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Venice: A Preserve of a Bygone Civilization

By Francesco Bonavita, Ph. D.

 

Venice

A view of Saint Mark Square: Basilica, Bell Tower, Doge Palace, Biblioteca Marciana

Originating from tiny specks of land, an archipelago formed by minuscule islands, out of which a community was established, Venice went on to become one of the most powerful maritime republics in the Mediterranean, roughly from 700AD -1700AD. Indeed, for nearly one thousand years Venice became an empire, an opulent nation, as it dominated international trade and it left beyond a wealth of artistic accomplishments in architecture, the visual arts, as well as music and literature. But how was this achieved? What made Venice so special and how did it play such an important role in history? Civilizations have come and gone but Venice, to this day, continues to thrive, attracting as many as twenty-one million tourists every year. This issue will explore the treasures of Venice through which a considerable light will be revealed.

View of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute,Venice, Italy

Venice has the shape of a fish surrounded by brackish water

The geography of Venice is unique in that the lagoon out of which it is resting is a mixture of brackish water coming from nearby rivers and the Adriatic Sea. Venice has the shape of a fish. It is a shallow lagoon, populated by 120 little islands that are connected by more than 430 bridges, made out of stone, metal and wood, the sum of which provides a lifeline of communication for every citizen.

Unlike other cities that originated near a river and expanded outward, the origin of Venice is intimately connected to the sea. Venetians had to learn at first to adapt to an environment that was barren, with no agriculture and land to thrive on. Roman colonies were well established on the mainland of the Venetia region. The name Venezia is said to have derived from the Latin expression veni etiam, which means “come back again.” Cities like Padua, Aquileia, Grado enjoyed a significant quality of life. However, as the Roman Empire began to crumble, the north-east area of Italy was subjected to ongoing invasions from the barbarians, most notably the Germanic tribes of Ostrogoths and Visigoths, as well as Huns, Central Asian tribes that came from Eastern Europe. Gradually, the local inhabitants sought refuge in the Venetian lagoon, which was 6 miles away from the mainland. It is hard to imagine why these early settlers would want to leave the comforts of Roman civilization and eke out a living on makeshift habitats. Historians have emphasized that this exodus took place gradually. The barbarians were excellent horsemen but were totally unfamiliar with life at sea and unwilling to pursue the Venetians, as there was nothing to gain from it. In the fifth century AD, Venetians managed to escape the threat of Barbarian invasion and settled on the lagoon.

Initially, the early Venetians made a living by fishing and by building dwellings on top of wooden piles, driven into the sea. This was a technique that lasted for many centuries, thus allowing for the expansion of the community that has come to be known as Venice. Between the seventh and the eighth century, Venetians mastered the art of salt making by directing sea water unto containers, allowing them to be sun-dried until rich crystals of salt began to form. Salt was a vital commodity in the Middle Ages, as people relied on to preserve perishable foods for many months. Salt constituted an immense source of revenue for the early Venetians, enabling them to supply Europe and the Mediterranean markets. Thus, by the ninth century, Venice had become a major political and economic power, controlling the seas, as well as diversifying their economy by exporting additional products such as spices, wool, silk and legumes. This is a remarkable achievement for it allowed Venetians to transform their salt trading society and to become world-class merchants, bankers and statesmen.

Venice. Cityscape image of St. Mark's square in Venice during sunrise.

The lion of Venice: a symbol of power intimately connected to Saint Mark

As Venice grew politically and economically, it needed an icon, an identity that would legitimize its prestige around the world. The early Christian annals circulated a myth that Mark the Evangelist had navigated as far as Venice, whereby a divine vision appeared to him that presaged the following utterance: “Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus” (Be at rest here). The Venetians ceased on this by making Mark their patron saint. The fate of all Venetians was intimately connected to Mark who was buried in Alexandria, Egypt. In 828, the Venetians set out to take possession of the saint’s relics who had been martyred between 62 and 63 AD. Presumably, the Coptic Church in Alexandria was in danger of being destroyed by the Muslims and local authorities gave permission for the remains to be exhumed and relocate to Venice. The choice of St. Mark as an icon for the city of Venice was an important one because Venetians made the case that the saint originally came to the lagoon area to preach and that Christ told him that some day this would become his final resting place and that an angel appeared to him uttering the famous phrase, which can be seen all over Venice. The robbery of the relics also illustrates the power of the Venetians because they were the only European agents to operate in the Middle East with little opposition. The Venetians controlled the Adriatic Sea and much of the Mediterranean around Egypt and the Aegean Sea, conducting trade in the Middle East, and all the way down to Alexandria, Aleppo – modern-day Syria – and Constantinople – modern-day Istanbul.

San Marco square with Campanile and San Marco's Basilica. The main square of the old town. Venice, Veneto Italy.

The Basilica of Saint Mark

In the ninth century, the Basilica was built-in honor of Saint Mark, celebrating the arrival of his relics. This was not just a symbolic gesture but also an important icon that parallels Rome. Just as the pope drew his authority from Peter, so, too, the Venetians claimed the moral authority from Mark. The saint dominates the Basilica of Saint Mark, in that it narrates his life in the interior as well as the exterior of the church. The art historian John Ruskin described the church as “a treasure heap.” The term heap is used to describe a pile of plunder from various areas around the Mediterranean, starting with the robbery of the body of Saint Mark. Throughout their navigational history, rarely did the Venetians returned empty-handed, as they brought relics and materials used for the embellishment of the church. This explains why the Basilica exhibits an Oriental aesthetic quality. Unlike the European cathedrals whose roofs reach for the sky, the church of Saint Mark has a comparatively lower roof, reflecting the Eastern influence, most notably the Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople.

VENICE/ITALY 27TH SEPTEMBER 2006  The Arsenal district

The Arsenale was a ship building center that enabled Venice to create a formidable navy

Venice’s ascendance to power could not have been achieved without its ability to engage in shipbuilding. Venetians were famous for their fast ships and a reliable navy. Venice dedicated one tenth of their land to the Arsenale, which was a shipbuilding center. It employed 16,000 workers and could construct as many as 100 galleys in 60 days. These ships were light and fast and capable of carrying cargo, and were made by utilizing division of labor. What made Venice such a formidable navy is that the ships had no slave to power the boats. The sailors were Venetian citizens who were also quick to switch from their navigational role to soldiers during a time of confronting adversaries. Today, the Arsenale is used to house the Venice Biennale for art exhibition, but in the past it constituted an industrial center that propelled Venice toward a redoubtable naval force. Indeed, the Arsenale was considered a precious secret and Venetians punished by death anyone who divulged any information on how shipbuilding took place. Similarly, the art of glassmaking was confined to the island of Murano and it was jealously guarded as an art form to be shared with no one because the production of glass, window panes, eyeglass lenses and decorative activities was a monopoly of the Venetian Republic from which a considerable wealth could be generated. This is also true for the island of Burano where embroidering skills were handed down from one generation to the next.

 

Marco Polo Kublai Khan. Date: circa 1275

The voyage of Marco Polo changed European perception of Asia, as he connected to Kublai Kahn, founder of the Yuang dynasty in China in the 13th century.

