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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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 p135  Chapter XXXIX


Noi ce traemo ala cità de Sena,

La quale e posta en parte forte sana;

De ligiadria e bei costumi plena,

E le vaghe done, e huomeni cortesi,

E laer dolciè, lucida, e serena.

— Faccio degli Uberti.

Data sunt ipsis quoque fata sepulcris.

— Juvenal.

These headings of the author's are used here as local links to text on this webpage.
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Siena, not an Etruscan site Etruscan tombs in this district Alphabetical tomb, near Colle Pelasgic alphabet and horn-book Tomb of the Cilnii Montalcino, its tombs and wine

Siena can urge no pretensions to be considered an Etruscan city, that are founded either on historical records, or on extant remains. By ancient writers she is mentioned only as a Roman colony, and as there is no mention of her before the time of Caesar, and as she is styled Sena Julia by the Theodosian Table, the probability is that a colony was first established here by Julius Caesar, or by the second Triumvirate.​1 Nor is there a trace of Etruscan antiquity visible on the site, though there are a few shapeless caves in the cliffs around, which seem to have been mistaken for tombs.2

Siena, therefore, would not have been mentioned among  p136 Etruscan cities, but that it is situated in a district which, at various periods, has yielded treasures of that antiquity; and from its position in the heart of Tuscany, and on the high road from Florence to Rome, it might be made a convenient central point for the exploration of this region.​3 It has two comfortable hotels — Le Armi d'Inghilterra and L'Aquila Nera — all-important in a city so full of medieval interest, whose glorious Cathedral alone might tempt the traveller to a lengthened stay, and whose inhabitants, in spite of Dante's vituperations, are all the stranger could wish to make his sojourn agreeable.

Sixteen miles north of Siena, on the road to Florence, is Poggibonsi, the Podium Bonitii of the middle ages. Between this and Castellina, a town about seven or eight miles to the east, Etruscan tombs have been found. Near the site of a ruined city, called Salingolpe, as long since as 1507, a sepulchre was opened, which, from the description given by an eye-witness, must have been very like the celebrated Regulini tomb at Cervetri. It was in a mound, and was vaulted over with uncemented masonry of large size, the courses converging till they met. It was about forty feet in length, six in breadth, and ten in height. It had also two side-chambers, so as to form in its plan the figure of a cross; and one of these, about ten feet cube, was a very "magazine" of urns and vases, full of ashes; and the other contained more valuable relics, "the adornments of a queen" — to wit, a mirror, a hair-bodkin, and bracelets, all of silver, with abundance of leaf in the same metal — a square cinerary urn, with a golden grasshopper in the middle, and another in each of the corners — sundry precious stones — boxes of rings in a bronze covered vase  p137 or pot, perhaps one of the rare caskets in that metal — a female bust in alabaster, with a gold wire crossed on her bosom — and many cinerary urns of stone and marble, the finest of which belonged to a female. The long passage in this sepulchre was quite empty.4

In the year 1723, at a spot called La Fattoria di Lilliano, about half way between Poggibonsi and Castellina, some Etruscan urns were brought to light, but they were not of remarkable character.5

Still nearer Siena, on the road to Colle, and hard by the Abbadia all' Isola, a most remarkable tomb was discovered in the year 1698. It contained an abundance of human bones; but whether loose or in sarcophagi does not appear from the record we have of it. It seems to have been a deep square pit or shaft, with an entrance cut obliquely down to its floor. But the most extraordinary thing about it was, that on three of its walls were inscriptions in large characters, painted on the rock, not horizontally, as usual, but in long lines from the top to the bottom of the chamber. Yet more strange — two of these inscriptions had no reference to the dead, but were an alphabet and a spelling-book! — like the curious pot found at Cervetri, and now in the Gregorian Museum​6 — nor were they Etruscan, as would be expected from the locality, but pronounced by the learned to be early Greek or Pelasgic!​7 Here is a fac-simile of a copy of the alphabet made at the time the  p138 tomb was opened. It will be seen that the alphabet is unfinished; the letters after the omicron having faded from the wall before the tomb was discovered.

