Past Perfect: Into the Etruscan Depths
In a place of the dead, D.H. Lawrence learns something about living.
A keen interest in history and archaeology has inspired great writers to experiment with the genre of the travelogue. Past Perfect presents the experiences of two millenia of writers in their travels around the western world.
When D.H. Lawrence traveled to Italy in 1927 to visit the Etruscan tombs, he had only a few years left to live, his deteriorating lungs ravaged by tuberculosis. But upon descending into those dark underground tombs, Lawrence instantly became enchanted with their resplendent scenes depicting the afterlife and colorful representations of feasting, drinking and merriment. Lawrence recorded his impressions in Etruscan Places, published posthumously in 1932. In it, he writes glowingly of the Etruscans, who inhabited central Italy between the ninth and first centuries B.C., but damningly of the Romans, who had conquered the Etruscan states by the third century B.C. Lawrence condemns the powerful, machine-like Roman Empire and its great ancient highways, which carried Roman civilization throughout its conquered lands. Lawrence’s attitude is hardly surprising. He frequently attacked the industrialization of his native England, both in his nonfiction pieces and in many of his novels, such as The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But in the tombs of Cerveteri, Tarquinia and Vulci, Lawrence found an antidote to mechanized society. Spontaneous and brimming with life, the paintings of the Etruscan tombs energized Lawrence’s spirit and brought quiet solace to a dying man.
There is a queer stillness and a curious peaceful repose about the Etruscan places I have been to There is a stillness and a softness in these great grassy mounds with their ancient stone girdles, and down the central walk there lingers still a kind of loneliness and happiness. True, it was a still and sunny afternoon in April, and larks rose from the soft grass of the tombs. But there was a stillness and a soothingness in all the air, in that sunken place, and a feeling that it was good for one’s soul to be there
The tombs seem so easy and friendly, cut out of rock underground. One does not feel oppressed, descending into them 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 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
Death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance. It was neither an ecstasy of bliss, a heaven, nor a purgatory of torment. It was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life. Everything was in terms of life, of living
We arranged for the guide to take us to the painted tombs, which are the real fame of Tarquinia. After lunch we set out, climbing to the top of the town, and passing through the southwest gate, on the level hill-crest. Looking back, the wall of the town, medieval, with a bit of more ancient black wall lower down, stands blank We walk across the wild bit of hilltop, where the stones crop out, and the first rock-rose flutters, and the asphodels stick up. This is the necropolis. Once it had many a tumulus, and streets of tombs. Now there is no sign of any tombs: no tumulus, nothing but the rough bare hill-crest, with stones and short grass and flowers, the sea gleaming away to the right, under the sun, and the soft land inland glowing very green and pure
[W]e descend the steep steps down into the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, so called from the pictures on the walls It is very badly damaged, pieces of the wall have fallen away, damp has eaten into the colors, nothing seems to be left. Yet in the dimness we perceive flights of birds flying through the haze, with the draught of life still in their wings The lower part of the wall is all a blue-green sea with a silhouette surface that ripples all round the room. From the sea rises a tall rock, off which a naked man, shadowy but still distinct, is beautifully and cleanly diving into the sea, while a companion climbs up the rock after him Meanwhile a great dolphin leaps behind the boat, a flight of 042birds soars upwards to pass the rock, in the clear air
It is all small and gay and quick with life, spontaneous as only young life can be. If only it were not so much damaged, one would be happy, because here is the real Etruscan liveliness and naturalness. It is not impressive or grand. But if you are content with just a sense of the quick ripple of life, then here it is
In the gable triangle of the end wall the space is filled in with one of the frequent Etruscan banqueting scenes of the dead. The dead man, sadly obliterated, reclines upon his banqueting couch with his flat wine-dish in his hand, resting on his elbow, and beside him, also half risen, reclines a handsome and jewelled lady in fine robes, apparently resting her left hand upon the naked breast of the man, and in her right holding up to him the garland Behind the man stands a naked slave-boy, perhaps with music, while another naked slave is just filling a wine-jug from a handsome amphora or wine-jar at the side. On the woman’s side stands a maiden, apparently playing the flute
The scene is natural as life, and yet it has a heavy archaic fullness of meaning. It is the death-banquet; and at the same time it is the dead man banqueting in the underworld; for the underworld of the Etruscans was a gay place. While the living feasted out of doors, at the tomb of the dead, the dead himself feasted in like manner, with a lady to offer him garlands and slaves to bring him wine, away in the underworld. For the life on earth was so good, the life below could but be a continuance of it.
