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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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 p163  Chapter IX


By the rushy-fringed bank,
Where grows the willow and the osier dank,
My chariot stays.


Of the ancient history of Horta, we have no record, unless the notice by Virgil, the application of which to this town has been doubted, be received as historical.​1 We know, however, from better authority than that of the Mantuan bard, namely, from its extant monuments, that Horta was an Etruscan city, and the archaic character of those remains even leads us to regard it as among the most ancient in the land. The only other mention of it is by Pliny, who cites it among the "inland colonies" of Etruria;​2 but we learn from inscriptions that it was one of the military colonies of Augustus.

Orte lies on the right bank of the Tiber, about twelve miles above Ponte Felice, and crowns the summit of a long  p164 narrow isolated ridge of tufo rock. Beneath the walls of the town this ridge breaks into naked cliffs, and then sinks gradually in slopes clad with olives and vines to meet the Tiber and the plain. Viewed from the north or south its situation appears very similar to that of Orvieto, though far from being so elevated and imposing, but from the east or west it has a less commanding though more picturesque appearance. At the western end the ridge is particularly narrow, terminating in a mere long wall of cliff, called La Rocca, which communicates with the city by a viaduct. Thus the plan of the whole takes the form of a battledore, of which the handle is the Rocca and the body the city. Orte is still a place of some importance; and though its air in summer-time be in no good repute, it retains its population throughout the year. The only place of entertainment for the traveller is the "Antica Trattoria e Locanda" of the Bell, kept by a buxom, attentive hostess, Caterina Ripetti; but "it is not enough to have a clean table-cloth;" for if you make a tolerable meal by day, you furnish forth a dainty feast by night to thousands of hungry banqueters, whose nimbleness gets them off scot-free, though credit is not the order of the house, as is pompously set forth in the cucina —

"Credenza è morta —
Il creditor l' ha uccisa —
Amico, abbi pazienza, piacer ti farò, ma non credenza. —"

"Here Credit is dead, it
Is killed by the creditor;
Here I will make you right jolly and mellow;
But not one penn'orth on tick, my good fellow!"

Orte preserves no vestiges of its ancient walls, nor is there a sign of high antiquity in either of its three gates. Nothing of classic times, in fact, is to be seen within the  p165 walls save a few Roman relics. The Ortani show a house on the walls as Etruscan, but — credat Judaeus! Let no one, however, express such a doubt within the walls of Orte, for he will have to combat not merely the prejudices of her 3000 inhabitants, but a formidable array of piety and learning in her clergy.

Odi, vede, e tace

Se vuoi viver in pace.

These gentlemen, whose want of experience in such matters may well excuse this blunder, deserve all credit for the interest they take in the antiquities of their town, and to the learned canon Don Giovanni Vitali I am especially indebted for his courtesy in furnishing me with information about the excavations which have been made at Orte, and in giving me copies of inscriptions there brought to light which his antiquarian zeal has preserved from oblivion. What little I have to say of the Etruscan antiquities of Orte, as scarcely anything is now to be seen, I derive from his lips, and from those of Signor Brugiotti, a gentleman who took part in these excavations.