[image ALT: A one-line inscription in Etruscan characters, starting with a recognizable 'ABCDE'. It is an alphabet found inscribed on a tomb.]

The next line bore the interesting intelligence "ma, mi, me, mu, na, no," in letters which ran from right to left.8

Why an alphabet and hornbook were thus preserved within a tomb, I leave to the imagination of my readers to conceive. Few, however, will be satisfied with Passeri's explanation — that it was the freak of some Etruscan schoolboy, who, finding the wall ready prepared for painting, mischievously scribbled thereon his last lesson.9

Five miles east of Siena, near the ruined Castle of Montaperti, ever memorable for the great victory of the Ghibellines in 1260 —

Lo strazio e il grande scempio
Che fece l'Arbia colorata in rosso —

was discovered in 1728, in a little mound, a tomb of the  p139 Cilnii — the great Etruscan family to which Maecenas belonged. It had fifteen square urns or "ash-chests" of travertine, and seventeen cinerary pots of earthenware, almost all with inscriptions; but the urns were remarkably plain, without figures on their lids, and there was nothing in the sepulchre to mark it as belonging to one of the most illustrious families of Etruria, which possessed supreme power in the land.​10 The name was written Cvenle, or Cvenles —

[image ALT: A seven-character Etruscan inscription, explicated in the text on this page.]

or more rarely Cvelne;​11 though the Etruscan form was sometimes analogous to, or even identical with the Roman.​12 On the door-posts of this tomb, as in the Grotta de' Volunni at Perugia, were carved inscriptions — a sort of general epitaph, in which the name of the family occurs.

At Montalcino, a small city on the heights to the right of the road from Siena to S. Quirico, and about twenty miles south of the former city, Etruscan tombs have been  p140 opened in times past, though no excavations have been made, as far as I can learn, for many years. A great part of the Etruscan urns in the Museum of Leyden came from this site. They are all of travertine and belong to different Etruscan families.13

Montalcino has now no antiquities to show, and, indeed, little more to boast of than her muscadel wine, lauded by Redi, as drink for the fair of Paris and London —

Il leggiadretto,

Il sì divino


Di Montalcino.

Un tal vino

Lo destino

Per le dame di Parigi;

E per quelle,

Che si belle

Rallegrar fanno il Tamigi.

Castelnuovo dell' Abate, seven miles further south, is another site which has yielded Etruscan tombs in the past century.14

Near Pienza, a town on the heights to the east of San Quirico,​a and seven miles west of Montepulciano, was found in 1779 a tomb of the family of "Caes" (Caius).15

In the district of Siena have been found other sepulchres of the olden time; one of the family of "Lecne" (Licinius), and another of that of "Veti" (Vettius).16

The Author's Notes:

1 See Repetti, V. p295. Sena is mentioned as a colony by Pliny (III.8); Tacitus (Hist. IV.45); and Ptolemy (p72, ed. Bert.). Dempster (II. p342) ascribes its origin to the Senonian Gauls, but without any authority, though not confounding this city as others have done with Sena Gallica, now Sinigaglia on the Adriatic, which derived its name from that people — Senorum de nomine Sena — Sil. Ital. VIII.455; XV.552; Polyb. II.19; cf. Appian. Bell. Civ. I.88. Abeken (Mittelitalien, p33) thinks Sena was probably of Etruscan origin, and a dependency of Volaterrae; but I see no valid grounds for this opinion.

2 Sepulchres of Etruria, p508.

3 Siena is 40 miles from Florence, 16 from Poggibonsi, 36 from Volterra, 39 from Arezzo, 39 from Massa Marittima, and 48 from Grosseto.

4 Santi Marmocchini quoted by Buonarroti, p96, Explic. ad Dempster. tom. II. Gori (Mus. Etr. Class II. tab. III) gives a plan of the tomb with differs a little from the description given above. He says that the urns show it to be of the Meminian or Memmian family — in Etruscan — "Memna."

