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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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 p115  Chapter VI



Moenia contigimus victa, Camille, tibi.

— Ovid. Amor.

Poi giunsi in una valle incolta e fiera,

Di ripe cinta e spaventose tane;

Che nel mezzo sù un sasso havea un castello,

Forte, e ben posto, e a maraviglia bello.

— Ariosto.

From Nepi, which is thirty miles from Rome, the high road runs direct to Civita Castellana, a distance of nearly eight miles; but to the traveller on horse or foot I would recommend a route, by which he will save two miles. On passing the bridge of Nepi, let him turn immediately to the right; a mile of lane-scenery with fine views of Nepi will carry him to Castel di Sant' Elia,º a small village, which looks much like an Etruscan site, and was perhaps a castellum dependent on Nepete. The road to it and beyond it seems in some parts to have been ancient, cut through the tufo; there are few tombs by its side, but here and there portions of masonry, serving as fences to the road, may be observed, which are of ancient blocks, often found in such situations. He then enters on a bare green down, rich in the peculiar beauties of the Campagna. A ravine yawns on either hand. That on the right, dark with wood, is more than usually deep, gloomy, and grand. Beyond to the left runs the high road to Civita; and in that direction the plain — in winter an uniform sheet of dark rich brown from the oak-woods  p116 which cover it, studded here and there with some tower or spire shooting up from the foliage — stretches to the foot of the Ciminian Mount. Ronciglione and Capraruola gleam in sunshine on its slopes, each beneath one of its black wooded peaks. The towers of Civita Castellana rise before him. Towns shine out from the distant mountains of Umbria. The plain on the right is variegated in hue, and broken in surface. Soracte towers in dark and lonely majesty in the midst; and the chain of Apennines in grey or snow-capped masses billows along the horizon. A shepherd, shaggy with goat-skins, stands leaning on his staff, watching the passing traveller; and with his flock and huge baying dogs, occupies the foreground of the picture. Just so has Dante beautifully drawn it —

"Le capre

Tacite all' ombra mentre che 'l sol ferve

Guardate dal pastor che 'n su la verga

Poggiato s'è, e lor poggiato serve."

— Purg. XXVIII. 79.

All in the shade

The goats lie silent, 'neath the fervid noon,

Watched by the goatherd, who upon his staff

Stands leaning; and thus resting, tendeth them.

But the beauty and calm of the scenery seem at variance with the minds of the inhabitants, for a stone-piled cross by the way-side records that here

"Some shrieking victim hath

Poured forth his blood beneath the assassin's knife."

To reach Civita Castellana by this road, you are obliged to cross the wide and deep ravine which forms its southern boundary. The high-road, however, continues along the ridge, approaching the town by level ground, and enters it beneath the walls of the octagonal fortress — the masterpiece of Sangallo, and the political Bastille of Rome in the nineteenth century.

 p117  What traveller who has visited Rome, has not passed through Civita Castellana? There is scarcely any object in Italy better known than its bridge — none assuredly is more certain to find a place in every tourist's sketch-book; and well does it merit it. Though little more than a century old, this bridge or viaduct is worthy of the magnificence of Imperial Rome; and combines with the ravine, the town on its verge, the distant Campagna, Soracte, and the Apennines, to form one of the choicest unions of nature and art to be found in that land where, above all others, their beauties seem most closely wedded. Yet beyond this, little or nothing is known of Civita Castellana. Not one in five hundred who passes through it, and halts awhile to admire the superb view from the bridge, or even descends from his carriage to transfer it to his sketch-book, ever visits the tombs by the Ponte Terrano. Still fewer descend to the Ponte di Treia; and not one in a thousand makes the tour of the ravines, or thinks of this as a site abounding in Etruscan antiquities. My aim is to direct attention to the objects of antiquarian interest with which Civita Castellana is surrounded.

Very near the bridge, and on the verge of the cliff on which the town is built, is a portion of the ancient walls, of tufo, in emplecton, seventeen courses in height, and precisely similar in the size and arrangement of its blocks, to the walls of Sutri and Nepi, already described. It forms an angle at the verge of the precipice, and is nothing more than an embankment, or revêtement, to the ground within.