To the south of the town, at the distance of a mile or more, rise lofty, cliff-bound heights, apparently ranges of hills, but in fact the extremity of the high table-land of the Campagna. Here, near the Convent of Bernardines, a few tombs are seen in the cliffs, and in the rocks on the plain above are others, said to resemble those of Castel d'Asso, hereafter to be described, having a false moulded doorway in the façade, an open chamber beneath it, and the sepulchre itself below all, under­ground. Excavations were made in this plain in 1837, with no great profit. They were carried forward, however, more success­fully by an association of the townsmen, under the direction of Signor Arduini, on a still loftier height to the south-west  p166 of Orte, near the Capuchin Convent, where the tombs had no external indications, but lay beneath the surface of the ground. The articles found were similar in character to those from the neighbouring site of Bomarzo — no figured pottery, none at least with Greek paintings, but common and rude ware of every form and description, many articles of glass, and abundance of bronzes. Among the latter were candelabra of great elegance and beauty, now in the Gregorian Museum at Rome, tripods, mirrors, vases with figured handles, and small statues of deities. A winged Minerva, with an owl in her hand, is unique in metal, though the goddess is so represented on some painted vases. A leaden spade, which must have been a votive offering, is curious as the type of those still in use in this part of the country. Alabastra of glass, figured blue and white. Eggs in an entire state, — often found in Etruscan tombs. A singular jar of earthenware, hermetically sealed, and half-full of liquid, which was heard when the jar was shaken, and when it was inverted would exude from a porous part in drops of limpid water. If testimony be here trustworthy, this must be the most ancient liquid relic extant. What it was originally is not to be determined. Water it can hardly have been, or why so carefully seal it? If it were wine, it must have been of a venerable age in old Cato's time, too "languid" to have thawed his virtue, or to have tickled Horace's palate. Were it once tawny as a Moor, twenty and odd centuries in bottle would suffice to render it as pale as any epicure could desire, with proportionate mildness of flavour and odour.

Numerous urns of terra cotta or nenfro were discovered, generally quite plain, with inscriptions; sometimes with a head projecting from the lid, as at Veii; as many as sixty have been found in one tomb. Only one large sarcophagus, with a reclining figure on its lid, so common at Tarquinii  p167 and Toscanella; whence it is evident that Hortani burnt rather than buried their dead. Coins and other relics of Roman times were occasionally found in the sepulchres along with articles of undoubted Etruscan antiquity. One instance was found of a painted tomb, in which a bear was represented chained to a column; but I could not learn satisfactorily if this were of Etruscan or Roman times. It was almost immediately destroyed by the peasantry.3

In the cliffs beneath the town are a few tombs, now greatly defaced, some of them columbaria; and near the gate of S. Agostino is a sewer of the usual size and form. On the banks of the Tiber, below the town, are the remains of a Roman bridge which carried the Via Amerina across the river on its way to Tuder and Perusia. The bridge was repaired during the middle ages, and the masonry of its piers, now standing on the banks, and of the masses prostrate in the water, is of that period. Castellum Amerinum, the last stage on the Via Amerina within the Etruscan territory, which was distant twelve miles from Falerii and nine from Ameria, must have been in the near neighbourhood of Orte, probably on the heights to the south of the town, near the spot where the modern road from Corchiano begins to descend into the valley of the Tiber.

If you follow the banks of the Tiber for about four miles above Orte, you will reach the "Laghetto" or "Lagherello," or "Lago di Bassano," so called from a village in the neighbourhood. In it you behold the Vadimonian Lake of antiquity, renowned for the defeat of the Etruscans on two several occasions — first, by the Dictator, Papirius Cursor, in the year 445, when after a desperate and hard-contested  p168 battle the might of Etruria was irrecoverably broken;​4 and again, in the year 471, when Cornelius Dolabella utterly routed the allied forces of the Etruscans and Gauls on its shores.​5 In after times it was renowned for its floating islands,​6 a minute description of which is given by the younger Pliny. —