To illustrate the magnitude of Venice’s dominance of the sea, the story of Marco Polo’s voyage to China is truly emblematic in that it demonstrates how, as early as the Thirteen century, Venetians sailors could navigate freely through the Adriatic Sea, cross the Middle East, pass through Persia, go across the Pamir mountains, the Gobi desert and finally head to Beijing. The story of Marco Polo’s voyage is truly memorable and it celebrates Venetian power in that it enabled the explorer to navigate freely and to walk all the way across the Silk Road, reaching Asia and Mongolia. It was an extraordinary expedition that lasted more than two decades, from 1271-1295, during which he became the confidant of Kublai Khan. His biography, The Million, provides an excellent documentation of what China’s cultural life at the time and it afforded Europeans a greater understanding of Oriental customs, as well as expanding the trade routes to the East.

Venice

The Doge Palace is a perfect example of open architecture as opposed to medieval fortresses.

In the rest of Europe, society was defined in terms of social class; the nobility and the clergy occupied the top of the echelon, followed by merchants and peasants. While most Italian city-states were often subjected to family feuds, such as Florence and Milan, for example, Venetians had a more cohesive sense community. In Venice, class distinctions appeared not to exist, as everyone felt a sense of social equality. Most European societies experienced rebellion in one form or another, as people demanded better services. Venetians never felt the need to rebel, as workers, merchants and shipbuilders all enjoyed a certain degree of economic stability. This benevolent form of government does not qualify Venice as a utopia. On the contrary, the so-called Council of Ten, which was, in essence, a secret police, made use of repressive measures against citizens, in an effort to restrain any opposition. Nonetheless, Venetians had allegiance to the Republic rather than families, as occurred elsewhere. Similarly, the architecture of Venice also illustrates that its structures were not fortified as other Italian City States, as there was no need to protect against potential enemies. Buildings in Venice show an opened feature without having the need to establish heavy security for fear of a rebellion. Its buildings are delicate and not bulky. The Palazzo Corner Loredan, which is now Town Hall, was built-in 1362 and the Ca’ D’Oro built in 1420 are good examples of this opened architecture and, therefore, the liberal civic spirit that characterized much of Venetian society.

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Paolo Veronese’s Marriage at Cana: 1563

Venice did not have a parliamentary system. Venetians created a democratic institution and, unlike their European neighbors, were adverse to power handed down from one noble family to another. Venetians preferred a government by the few. It was ruled, instead, by the so-called doge, with limitations of term, who was elected by an oligarchy, a limited group of people each of whom in turn represented the people. Pietro II Orseolo is considered one of the first great doges of Venice because in the tenth and eleventh century he put an end to piracy, which was becoming a force to contend with. In doing so, Orseolo won the admiration of the Byzantine leadership, receiving special privileges that made Venice the sole European state to control the market in the East. This victory established Venice as a leading Republic in the Mediterranean Sea and launched the maritime republic toward becoming an empire. The doge ruled not by family ties and this practice continued to the end, until Venice was conquered by Napoleon in 1797. Venice never suffered an occupation but Napoleon took advantage of the Republic’s decline his troops pillaged the city’s wealth with its artistic tradition. Gold was robbed and melted for French consumption. Priceless works of art were stolen and taken to France. To this day, the Louvre houses many Venetian paintings, most especially Veronese’s Marriage of Cana. Even Miami houses Venetian treasures at Villa Vizcaya.

The Swiss Renaissance scholar, Jacob Burckhardt, who painstakingly examined the undisputed role of Florence in leading the Renaissance to the restitution of the arts and sciences throughout Europe, since classical antiquity, dismissed the notion of a humanist movement in Venice as it was simply relegated to few individuals. In reality, though, Venice did experience a humanist drive that was just as significant as that of its Florentine neighbors. The great Renaissance was characterized by fervor for the ancients. The Florentines embraced and rediscovered classical antiquity by bringing forth the love for Greek and Latin literature, architecture, the visual arts and the sciences, as well as the study of Hebrew. The Venetians, too, perceived the same message but they were able to process it differently. The architecture in Venice, for example, was never classical, as it tended to reflect an eclectic style bearing influence of Byzantine and Islamic tendencies.

 

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Aldo Manuzio: Venetian humanist and inventor of the small pocket-book, allowing readers to carry it everywhere.

Similarly, the invention of the printing press, which initiated a massive wave of information for the general public, impacted in a very distinctive way in Renaissance Venice. Starting in late fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth century, Venice became an important printing center. Nearly half of all the books in Italy came out of Venice. Traditionally Venetians made their wealth exclusively in trade from the East, but by acquiring the printing dominance it gave them an additional important source of revenue. Aldo Manuzio was an eminent Venetian humanist and a leader in the printing world, making books accessible to ordinary citizens. He made many contributions, the most notable of which was to introduce European readers to ancient Greek literature and philosophy with works by Euripides, Sophocles, Aristotle and Plato. He is credited with the introduction of the first hand-held book for everyone. In essence, this was the forerunner of the paperback, which revolutionized the printing press. He introduced the italic character not for emphasis as we do today but this feature enabled him to squeeze more words into a single page. A small size book meant a more affordable price and most importantly allowed books to be carried virtually everywhere.

Palace of  National Library called Biblioteca Marciana with high

The Biblioteca Marciana saved thousands of ancient Greek manuscripts from being burned by the Turks.

In addition to heralding the printing press, the Venetians ought to be credited also with housing some of most celebrated extant manuscripts in the world, coming from notable authors as Homer, Aristotle, Herodotus, Sophocles, Hippocrates, and many others. In 1468, the Greek cardinal, Basilios Bessarion, asked the Venetian authorities to build a library in order to house thousands of codices of ancient Greek manuscripts so that they could be saved from being burned by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Venice agreed to it and eventually went on to build the Biblioteca Marciana, which houses the largest collection of extant manuscripts from ancient Greek literature and philosophy, thus giving the Western world access to a wealth of ideas. Affording access to the world of classical antiquity to Italian humanists was arguably a seminal event that empowered scholars everywhere to discover and to recapture the essence of inestimable intellectual wealth that structured the basis of Western thought. It is worth noting that the Marciana library was completed long after the Greek cardinal died and did not see the wonder created by the humanist architect, Jacopo Sansovino, which brought Renaissance architecture to its highest level, leaving behind a classical appearance in Piazza San Marco that continues to astonish visitors to this day.

Vicenza - Villa Capra detta "La Rotonda"

The architecture of Andrea Palladio greatly inspired Thomas Jefferson

The Renaissance spirit is not limited to the architecture of Sansovino, Andrea Palladio was also an architect in his own right who went on to further the development of classical structures, transforming the landscape of Venice and the Veneto region. His architecture inspired Thomas Jefferson whose University of Virginia rotunda reflects a Palladian vision of symmetry and harmony. Palladio constructed numerous villas on the mainland, which enabled Venetians to display their wealth but, most importantly, it was an innovative approach to architecture in that it added functionality to luxury.

Designing and erecting a building in Venice is only part of a challenge because in addition to pre-occupying oneself with the aesthetic and the function of a structure, one has to contend with the maintenance process, which is ongoing. The canals must be dredged on a regular basis, as there is a build up of mud and stilt. So, too, structures have to be restored from time to time because of shifting foundations. In order to do this, canals have to be dammed to hold back the water. Indeed, nothing can sit for long without being attended, as water is insidious. This scenario gives us a good understanding of what life must have been for the early settlers, as well as the present dwellers of the city that must forever contend with the challenges of the sea.

