With so many ancient Roman sites to see in Lazio, it is fairly easy to miss the treasures remaining from the region’s even older Etruscan civilisation. But these underrated gems are well worth hunting out if you want a deeper understanding of the area’s fascinating past.
The Etruscans inhabited the modern-day regions of Tuscany, Umbria and northern Lazio as far back as 700 BC according to the oldest existing pottery inscriptions. Their origins are unclear– some scholars argue they descended from an Anatolian tribe (from the region of modern-day Turkey), while others believe they were indigenous to the Italian peninsula.
There are many interesting Etruscan sites to see in northern Lazio, including the tombs at Tarquinia and Cerveteri. A good place to start to discover this period of history however is Villa Giulia in Rome, which houses the National Etruscan Museum.
The collection and lay-out of this museum are impressive. The exhibits guide you clearly through the history of the Etruscans, and leave you with a broad picture of their traditions and culture. After learning about Rome’s glorious past, it is even more incredible to see all of these jewels from an even older civilisation! Studying the maps at the start of the display is a good way to get your bearings, and head back in time to that era. You can also locate some of the key cities, such as Veii, Vulci and Tarquinia.
In the initial galleries there are several interesting vases, ornaments and tools to see, many of them discovered in tombs. I liked the perfume bottles found at Cerveteri, which contained traces of essential oils and balsams. The varied styles of pottery suggest they originate from places such as Greece, Syria and Egypt.
Further along there are some amazing sarcophagi, or tombs. The most impressive is the “Sarcophaghus of the married couple”, dating back to between 520 and 530 BC. It was found in 1881 in the Banditaccia necropolis near Cerveteri, and was bought by Felice Bernabei, the founded of Villa Giulia’s museum, in pieces. The sculpted couple look happy, the man affectionately cuddling his wife, who is dressed luxuriously.
In the next room, the exhibit I found most interesting contained three gold sheets dating back to the sixth century BC. These are known as the Pyrgi tablets and they were found in the area of the ancient Etruscan port of Pyrgi on the western coast of the Italian peninsula, in 1964. The inscriptions on them are one of the oldest historical records from pre-Roman Italy, according to the gallery’s explanation. The writing, which has played a key role in helping to understand the Etruscan language, is a dedication to the Phoenician goddess, Astarte.
After wandering around the first floor, you can head up the stairs and stroll through the upper galleries, which showcase many more interesting utensils and ornaments left over by the Etruscan people. I especially liked seeing the bronze mirrors, and this river god protome (decoration).
Towards the end of the museum there are also some fascinating ornaments recovered from Etruscan sanctuaries and temples around the area that used to be Veii, one of the richest Etruscan cities. One of these temples worshipped the goddess Minerva, as an oracular goddess and as the patron of youth. There are some terracotta statues and other objects taken from here on display, as well as votive offerings that people left for the gods at other complexes, and mosaics of theatrical masks that date back to around 10-50 AD.
The joy of a visit to Villa Giulia does not end with its Etruscan gems. The grounds of the villa, built for Pope Julius III in the mid sixteenth century, are lovely to walk around. Famed architect Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, who also worked on Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola, designed the front facade and beautiful portico.
–Meanwhile the charming nymphaeum (a sanctuary dedicated to water gods), and other garden structures were built by sculptor Bartolomeo Ammanati. The whole project was also supervised by artist and architect Giorgo Vasari. It is a treat to wander through these grounds.
Villa Giulia offers a two-in-one chance to see a stunning Roman mansion while gaining a fascinating insight into Etruscan culture and history, a perfect preparation for a tour of the archaeological sites. Enjoy!
Villa Giulia, Piazzale di Villa Giulia, 9, Rome. Closed Monday. For more information see here