If you here enter the town, and continue down the long street on the left, you will arrive at the nunnery of St. Agata, at the north-east angle of the plateau, on which Civita is built. By its side is a road cut in the rock, which a very little experience will tell you is Etruscan. It has on one side a water-course or gutter sunk in the tufo,  p118 and which, after running high above the road for some distance, discharges its waters over the precipice. There are tombs also — genuine Etruscan tombs — on either hand, though the forms of some are almost obliterated, and others are sadly injured by the purposes they are now made to serve — shepherds' huts, cattle-stalls, and hog-sties. They are mostly in the cliff, which, as the road descends rapidly to the valley, rises high above your head. Here, too, opening in the cliff, are the mouths of several sewers, similar to those of Sutri and the Etruscan sites described.1

It was probably those subterranean passages that gave rise to the notion of this being the site of Veii, being, perhaps, ignorantly mistaken for the cuniculus of Camillus; but such sewers are to be found beneath the walls of almost every Etruscan city in the tufo district of the land, where the rock would admit of easy excavation. Here you are at the extreme angle of the plateau of Civita Castellana; the ravine which is spanned by the celebrated bridge opens on one hand, another and wider glen lies on the other, bounding the plateau to the east.​2 The road passes two  p119 ruined gateways of the middle ages, and winds down into this valley, through which flows the Treia, spanned by a neat bridge of three arches. Here stands a large building in ruins, once a Locanda, destroyed by the French. The table-land of Civita here rises above your head in a range of steep, lofty cliffs of red tufo, based on a stratum of white sandy breccia. At the brow of the cliff, just above the bridge, is a long line of wall of the middle ages, in one place based on more ancient masonry of larger blocks, evidently part of the Etruscan walls, the very "moenia alta" sung by Ovid.​3 A sewer in the cliff beneath them tends to confirm their antiquity.

This line of cliff runs due north and south for some distance — it then suddenly turns at right angles, where a glen opens to the west, and the streamlet of the Saleto, or, as it is also called, the Ricano, issues from it to unite its waters with those of the Treia. It is a lonely, and wild, but attractive spot. No sign of man save in the stepping-stones over the stream, or in the narrow track through the meadows or brushwood. Not a sound to remind you of the neighbourhood of the town over your head. The lofty cliffs on either hand bare their broad faces with a contrasted expression — smiling or scowling as they catch or lose the sun.

Here it is advisable to cross the stream to get a better view of the cliffs of the city. Soon after entering this glen you may perceive a portion of ancient wall sunk in a hollow of the cliff, and filling a natural gap. You may count as many as twelve courses. A little beyond you  p120 meet with another piece in a similar situation, and of five or six courses. You cannot inspect the masonry as you could wish, on account of the height of the cliff, which rises more than two hundred feet above your head, and, as the wall is at the very brink of the precipice, it is obviously not to be viewed from above. A practised eye, however, has no difficulty in determining its character — the difference between it and the medieval masonry, a long line of which presently follows, is most decided. Under this wall, and half-way up the cliff, are many tombs, with traces also of sewers.

At the Ponte Saleto, where you meet the short cut from Civita to Nepi, you cross the stream, and take the road to the city, passing many tombs hollowed in the rock, resembling those near the Ponte Terrano, which will presently be described. The cliff here turns to the north-west, and a path runs along its edge, outside the modern walls. On this side there is rather a natural fosse than a ravine, for the cliff rises about one hundred feet from the lower part of the isthmus which unites the plateau of Civita with the plain of the Campagna. It is probable that wherever the cliffs were not sufficiently deep they were scarped by art, to increase the natural strength of the position — not so difficult a task as might be supposed, as tufo has a tendency to split vertically. Remains of the ancient walls may be observed in the foundations of the modern, from which they are easily distinguished by the superior massiveness of the blocks, by their different arrangement, and by the absence of cement. It will be remarked that all these fragments of ancient walling either exist in situations at the verge of the precipice, most difficult of access, or serve as foundations to more modern walls; whence it may be inferred that the rest of the ancient fortifications have been applied to other purposes; and a glance at the  p121 houses in the town suffices to show that, like Sutri, Civita is in some measure built of ancient materials.

