The majestic Colosseum…the Roman Forum and Trajan’s Column…the Catacombs and Appian Way…with so many evocative ancient ruins in the very heart of Rome, you might think that Italy was first the province of the ancient Romans. Well, not exactly. Before there was Rome there were the mysterious yet highly cultured Etruscans, who thrived as early as 800BC and whose reach covered much of central Italy including present-day Tuscany and parts of Umbria, as well as areas closer to Rome.
It’s a testament to the extraordinary cultural richness of Italy that Rome’s foundation myth of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf on Palatine Hill is interwoven with Etruscan rituals. For example, the Etruscan custom of building a town by digging a ditch, then building walls around it, is according to the legend how Rome got its start. While much about the Etruscans, including their language, is lost in the winds of time, their imprint on Italy is not only widespread but also highly visible – if you know where to look. Here’s a sample of where to find some Etruscan highlights in Italy:
National Etruscan Museum
The National Etruscan Museum, or Museo Nazionale Etrusco, is housed in the 16th-century Villa Giulia in Rome. The most famous artifact in the museum’s collection is the Sarcofago degli Sposi, the sarcophagus of the spouses which features a smiling Etruscan couple. The museum also houses the gold leaf Etruscan-Phoenician Pyrgi Tablets, two of which are in the Etruscan language.
Located close to Rome, Cerveteri is where you’ll find a famously large well-preserved Etruscan necropolis. There are a thousand tombs at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, frequently in mound form fashioned from volcanic tuff and dating from the 9th century BC to the late Etruscan age in the 3rd century BC.
This amazing place is located in Viterbo province, in the Lazio region which also includes Rome. This very ancient city has Etruscan roots of the six thousand tombs here, 200 have wall paintings inside them. The most famous may be the Tomba della Fustigazione, which reveals aspects of the purported sexual permissiveness of the Etruscans – though they were also known for prizing monogamy.
Civita di Bagnoregio
Here’s a place that will make you go “Wow.” Ninety miles north of Rome, this town has a population of only 15. But the fact that it exists at all is pretty amazing when you consider that the Etruscans founded it 2,500 years ago. Equally amazing is Civita di Bagnoregio’s location, on top of a chiseled volcanic tuff plateau. That means among other things, no cars: access is via elevated pedestrian walkway. The fragile beauty makes this endangered site even more evocative. It’s not far from Volci, another Etruscan site.
This site is located in the comune of Piombino in Tuscany, and was known in antiquity as Fufluna. This ancient Etruscan town, dating to around 900 BC, has important necropoli.
This scenic Tuscan hill town was actually predates even the Etruscans, who called it Velathri. Don’t miss the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum here, with its vast collection of funeral urns and other Etruscan relics, similar to those found in the National Etruscan Museum.
National Archaeological Museum, Florence
So you thought Florence only had Renaissance treasures? Sure, that’s what this Tuscan beauty is most famous for, but there’s more! The Museo archeologico nazionale di Firenze houses an impressive Etruscan collection which includes the dramatic Chimera of Arezzo.
This beautiful speck of an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea is one we’re a big fan of here at Select Italy. And guess who were the first people to colonize it? That’s right – the Etruscans.