"They pointed out to me a lake lying below the hill, the Vadimon by name, and told me certain marvellous stories concerning it. I went thither. The lake is in the form of a wheel lying on its side, even all round, without sinuosity or irregularity, but perfectly uniform in shape, as though it had been hollowed out and cut round by the hand of man. The water is whitish rather than blue, inclined to green, and turbid, of sulphureous smell, medicinal taste, and glutinous quality. The lake is but moderate in size, yet it is affected by the winds and swells into waves. No vessel is on its waters, for it is a sacred lake, but grassy islets, covered with reeds and rushes, float on its bosom, and on its margin flourish the plants of the rankest marshes. Each of these islets has a distinct form and size, and all have their edges smoothed off, from constantly rubbing against the shore and against one another. All are equal in height and buoyancy, for they sink into a sort of boat with a deep keel, which is seen from every side; and there is just as much of the island above as below water. At one time these islands are all joined close together, like a  p169 part of the mainland; at another they are driven asunder and scattered by the winds; sometimes thus detached, the wind falling dead, they float apart, motionless on the water. It often happens that the smaller ones stick to the greater, like skiffs to ships of burden; and often both large and small seem to strive together in a race. Again, all driven together into one spot, add to the land on that side, and now here, now there, increase or diminish the surface of the lake; and only cease to contract it, when they float in the middle. It is a well-known fact that cattle attracted by the herbage are wont to walk on the islets, mistaking them for the shore of the lake; nor do they become aware that they are not on firm ground, till borne away from the shore, they behold with terror the waters stretching around them. Presently, when the wind has carried them again to the bank, they go forth, no more aware of disembarking than they were of their embarkation. The water of this said lake flows out in a stream which, after showing itself for a little space, is lost in a cave, and runs deep under­ground; and if anything be thrown into it before it thus dives, it is brought to light again where it emerges. I have written of these things to thee, thinking they would be as novel and pleasing to thee as to myself, for we both delight in nothing so much as the works of Nature."​7

The lake lies beneath the heights, in the plain by the banks of the Tiber; but he who would expect Pliny's description to be verified, might search for ever in vain. It is, indeed, no easy matter to find the lake; for it has so shrunk in dimensions, that what must have been a spacious tract of water in the olden time, is now but a small stagnant pond, almost lost in the tall reeds and bulrushes that wave over it. These we may conclude  p170 represent the islets, which either existed in Pliny's imagination alone, or have now clubbed together to stop up the lake.​8 The water has still a sulphureous appearance, though not too highly flavoured for the frogs, whose croakings mingling with the shrill chirrup of the cicala, rise externally from the pool. I fancied I saw the stream of which Pliny speaks, in a small ditch which carries the superfluous water towards the Tiber; but I did not perceive it to take a subterranean course.

Whoever visits the Vadimon, will comprehend how it was that decisive battles were fought upon its shores. The valley here forms the natural pass into the inner or central plain of Etruria. It is a spot, indeed, very like the field of Thrasymene — a low, level tract, about a mile wide, hemmed in between the heights and the Tiber, which here takes the place of that lake; but the heights rise more steeply and loftily than those by the Thrasymene, and are even now densely covered with wood, as no doubt they were in ancient times, this being part of the celebrated Ciminian forest. Though the Consul Fabius had once passed that fearful wood, it was against the express command of the Senate; so when the Etruscans were next to be attacked, the Roman general, instead of again crossing  p171 the mountain, turned its extremity, and there found the Etruscan army drawn up in this natural pass into their land, leagued together by a solemn bond to defend their country to the utmost — a determination which caused them to offer so desperate and extraordinary a resistance.9

The vale of the Tiber is here rich and beauti­ful — the low ground highly cultivated with corn,º wine, and oil; the slopes on the Etruscan side clothed with dense oak-woods, on the Umbrian with olive-groves and vineyards; the towns of Giove and Penna crown the latter heights; Bassano overhangs the lake from the former. Looking up the stream, Mugnano is seen on its hill, backed by the loftier ground of Bomarzo; looking down, the horizon is bounded by the distant range of the Apennines, with their "silent pinnacles of aged snow."

Bassano has been supposed by Cluver,​10 Cramer,​11 and others, to be the Castellum Amerinum on the Via Amerina, mentioned by the Peutingerian Table, because it overhangs the Vadimon, as Pliny describes the Amerine estate — Amerina praedia — of his wife's grandfather to have done.​12 But the Castellum must have been near Orte, as already stated, because the road took a direct course from Nepi to Ameria, and the distance, twenty-six miles, between these places is correctly stated by the Table, but would have been considerably increased had the road made a détour to Bassano. Besides, I have myself traced the road by its fragments from Nepi to within a mile or two of Orte, and its course is due north and south, without deviation;  p172 and there can be no doubt that it crossed the Tiber by the bridge at Orte, now in ruins. The ground about Bassano may nevertheless have been called Amerine, though the Castellum itself was three or four miles distant.