The artistic success of Venice is not relegated to architecture rather it is equally represented in the visual arts. Indeed, the height of Venetian painting spans nearly five centuries of extraordinary accomplishments during which a considerable contribution was made, most notably with the introduction of oil techniques, as well as color, depth and perspective. It is interesting to note that with the exception of Giorgione who died in his early thirties, nearly all the masters of Venetian painters died in their late seventies and eighties. Longevity may be closely connected to the quality of lifestyle that a large segment of the population on the lagoon enjoyed as opposed to its European counterpart who lived on the mainland and possibly did not experienced adequate social services.

 

Venice - Madonna by Giovanni Bellini in San Zaccaria church.

Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna in the Church of San Zaccaria (1439-1516)

One of the earliest masters of the Venetian school of painting is Giovanni Bellini (1439-1516) who is credited with having transformed painting by introducing oil color technique and, most importantly, with having established a movement from which Giorgione (1477-1510), Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1526) and Titian (1488-1576) emerged as unique giants of the Venetian style. Bellini came from a family of painters, his father Jacopo and his brother Gentile, both of whom left an indelible mark in the history of art. Giovanni’s art, however, leaves behind an inimitable expression. Many of his masterpieces can be seen today in some of the world’s best museums. Of notable importance there lies the portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan whose posture emanates the self-confidence associated with the leadership of a Doge, as well as reflecting Venice’s opulence. The robe worn by the Doge is made of silk and it is richly embroidered in gold and silver thread. What makes this portrait significant is its three-dimensional effect. Bellini’s painting is more like a sculpture than a pictorial image. The robe, which gives the impression of looking at a drapery, especially accentuates this, a technique widely used, known as the panneggio effect during the Renaissance for creating a sculptural effect.

Venetian Canal

The Greek quarters of Venice is a testimony of ethnic diversity

Venice offers a lesson in history in that for a millennium it was able to conduct a commercial, a cultural and a viable exchange with Muslim countries. In addition, though not a democracy, Venice managed to create a political system that was egalitarian in nature with opportunities for all its citizens. To this day, the names of the streets of Venice recall a diversity of ethnic areas where foreigners lived, as well as illustrating a fragment of its history. In the Middle Ages, Venice was the home of many ethnic groups. Thus, street names such as Calle dei Albanesi, dei Armeni, dei Greci, dei Tedeschi and dei Turchi, indicate a heavy presence of foreigners, all of whom lived in harmony with one another. In the Middle Ages, people lived where they worked. The names of the streets reveal what people did and this can still be seen today, whereby 31 such streets indicate an ancient activity. Thus, Calle del Forno denotes where the bakers worked and lived, Calle dei Saonieri for soap makers, Calle del Malvasia, for wine makers, Campo de le Becarie, for butchers, Ruga degli Orefici for goldsmiths. As Venice grew in stature it also became a center of trade with an international flavor. Foreigners were called forestier, meaning coming from de fuori, the outside. This term was not derogatory and it reflected a more benevolent view of foreigners. So, too, Venetian surnames are reflective of a heavy international presence in Venice. Thus, surnames such as Schiavon, Turco, Del Turco or Moro are reminiscent of a bygone era when foreigners were given equal access to the community. But there is also another interesting point to be made with respect to street names because in the Middle Ages people lived where they worked. Thus, the names of the streets reveal what people did and this can still be seen today, whereby thirty-one such streets indicate not only an ancient activity but where workers lived. Consequently, Calle del Forno denotes the residence as well as the work place of bakers; so, too, for Calle dei Saonieri for soap makers, Calle del Malvasia, for wine makers, Campo de le Becarie, for butchers, Ruga degli Orefici for goldsmiths.

Venice canal boat bridge sunny day

A wooden bridge marks the entrance to the Jewish ghetto.

The presence of Jews in Venice was equally vibrant but they received a different treatment from the Republic with respect to other foreigners. Jews were allowed to live in Venice after they contributed money during the War of Cambrai in 1516. Nonetheless, Jews were allowed to live in the Ghetto and were only permitted to sell used books, to work as moneylenders and were forbidden to marry Christians. They also were not allowed to own property and had to be dressed differently from the rest of the Venetian population. The term “ghetto” is derived from the word “getar,” in that it was an area where casting took place. So, the term “geto” or ghetto, as pronounced by the Ashkenazi Jews, is indelibly associated with casting, marginalizing from a central area. The area is located in the Ghetto Nuovo of Venice and, at the time, it was an island segregated from the main lagoon. Despite these limitations, the Jewish community in Venice was very productive and it was rich in culture. The Italian Jewish writer, Giorgio Bassani, who became famous for his novel The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, which was turned into a classic film by Vittorio de Sica, has documented quite well the intellectual fabric of the Jewish-Venetian society.

 

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Veronica Franco: a poet and courtesan embodies the role of Venetian women.

Similarly, just as Jews were discriminated, the Republic, too, did not treat women, with benevolence. Although the role of women expanded during the Renaissance, exerting great influence in society, they were not allowed to vote, much less taking on a leadership position. The Republic was complicit in the growth of prostitution during the sixteenth century, by allowing the creation of bordellos throughout the city. The Ponte de le Tette, which can still be seen today, was a famous meeting point where prostitutes exhibited their breast in order to attract clients. Venetian women, though, were not ordinary prostitutes rather they were like Japanese Geishas who were highly paid for their services, as they played music, recited poetry and held soirées during which time intellectual forums could be initiated. One of the most influential women was Veronica Franco, a courtesan and a poet in her own right.

Carneval mask in Venice - Venetian Costume

After Rio, Venice’s Carnival is arguably one of the most colorful attractions in the world.

The Carnival of Venice is another shining example of Venetian traditions, which attracts as many 150,000 tourists during the event. But unlike other carnivals in Italy that are noted for their satire, the Venetian festivity focuses on recapturing its bygone past of wealth, dominance and luxury. This annual festival, which culminates with a Mardi Gras celebration before Lent, is well-known for its elaborate masks that are reminiscent of the Baroque period with its artistic emphasis on ornamentation, grandeur and convoluted designs. The masks are made out of porcelain or papier maché and they evoke the Golden Age of Venice during which the world renown theater of the Commedia dell’Arte produced such memorable characters as Arlecchino, Pantalone, Zanni.

The loss of commercial advantage on account of the Turkish expansion with its Ottoman Empire and the opening of the New World brought about the economic demise of the Venetian Republic mark the beginning of Venice’s decline. Its glory will bask forever in its past and in a sense it remains locked in within its historical boundaries, as well as its traditions, unable to project into the future. The famous art historian, John Ruskin, admonished Venice against becoming modernized and argued for preserving the historical character of the city. Fortunately, the city rejected proposals that would have included a subway system, modern electrical lampposts everywhere, which would have altered dramatically its unique look. This is a real challenge for Venice absorbed between the desires to conserve a way of life versus a more upbeat modernization effort.

