Walks in the footsteps of her Tuscan ancestors
Imagine driving on country roads in Tuscany, the green vistas of sheepgrazing pastures and open blue skies all around you. The road gets steeper and then gets narrower, curvier and a bend in the road seems to go on for a long time, before opening up onto a page from a Medieval fairy tale: Pitigliano.
Also known as Piccola Gerusalemme (Little Jerusalem, due to a long history of its Jewish citizens), the settlements in this city and surrounding area, the Tuscan Maremma, go back thousands of years, even to the Bronze Age.
Three thousand years ago from the 8th century BC to the 4th century BC, lived one of the world’s most intelligent, powerful and civilized peoples. The Etruscans were the first Italians and some of them lived in the vicinity of Pitigliano and two other nearby cities of importance, Sorano and Sovana.
It is also my ancestral homeland, where in 1913, my grandfather, Ottavio Faenzi left behind his mother and nine siblings to come to America. A serendipitous set of circumstances several years ago put me on the path to encountering not only a lost part of my family, but also the Etruscan civilization, both of which have kept me enthralled.
My grandfather, Ottavio, lived on a farm near Pitigliano and his siblings’ descendants, my cousins, still do. The tombs are a very short distance away. What had once been a playground for my cousins as children, is now an archaeological park that contains some of the most significant Etruscan discoveries in all of Italy.
The Archaeological Park of the City of Tufo is accessible only during March to November. Lost for millennia, the tombs’ discovery emerged during the 19th century when the Etruscan civilization had a renaissance. Unfortunately, this resulted in tomb robbing which stripped the tombs of precious objects along with clues that would help demystify their language and culture.
The Ildebranda Tomb (3rd to 2nd century BC) is the largest in the Park, but the name is misleading. This is not the tomb of the noble family, the Ildebranda. The discoverers of the tomb knew they had found something important and the most prominent citizen from this part of Tuscany was a Pope and member of the Ildebranda family. We don’t know whose tomb this was, but the discovery in 1924 was significant in that nothing like it had been discovered anywhere else in excavations. To this day, this tomb that resembles more a temple, is of any Etruscan monument that survives, the grandest.
One of the reasons the tombs found in this part of Tuscany are so noteworthy, is that they are carved into the existing tufo rock. Nothing was added to the exterior except brilliantly painted stucco, now mostly eroded. The Tomb of the Winged Demons (also dating from the 3rd to 2nd century BCE) was only discovered in 2005, while a path of the archaeological park was being restored, and the wellpreserved figures are due to their having become detached from the wall of the tomb, landing face down for the past three hundred years.
The winged figure is thought to be Scylla, a Greek sea monster which in their mythology was a pretty horrifying creature. However, because of the Etruscan belief in a rosy coloured eternal life, she is a protective presence, there to accompany the soul on its journey.
Lions guard and we are able to see the carving of the gentleman whose tomb it was. In typical Etruscan pleasure-loving fashion, he is lying on a comfy sofa, drink in hand. There are many other tombs and carvings to see in the vicinity such as The Siren, The Typhon, The Halfcube, the Lacunary, the Pola and the Hand of Orlando. As stunning as they are to gaze on today, can you imagine what these must have looked like when they were new, brightly painted and bathed in moonlight?
Also nearby are the Vie Cave which means ‘sunken roads’ and like the tombs, were carved into the tufo rock, some of them 25 metres high (over 80 feet). These roads, of which there are many, connect Sovana, Sorano and Pitigliano and have origins that pre-date the Etruscans. There are several theories around why these roads exist, from the practical to the sacred.
In this area, the Pagan and Christian blur and blend beautifully. On March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day, a torchlit procession emanates from a bonfire, the single file of walkers reprising an ancient journey through the Via Cava di San Giuseppe. They celebrate the ‘Return of the Light’, and it is no coincidence the date falls very close to the Spring Equinox.
It is an emotional experience to be in this deep, narrow and winding place, a sensation of being suspended between life and death, as crevices and foliage above alternatively shut out and let in the light.
I am just another person walking through on my own journey, as my grandfather did before making his own to America.
It is also my ancestral homeland, where in 1913, my grandfather, Ottavio Faenzi left behind his mother and nine siblings to come to America. A serendipitous set of circumstances several years ago put me on the path to encountering not only a lost part of my family, but also the Etruscan civilization, both of which have kept me enthralled
Carol is the author of The Stone Cutter’s Aria. You can travel with Carol to see these tombs and other Tuscan delights. For more information see www. mytuscanaria.com/tours