Bassano is a miserable place, without accommodation for the traveller; and with no signs of antiquity, or anything to interest, beyond its picturesque character and glorious scenery. It is nearly two miles from the Vadimonian Lake, four from Orte, by the direct road, four or five from Bomarzo, seven or eight from Soriano, and the same from Vignanello.

The Author's Notes:


Qui Tiberim Fabarimque bibunt, quos frigida misit
Nursia, et Hortinae classes, populique Latini.

— Æn. VII.715.

2 Plin. III.8. Padre Secchi, the learned Jesuit of Rome, follows Müller (Etrusk. III.3, 7), in thinking the place derives its name from Horta, an Etruscan goddess equivalent to the Roman "Salus," and distinct from Nortia or Fortuna, the great deity of Volsinii. This goddess Horta is mentioned by Plutarch (Quaest. Rom. XLVI), who says her temple was always kept open. A distinction between her and Etruscan Fortuna is indicated by Tacitus (Ann. XV.53). Secchi, Il Musaico Antoniniano, p47, n5.

Fontanini (de Antiq. Hortae, I. cap. I) would fain make it appear that Horta was founded by the Pelasgi, and was one of the twelve chief cities of Etruria. — "The baseless fabric of a vision."

3 For other notices of the results of these excavations, see Bull. Inst. 1837, p129.

4 Liv. IX.39.

5 Flor. I.13; Polyb. II.20; Eutrop. II.10. Florus relates this as occurring before Fabius crossed the Ciminian, while in fact it was nearly 30 years after; unless indeed he is here anticipating the event, and mentions it out of its chronological order. But there is probably some confusion between the two routs of the Vadimonian. No author mentions both. Dio Cassius (Scrip. Vet. Vat. Mai. II. p536, Excerp. 26) represents Dolabella as attacking the Etruscans during their passage of the Tiber, and says the blood and corpses carried the first tidings of the fight to Rome. Cf. Dion. Hal. Excerp. Mai. XII.49.

6 Plin. Nat. Hist. 96; Senec. Nat. Quaest. III.25; Sotion, de Mir. Font.

7 Plin. Epist. VIII.20.

8 This process is still going forward in certain lakes in Italy. In the Lago d'Isole Natanti, or Lake of Floating Islands, near the road from Rome to Tivoli, and well known from the description of Sir Humphrey Davy in his "Last Days of a Philosopher." (See also Westphal's Römische Kampagne, p108.) Also in the Lacus Cutiliae in Sabina, renowned by the ancients for its floating islands (Plin. Nat. Hist. II.96; Senec. Nat. Quaest. III.25; Varro. L. L. V.71; Macrob. Sat. I.7), and now called the Pozzo Ratignano. "Its banks appear to be approaching each other by incrustation; there is no shelving shore, the rock being suspended over the lake, like broken ice over a deep abyss." The waters are sulphureous, yet there are fish in the lake. "The phenomenon of floating islands may still be observed; they are nothing more than reeds or long coarse grass, the roots of which bound together by the petrifying nature of the water, are sometimes detached from the shore." Gell's Rome, II. p370.

9 Livy says, — non cum Etruscis toties victis, sed cum aliquâ novâ gente, videretur dimicatio esse, — (IX.39). Müller (II.1. 4) and Mannert (p422) seem to me to be in error in supposing that the Etruscans made their stand on this spot on account of the sacredness of the lake. The nature of the ground, with which those writers seem to have been unacquainted, sufficiently accounts for the fact.

10 Ital. Ant. II. p551.

11 Ancient ItalyI p224.

12 Plin. Epist. l.c.

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