Hotel Danieli, Venice

Hotel Danieli frequented by artists since the 19th century

With the conquest of Napoleon in 1796, the Venetian Republic is officially ended. The occupation of French troops had devastating consequences resulting with the pillaging of numerous art works, as well as stripping buildings of gold. Nonetheless, Venice managed to survive and to emerge as a singular city in the world for its glorious past and its precious landscape. In the Nineteenth century, Venice acquired the reputation of being a romantic city. It attracted hundreds of artists. Lord Byron was one of the first poets to associate the city with Romanticism, as opposed to the cold calculating rationality of the Age of Enlightenment. Eventually, Corot, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Browning, Dickens, Henry James, Manet, Whistler, Renoir, George Sand and Wagner duplicated the notion that Venice represented a unique force. Palazzo Dandolo was where supposedly Byron stayed and would take regular swims in the canal at night. The Palazzo was eventually refurbished into the now famous hotel Danieli. The artists contributed in creating a major industry for the Venetians, namely tourism.

Procuratie Nuove, Venezia

Site of the Caffè Florian one of the oldest cafés in Europe

In the 2016, it was reported that 20 million tourists visited Venice and the number keeps on growing each year. Tourism is an old business in Venice, which goes back as far as the Crusades, when people used this Adriatic city as a point of departure for Jerusalem. The sad part is that most visitors come to Venice only for a day excursion, thus without affording themselves the opportunity to discover the city’s past in greater depth.

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A flood similar to the one of 1966 is a stark reminder of Venice’s vulnerability.

The flood of 1966 was a turning point for Venice in that people began to realize that the time had come to begin planning for the future, as the expansion of the industrial component of the city started to show irreparable damage to the lagoon lest one can begin to reverse the process. Since the beginning of time, Venetians managed to control the flow of water. Many of the rivers that flow onto the lagoon were formed naturally. As time went on, however, the Venetians themselves widen the natural rivers and allowed seawater to enter the lagoon. This man created intervention was gradually responsible for the rising water level. The city realized that it needed cultural rather than industrial expansion if Venice was to remain the jewel of the Adriatic Sea.

An engineering feat was undertaken in an effort to stop the rising water levels. The MOSES project consists of a series of gates designed to stop the flow of seawater from going into the lagoon when a high tide occurs. This mechanism protects Venice from being flooded and eventually reduces the risk of sinking. There are approximately 80 gates whose main function is to protect three major areas, namely, Chioggia, Lido and Malamocco. The cost for this project is estimated to have been somewhere around 5 billion Euros. Environmentalists have protested vehemently because they point out that stopping the natural flux of seawater into the lagoon may seriously threaten the survival of wildlife.

Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy.Inscription in Italian: gondola

Venice: a preserve of a bygone civilization

There may be divergent views as to how Venice would need to be managed in the future. What is indisputable though is that Venice will be forever the preserve of a bygone civilization. UNESCO has recognized Venice as a historical landmark, which must be preserved forever as a living testimony of man’s dignity in the face of adversity, a universal human strength of creativity, capable of achieving the highest possibilities in the face of the unknown.

Bibliography

Horodowich, Elizabeth. Venice: A New History of the City and its People. Philadelphia: Constable & Robinson Running Pr., 2009.

Madden, F. Thomas. Venice: A New History. New York: Penguin, 2012.

Gary Wills. Venice: Lion City: The Religion of Empire. New York: Washington Sq. Pr., 2001.

Alvise Zorzi. Venice 697-1797: A City, A Republic, an Empire. New York: The Overlook Pr., 2001.

 

 

 

 

 

The House on the Fondaco Plain, A Novel by the Sicilian writer Natale Caruso and Translated from the Italian by Marino D’Orazio

The House on the Fondaco Plain, a novel by Natale Caruso. Available at Amazon.com

Reviewed by

Francesco Bonavita, PH. D., 2018

 

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Natale Caruso’s novel, The House on the Fondaco Plain, is a masterpiece worthy of the highest narrative tradition reminiscent of the great Giovanni Verga. Set in the Sicilian countryside, this work takes us on a journey spanning several generations, across three continents. It reflects the plight and the aspirations of the Italian immigrant experience, as well as laying bare the human condition of universal sufferings, passion and ideals shared by all. But it is much more! It is a lyrical composition that touches a wide range of human emotion. It is a valuable historical testament that illustrates the struggles and the dignity of the human spirit against adversities. It is an evocative narrative that blends in flawlessly with the Italian literary tradition. But what makes Natale Caruso’s artistic creation so compelling? What is there that renders this novel a universal character?

 

Caruso is a teacher by profession who for a number of years taught foreign languages in a New York City high school, as well as exhibiting his educational skills at the college level. In this capacity he learned the dynamics of teaching and learning and, most importantly, communicating with young people, as well as partaking of their intellectual formation, angst and aspirations. His students must be the beneficiaries of exciting learning and guidance, as well as being touched by inspirational moments. After all, Caruso brings a wealth of life experience, which must be at the core of his educational energy.

 

Born in Sicily during the aftermath of World War II, as a child Caruso must have been an indefatigable listener with a capacity of absorbing endless tales, straddling several generations. This unique experience, I think, is what has enriched Caruso’s emotional background, which is at the base of his narrative. Indeed, he is a great storyteller who constructs his tales with color, depth and historical relevance. To this end, he embodies the qualities of a raconteur that aim to please, to enlighten and to elevate the reader to unexplored heights.

 

The art of Caruso can be monitored on a variety of levels, the most important of which are the language, the use of scenery, the creative impulse and the lyrical output that attains veritable moments of catharsis. With respect to the use of language, the author is able to draw on Verga’s successful experiment of having characters express themselves through proverbs. The people who populate the narrative are of humble origin, the majority of whom toils the land from dawn to dusk. The men are strong and the women are hard-working, whose role is multifaceted. The people are unable to articulate their human condition in a literary sense, as they are deeply immersed with eking out a living. Through the use of proverbs, though, they are capable of expressing themselves eloquently. This is a remarkable achievement because this technique enables the characters to emerge as real people who can express the sufferings and the drudgery of daily life. The allusion to Verga is not without merit. If the Jungian archetypical model to a collective consciousness is any indication, then, Caruso would be a perfect candidate for it because, in addition to embodying Jung’s projections, he happens to come from a town within a walking distance from Vizzini, whereby Verga drew exhaustively for his sources.

 

Similarly, the author offers a scenery of a bygone world, one that is structured around the medieval town of Licodia Eubea, situated in the province of Catania, about two thousand feet above sea level. Governed by a long-standing tradition of family bonds, the town thrives on its rural territory, as if time has been frozen in the past, reminiscent of its Greek colonial period of the Magna Grecia, when Greek colonists settled on the island of Sicily, more than twenty-five hundred years ago. The voices of the people are also echoing the chorus of the ancient Greek plays with their dramatic warnings of curses that are about to manifest in the foreseeable future. There is a strong current that is deeply embedded in antiquity, as if transmitted in the collective spirit of its people and it surfaces from one generation to the next. But this aura of olden times is juxtaposed to the present because it is closely tied to a wave of immigration that has its people connect to other continents, most notably South America, North America and Australia. These are dynamics from which Caruso’s narrative is shaped.

 

Caruso’s narrative is not confined to the art of relating the vicissitudes of the people rather it is adorned with a creative fabric that only an artist is capable of presenting. His creative style is succinct, powerful and expressive. Just as a painter is capable of creating a drama with a few strokes of the palette, so, too, Caruso’s artistic rendition enables him to depict the folly of Fascism that for twenty-two years upset and traumatized the lives of millions of people across Italy. Without giving away the plot, there are many episodes during which Caruso offers the reader a vivid account of how repressive and hostile daily life must have been under Fascist Italy. What is so extraordinary is that the narrator is a minimalist who can convey the anxieties and the disquietude of the oppressed with the least amount of description. He is able to do this on account of the rich colors of his characters using as fewer words as possible.

 

As with any works of this magnitude, a narrative cannot attain universal qualities unless it inspires lyrical moments. A storyline that is dependent on pure factual presentations has its limitations and it is destined to become a sheer chronicle of tales unless it is capable of expressing a depth of human emotions. To this end, Caruso’s work is emblematic of poetic imagery not simply because his verses are dispersed throughout the text but rather on account of his reflective prose in the face of adversity, avarice, oppression, passion and death itself. This is what makes this novel a compelling reading. It is not simply a narrative relegated to a specific time and place rather it is the voice of universal clamor that has been felt since time memorial, namely, the sufferings of child exploitation, the struggles of immigrants and the pursuit to justice against the tyranny of Fascism.

 

This novel was originally written in Italian, as Nelle Braccia del Tempo, and it has been translated by Dr. Marino D’Orazio who deserves credit for having been able to transmit the nuances and the color of Caruso’s language. Dr. D’Orazio’s work is as prestigious as the author himself for having preserved the tone of the language, as well as its lyrical register. This is not a mere transposition from one language to another rather it is the interpretation of all that embodies Caruso’s narrative.

 

Indeed, Caruso’s work is a symbolic chant being sung through a powerful chorus of Verdi’s famous musical composition of the Nabucco, whereby people are liberating themselves of the oppressors. Likewise, Caruso’s characters are freeing themselves from the shackles of the evil eye, for which subjugation has been an inevitable onus for many generations. This is a victorious chant for the unsung heroes of this world whose voices are too often lost in the valley of oblivion. Caruso’s work is a commendable contribution to the annals of Italian American literature and reading is indispensable, as it offers a unique perspective of a first generation viewer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Etruscans: One of Three Great Civilizations in Italy. Francesco Bonavita, Ph.D.

 

etruscan-funerary-monument-with-man-and-woman-dining-together

Etruscan sarcophagus of the spouses

Introduction

Although I am a frequent traveler to Italy, my exposure to Etruscan civilization was relegated to the rich collection exhibited at the Vatican Museum, which displays a vast array of vases, golden artifacts, and the classical sarcophagi with its reclining figures. There was also an encounter with the early Villanova artifacts I had seen several years ago in Perugia. And with the exception of two other major exhibits I had seen at the Louvre in Paris, as well as the well-curated Etruscan art collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I had always wanted to visit the region known as Etruria, an area known primarily for Etruscan ancient burial sites, referred to as necropolis, which is situated largely between the Tiber River in Rome and the Arno in Florence. Recently, I was fortunate enough to make the trip to Etruria in an effort to delve deeper into a civilization that has been described as mysterious and elusive. I set out for the town of Tarquinia, approximately sixty miles northwest of Rome, which almost three thousand years ago, together with several other cities in Etruria, had been, the hub of the Etruscan Civilization. Upon arriving in Tarquinia, one cannot help to observe the relative peaceful and countryside atmosphere of the necropolis area. It is as if the entire area is undergoing a perennial slumber, deeply evocative of an illustrious bygone past. As I entered the premises, I was surprised to see only one tourist bus, occupied by mostly French, German, English and some American visitors. This is clearly not the typical tourist destination whereby long lines of eager visitors await patiently. The necropolis of Tarquinia is characterized by a vast burial ground, which contains approximately six thousand tombs in an area that is probably not much larger than Lower Manhattan. In addition, Tarquinia has some of the most beautiful Etruscan paintings than any other area in Etruria. As I descended tomb after tomb and absorbed by the colorful frescoes with numerous scenes, depicting festivals, hunting feats, celebrating life in its various forms, I could not but reflect on the Etruscans with awe and admiration.

etruscan-tomb-of-large-family-from-volterra

The elusive Etruscans

So, just who were these Etruscans who are often labeled as enigmatic, gluttons, bon vivant, obscure but who, supposedly, gave us wine, the love for music and taught us to live life in style? In this essay, I would like to explore several questions. Is it possible that three major civilizations could flourish in the same area, during the course of twenty-five hundred years? In a small geographical area, such as Tarquinia, the Etruscans left behind a vastly and highly decorated necropolis to honor their loved ones. Although there is no question that the Etruscan society was clearly defined in terms aristocratic lines, vis-a-vis a much larger servant population, one has to assume that such a vast necropolis could not have been intended just for the upper echelon. Rather, might we presuppose a more egalitarian posture toward the lower classes? Might this attitude constitute a more benevolent disposition toward the working class at this early juncture of Western Civilization? Another question that is equally compelling is where do the Etruscans originate? Since their language is classified as non Indo-European, many historians have been intrigued by their origins. And last, but not least, we need to examine the legacy of the Etruscans and the degree to which studying these ancient people might give us a better appreciation of ourselves.

Origins

chimera-of-arezzo

Chimera of Arezzo

The Etruscan presence in Italy goes as far back as 1200 BC. This is the period of the Bronze Age, which in the Etruria area is commonly referred to as the Villanova era by archeologists. There are essentially two schools of thought regarding the origin of the Etruscans, namely, the Greek’s and the Roman’s, whose positions have not, to this day, resolved the issue. Historical accounts of ancient Greece seek to explain the origin of the Etruscan people, as having migrated from Asia Minor, primarily from Lydia, which today is known as Turkey. Herodotus, the Greek historian, attributes the Etruscan migration to famine, which took place around 1200 BC. Among the Roman historians, notably Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a historian who wrote around the time of Caesar Augustus in the first century AD, comes the theory that the Etruscans originated in Italy. Dionysius claims that the Etruscans were autochthonous, meaning that they originated in Etruria. Among scholars, it is generally agreed that the Etruscans originated in Italy, but the verdict is still out, mainly because of scant literary documents left behind, which lends the Etruscans an aura of mysterious origin. [1]

The calamitous climatic changes that took place around 1200 BC, which affected major areas of Anatolia, Syria, Cyprus and Greece, resulted in a massive migration. From a geographical standpoint, however, Herodotus’ theory may not be plausible simply because the migrants who sought to alleviate their miseries from hunger would have chosen a shorter path, closer to the Adriatic Sea, in order to reach Italy. They would have settled along the Adriatic Coast and not, as it is, the Tyrrhenian Sea Coast, where Etruria is located.