Passing round the castle of Sangallo, you re-enter the town by an adjoining gate, where are traces of an ancient road cut in the rock at the verge of the precipice, which bounds the city on the north; its character marked by the tombs in its side. The wall of the city must here have been on the top of the rock in which the tombs are hollowed and the road sunk; and it seems most probable that here was the site of a gate, and that the modern fortress stands without the walls of the ancient city. It is curious to observe how close to their cities the Etruscans buried their dead — even up to the very gates; though very rarely, perhaps never, within the walls, as was the custom in some of the cities of Greece, and occasionally permitted at Rome.​4 These tombs are large conical niches or pits, eight or nine feet high, by six in diameter. They are very common in the tufo district of Etruria, and are also met with in the neighbourhood of the ancient cities of Latium, in the Campagna south of the Tiber, and also in Sicily. Some have supposed them depositories for grain,​5 and were they found only as close to ancient cities as in this  p122 case, this would be probable enough; but around Civita there are others in very different situations; and having seen them on other Etruscan sites, far outside the ancient walls, and in the midst of undoubted tombs, I have not the smallest doubt of their sepulchral character. Besides, they have, almost invariably, above the cone a small niche of the usual sepulchral form, as if for a cippus, or for a votive offering. I think it not unlikely that they contained figures of stone or terra-cotta, probably the effigies of the deceased, which were at the same time sarcophagi, holding the ashes of the dead — such figures as may be seen in the Casuccini museum at Chiusi.​a

Instead of entering the town, follow the brink of the precipice to the Ponte Terrano — a bridge which spans the ravine, where it contracts and becomes a mere bed to the Rio Maggiore. It has a single arch in span, but a double one in height, the one which carries the road across being raised above another of more ancient date. Over all runs an aqueduct of modern construction, which spares the Civitonici the trouble of fetching water from the bottom of the ravines.

The cliffs above and below the bridge are perforated in every direction with holes — doorways innumerable, leading into spacious tombs, — sepulchral niches of various forms and sizes — here, rows of squares, side by side, like the port-holes of a ship of war — there, long and shallow recesses, one over the other, like an open cupboard, or a book-case, where the dead were literally laid upon the shelf, — now again, upright like pigeon-holes, — or still taller and narrower, like the créneaux in a fortification. This seems to have been the principal necropolis of the Etruscan city. If you enter any of the tombs, which are all in the faces of the low cliffs into which the ground breaks, you will find one general plan prevailing,  p123 characteristic of the site. Unlike those of Sutri, where the door opens at once into the tomb, it here leads into a small antechamber, seldom as much as five feet square, which has an oblong hole in the ceiling, running up like a chimney to the level of the ground above. The tomb itself is generally spacious — from twelve to twenty feet square, or of an oblong form — never circular — mostly with a massive square pillar in the centre, hewn out of the rock, or, in many cases, with a thick partition-wall of rock instead, dividing the tomb into two equal parts. The front face of this, whether it be pillar or projecting wall, is generally hollowed out, sometimes in recesses, long and shallow, and one over the other, to contain bodies, sometimes in upright niches, for cinerary urns or votive offerings. Around the walls are long recesses for bodies, sometimes in upright niches, just as in the catacombs and tombs of the early Christians, forcibly reminding you, by their size, form, and arrangement, of the berths in a steamer's cabin. The door-posts are frequently grooved to hold the stone slabs with which the tombs were closed. The chimney in the ceiling of the antechamber probably served several purposes — as a spiramen, or vent-hole, to let off the effluvium of the decaying bodies or burnt ashes — as a means of pouring in libations to the Manes of the dead — and as a mode of entrance on emergency after the doors were closed. That they were used for the latter purpose is evident, for in the sides of these chimneys may be seen small niches, about a foot or eighteen inches one above the other, manifestly cut for the hands and feet.​b These chimneys were probably left open for some time, till the effluvium had passed off, and then were covered in, generally with large hewn blocks. Similar trap-doorways to tombs are found occasionally at Corneto, Ferento, Cervetri, and elsewhere in Etruria, but nowhere in such numbers as at  p124 Civita Castellana and Falleri, where they form a leading characteristic of the sepulchres.6

