We left Florence filled with Renaissance inspiration and headed west into the Tuscan countryside. We arrived at our home for the next four weeks in tiny Tremoleto, about an hour west of Florence and about 30 minutes southeast of Pisa. Stephanie Feagin, our host, is amazing. She said she wanted to practice hospitality; we decided that she needs to teach hospitality. She is based here in Tuscany with the Army and let us take over the entire downstairs of her home. It has been great living out in the sticks. I’ll write more about our life here in Tremoleto in another blog.
I have mentioned the Etruscans several times in past blogs. They were the early civilization living in Rome prior to the arrival of Aeneas and his family from Troy. They were the people that Romulus stole women from when he first established Rome. King Tarquin was the last Etruscan king before Rome flexed its muscles and established the Republic. But who exactly were these people?
Turns out that it’s not that easy a question to answer. Before Rome became Rome in 753 BC with Remus and Romulus, there were lots of people already living here on the Italian peninsula. There were barbarian tribes living in small villages pretty much any place there was fresh water and fertile soil. But most of these were little more than sustenance farming communities; they lacked the sophistication of art, government, and written language that identifies groups as cultured civilizations. This is where the Etruscans were different. They were a group that seemed to have originated from the hill country of Tuscany to the south and west of modern day Florence. The regional name Tuscany comes from the word Etruscan.
Legend has it that the Etruscans may have been connected to Aeneas’ decedents from Troy. Who knows? More than likely they were farmers who recognized the good things that early Greek travelers brought to this region. This Greek culture was mixed with local customs and eventually blended with Roman life. By the 800s BC several Etruscan cities were established in the Tuscan hill country. Several of these cities joined forces to improve trade and defend themselves. Little of these cities remain today. All that can be found is the occasional wall, city gate, or cemetery that has been incorporated into the medieval fortresses of later times. Between the years 700-500 BC they brought peace to this region and pretty much controlled all trade in the Tyrrhenian Sea. They excelled in metal work, jewelry, and ceramics. Much of what they produced held a strong Greek influence. The Etruscan alphabet is Greek-styled and has been difficult to translate. This is compounded by the fact that there are very few long texts written in the Etruscan language. Lots of short decipherable pieces but nothing long enough to really gain a strong grasp of the grammar and structures of their language. Most of what we know of their culture is based upon what has been found in their necropolis burials.
Apparently the Etruscans enjoyed life in much the same way as the people of Tuscany do today. They loved good food, music, dancing, and family. On the lid of almost every sarcophagus is a statue of the individual lounging at the dining table. In Etruscan life men and women ate at the table together, something that was considered outrageous to the Greeks and Romans of the time. The hands on these sarcophagi carvings are almost always held in a sign that was meant to repel evil. Buried with these sarcophagi are beautiful red and black figure ceramic dinnerware and loads of fine jewelry. If the quantity of jewelry in each burial site is a good indicator, Etruscan women were given a high place of honor, even in the afterlife. From the records that can be read we know that women could own property and were even given positions of authority in the government. People in the sarcophagus carvings are usually smiling and well dressed with incredible hairdos. The Greeks and Romans described them as the best dressed people in the entire world. They seem to have really enjoyed life.
In 509 BC King Tarquin was thrown out by the Romans, and one by one the Etruscan cities were taken over. Over time the Etruscans married into the Roman culture and cultural differences really become blurry. The Romans basically massed-produced Greek culture and were likewise quite taken with the Etruscans. Even in conquering them they still adopted much of the Etruscans’ way of life. So much of what was “Etruscan” appears to just be a happier version of Greek culture. And who wouldn’t be happy in this region of the world? It’s beautiful here. Everything is green. The climate is perfect. Life is good!