Because only a large body of archeological evidence remains in the form of necropolis, it is very difficult to establish a definitive claim on the origin of the Etruscans. What is clear, however, is that both Greek and Roman accounts created a biased view of the Etruscans, which prevails in the collective consciousness of the present. The negative posture adopted by both Greek and Roman historians are quite ample. Based on archeological accounts, we know that the Etruscans lived well. They celebrated life and, most important, women were treated with equal privileges as men. Whereas Greeks tend to show men at the center of activities, when we examine vases, Etruscan art, in contrast, celebrate the presence of women in leadership positions. According to Greek symposia, this composition was traditionally reserved for men, whereas the Etruscans show women mingling with men, as they celebrated life, usually in the form of festive poses. Illustrations found in paintings, emphasize full participation of women not only at celebrations but at sporting events, as well. In their tombs, Etruscans took great care to exhibit marital love in sarcophagi, showing spouses in a reclining position. Inscriptions found at tombs indicate that women kept their identity, as it was customary to preserve patronymic as well as matronymic names. This practice is still being continued by the Hispanic culture. Women played a vital role in public life. This can be seen in the way women dressed. They often wore dresses similar to Roman toga and would suggest a symbol of citizenship among women.[2]

 

Although Etruria is essentially delineated between two rivers, the Arno and the Tiber, and demarcated in the east by the Apennine Mountains with a navigational opening alongside the Tyrrhenian Sea, to the west, the presence of Etruscans stretches all the way to the north of Italy and as far south as Campania. Historical records indicate that the Etruscans interacted on a worldly scale with the Gauls of ancient France. Indeed, archeological evidence suggests that the Etruscans conducted commerce with the Gauls [3]just as they had done with the people of Magna Grecia in Syracuse, Carthage in northern Africa, the Phoenicians in Asia Minor and the Greeks. The Etruscan territory was blessed with rich iron deposits, most especially on the island of Elba where an active metallurgic center was created and which gave the Etruscans a competitive edge over other people in the Mediterranean area. Although there are no physical evidences today that the island was a center of metallurgy in the past, the name of Portoferraio in Elba still exists today. The term porto, of course, denotes the harbor whereas ferraio refers to iron, of which there was plenty of in ancient times. The wealth of Etruria was not by all means relegated to rich deposits of minerals. The area was equally endowed with a fertile land, enriched by a vast network of brooks. [4]This is the area of Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Liguria which even in present time is synonymous with the production of great wine, unique olive oil and delicious artichokes, among other things. Thus, given the unmatched territory, with its majestic topography, for which the Etruscans enjoyed, it was inescapable that the Etruscans were destined to be excellent navigators, good cultivators of the land and fine artisans.

Early Etruscans

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Etruscan helmet

The early Etruscans begin to surface in the Etruria region around 1200 BC. Traditional archeology prefers to label these inhabitants who articulated the transition between the Bronze and the Iron Age, as those who characterized the so-called Villanova period. This period spans approximately four-hundred years and it establishes the uncontested supremacy in much of the Mediterranean land. Modern archeology, however, prefers not to dwell on the Villanovan designation simply because it may inadvertently create the notion of two distinct civilizations. [5] We do not have much structural evidence left behind by the Etruscans, as dwellings, seaports, temples, and storehouses have essentially disappeared. What we have, instead, is a vast array of burial sites that reveal the essence of Etruscan civilization on account of their art, artifacts and personal belongings of the families for whom these necropolis were created. Based on archeological evidence, it is fair to say that these people had a fairly egalitarian social structure, with division of labor and a quality of life that was fairly accessible to everyone. In nearly four hundred years, the Etruscans of this period experienced prosperity, increased their navigational commerce, which allowed them to interact with a multitude of people, all over the Mediterranean area.

The funerary practices of the early Etruscans are rather remarkable in that they cremated their dead and placed the remains in an urn, which resembles the habitat of the time. The urn represents a rudimentary hut, made out of ceramics mixed with iron. This technique would suggest that the Etruscans were experimenting with minerals, as they entered a transformational phase from bronze to iron. [6]

The Orientalizing Period

vaso_etrusco

Etruscan vase

In time, the Etruscans became masters of metallurgy and suppliers of military equipments throughout the Mediterranean area. Such a commercial enterprise conducted on a large-scale led inevitably to accumulation of wealth, but, most importantly, it allowed them to establish a greater cultural contact with Greece. Etruscans became fond of Greek art and, as a result, began experimenting with Greek style vases and, eventually, adapting the Hellenic alphabet for their own language. This is the golden age of the Etruscans and it is commonly referred to as the Orientalizing period, ranging roughly from about 800 BC and 500 BC., simply because its artistic vision exhibits a new dimension, reflecting for the most part the influence absorbed by the close contact with Asia Minor.

The Orientalization period marks the beginning of urbanization with the birth of many cities centers, the most notable of which were Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Orvieto, Cortona and Volterra. Cerveteri distinguished itself for the production of ceramics with its classical piece known as the bucchero, as well as conducting commerce at sea. [7]

The Decline of Etruscan influence

tomba-tarquinia

Etruscan fresco

The fourth century BC marks the beginning of Etruscan decline, primarily because of two important events, which may have changed the course of history in a significant way. First, as Rome emerges as a new player in the region, the last Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, is removed from power and the Etruscan population is gradually absorbed into the Roman social fabric. In another front, in an effort to maintain control of the Mediterranean Sea, Syracuse inflicts a devastating blow to the Etruscan navy at Cumae, which is known today as the Bay of Naples. Might complacency have precipitated the downfall of the Etruscans? After all, the Etruscans enjoyed a quality of life that was probably unmatched in the area. They cherished their life style and had no inclination toward expanding their military aspirations. So, too, their warfare techniques may have become obsolete in comparison to a more belligerent Roman neighbor. Whatever the case, Etruscan influence began to wane, leaving to posterity only a wealth of burial sites, which to this day is still awaiting further judgment, as to what made this people so fascinating and producers of one the great Western civilizations, which impacted significantly to our way of approaching life. Let us consider some aspects of Etruscan lifestyle that may shed some light.

Agriculture

 

 

Tools found in the tombs indicate that the Etruscans were master cultivators of cereals and legumes, as well as grapes in order to make wine. The National Archeological Museum, in Florence, houses the largest collection of agricultural tools used by the Etruscans, such as ploughs, hoes, picks, spades, blades for pruning, sickles for cutting hay and wheat, and a whole host of implements used to utilize the fertile land to its fullest extent possible. [8] Upon observing the frescoes one can see that the Etruscan flora was abundantly varied and the artichoke, which, to this day, fills the countryside in the Lazio region, was the centerpiece, along side pears and pomegranate.

Navigation

 

The Etruscan maritime power reached its pinnacle during the Orientalizing period, which allowed it to conduct trade, to control the sea and to benefit substantially from a cultural interaction with its neighbors, most especially with the Greeks, from whom they derived an artistic vision and inspiration. The Etruscans understood early on that in order to sustain a quality of life and to maintain prosperity it was essential to build a sound infrastructure, such as ports, roads and a good shipping industry in an effort to import and to export goods. Archeological evidence found at shipwrecks in Bon Porte, Cap d’Antibes, and the island of Giglio off the Tuscany Coast, illustrate the ship building techniques of the Etruscans, characterized by interlocking planks with wooden pegs. It was customary for Etruscan ships to be laden with iron and copper and agricultural products and to be returned with pottery, ivory and other materials needed to support their luxurious lifestyle.