A few of these tombs have a vestibule or open chamber in front, sometimes with a cornice in relief, benches of rock against the walls for the support of sarcophagi, and niches recessed above, probably for votive offerings. In one instance there is a row of these niches, five on each side the doorway, high and narrow, like loopholes for musketry, save that they do not perforate the rock. Sometimes a large sarcophagus is hollowed out of a mass of rock. It is not uncommon to find graves of the same form sunk in the rock in front of the tomb, probably for the bodies of the slaves of the family, who, in death as in life, seem to have lain at their masters' doors.

In the front wall of the tomb next to that with the row of niches, is an inscription in Etruscan letters, — "Tucthnu" — which I do not recognise as an Etruscan name. It is probable that this is but part of the original inscription, the rest being obliterated. The letters retain traces of the red paint with which, as on the sarcophagi and urns generally, they were filled, to render them more legible. No other Etruscan tomb could I find on this site with an inscription on its exterior; it does not seem to have been the custom in this part of Etruria, as in some necropoleis north of the Ciminian, to engrave epitaphs on the rock-hewn façades of the sepulchres.

On the inner wall of a large tomb, close to the Ponte Terrano, is an Etruscan inscription of two lines rudely graven on the rock, and in unusually large letters, about a foot in height.​7 It is around one of the long body-niches,  p125 if I may so call them, which are hollowed in the walls of this tomb in three tiers, and is of importance as it proves these niches to be of Etruscan formation, and not early Christian, as many have imagined. The same is proved even more decidedly by the tombs of Cervetri — that of the Tarquins, for example.

From the tombs on this site we learn that it was the custom here to bury rather than to burn the dead — the latter rite seems to have been more prevalent at Sutrium. These differences are worthy of notice, as every Etruscan city had its peculiar mode of sepulture; though there is in general an affinity among those in similar situations.

The Ponte Terrano is a modern structure, but on an ancient basement. Observing some ancient blocks below the northern pier, I was led to examine it more minutely; and found that the whole pier, to the height of ten courses and to the width of twenty-three feet, was of the same emplecton masonry — Etruscan in style and in the size and arrangement of the blocks. Above it is a small irregular masonry of modern times. The opposite pier is of rock, overhung with ivy and ilex. The lower arch is of the middle ages, so that the bridge unites in itself the work of three distinct epochs. Its antiquity has scarcely been noticed by former writers.8

Whoever would see the chief beauties of Civita Castellana, should descend into the deep ravine on this side of the town. The most convenient path is near the great bridge or viaduct. It is a zigzag track, cut through the tufo, and of ancient formation, as is proved by the water-troughs by its side, and the tombs in the rocks.

 p126  From the bottom of the descent the bridge is seen to great advantage, spanning the ravine with its stupendous double tier of arches, with a grandeur that few aqueducts, save the Pont du Gard, can surpass. A mimic cataract rushes down the cliff to join the stream — a rustic mill or two nestling beneath the bridge, are the only other buildings visible, and contrast their humility with its majesty, as if to show at one glance the loftiest and meanest efforts of man's constructive power. Whoever has seen the magnificent Tajo of Ronda, in the south of Spain, will recognise immediately some resemblance here; but this ravine is by no means so profound — the bridge is of a different character, wider, lighter, less solid, and massive — and here are no cascades, and lines of ivy-grown mills, as on the Rio Verde. Nevertheless, there is something in the general features of the ravine which will not fail to recal to the mind of him who has seen it, the glorious Tajo de Ronda.

