Thanks to Toscana Promozione Turistica, and the municipality of Sorano, near Grosseto in southern Tuscany, eight members of the Foreign Press Association in Milan (Associazione della Stampa Estera, Milano), me included, were invited to visit the area, as explained in this article (in Italian).
Sovana, a hamlet of Sorano, was our destination on Day 1, of this three-day Educational Tour.
An Etruscan settlement, Sovana is known for its remarkable necropolis. But it wasn’t always so. If there’s one word associated with the Etruscan civilization, it is “disappearance”. After flourishing and innovating for one thousand years in what is now called central Italy, this remarkable people was subsumed by the Romans and, well, just vanished.
It’s only thanks to amateur Etruscologists, such as George Dennis, that the necropolis at Sovana was rediscovered. As he tells it, in the chapter on Sovana, in his seminal book The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria (John Murray, Albemarle Street, London, 1848):
In the spring of 1843, Mr. Ainsley, my former fellow-traveller in Etruria, was making a third tour through this interesting land, and, not content with beaten tracks, he penetrated to Pitigliano, and thence made an excursion to Sovana, in quest of antiquities. Being aware that that place was known only as the site of the Roman Suana, he had no reason to expect relics of Etruscan times; yet, having established such an antiquity for Pitigliano, he shrewdly suspected the same for the neighbouring site. Here he inquired for antiquities. Antiquities! — “che roba è?” Nobody had ever heard of such “stuff” at Sovana. From the provost to the hind, all were alike ignorant. But his curiosity was excited by some columbaria and rock-hewn tombs of familiar character, and he proceeded to explore the surrounding ravines.
His suspicions were soon confirmed. Here were tombs with rock-hewn façades as at Norchia and Castel d’Asso, — and, following the range of cliffs, he came to a monument in the form of a temple, in a style both unique and beautiful. His surprise and delight at this discovery explained p483to the villagers who accompanied him the nature of the objects he was seeking. They were no less astonished to find a stranger display such interest in what to their simple mind was meaningless, or was regarded as a mere “scherzo” — a freak of Nature imitating Art, or a fanciful work carved in an idle or wanton mood by the “rude forefathers of the hamlet.” “Scherzi, scherzi! — is that the roba you want? there are plenty of such whims!” cried they; and they led him on from one rock-hewn monument to another, which excited his surprise and admiration more and more by their multitude, variety, and novel character, and afforded him convincing evidence of the Etruscan origin of Sovana.
The “scherzo” in question was this, the Tomb of the Siren (Tomba della Sirena):
And that’s no joke!
George Dennis’ life-ambition was to be an explorer. As he — and his friend Samuel Ainsley, a painter, showed, you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth in order to explore. You have to know what you are looking for, and try to understand how others see those same things. One person’s “scherzi” (“whims”) are another person’s treasure!
For the entire volume of George Dennis’ masterwork, see Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, and we thank Bill Thayer for having made this available, on his remarkable website, which offers lots to explore, not just Etruscan!
Since Etruscan burial grounds were placed on main roads, as a form of “memento mori” avant la lettre, it is not surprising to find a thoroughfare going straight down the middle of the necropolis at Sovana. In typical Etruscan fashion, they even did road-building in their own way. For the ground on which Sovana, Sorano, and nearby Pitigliano, are built is tufo, or vulcanic rock, known for being very stable but also very porous, and malleable. The outcome? They dug straight down, sometimes more than three metres, to create what are called vie cave in Italian, or excavated roads. A description, with picture, is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Via_cava, and here are a couple of my shots: