NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

44.3—Scoprendo L'Eroe Tra Due Mondi (Part 3 of 3)

I entered the Etruscan exhibit expecting to be charmed by the artifacts of a sweet ancient people. So I was surprised but intrigued to be greeted by a large poster entitled Un eroe tra due monde—A Hero Between Two Worlds. 

The exhibit, the mission statement said, was part of a larger project dedicated to Hercules who is “the hero of indomitable strength, but with a fragile humanity and extraordinary courage, fiercely challenged by the hardness of living.” In facing his trials, the statement added, Hercules won immortality. And it was for this reason that he has become a symbol of heroic humanity throughout both ancient and modern art.


The Etruscans were a small people—not tall or concerned with matters of empire. Not heroic by the standards of popular American culture. Or by the standards of ancient Rome where virtue was defined by manliness exhibited in war and therefore not an attribute of women who were praised for their modesty. 

Near the beginning of the exhibit was the content of a tomb transferred intact. The artifacts reveal modest living, and the figure in the corner is of person who made me look imposing—as my shadow in the class shows.

Now, I know my one visit to an Etruscan museum and the perusal of several books does not make me an expert. Also, my interest in the Etruscans was part of a personal, not an archeological quest. What that personal observation revealed throughout the exhibit of artifacts from 800 to 200 B.C. was a supremely happy, creative, and peaceful people, particularly in the earliest days of the culture. The
Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion
only weapons I saw were in pottery paintings depicting the labors of Hercules.  

The Etruscans were primarily artisans, builders, and traders in what was then the global marketplace. They were competitive. But not ruthlessly so. Trade was more what the name implies—exchange, not only of goods but of cultural influences, especially with Greece and Carthage, their chief competitors. 

But the small sweet traders were not pushovers. They had warships and used them against Greek and Carthaginian pirates. They also teamed up with Carthage against Rome during the Punic wars. Not for land and or power. Rather they wanted autonomy from Rome that was beginning its power sweep across the world. The small sweet people, of course, lost to the empire. Or did they? More specifically, why were they part of the hero project, exemplars of Hercules and heroic humanity…?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

44.2—Scoprendo La Pergola di Uva (Part 2 of 3)

Finding the Grape Arbor

A month before I left for Rome, I felt a mounting apprehension. 
I’d reached an impasse in my life. I called it age. But it was something bigger—the feeling that every dollar, every minute, every gesture had to count. Hard as I tried to hold on, life was slipping too fast through my hands. In one of those great ironies of mind, the terror of this was so profound, I couldn’t do anything. 
Looking back, I think the mold had already started to take hold.

A week before departure, my sister reminded me I didn’t have to go. 
“But I do,” I told her. And then added—surprised to hear myself say it—“I’m going in search of my grape arbor.”

The grape arbor in the yard next to my grandmother’s house was where I went the day I played hooky in second grade. While I hated the world of school that turned everything into to right and wrong answers, going to the grape arbor was not an act of defiance. I simply went there in an act of free will, drawn by the quiet mystery of leaves and the sweetness of grapes. After a peaceful morning, I went home for lunch and found myself facing my father and the system that both came down on me so hard that the only way I could survive was to conform to the world of linear expectations. “That day at the grape arbor,” I told my sister, “was the last day I was truly myself.” 

I’d thought I might rediscover my grape arbor in the ruins of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins—those women chosen at seven or eight to serve for thirty years, denying their own lives to keep the sacred fire of Rome going. But all I felt was the grief of young women who for daring to exercise their free will by expressing their love were buried alive.

Several days later, as I was awaiting for confirmation that I could escape the mold by moving to an apartment with windows, I set out for the Villa Giulia—the Renaissance palazzo that now housed Rome’s collection of Etruscan art. It was a long walk, so I’d waited for a day when it wasn’t raining. The map led me to the edge of a wooded park where, off the beaten track, the map suddenly proved useless so that I suddenly found myself lost in a damp dark place with nothing but the belief that it couldn’t possibly go on forever. A November chill and the smell of decaying leaves filled the air. Was it the mold, the antihistamine, or the place that made me think if it was all just a dream? 