The cliffs, both above and below the bridge, are excavated into tombs and niches of various forms, but few have retained their original shapes. It must be confessed that the Etruscans often displayed great taste in selecting the sites of their sepulchres. Where could be found a more impressive, a more appropriate cemetery, than a ravine like this — a vast grave in itself, sunk two hundred and fifty feet below the surface — full of grandeur and gloom? Here, far below the noise and tumult of the city, they might sit by the tombs of their departed relatives, listening to the incessant murmurs of the stream, which to their imaginations, so prone to symbolize, might seem an emblem of eternity. The lofty perpendicular cliffs shutting them out from the world, the narrow strip of sky overhead, the subdued light, the damp chill, would combine with the sacredness of the spot to impress solemn feelings upon their minds. The wild pigeons nestling in  p127 the crannies of the precipices, and wheeling above their heads, to their rapt fancies might seem the souls of the departed, haunting the neighbourhood of their earthly abodes.9

To the modern traveller, the ravine yields no such associations, but is fertile in the picturesque. Ascend the course of the stream, and just above a rustic bridge you obtain a fine view of the Ponte Terrano spanning the glen in the distance, the Castle cresting the precipice on the left, and a ruined tower frowning down upon you from the opposite height. The cliffs rise on either hand, of yellow and red tufo, dashed with grey, white, or dark brown, with occasional ledges of green; the whole crested with ilex, and draped here and there with ivy, clematis, and wild vine. Below the great bridge you have still more of the picturesque. The walls of warm yellow cliff, variegated with foliage, here approach so close as to make this a mere chasm — the fragment of Etruscan walling crowns the precipice on the right — huge masses of cliff fallen from above, lie about in wild confusion, almost choking the hollow — tall trees shoot up from among them, by the banks of the stream, but are dwarfed into shrubs by the vast height of the all-shadowing cliffs.

There is no lack of accommodation at Civita Castellana. The principal inn, La Posta, has received a bad name from  p128 Murray's "Hand-book," on account of the alleged insolence of the landlord, but I have met travellers who tell a different tale. If there be any hesitation on this score, let the traveller go to La Croce Bianca, in the Gran Piazza, where he will be certain to find clean and comfortable accommodation, and every requisite civility and attention from the buxom landlady. Sausages are not now famous here, as in ancient times.​10 Civita Castellana contains scarcely more than two thousand souls, and extends over but a small part of the area occupied by the Etruscan city; which is now for the most part covered with gardens and vineyards. This city, from its size, must have been of considerable importance among those of Southern Etruria. It has been supposed to be Veii, and there is an inscription in the cathedral to that effect, calling the church "Veiorum Basilica;" but this opinion has not the slightest foundation — its distance from Rome being three times greater than that of Veii, as mentioned by Dionysius.​11 Gell supposes it to have been Fescennium, but gives no reason for his opinion, in which he follows Müller and Nardini.​12 There is much more probability that it is the ancient Falerium, or Faleri, so prominent in the early history of the Roman Republic. My reasons for holding this opinion will be given in the next chapter, when I treat of the ruined town, a few miles distant, now called Falleri.

The Author's Notes:

1 The first of these is 5 ft. 6 in. in height, 2 ft. 8 in. wide at the bottom, tapering upwards to 1 ft. 6 in. It runs into the rocks some little distance, and then rises in an upright square chimney, into which another passage opens horizontally above. These are the usual dimensions and characteristics of these sewers, which are found on all the ancient sites of the Campagna, even in the Capitoline hill of Rome.

2 Gell points out this angle of the cliff pierced by tombs and sewers as the site of the ancient city (which he supposes to have been Fescennium), and adds, "This platform seems to have been only accessible at one angle, which united it with the height of Civita Castellana by a narrow and very defensible isthmus. Travellers seem to have overlooked this position, and the numerous and unequivocal remains of the ancient city that are to be found here, and have been surprised at finding few or no antiquities in the modern town." (I. p292.) Yet, having clearly intimated his opinion that the city occupied this corner of the plateau only, he remarks in the following passage, that "ruins of the walls of Fescennium may be observed behind the post-house," alluding to the piece of wall near the bridge which I have already mentioned. It is evident that Gell never made the tour of the height of Civita Castellana, or he would have observed unequivocal traces of the ancient city in several places widely distant, proving that it was not confined to a mere corner of the plateau, but extended over the whole space, whose limits are defined by natural boundaries, and was thus one of the largest cities in the south of Etruria. The peninsular platform, which he mistook for the site of the entire city, was probably that of the Arx.

