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Medieval alleyway

Tarquinia: Discovering the Enigmatic Etruscans

Tarquinia is a charming medieval hill-town encircled by 8 kilometers of turrets and fortifications. Characteristic of this region of Italy, the most important families in the middle ages protected themselves inside stone towers. Hundreds of years ago there were as many as 100 towers but now only about 20 remain. With a little digging however, visitors soon discover that Tarquinia’s Etruscan past is the real secret.
Nearly 2,500 years ago, Tarquinia was the most influential Etruscan city in Italy. But unknown to residents, their civilization was already declining.

Two centuries earlier, a dynasty of Tarquin kings had ruled Rome itself before being overthrown. Turnabout being fair play, Rome rose to chip away at Tarquin territory. Ultimately Rome would succeed in “colonizing” Tarquinia and the other Etruscan cities.

Tarquinia Museum Features Etruscan Finds

The conquered Etruscan aristocracy assimilated into Roman society and their language and culture disappeared forever. Now all we know about these enigmatic people has been gleaned from their artifacts and tombs. Fortunately the region around Tarquinia has proven to be a rich treasure trove of finds, making the National Museum of Tarquinia one of the best in Italy.

The museum, located in the 15th century Gothic Palazzo Vitelleschi, houses the heavy Etruscan finds like the stone sarcophagi, funerary statues and urns on the main floor. Sculpted couples in their prime of life adorn the sarcophagus lids. They recline next to each other in a loving embrace for all eternity.

Another room features a collection of once-polished bronze mirrors decorated with engravings. Etched inscriptions suggest that the female owners were literate, unlike their contemporaries in other societies. Such inscriptions represent one of the few remaining sources of Etruscan writing. Tragically these do not reflect the richness of Etruscan literature reported by early Roman historians.

Targuinia - photos by Diane Gagnon
The pride of the museum’s collection is the life-sized terracotta winged horses that once adorned the pediment of the Ara Reginae temple in Ancient Tarquinia. These horses are a masterpiece of Etruscan art. A scale model of the 4th century BC Ara Reginae temple is also displayed.

The upper floor features three reconstructed Etruscan tombs from the nearby necropolis. A series of frescoes from the original tombs was moved here in the 1950’s to protect them from further deterioration. The transfer process involved detaching the pigment layer and then re-attaching it to cloth panels.

The Etruscans traded with neighboring civilizations as evidenced by the numerous Greek ceramics. Black vessels decorated with orange-brown figures were common items inside the tombs.

Subterranean Tombs

Visitors should exit the museum and enjoy a leisurely walk to the Monterozzi Necropolis which is approximately 20 minutes away. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, discovered in 1823, contains as many as 6,000 subterranean tombs spread over a distance of 5 kilometers.

The terrain has been radically altered over time due to farming. A century ago there were approximately 600 tumuli on site; now none remain. A tumulus is a mound of sand and gravel covering the tomb entrance. Visitors enter a tumulus-style tomb using a steep, narrow staircase cut from the soft tufa.

The tumulus is not the only style of tomb on site however. A tomb named “Pulcella” is a hypogeal structure. Entry is along a horizontal passageway cut into the hillside. Visitors find that this passage is now open to the environment.

Twenty white-colored tomb entrances are clearly visible within the pasture-like necropolis plateau. Fifteen tombs are open for viewing. All date from 520 to 125 BCE. Each of the empty chambers is sealed behind glass to maintain a constant environment. Despite the controlled conditions, many of the frescoes adoring the walls and ceiling are badly deteriorated.

In general, Etruscan frescoes feature 2-dimensional figures painted using iron oxide, lapis lazuli dust and charcoal. Scenes depict a variety of themes inspired by the daily life of the wealthy class: banquets, dancers and musicians, athletes or gladiators, funeral processions, hunting and fishing. Of particular significance are banqueting scenes where both men and women recline during the meal. These suggest an enjoyment of life bordering on hedonism.

The highest point of the necropolis holds the ruins of Ancient Tarquinia, including the Ara Reginae temple. While many present day cities in this region of Italy are built upon the ruins of much earlier Etruscan cities, this is not the case with present-day Tarquinia.

Ancient Tarquinia’s population slowly declined after a series of raids between the 6th and 8th centuries CE by the Lombards and Saracens respectively. The final blow came in 1307 when the inhabitants of neighboring Corneto razed it to the ground. Centuries later during the Fascist era, Tarquinia would be resurrected when medieval Corneto is renamed to honor the ancient Etruscan city nearby.

If You Go: Tarquinia is a 90-minute trip by rail from the Roma Termini Station. A bus runs every 45 minutes from the Tarquinia Station and stops near the tourist office (Piazza Cavour 1) at the San Giusto Gate. The National Museum of Tarquinia is located near the San Giusto Gate.

Visitors can purchase a combination ticket for both the National Archeological Museum of Tarquinia and the Monterozzi Necropolis.

To walk from the museum to the necropolis, proceed along Corso Vittorio Emanuele and turn right at the Piazza Nazionale in the Via di Porta Tarquinia (Tarquinia Gate). Walk past the Chiesa di San Francesco and along Via Ripagretta until you reach the necropolis on your left.

Alternatively, ride the shuttle bus leaving from San Giusto Gate to the Cimitero stop. The bus departs every 30-45 minutes and returns to town 5 minutes after it arrives at the necropolis.


Troy Herrick, a freelance travel writer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. His articles have appeared in Live Life Travel, International Living, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines. He also penned the travel planning e-book entitled Turn Your Dream Vacation into Reality: A Game Plan for Seeing the World the Way You Want to See It - based on his own travel experiences over the years. Plan your vacation at his Budget Travel Store and his PlanADreamTrip.com sites.

Diane Gagnon, a freelance photographer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. Her photographs have accompanied Troy Herrick’s articles in Live Life Travel, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

© 2010