At last, light at the end of the trees. I stepped out—and there he sat in his white marble chair like thunder in the off-white morning: 

Poeta Azerbaigiano Nizami Ganjavi  1141 - 1209  

holding quill and ppwer in his bronze hands so large and powerful they appeared alive with god-like energy, his gaze so fierce that I turned to see what he was gazing at. 
But what he was seeing was not the museum of modern art across the street that lay at the foot of a wide long flight of steps. 

What was an  eight-hundred-year-old Azergbaijani poet doing in the middle of Rome? Had I like some Italian Alice wandered down the coniglio hole?

But then, up the steps came a woman who knew where I was headed. 
And very soon, I was paying my admission at il Museo Etrusco and asking how to find the ladies room. Through the courtyard to the left directed the woman in the book store. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

44.1—Scoprendo Gli Etruschi (Part One of 3)

Discovering The Etruscans: 

People, I tell you, if it’s possible to have a love affair with an ancient civilization, I did:

It happened quite unexpectedly but splendidly. I remember studying the Etruscans in junior high: They were ancient and wrote funny. From their name—Etruscans—I pictured them as people who dressed in furry outfits and adorned themselves with tusks. They lived somewhere, you know, over there.

When I was studying in Florence in 2011, the school offered a field trip to the Tuscan hill town of Cortona (of Under the Tuscan Sun fame). Walking along a grassy ridge, we came upon a rock slab slightly larger than a grave stone. On the slab were strange markings. “Gli Etruschi,” our guide remarked, over his shoulder. We all took pictures and walked on—oblivious to the connection between the names Etruscan and Tuscany.

As I delved into various histories of Rome, I found they all began with a brief description of the Etruscans—invariably called “mysterious." Scant evidence suggested that earliest kings of Rome were Etruscan. Archeological evidence, however, showed unequivocally that these mysterious folks were a smart and enterprising people who settled central Italy. lived there from about 700 to 200 B.C., and developed a prosperous Mediterranean trade. They were also probably the ones who drained the swamps of what was to become Rome. 

Last year, my friend Kathy gave me a map with a pictorial history of Italy. And there were the Etruscans—the first civilization in Italy. Beneath the drawing of a sculpture of a woman found in the Museo Etrusco in Rome, a caption revealed that “Etruscan women…enjoyed a social status far above that of women in Greece or Rome.” Cool. The synopsis of Etruscan accomplishments revealed that the people were so wary of their Greek trading partners that they remained oblivious to the rise of the Romans so that one by one their city-states fell to their conquerors. Had to be a sad story there.

Intrigued, I logged onto Amazon, typed in Etruscans, and among the scholarly works found one by D. H. Lawrence called Etruscan Places: Travels Through Forgotten Italy. “An uninhibited, elemental people,” said the book description, “the Etruscans enthralled D. H. Lawrence, who craved their ‘old wisdom,’ the secret of their vivacity….” Wow! What could possibly enthrall the creator of Lady Chatterly and her lover?
I bought a used copy with a single click. 

The small slim book immediately opened a world to me that I’d yearned for, without realizing it. Perhaps because I had never believed such a world was possible. This was surprising because in the book, Lawrence is describing his exploration of Etruscan tombs throughout Tuscany
Images of the people in those "easy centuries"

“The tombs,” he wrote (p. 28), “seem so easy and friendly, cut out of rock underground. One does not feel oppressed, descending into them. It must be partly owing to the peculiar charm of natural proportion which is in all Etruscan things of the unspoilt, unromanized centuries. There is a simplicity, combined with a most peculiar, free breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movements of the underworld walls and spaces, that at once reassures the spirit. The Greeks sought to make an impression, and Gothic still more seeks to impress the mind. The Etruscans, no. The things they did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction.”

Longing to know these people and life in those "easy centuries," I planned to visit il Museo Etrusco in Rome and then take the train to old Etruria. As it turned out, the mold worked in mysterious way to open my mind and soul.