3 Ovid. Amor. III., Eleg. XIII. 34

4 For this custom in Greece, see Becker, Charicles. Excurs. sc. IX. At Rome it was forbidden by the Twelve Tables to bury or burn the dead within the walls, but the privilege was occasionally granted to a few, illustrious for their deeds or virtues. Cic. de Leg. II.23.; Plut. Publicola.

Thayer's Note: The Greek custom is also found in Magna Graecia at Tarentum, but was so exceptional that the ancients themselves felt it necessary to explain it by an oracle. See Polybius, VIII.28.5 ff.

5 The corn-pitsº for which these tombs have been taken were called σειροὶ or σιροὶ by the Greeks of Cappadocia and Thrace. Varro, de Re Rust., I. cap. 57; Eurip. Phryxus. 4. But these Pollux (X, cap. v., p428) mentions among the parts of a city, with cellars, wells, bridges, gates, vaults; whence we may conclude they were within the walls. Such pits are still known in Sicily by the name of Sili. Müller (Etrusk. III.4, 9, 10) thinks there was some relation between such corn-pits and the Mundus, into which the first-fruits were thrown; and suggests that the Mundus — the gates of the unseen world — was, according to the original idea, a corn-pit also; and that the Etruscans, to whom he would trace the Mundus, believed in a similar relation between the blessings of the earth and the workings of the world below, to that which lies at the bottom of the Eleusinian and other myths of the Greeks.

6 The tombs of Phrygia, described by Steuart (Ancient Monuments of Lydia and Phrygia, pl. vii.), had similar trap-doors above, but they had no other mode of entrance, the façade having merely a false doorway, as in the tombs of Castel d'Asso and Norchia.

7 It is given by Buonarroti (ap. Dempst. I., tav. 82, p26), who visited it in 1691. Gori and Lanzi give copies of the same, — the latter with a slightly different reading (Saggio, II. p463).

8 Gell and even Nibby seem to have overlooked it. Westphal alone (Römische Kampagne, p139) mentions it as ancient.

9 It is supposed, not without reason, that the souls of the deceased are sometimes symbolised on the monuments as birds, especially doves. Ann. Inst. 1842, p107. — Welcker. cf. Micali, Ant. Pop. Ital. III., p85, tav. LVII. Micali is of opinion that the syrens so often represented on the early vases and bronzes of Etruria, are symbols of the soul (Mon. Ined., p256). He states that the Parsees represented the disembodied soul as a fabulous bird, like a Syren — even called in their language "Sireng," and quotes De Hammer in proof of his assertion. Curious, indeed, if true! That doves were emblems of divinities in oriental mythology is well known. Mithras, the great deity of the ancient Persians, was so symbolized. Ann. Inst. 1833, p96. Doves were also supposed to be the utterers of the oracles of Dodona, and of Jupiter Ammon in Libya. Herod. II.55‑57.

10 Varro (L. L. V.111) says they were called Falisci ventres. So also Martial. IV. epig., 46.8., cf. Stat. Silv., IV.9.35.

11 II. p116, ed. Sylb.

12 Gell, I. p290.

Thayer's Notes:

a I do not know (yet) whether the Etruscan Museum at Chiusi is the successor to the museum mentioned by Dennis, but it contains a large number of such sarcophagi: so large in fact that upon examination a few years ago, it became apparent that many were fakes obligingly created by locals to meet the demand. The museum was closed for some time while the situation was sorted out; but has since reopened, purged of the fakes except for two or three, now clearly identified as such, kept on display for our instruction.

Chiusi's Etruscan Museum is well worth the visitor's time. See this page for further details and a photo of one of these sarcophagi.

b 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 fairly good photograph of one.

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Page updated: 10 Dec 08