Engineering for Building Routes and Means of Transportation

 

With the exploitation of natural resources such as minerals and iron, it became necessary for the Etruscans to create a sophisticated network of roads, so that these reserves could be transported. An infrastructure had to be created, which would connect coastal towns with the interior habitats of the region. In Viterbo, a town just a few miles from Rome, and Civita di Bagnoregio, for example, there are roads that are still used by locals. These roads were cut directly from the tufo, which is still abundant in the region. [9] Tufo is a volcanic material made up of consolidated ashes, which is surprisingly malleable while being classified as a rock. Etruscans were able to cut through these materials and make it possible for carts to pass through and to connect to other cities in order to deliver their goods. The typical means of transportation used took place on carts with two wheels, pulled by horses. Donkeys were also used to transport cargo and lots of walking was done, as well.[10]

Etruscan Language

The language of the Etruscans is confined to about 300 words, all of which are left behind through inscriptions. [11] One cannot speak of Etruscan literature per se, as documentation has disappeared. Most of what is known about Etruscan literature has come down through narrative accounts written by Greeks and Romans. Scholars who wish to pursue the study of Etruscan language are limited to inscriptions – there are approximately thirteen thousand inscriptions found, which brings the vocabulary knowledge to about two hundred and seventy words [12] – on monuments and a few surviving texts, the most notable of which are the Zagreb mummy wrapping, the Piacenza liver, the Lemnos Stele, the François Tomb, and the most recent discovery of the Tabula Cortonensis. [13] In addition to the discovery of the Zagreb artifact, which bears an inscription of religious nature, the Tabula Cortonensis, better known as the Cortona Tablet, found in Tuscany in 1992, is probably the most important document because it offers the longest inscription in the Etruscan language found thus far. According to scholars, this artifact dates back to the third and the fourth century BC and it constitutes a real estate transaction. This bronze tablet survives as a fragment and it contains a total of two hundred words.

Although it is very difficult to examine the language of the Etruscans, we can state with absolute certainty that it is not an Indo-European language, simply by comparing numbers. It was customary for the Etruscans to mark their tombs with the age of the deceased ones. Thus, the sequence one through ten does not resemble the Indo-European language, which is the basis of Western languages.

English one two three four five six seven eight nine ten
Indo-European oynos duwo treyes kwetwores penkwe sweks septm okto newn dekm
Etruscan thu zal ci huth mach sa semph cezp nutph sar

Fig. 1, A Comparison of Indo-European language with English and Etruscan.

Funerary testimony

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Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri

Just as Tarquinia rests on its aura of a bygone past, as if evoking the great lives of yesteryear, so, too, the necropolis of Cerveteri is a real city of the dead. Here the Etruscans conducted ceremonies in honor of their dead. The tombs are greatly enriched with statues, stone furniture sculpted on the walls, giving us a glimpse of how the Etruscans actually lived. [14] Contrary to their contemporaries, the Etruscans performed their funerary practices in a variety of ways, at first, by cremation and later by burying their dead. After cremating the body, its remains would be placed in a decorated urn and lowered into a cylindrical tomb. Along with the urn, personal belongings were also forming the burial site. The first urns were shaped very much like their houses in a rudimentary manner, until such a time that it underwent a considerable refinement, which distinguished itself with the production of bucchero that went on to become the national ceramics of the Etruscans.

With the economic development, the art of the tomb was entirely transformed. The entire Orientalizing period was characterized by underground necropolis for the dead by actually burying the dead in a sarcophagus and sculpting on top of it a figure or spouses in a reclining position. In Tarquinia, the walls were highly decorated with frescoes, worked by exceptional artists who depicted a variety of scenes, ranging from hunting, dancing, and other important events. Art stands on its own merits. Etruscans were the great beneficiaries of artistic influence as they extended their contacts with other cultures, particularly the Egyptians, the Phoenicians and the Greeks. The funerary frescoes of Tarquinia represent the first major impetus of the history of painting. In the sixth century a strong presence of Greek artists is witnessed, as they were hired to embellish the tombs. The overall effect was to recreate the house of the living in the city of the dead. [15] We get a sense not only of how people lived, but how they celebrated life at funerals. The frescoes offer a testimony of Etruscan daily life; the importance of rituals, hunting and of documenting the names and the age of the deceased. We have probably the greatest Etruscan record of written language left behind in the form of inscriptions at funerary locations.

The necropolis becomes the only source of history left behind. These tombs are luxurious, populated with sarcophagi and all of the most significant belongings of a family, such as jewels, furniture, tools, and vases. The tombs vary from one area to the next, but the best known are those of Tarquinia for the magnificent paintings and Cerveteri. The necropolis of Cerveteri, the most famous of which is known as La Banditaccia, consists of a series of burial mounds each of which is approximately a one hundred sixty-four feet in diameter, filled with decorations that reflect the actual habitat of the Etruscan aristocracy. [16] The tombs of the Banditaccia contains funerary sculptures as centerpieces.

Jewels

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In making jewels, the Etruscans brought the technique of granulation to another dimension . The Rigolini-Galassi tomb of Cerveteri strikes us for the abundance of artifacts left behind, most especially the jewelries. The Etruscans became master artisans of some of the finest jewelries in the world, by an elaborate process of granulation and filigree. This technique allows dust of gold to be placed on a surface and to create geometric figures such as the famous fibula seen on display at the Louvre Museum.

The golden artifacts are true masterpieces that range from pins, earrings, necklaces, hairpins, and bracelets. Pendants, rings, were also crafted in gold and silver for the use of banquets, which was an important social interaction of the time. The granulation technique of sodding tiny golden spheres onto a surface is highly sophisticated. These granules cannot be distinguished with a naked eye, as they are minuscule. Nonetheless, these granules form the basis of the ornaments, which can be quite elaborate, at times, attaining a baroque like ornamentation. The pectoral jewelry found at the Bernardini Tomb, which is now housed at the National Museum of Villa Giulia, in Rome, is probably the best example of Etruscan granulation technique. [17]

Vases

 

The bucchero is the most prominent ceramic object produced by the Etruscans. It was so popular that its production ended up outside the boundaries of Italy. It has a predominant black color and it was used to collect wine, oil, food, as well as precious oils and perfumes. The firing for these artifacts was kept at its highest level in an effort to obtain a dark color. Because its production required a mixture of clay and metals, the bucchero allowed the artist to depict a variety of sceneries, by inscribing directly on its surface, without having to paint it. [18]

The cult of bathing as a health benefit

The Etruria region is particularly blessed with a myriad of springs, which are being utilized by modern Italians, even today. The notion that spas impact on one’s health in a salutary strength has been handed down to us. In addition to devoting numerous sanctuaries to divinities, such as Apollo, Sylvan and Nymphs, the Etruscans utilized the ritual of cold and hot water baths as a therapeutic exercise in the belief that it restored one’s body. In the medicinal springs of Chianciano Terme, in Tuscany, many sculptures have been found that supposedly were given as gifts, as a means of gratitude for curing one’s ailment. [19]

Religion

In the initial phase of the Iron Age, the religion of the Etruscans manifested itself in its deep veneration of nature. Many of the paintings and inscriptions appear to underline a deep sense of awe for rivers, the forces of nature, a fondness for agriculture and imaginary animals. The leitmotif for Etruscan art is intimately connected to religion in that it captures the notion that out of nothing one creates and transforms. [20]

The Legacy

A popular poster on the history of dental care, published by Proctor & Gamble, illustrates a timeline, starting with the Egyptians, around 3,000 BC up to present times, bypasses the Etruscans altogether by listing the Roman’s contribution to dentistry, starting with the year 6,000 BC. This is an egregious mistake, which not only exhibits a lack of cultural understanding but it is also in line with the general notion that the Etruscans were simply an incidental footnote to the history of civilization. Such a simplistic interpretation of history fails to take into account that great ideas are formed on the backs of giants. We are the inescapable products of our predecessors.