This profound belief in life, acceptance of life, seems characteristic of the Etruscans. It is still vivid in the painted tombs. There is a certain dance and glamour in all the movements, even in those of the naked slave-men. They are by no means downtrodden menials, let later Romans say what they will. The slaves in the tombs are surging with full life
The Tomb of the Leopards is a charming, cosy little room, and the paintings on the walls have not been so very much damaged
The walls of this little tomb are a dance of real delight. The room seems inhabited still by Etruscans of the sixth century before Christ, a vivid, life-accepting people, who must have lived with real fullness. On come the dancers and the music-players, moving in a broad frieze towards the front wall of the tomb, the wall facing us as we enter from the dark stairs, and where the banquet is going on in all its glory
Above the banqueters the two great spotted male leopards hang out their tongues and face each other heraldically, lifting a paw, on either side of a little tree. They are the leopards or panthers of the underworld Bacchus, guarding the exits and the entrances of the passion of life
The Tomba dei Vasi Dipinti, Tomb of the Painted Vases, has great amphorae painted on the side wall, and on the end wall is a gentle little banquet scene, the bearded man softly touching the woman with him under the chin, a slave-boy standing childishly behind, and an alert dog under the couch Rather gentle and lovely is the way he touches the woman under the chin, with a delicate caress. That again is one of the charms of the Etruscan paintings: they really have the sense of touch
Here, in this faded Etruscan painting, there is a quiet flow of touch that unites the man and the woman on the couch, the timid boy behind, the dog that lifts his nose, even the very garlands that hang from the wall
There is a haunting quality in the Etruscan representations. Those leopards with their long tongues hanging out: those flowing hippocampi; those cringing spotted deer, struck in flank and neck; they get into the imagination, and will not go out. And we see the wavy edge of the sea, the dolphins curving over, the diver going down clean, the little man climbing up the rock after him so eagerly. Then the men with beards who recline on the banqueting beds: how they hold up the mysterious egg! And the women with the conical head-dress, how strangely they lean forward, with caresses we no longer know! The naked slaves joyfully stoop to the wine-jars. Their nakedness is its own clothing, more easy than drapery. The curves of their limbs show pure pleasure in life, a pleasure that goes deeper still in the limbs of the dancers, in the big, long hands thrown out and dancing to the very ends of the fingers, a dance that surges from within, like a current in the sea. It is as if the current of some strong different life swept through them, different from our shallow current to-day: as if they drew their vitality from different depths that we are denied
One radical thing the Etruscan people never forgot, because it was in their blood as well as in the blood of their masters: and that was the mystery of the journey out of life, and into death; the death-journey, and the sojourn in the after-life. The wonder of their soul continued to play round the mystery of this journey and this sojourn.
In the tombs we see it, throes of wonder and vivid feeling throbbing over death. Man moves naked and glowing through the universe. Then comes death: he dives into the sea, he departs into the underworld.
—D.H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places, reprinted in D.H. Lawrence and Italy (New York: Viking, 1972)
A keen interest in history and archaeology has inspired great writers to experiment with the genre of the travelogue. Past Perfect presents the experiences of two millenia of writers in their travels around the western world. When D.H. Lawrence traveled to Italy in 1927 to visit the Etruscan tombs, he had only a few years left to live, his deteriorating lungs ravaged by tuberculosis. But upon descending into those dark underground tombs, Lawrence instantly became enchanted with their resplendent scenes depicting the afterlife and colorful representations of feasting, drinking and merriment. Lawrence recorded his impressions in Etruscan Places, published […]