west is a narrow ridge of rock, perforated, as at Norchia, so as to assume somewhat of the appearance of a bridge; whence its vulgar name of Il Pontone.

What may have been the ancient name of Sorano, we have no means of determining. Cramer conjectures it may have been Sudertum;​8 but Cluver places that town at Farnese,​9 with equal probability.

The attractions of Sorano to the traveller lie in its scenery  p479 alone. At no ancient site in the volcanic district of Etruria are the cliffs so lofty, the ravines so profound, the scenery so diversified, romantic, and imposing; and it may be safely affirmed that among Etruscan sites in general, though few have so little antiquarian interest, none has greater claims on the artist and lover of the picturesque.10

The Author's Notes:

1 Even Repetti, who in his admirable "Dizionario della Toscana," gives a detailed account of the place, is at a loss to determine its origin; but he rests on literary, not on monumental evidence.

2 Bertius in his edition of Ptolemy (Geog. p72) marks it as the site of Ἤβα — a colony mentioned by that geographer as in the neighbourhood of Saturnia and Suana. But may it not be Caletra, which must have been in this district? Saturnia is said by Livy (XXXIX.54) to have been — in agro Caletrano; and Pitigliano is but ten miles from Saturnia, as the crow flies, and is by nature the most important Etruscan site in this vicinity. Cluver (II p515) suggests Monte Pò, near Scansano, as the site of Eba. Cramer (I. p222) follows him. Neither offer anything on the site of Caletra. Or may not Pitigliano be Statonia? — for it is but a few miles from the Lago Mezzano, and its wine is celebrated in this district of Italy. It is singular, that it is the only recognised Etruscan site, whose modern name possesses all the elements of the ancient and long-lost Vetulonia — P.t.l.n. = V.t.l.n. — but this analogy can be but accidental, as the position of Pitigliano is much too remote from the sea to answer to the site of that early and maritime city of Etruria.​d

3 There is another fragment of the ancient walls on the northern side of the town.

4 At Ponte di S. Pietro on the Fiora, between Pitigliano and Manciano, Campanari has recently made slight but promising excavations. On the heights on the opposite side of the river I observed unequivocal traces of an Etruscan town, with rock-hewn sepulchres and niches around it.

5 Repetti says they are 180 braccia, or nearly 350 feet deep.

6 For an historical sketch of this quarrelsome, tyrannical family and their doings in this part of Italy, see Repetti, v. Pitigliano.

7 Pitigliano is 2½ miles from Sovana, 10 from Manciano, 16 from Saturnia by the high road, 30 from Orbetello, 35 from Grosseto, 18 from Acquapendente.

Thayer's Note: Dennis's distances in kilometers work out to 4 km from Sovana, 16 km from Manciano, 26 km from Saturnia, 48 km from Orbetello, 56 km from Grosseto, 29 km from Acquapendente. In modern units and following today's roads: 7.5 km from Sovana, 18.5 km from Manciano, 34 km from Saturnia, 60 km from Orbetello, 56 km from Grosseto, 29 km from Acquapendente (via Sorano).

The large discrepancy in the distance to Sovana is due to a wide elbow in the modern road where a track cutting directly across the plateau would indeed be about 4 km; that same elbow and another between Sovana and S. Martino sul Fiora together account for much of the longer modern distance to Saturnia. For Orbetello on the other hand I suspect Dennis may be mistaken, since the modern road is fairly straight and it would be very hard to chop 12 km off it to get the figure he gives; the straight-line distance is 42.5 km (26.4 miles).

8 Cramer, Ancient Italy, I p223.

9 Cluver. Ital. Ant. II. p517.

10 About two miles or more from Sorano, to the east, is a ruined town, called Vitozzo. I saw it only from the opposite side of a wide ravine, and can say nothing as to its antiquity; except that the abundance of ruins on the site seems to mark it as chiefly of medieval or later times. The peasants tell you it is very ancient, but they know no more of comparative antiquity than of comparative anatomy.

Thayer's Notes:

a The town is currently home to fewer Jews than are required to form a minyan, but the beautiful synagogue, recently restored, is still an active place of worship, falling under the Grand Rabbi of Livorno. The 2000 census gives the official population of Pitigliano as 4232 for the entire comune, that is, the town proper and the township around it.

b I disagree sharply, as will most people today; Dennis's visit was clearly too brief. See my site on the town.

c Francesco Zuccherelli was a landscape painter of the 18c. He is now pretty much forgotten.

d and not only for the reason Dennis states, but several others, chief among which the gender, which is among the most stable attributes of an Indo-European word. Pitilianum, to use the 11c Latin form that Dennis cites, is neuter, and Vetulonia is feminine.

The ending ‑(i)anum, exceedingly common in Italy, is Latin rather than Etruscan, and almost always denotes the estate (villa) of a Roman family. Now I haven't done any toponymic research, but here, one expects a gens Petilia, and sure enough, several websites on Pitigliano make the connection. (Note to the student: that's a long ways from proof.)

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