Thus, when examining the influential role of women, we might want to start with the Etruscans themselves, as women enjoyed considerable freedom, as demonstrated in their illustrations of banquets and sculptures located on their tombs. Women occupied positions of importance, as illustrated by their personal appearance, exhibiting fine jewels, toiletries, and especially mirrors, which were an important art form of the time. All of this emphasis on personal appearance was not based on vanity, but rather on projecting a role of power.

Similarly, when examining the art of the Etruscans we are quick to recognize that art was conceived as a means to embellish their cities. Utilitarian need in art is underlined in addition to a desire to express a religious sentiment. In contrast to Roman art which sought to put emphasis on public display, the Etruscans, on the other hand, highlighted the importance of spiritual expression in art, as well as the need to create objects for their daily consumption.

When examining the history of the Italian Renaissance, historians have defined the movement simply as a revival of classical antiquity by which they mean a return to the study of Greek and Roman civilization in an effort to better understand the present. This is, indeed, true. The great bulk of literature, philosophy, scientific studies, art, engineering, and a whole host of human endeavors left behind by the Greeks and the Romans constituted an immeasurable degree of influence. Nonetheless, the degree to which Etruscans impacted of Renaissance artists cannot be minimized. Thus, the famous Giotto’s fresco of Justice would not have been conceived without the dancing figures of the Etruscans.

Similarly, Nicola Pisano ‘s marble relief panel of Nativity in the Pisa Baptistry could not have taken place without the use of reclining figures on Etruscan tombs. The revival of classical antiquity in the Renaissance would be incomplete without the inclusion of Etruscan art. The reclining figure of Etruscan women is a posture that was adopted by Renaissance artists time and time again.

The history of fine arts is replete with images of decapitation, most notably that of Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the head of Medusa in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, which was probably inspired by an Etruscan mirror that shows Ulysses who is about to behead Circe.

Etruscan legacy lives in our collective unconscious memory

Carl Jung the noted Swiss psychologist who theorized about the presence of archetypes lying dormant in our collective unconscious memory is probably an appropriate connection to establish, as we examine the contribution of the Etruscans, their relevance, and how it impacted on posterity. One may never know the extent to which we are the beneficiaries of Etruria enriched with all its artistic expression, its way of life and its spiritual strength. We are, unquestionably, not simple creatures of yesterday but part of a bygone and larger psyche from which we derive a source of inspiration. This creative energy is not relegated to just our immediate ancestry, but rather it goes as far back as a millennia.

Consider the pursuit of a qualitative life, coupled with the notion of beauty and the obsession for fine designs. The Etruscans went to great lengths in celebrating life, either at banquets or in partaking of sporting events, such as wrestling and fishing. These memorable moments were captured in the numerous frescoes they created, which depicted the spirit of these gatherings, whereby both men and women gesture euphorically, as well as exuding self-confidence. Similarly, great attention and care was devoted to producing decorative artifacts, not simply for the sake of adorning one’s body, but rather to exalt beauty to an aesthetic dimension. Comparatively speaking, whether one looks at the classic Bucchero with its inscribed scenes or the famous golden hairpin fibulae, which can be seen in every major museum in the world, one cannot help but be reminded of the Italian artisans and artists who, to this date, create stunning gold pieces, ceramics, shoes, furniture and other luxurious items intended to embellish our living space as well as our spirit.

The Etruscans were deeply religious people who manifested their devotion by praying and to externalize their piety in the form of sanctuaries. The religious structures are still visible in Etruria, which pay tribute to the love for nature in much the same way that modern Italians are particularly adept in creating a point of reference, whereby the memory of a saint is forever present. The Etruscans paid particular attention to springs, as they believed that they had miraculous powers. It is hard to imagine modern Italians without the custom of drinking mineral water, as they are deeply convinced that its merits lie in the curative powers for one’s liver. Based on the epitaphs inscribed on their tombs, archeologists calculate that the average lifespan for the Etruscans was 40.88. Such a milestone is a tribute to the quality of life attained by the Etruscans, especially when one considers the average life span for modern Italians, up until the early 1900, was a mere 44.2. [21]

A recent film, directed by Eugene Greene, La Sapienza, which deals with the architecture of Francesco Borromini, one of the chief creators of Baroque Art, along with Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Caravaggio, alludes to the Etruscan’s creative spirit. The protagonist of the movie who is resisting the popular temptation of building commercial structures at the cost of meaningful living space, is mesmerized by an Etruscan inscription he found at one of the necropolis, which highlight the words dawn, treasure and wisdom. Might this be an adage for “Dawn is the treasure of knowledge?” The interpretation of these terms may be multifaceted and one can derive a whole slew of meanings. I like to think that the Etruscans were on to something spectacular, which put them along side the giants of the creators of Western Civilization, together with the Egyptians, the Mesopotamian cultures of Asia Minor, the Sumerians, Judaism and many others in the area, and the Greeks. Thus, the term dawn alludes to the beginning of a great age, enriched or treasured by a multitude of achievements, which gave them wisdom. In the Twentieth First Century we no longer look at the Etruscans as a mysterious people nor as pirates who were disposed to hedonism, but rather we see them as having bestowed upon posterity an immeasurable cultural wealth that is still waiting to be unraveled and as the forerunners of the first of three great civilizations to flourish on Italian soil.

[1] Larissa Bonfante, ed. Etruscan Life and After Life: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies, Wayne State Univ., Detroit, 1986. Mario Torelli, “History Land and People,” p. 48.

[2] Larissa Bonfante Warren, “Etruscan Women: A Question of Interpretation,” in Archeology, Vol. 26, No. 4 (October, 1973), pp. 242-249.

[3] Bonfante. Op. Cit., Jean Macintosh Turfa, “International Contacts: Commerce, Trade, and Foreign Affairs,” p. 75.

[4] Bonfante. Op. Cit., Mario Torelli, “History: Land and People,” p. 47.

[5] L. Bonfante, op. cit., p.1

[6] Heurgon, Jacques. Daily Life of the Etruscans. Phoenix Pr., London, 1989, p. 6.

[7] Maurizio Martinelli, Giulio Paolucci. Luoghi Etruschi. Sacala, Firenze, 2006. P. 13.

[8] Heurgon, J. Op. Cit., pp. 113-114.

[9] Martinelli, pp. 116-117

[10] Martinelli, pp. 116-117

[11] (Rossella Lorenzi, “Unraveling the Etruscan Enigma,” in Archeology, Vol. 63, No. 6 (November / December 2010), pp. 36-43.)

[12] Bonfante, study of Etruscan, p. 109-110

[13] (Giuliano Bonfante, Larissa Bonfante. The Etruscan Language: An Introduction. Manchester Univ. Pr., New York, 2002, p. xvii)

[14] Martinelli, p. 28

[15] Martinelli, pp. 102-103

[16] Thuillier, Jean-Paul. Les Étrusques: Histoire d’un peuple. Armand Colin, Paris, 2003, p. 189

[17] Martinelli, p. 132

[18] Martinelli, p. 51

[19] Martinelli, p. 148

[20] Martinelli, p. 52

[21] Heurgon, Jacques, pp. 30-31.