5 Buonarroti, p41, ap. Dempst.

6 Ut supra, page 53‑5.

7 So says Lepsius (Ann. Inst. 1836, p195, et seq.) Lanzi (II. p513) called it a mixture of Etruscan and Latin. Lepsius seems to speak of this tomb as if it were still in existence, but it is now mere matter of history. It was reclosed and its site forgotten even in Maffei's day, more than a century since.

8 Buonarroti, p36, tab. 92, ap. Dempst. tom. II; Lanzi II. p512; Maffei, Osserv. Lett. V. p32. The three inscribed walls of the tomb were divided by vertical lines into broad stripes or bands, in which were the inscriptions, — seven in all. Though each commenced at the top of the wall, the letters were not placed upright, as in Chinese inscriptions, but ran sometimes from left to right, as in the above alphabet, sometimes vice versâ.

9 Passeri, ap. Gori Mus. Etrus. III. p108. Nor can it be supposed that this Etruscan tomb presents an instance of academical tuition, like an Egyptian one at Beni Hassan, described by Sir G. Wilkinson, — "On the wall of one of the tombs is a Greek alphabet, with the letters transposed in various ways, evidently by a person teaching Greek, who appears to have found these cool recesses as well suited for the resort of himself and his pupils, as was any stoa, or the grove of Academus." Modern Egypt, II. p53. There is no reason to believe that this Etruscan tomb was used for another than its original purpose, by a different race, and in a subsequent age; for the palaeography shows the inscriptions to be very ancient, probably coeval with the sepulchre itself.

10 Liv. X.3 — Cilnium gens praepotens.

Silius Italicus, VII.29 —

Cilnius, Arreti Tyrrhenis ortus in oris,

Clarum nomen erat.

For the royal origin of Maecenas, see Horat. Od. I.1; III.29, 1; Sat. I.6, 1‑4; Propert. III.9, 1; Sil. Ital. X.40; Mart. XII.4, 2; cf. Macrob. Saturn. II.14. Etruscan "royalty" must be understood merely as the supreme power delegated to one of their body by the confederate princes or Lucumones.

11 It seems at first sight as if this metathesisº were an error of some of the copiers or transcribers, who, as appears from a manuscript account of this tomb in the Archaeological Institute at Rome, were not always well acquainted with the Etruscan character. But Lanzi (Sagg. II pp366‑7), who copied the original inscriptions, as well as Gori (Mus. Etrus. III. pp96‑7, cl. II. tab. 12‑17), make precisely the same transpositions. Müller (I. pp404, 416) thinks that the Etruscan form of Maecenas' name must have been "Cvelne (or as he writes it, Cfelne) Maecnatial," — the first being his patronymic, the second his mother's family name with the usual adjectival termination.

12 As is proved by an inscription on one of the recently found sepulchres of Sovana, where the name is written "Cilnia;" though the more peculiar form seems also to occur in the same necropolis. Vol. I p500.

13 Bull. Inst. 1840, pp97‑104. The families mentioned in the epitaphs are the "Apuni," (Aponius), "Tite" or "Teti" (Titus), "Cae" (Caius), "Ancarni" (Ancharius), "Laucani" (Lucanus), and others whose names are not fully legible.

14 Lanzi, Saggio II. p368. One was of the family of the "Arntle" (Arruntius?).

15 Lanzi, II. p373. Pienza is conjectured by Cramer (I. p221) to be the Manliana of Ptolemy and the Itineraries.

16 Lanzi, II. pp360, 361. The precise localities of these tombs are not mentioned.

Thayer's Note:

a Pienza, a town on the heights to the east of San Quirico: One of the delights of reading Dennis is in watching him yawn at Roman antiquities, sneeze at medieval stuff, and totally ignore anything later. Pienza of course is one of the most famous Renaissance sites in all of Italy, in which the entire town of Corsignano was rebuilt as planned urbanism by Pope Pius II, who then commemorated himself in its modern name. Well worth the trip — but you'd never know it from our Etruscan-bedazzled author.

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