I was eager to visit and explore the Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi at Tarquinia, in Northern Lazio, after reading about the painted burial chambers that are preserved here. I was a bit nervous about how difficult it would be to reach the tombs but in the end it was relatively easy: I caught the local bus from Tarquinia train station into the centre, and then it was not too far to walk to the necropolis on the outskirts of town (some tourists may prefer to take the small bus that circulates regularly).
Once on the site, I had seventeen tombs to explore. They are all reached by entering small huts and heading down some stairs. At the bottom you can peer through a window to admire the frescoes within, allowing you to peek as far back as the sixth century BC and learn about the burial practices of the ancient Etruscans and their beliefs about the afterlife.
The most impressive frescoes for me were found in the Tomb of the Leopards, pictured above, which is at the far end of the area open to the public. This tomb is named after the two leopards facing each other on the “fronton” (the triangular-shaped top front decoration of a temple). The main strip of mural depicts a lavish banqueting scene in honour of the dead, including several couples tended by two young boys. The men have darker skin while the women are lighter. The side walls of the burial chamber are painted with people bringing dishes, playing instruments and dancing among pretty foliage. Although the drawing is quite simple, it is amazing to see such strong colours bursting out of a fresco that dates back to around 450 BC.
Another gem that really fascinated me at Monterozzi was this next small drawing on one side of Tomb 5636. It portrays the people who were buried in the grave below, followed by Vanth, an Etruscan female demon of the dead (on the far right).
The demon is carrying a torch to light the way to the afterlife. They are arriving at the gateway to Hades, or the underworld, which is being guarded by the god Charun (on the left with the slightly blueish skin tone). The people are welcomed by other deceased family members. Vanth and Charun are often depicted together in Etruscan art. They are “psychopomps”, I have learned: creatures or deities in certain religions and mythologies whose job is to guide souls from earth to the afterlife. They tend not to take a judging role, their duty is merely to provide safe passage. This fresco was discovered in 1969, and was painted in the third century BC.
The Tomb of Hunting and Fishing was also a highlight for me. In here you can discover the fascinating fresco pictured below, from around 520 BC. It includes a group of fishermen out at sea, surrounded by a flock of birds and diving fish and is one of the first examples of humans drawn as small figures within a large natural environment, art historians say.
According to the site’s descriptions, the pictures in this tomb sum up the aspirations of aristocrats at the time: those buried here likely enjoyed paintings of landscapes, hunting and fishing. Here is what the whole tomb looks like, with the small boat just about visible in the back chamber.
The Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, Necropolis of Monterozzi, photo by ItalianGems
Elsewhere, in the Tomb of Claudio Bettini you can discover another colourful banquet scene, with people eating and dancing amid pretty greenery.
A visit to Monterozzi gives you a chance to look into an ancient, often forgotten culture through the vibrant decorations left in its tombs. The grounds of the site are also pleasant to wander around, and you can stop for a break in shady spots by the flower bushes or at the museum bar. The entrance cost is very reasonable at 6 euros, or 8 euros if you combine it with the National Etruscan Museum in Tarquinia. The town itself is also well worth a visit. For more information about things to do in Tarquinia see my previous post here.
Necropolis of Monterozzi, photo by ItalianGems
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