Under the Tuscan Sun: Frances Mayes’ Fascination with the Etruscans

Six bug bites and a strange sunburn later, I’ve returned from vacation. In the stifling (yet somehow comforting) moist heat of the Caribbean I read Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. I packed this beautiful sienna and vermilion book into my carry on with the hopes that I would love it as much as its film adaption starring Diane Lane. Indeed, this was true, though I was surprised by how different the stories are; only a quote here and there shared between the two. Nonetheless, I was not disappointed that Mayes’ novel wasn’t a story in the traditional sense. It didn’t follow the conventions that the film did: there is a divorce that leads Frances Mayes on a life-changing journey into the Mediterranean, but not as dramatic as the film suggests. Sadly, there isn’t a fleeting romance with a charming Italian man who makes Limoncello with his family in Positano. Instead, Under the Tuscan Sun is a love letter to Italy and its history, but most importantly it pays homage to culinary tradition. To some, this novel is nothing more than a collection of diary entries about a woman’s home renovation with her husband and all the dinner parties he and she host for their newfound friends from all over the world. Mayes tells an ordinary tale of Italian zoning laws and the therapeutic process of roasting and peeling chestnuts for Christmas. Among this mundaneness there is unmistakable poetry, and a truly pure appreciation for the “other.”

(Frances Mayes and Diane Lane, The Telegraph)

Like Mayes, I want to write a little about the Etruscans, who are mentioned several times throughout the text as she ponders crumbling Italian relics in between choosing tile for her kitchen. She describes the “lure” of the Etruscans and how they draw one in with their mysterious presence from Tuscany to Western Umbria. Who were the Etruscans?

The Etruscan Civilization

The Etruscans dominated Italy between the 8th and 3rd century BCE. The civilization was likely an amalgamation of migrant people from the Aegean region (one of the seven geographical territories of modern day Turkey) and northern Europe, which encompasses countries such as Denmark, Estonia, Finland, and Iceland. What we know of them is that they were a major Mediterranean trading power, though since being conquered by the Romans much of their customs and culture were modified or lost entirely to history. 1

(The National Geographic Magazine Vol.173 No.6, June 1988)

Tombs and Wall Paintings

The best remnants of the civilization take the form of tombs and wall paintings, both of which Frances Mayes mentions in her novel:

Ever since reading D.H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places years ago, I have wanted to see the ancient diving boy, the flute player in his sandals, the crouching panthers, to experience the mysterious verve and palpable joie de vivre hidden underground all those centuries. For several days we’ve plotted our route. This seems like a journey into the far interior, though, in reality, it’s about a hundred miles from our house to Tarquinia, where acres and acres of Etruscan tombs are still being explored. 2

The necropolises located in Cerveteri and Tarquinia reflect the burial practices popular during the height of Etruscan urbanization. The necropolis near Cerveteri, called Banditaccia, is modelled like a neighborhood with tombs lined in rows and divided by blocks. Like Mayes, I’ll focus on the tombs in the latter location, called Monterozzi. This particular necropolis contains 6,000 graves constructed with stone. Of these tombs, there are two hundred wall paintings that now serve as snapshots of pre-Roman Italy.3 The Moterozzi tombs resemble a domestic set up as those at Cerveteri do. Mark Cartwright writes: “The earliest tombs are rectangular rock-cut chambers which are painted to replicate the architectural features of real houses. Others have ceilings painted to mimic tent fabric, alluding to the earlier Etruscan practice of using tents to cover the deceased.” 4

grave(L’agone, 2016)

One wall painting worth discussing is the Tomb of the Lioness built between 530-520 BCE. The scene is a mixture of realistic depiction and abstract design. The gabled ceiling features an ivory and scarlet checkered pattern. In addition, the borders include a polka dot pattern. Below these brightly colored shapes is a scene in which some subjects are clothed and others nude. This particular tomb was discovered in 1875. In the late 1920s, the writer and poet D.H. Lawrence visited the location and described the fresco in his travel essays entitled Etruscan Places:

Lovely again is the Tomba delle Leonesse, the Tomb of the Lionesses. In its gable two spotted lionesses swing their bell-like udders, heraldically facing one another across the altar. Beneath is a great vase, and a flute-player playing to it on one side, a zither-playeron the other, making music to its sacred contents. Then on either side of these goes a narrow frieze of dancers, very strong and lively in their prancing. Under the frieze of dancers is a lotus dado, and below that again, all round the room, the dolphins are leaping, leaping all down-wards into the rippling sea, while birds fly between the fishes.

