Thursday, 21 March 2013

Getting to understand the Etruscans of Cortona

Lack of extensive written records combined with a wealth of sometimes enigmatic tomb art has earned the Etruscans the qualifier "mysterious", and I guess it's true that they are among the most mysterious of the Mediterranean peoples of any significance. Luckily, here at Borgo di Vagli we have several excellent nearby opportunities to get to understand the Etruscans of Cortona quite well. First and foremost is the fine Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca di Cortona (Etruscan Academy Museum of the City of Cortona), MAƎC for short. This museum compares favorably with the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Chiusi and the Museo Guarnacci in Volterra.

Etruscan Academy Museum of the City of Cortona
Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca di Cortona.
The Etruscan Academy Museum is located in the Palazzo Casali, also known as the Palazzo Pretorio and dating back to the 13 C. The Museum was founded in 1727 and between 2005 and 2008 underwent major renovations including much-needed modernisation of the displays. It's now one of the most pleasing archaeological museums in Italy.

An entire if small viewing space is dedicated to the bronze lampadario found at Fratta near Cortona in 1840. This is a magnificent bronze hanging lamp very likely cast for a north Etruscan religious edifice of the highest importance during the 4th century BC. An inscription shows it was rededicated in the 2nd century BC. Under the 18 burners, its iconography includes alternating representations of Silenus playing double flutes and of sirens. Within reliefs of waves, dolphins and other fiercer sea-creatures is a gorgon-like face with protruding tongue. Between each burner is a horned head of Achelous. Don't miss it! It's housed adjacent to the entrance of Room II.

Display gallery in the Etruscan Academy Museum of the City of Cortona
Etruscan display in the Etruscan Academy Museum of the City of Cortona.
In addition to the Museum, there is evidence of Cortona's Etruscan past throughout the town and in the surrounding countryside. Within Cortona, Etruscan remains include parts of the mighty defensive walls, the double-arched gate of Porta Bifora as well as a series of underground sites such as the vaulted arch in the Palazzo Cerulli Diligenti, the barrel vault in the Via Guelfa, and an Etruscan section of wall in the Palazzo Casali itself.

The countryside around Cortona is dotted with "meloni", Etruscan burial-mounds. These can be seen at Camucia and also in the village of Sodo. Tumulo II at Sodo displays imposing terrace-steps decorated with sculptural groups and other architectural elements.

Etruscan Tumulo II at Sodo, near Cortona
Etruscan Tumulo II at Sodo, near Cortona
At the foot of the hill among the olive groves is the so-called Tanella di Pitagora (Tomb of Pythagoras), an Etruscan monument already known to travellers as early as in the 1500s, the Tanella Angori and the Mezzavia burial site.

A day spend first at the Cortona Etruscan museum followed by a circuit of the archaeological sites around Cortona makes for a very pleasant (and educational) excursion.

Some Etruscan proclivities differed from ours. One was a love of roasted, stuffed dormice (ghiri). These were reared in a large terracotta pot kept in the kitchen and known to us as a ghirarium. The numerous examples in Etruscan museums have climbing shelves built into the walls and air holes. There's a good reconstruction of a ghirarium in the MAƎC. The Roman recipe - possibly of Etruscan derivation - for preparing dormice involves creating a stuffing of dormouse meat or pork together with pepper, pine nuts, broth, asafoetida and some garum (anchovy paste will do), stuffing it into the dormice which are then stitched up and baked in an oven on a tile (180 C for 45 minutes). They are still a popular delicacy in Slovenia. You can also preserve the roasted animals in honey for later consumption. Buon appetito!

Etruscan dinner
Etruscan couple dining in style.

Museum Opening hours:
1 April – 31 October open everyday from 10 am to 7 pm.
1 November – 31 March open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5pm.
Closed Mondays, closed on 25 December.

Borgo di Vagli restored mediaeval hamlet in Tuscany
Borgo di Vagli has been authentically restored as a Tuscan vacation hamlet. The residences can be bought in the form of fractional ownerships, making a holiday home in Tuscany possible at modest cost.

Fulvio Di Rosa
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