As every designer worth her salt knows, timelines are a staple of exhibit design. Mounting an exhibition without a timeline is akin to leaving out the donor wall.
When I arrived in Civita, I knew a timeline would be one of the maps I would create, but I also knew it would probably be the last. It may seem counter-intuitive, but now as I come to the end of my stay, the process feels right. I needed to spend an extended time here, reading, talking, and learning before I felt I could attempt anything approaching a timeline.
Timelines are the quintessential “map” of any subject; a way for viewers to grasp a condensed glimpse of what is usually a huge body of information. So, in lieu of the interactive visual timeline that will be the final product of my fellowship, allow me to play the part of museum curator in my two final posts, and present some of my favorite stories that I have learned about “Civita Time.”
“Civita” means “town” and in central Italy, you will often see it appended to the name of various places, such as Civita Castellana, Civitella d’Agliano, and Civitavecchia (outside Rome). But in early usage, the word, derived from the Latin civitas, designated the oldest and most built up area in order to distinguish it from neighboring villages. If a location was called “civita”, the designation meant that it was a place of some importance.
Civita di Bagnoregio has been continuously inhabited for over 2,500 years, first by the Etruscans, then the Romans. Its pre-history begins 2 million years ago when the tufo that is this region’s primary building material was formed during the Pleistocene age. History then picks up with the Etruscans, before moving on to significant Roman, Medieval and Renaissance events.
Before leaving Seattle, I had wanted to read D.H. Lawrence’s book of short essays “Etruscan Places” but ran out of time. I checked Tony’s library, hoping that perhaps I might find it in the section marked “English nonfiction” and sure enough, there it was. An old yellowed paperback, but there nonetheless. Non-historian Brit that he was, Lawrence has been criticized for writing six essays on the subject of Etruscans after spending the whole of three days exploring Etruscan Italy. Yet his style is pretty approachable and he writes with warmth and feeling, if from a slightly patronizing perspective. The very first essay begins:
“The Etruscans, as everyone knows, were the people who occupied the middle of Italy in early Roman days and whom the Romans, in their usual neighborly fashion, wiped out entirely in order to make room for Rome with a very big R.”
The Etruscans called themselves Rasenna or Rasna and they are most commonly believed to have moved westward into northern and central Italy from Asia Minor. The etymology of the name “Etruscan” may have come from a phrase in the ancient Umbrian dialect with “trus” being the Latin Umbrian word for tower. So, the Etruscans were “E-trus-ci” or “those who build towers.”
The Romans lay claim to most historical achievements in Italy but many would never have been accomplished without their Etruscan predecessors, including hydraulic engineering and a written language (Latin was a spoken language only until Roman intermingling with the Etruscans began). They put their skill as excellent architects and engineers to good use in diverting waterways, tunneling channels and laying out their cities. The lower lying portions of Rome, such as the area surrounding the Capitoline Hill, was formerly marshland. Creating a habitable area there would never have been a possibility without the hydraulic engineering skills of the Etruscans.
The “Etruscan League” consisted of twelve loosely aligned cities, one of which was known in Latin as Volsinii (or Velzna by the Etruscans) and is believed to have been the site of the modern Italian cities of Orvieto or Bolsena. Every spring, representatives of the Dodecapoli, or Twelve Cities of the League, came to Volsinii for religious rites, conferences, games, entertainment, and a large market. With Civita less than a day’s journey away from Bolsena (15 minutes by car today) it may well have been an important stopping point on what would have been a two-day journey from the Tiber to Orvieto during Etruscan times.
The Etruscan civilization was peaceful (their ultimate downfall) and prosperous, based on farming, metallurgy, ceramics, and trade throughout the Mediterranean. Religion pervaded all aspects of their society, with a particular emphasis on and familiarity with the afterlife. The Etruscans saw little difference between life and death, regarding them simply as different states of being.
They preferred hilltop sites for their cities, safely above the malarial swamps and easily defendable. Often the cities were sited whenever possible on two adjoining plateaus or headlands separated by a river. On one plateau, they would build their city; the other served as the necropolis. Civita and its neighbor to the north, Orvieto, are perfect examples of this scheme.
They used a sacred plan to design the layout of their cities, which reflected their religious beliefs. The ideal Etruscan city was a circle divided into a grid, with four main sectors formed by the intersection of two axes, a street running north-south and another east west. This corresponded to the division of the sky into four parts inhabited by different gods, with good or bad connotations, designating favorable or unfavorable areas to locate particular enterprises. At the center was an open space, the mundus, with a shaft running underground that connected to the necropolis and the underworld, through which sacrifices and offerings could be made. The main temples faced this central gathering place.
When a new city was built, this sacred plan was laid out in a special ceremony. We know this from subsequent Roman writings, and we also know that the Romans respected these beliefs enough that they adopted some of the Etruscan practices. In Civita, the current site of the Christian Chiesa S Donato (first built in the 8th century A.D.) has been the site of some form of religious worship since 600 B.C. and the prison contrade is located in the “most unfavorable” zone.
The elimination of the Etruscans was one of the more successful genocides of modern times. It worked, not because it concentrated on the physical elimination of a group of people—from a Roman point of view the sieges of Etruscan cities was considered a domestic disturbance, not a foreign war—but because the cultural identity of the Etruscans was destroyed. After the sack of Perugia, the last great Etruscan city, Augustus made it illegal to speak the language. By the reign of Claudius, fifty or sixty years later, the emperor himself was one of the few still able to speak Etruscan.
What is left from the Etruscans hints at the richness of their culture. There is the Mummy of Zagreb, an Etruscan text written on linen (they wrote from right to left like the Phoenicians) that was discovered when it was used as binding tapes for an Egyptian mummy brought back to that city by a tourist. There is the Liver of Piacenza, a Henry Moore-like representative of a sheep’s liver in bronze, inscribed with the names of regions and gods used for haruspicy, a divining practice that inspects the entrails of animals. And there are the Pyrgi Tablets, a bilingual text in Etruscan and Phoenician engraved on three gold leaves, one written in Phoenician and two in Etruscan, that dates from approximately 500 B.C. and which is on display in the Villa Guilia, Rome’s primary Etruscan museum.
“But it is not for me to make assertions [although he continues to do so throughout his essays]. Only that which half emerges from the dim background of time is strangely stirring; and after having read all the learned suggestions, most of them contradicting each other; and then having looked sensitively at the tombs and the Etruscan things that are left, one must accept one’s own resultant feeling.”
The “resultant feeling” here in Civita is one of awe that such a place could have been conceived and achieved by the Etruscans and that today, in 2012, I can wake up, walk to the piazza, and sit in the sun next to an Etruscan column built in 600 B.C.