On the right wall reclines a very impressive dark red man wearing a curious cap, or head-dress, that has long tails like long plaits. In his right hand he holds up an egg, and in his left is the shallow wine-bowl of the feast. The scarf or stole of his human office hangs from a tree before him, and the garland of his human delight hangs at his side. He holds up the egg of resurrection, within which the germ sleeps as the soul sleeps in the tomb, before it breaks the shell and emerges again. There is another reclining man, much obliterated, and beside him hangs a garland or chain like the chains of dandelion-stems we used to make as children. And this man has a naked flute-boy, lovely in naked outline, coming towards him.5

liioness                                                            (Travelling in Tuscany)

Burial Practices

Naturally, these tomb paintings illustrate the Etruscan attitude towards death and the afterlife. Natasha Sheldon writes that cremation was a popular practice. Typically the ashes of the dead would be placed inside an urn, which isn’t so different from what some people do in modern society. Those who were buried were wrapped in linen and placed “in a terracotta sarcophagus, on a stone or wooden funeral couch or a stone or wooden chest.” 6 Dr. Laurel Taylor writes that during what is called the “Orientalizing Period” from 750-575 BCE, burial spaces became more opulent as the civilization utilized their rich mineral deposits and gained wealth by trading copper, tin, silver, and iron. Dr. Taylor provides an example of a tomb with long corridors that funnel into several different oval rooms. In this tomb, a woman was laid to rest with “a gold pectoral, gold bracelets, a gold brooch (or fibula) of outsized proportions, among other objects—as well as silver and bronze vessels and numerous other grave goods and furniture.” Unfortunately, not all Etruscan people were gifted to the same degree.

The burial of loved ones was not at all a somber affair, as this practice was often preceded by funeral feasts and processions. The frescos, such as that featuring the lionesses, demonstrate this happier aspect of the postmortem celebration. The integral belief among the Etruscans was that if the dead were pleased with their offerings in the afterlife, then they would have no reason to haunt the living. As D.H. Lawrence describes, there “is [a] narrow frieze of dancers, very strong and lively in their prancing” and a “naked flute-boy” making music. To anyone, this fresco seems to depict a parade, not commemorate a death. Lawrence includes an important detail: the hooded man “holds up the egg of resurrection, within which the germ sleeps as the soul sleeps in the tomb, before it breaks the shell and emerges again.” This imagery embodies the Etruscan belief of afterlife; one is reborn, as life is a continuous cycle that should be celebrated.

For more information on burial practices, watch this

Etruscans Today

In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes writes:

Of the local Etruscan culture, an astonishing amount continues to be unearthed. Beside one of the local tombs, a seven-step stairway of stone flanked with reclining lions intertwined with human parts—probably a nightmare version of the underworld—was discovered in 1990. Nearby Chiusi, the Cortona one of the original twelve cities of Etruria, only recently found its town walls. Both Cortona and Chiusi have extensive collections of Etruscan artifacts found both by archealogical digs and by farmers turning up bronze figures in their furrows. In Chiusi, the museum custodian will take you out to see some of the dozens of tombs found in that area. The Romans considered Etruscans warlike (the Romans weren’t?), so they come down to us with that rap on them, but the tombs, enormous clay horses, bronze figures, and household objects reveal them to be a majestic, inventive, humorous people. Certainly, they must have been strong. Everywhere they’ve left remains of walls and tombs constructed of stupendous stone.  2

The Etruscans are mysterious, an elusive civilization with a history we can now only surmise. There are assumptions that the civilization was cruel and possessed an unquenchable thirst for violence. These are generalizations borne from funerary art like the right wall in the Tomb of the Augurs. A masked man holds the leash of a collared dog. A tethered man before him is bleeding from his legs as the jaws of the animal clench around his calf. It’s an alarming image that may darken one’s perception of this pre-Roman civilization.

augurs                                              (The Tomb of the Augurs, Google Sites)

Nonetheless, people today actively seek a connection with the Etruscans. John Hooper of The Guardian wrote an article about genetic research that was made public: the nearest Etruscan relatives are not, in fact, Tuscans, but are Turkish. Scientists came to this conclusion after they took samples from men whose families had lived in the area of the Casentino valley for at least three generations. Scientists even tested Tuscan cattle strains and discovered they weren’t related to Italian cattle, but matched those found in Turkey. 8

As Frances Mayes writes: ““I had the urge to examine my life in another culture and move beyond what I knew.” If studied years from now, what assumptions might people make about our society based on the objects we frequently use? How about our art? Though the Etruscans seem entirely foreign, what in their art bares resemblance to the customs and cultures practiced today? If you had the chance to live as an Etruscan for a day… would you do it?

Works Cited

1. “Etruscan Civilization” by Mark Cartwright
2. Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
3. “Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia” 
4. Etruscan Tomb Paintings by Mark Cartwright
5. Etruscan Places by D.H. Lawrence
6. “Etruscan Tombs” by Natasha Sheldon
7. “The Etruscans, An Introduction”
8. “The Enigma of Italy’s Ancient Etruscans is Finally Unravelled” by John Hooper

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