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Tomb travel into pre-Roman Italy

Into a tomb? The guide is not joking. Just a two-hour drive north of Rome, near Tarquinia, Italy, lies a necropolis where intrepid visitors descend into tombs of the forerunners of the classical Romans: the Etruscans.

To visit these vaults, I merely bussed up the road from Rome. It was the Etruscans who had, originally, journeyed far, sailing from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to Italy, at first as pirates (Take note, Captain Jack Sparrow) but later settling as farmers, relishing the dolce vita of wine-making and of taking a holiday at Lake Bolsena in central Italy.

It’s not how the Etruscans lived but how they honored their dead that captivates me. Fearing the dead might be spiteful if ignored, the Etruscans crafted tombs brimming with design and color. While it’s likely six thousand such tombs exist in Tarquinia, a mere thirty or so are open and just those of aristocrats since only their tombs were adorned with frescoes. Over each tomb, archeologists have thoughtfully built a small entrance way with an air passageway like a trachea tube to help those brave enough to visit the abodes of the dead.

I enter. Bare wooden steps, declining forty-five degrees, lead me down twenty feet of stairs, with dirt walls crumbling at the mere brush of a shirt sleeve, reminiscent of my own decay, the sloughing off bit by bit as years pass. The stairway, no wider than the outstretched arms of a line-backer, offers the only grounding with the world .

I push ahead, plopping one sneaker-clad foot on each step with the loudest clop I can render, simulating bravery like a child sneaking into a haunted house, humming to bolster courage. I now understand the horror of Poe’s sealed victim.

My unholy descent is rewarded. At the bottom awaits a tomb, a glass window protecting its treasures from my corrupting, living presence.

I grope for the switch of a timed light to briefly illuminate the tomb, permitting Promethean heat to enlighten this darkness.

The tomb’s decorated walls reveal death must have frightened its inhabitant. Most visible in the tomb, built in the 2nd BCE, is its Door to Hell, guarded on both sides by the Etruscan god Charun, a name that morphs into the famous ferryman Charon when, in 1st BCE, Rome absorbs Etruscan culture. With the erosion of time, all that can be made out of the orange and brown figure is a man with pointed ears or possibly wings, and his famous hammer, guarding an entrance, that, in Etruscan lore, leads to the nether world. Charun’s hammer supposedly wards off evil, and, years later, this hammer appears in Roman gladiator games when a character much like Charun hits the loser with a hammer to be sure he is dead. In this tomb, the winners are moisture and time—two not unstrange bedfellows, extinguishing the detailed lines of a once vibrantly depicted hammer welder.

Something else is missing. On both sides of the tomb, stone shelves once held sarcophagi before tomb robbers uncharitably removed them, along with chairs, beds, clothes, jewels, all designated to make the next life more comfortable, more familiar, in spite of the tomb’s being just the right size as a room for a family’s youngest child.

Racing against the light bulb’s timer, I ram my Nikon against the protective glass, adjust the ISO for capturing the highest amount of light, steady the camera by holding my breath (like the breathless dead?), and . . . . click.

The timed light shuts off. Darkness prevails. I am buried with Charun. Clambering up the stairs, I cradle my camera to keep from depositing the lens cap in this darkest of darknesses. I am not ready to sacrifice to the Etruscan spirits by leaving a tantalizing tidbit for archaeologists, who, 5000 years from now, will scratch their heads, theorizing about how Etruscans could have known about plastic.

Returning to the white, glistening shafts of the living world, I feel I have earned a badge of bravery.

Etruscan on sarcophagus

However, driven by a photographer’s urge to set, again, my Nikon onto another glass window, I am ready for second tomb where I encounter an Etruscan who must have treasured life. His 6th or 5th century BCE tomb is aptly named “The Jugglers,” after the main wall’s white, blue, black, yellow, red frescoes portraying funeral games and celebrations. The fresco’s central character, probably the man for whom the tomb was fashioned, sits on the right side of the fresco, relishing an acrobat’s antics and a caped musician’s playing the famous Etruscan double flute. This spectator, taping his toes and clapping his hands, is also entertained by a juggler, tossing disks into a vase carried by a woman skimpily clothed in a see-through dress (an early Lady Gaga?). Romans chastised such women for not being more demure, but to rest of the ancient Mediterranean world, Etruscan females were impressively independent, using their own names and probably owning property. On the wall four more women dance with delight, each with differently colored hair, women who would have charmed the creators of L’Oréal. Like Keats’ Grecian figures, the juggler is always entertaining, the flutist always playing, the dancers always lively.

Then, the timer goes out….too fast, as was probably true for this Etruscan, his tomb party, for the Etruscan civilization. Retreating to the upper world, I luxuriate in the Italian sunshine.

My well of bravery is, now, tapped out.

But the guide has one more surprise. While the tombs are unhoused of their stone coffins, the sarcophagi do await me elsewhere.

So, we bus down the road to the modern (Is any town in Italy truly “modern”?) city of Tarquinia.

Here, the sarcophagi have, indeed, journeyed to a far better tomb than any the Etruscans could have imagined. They reside in the 15th century Palazzo Vitelleschi, home of the National Museum of Tarquinia (Museo Nazionale Tarquiniense), with the stone-engraved Etruscans reclining on their sides, surrounded by vaulted ceilings and graceful arches and open courtyards. Floor after floor houses Etruscan treasures like their famous gold jewelry whose manufacturing technique has not been duplicated to this day. Their burial urns–looking like concrete mushrooms housing artifacts for the next world—sit half open to reveal their secrets of tools, combs, pots. Beckoning from a corner of a display cabinet is their luminous black pottery (called “bucchero”) which is said to have inspired ancient Greek artists. Riches of the Etruscan dead are revealed in the light of a Renaissance palace.

The star attraction is a noble reclining, as did all Etruscans, on his left side or the banqueting position. As the Etruscans believed, the right contains the liver which should never be disturbed in order to foster good digestion. A robe drapes this noble’s shoulder, falling casually over his half-naked chest as if he has just left a toga-toga party. His cheeks fallen and the corners of his lips turned down from gravity’s eternal force, he stares directly at me, with a smileless, mindful look. The sarcophagus’ engraving proudly defies time by naming this noble:

“Laris Pulenais, the son of Larce, nephew of Larth,” a life line— in vain.

Walking into the Palazzo room where he reclines on top of his coffin, I am reminded of a famous anecdote about a Victorian tourist who, seeing a dead Etruscan carved on top of sarcophagi, thought he looked as if he had just been awakened from a long nap. . . and was half rising to speak.

I have listened. The Etruscans have escaped from the earth’s depths, but not the way they had intended. An eternal life has become theirs by what the ancient Romans borrowed from them: flowing togas, triumphal processions, the famous Roman numerals, the symbolic steadfastness of the bundled rods or “fasces,” the suspicions of a soothsayer, a love of wine.

In the museum, my own sarcophagus fellow (for now, I do think of him as mine), with his half-smile, realizes he, too, has also survived, continued, endured—making a transition, from the tombs of darkness to the spacious light of an Italian palace. He probably senses his tomb travels do not end, yet. He is right. I capture him with my Nikon, transporting him to the artificial light of a 21st century computer desktop. For him, transitions have abounded, and in all forms, eternity has come.

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