This time, I take the stand:
The trinket vendor finished setting out his wares and glanced up at the seated statue of the God on the ridge pole. Water still dripped from the lion's head drain spouts, and he smiled, knowing that the night's rain would keep the day cool despite the sun. Comfortable visitors buy more souvenirs. He heard a shout and turned, frowning at the swiftly advancing soldiers. When the first spear flew up into the sky, he grabbed what he could and fled, through the freshly rolled tiles set out to dry in the tile works, and into the woods...
This is all conjecture: The Etruscans left few written records, and nobody knows what the complex at Poggio Civitate, a hill south of Siena near the town of Murlo, was. However, the footprint our man left in an unfired roof tile is dramatic proof of the suddenness with which destruction came: life size terracotta statues of gods and sphinxes, roof tiles, frieze plaques with horse race and banquet scenes, pottery, jewelry, all was smashed and buried.
And so it remained until my father, who hoped to find an Etruscan town, began excavating Poggio Civitate in 1966. The first day a thick wall was discovered, but instead of being part of a house, it proved to be part of a huge, fabulously decorated early 5th century building. Over the years an earlier, Archaic complex (which appears to have simply burned down) emerged from the layers below the complex that had been destroyed, as did kilns, a foundry, and tombs. Though many archaeologists have interpreted the site, by analogy with modern Tuscan estates, as the palace of a prince, my father thought otherwise. In ancient times princes had armies of both slaves and soldiers, and he could see no traces of either at Poggio Civitate.
He finally decided the hill was the meeting place of a North Etruscan league of some sort. This would explain the site's wealth, because each member city would have contributed to its construction, and the absence of a stable garrison, because it would have been superfluous in a structure only used for particular functions at set times of the year. It would also explain why the hill is named Poggio Civitate, the hill of the cities, and the ritual nature of the complex's destruction, which my father suspected was carried out by the rulers of Chiusi, who wanted to eliminate a political rival.
To be quite frank, the site itself is a long walk, and all that remains in the excavated areas are foot-high dry mortar walls slowly being reclaimed by the forest. Murlo's museum, on the other hand, is fascinating. Built in the keep of what was once a fortress of the Bishop of Siena, and is now one of Tuscany's best preserved walled towns, it has an impressive reconstruction of the roof of the Poggio Civitate building, and you really do feel like an Etruscan as you look up at the sphinx on the ridge pole, or shrink back from the row of gorgon antefixes that hang off the ends of the tiles. There are also smaller objects, everything from delicate Greek vases to coarse earthenware colanders, bronzes, and tiny, exquisitely carved jewels, including a griffin that would look just fine in Cartier's.
You might be wondering how my father got to Poggio Civitate. He was a close friend of Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, the great Italian archaeologist, and after excavating in the early 1960s at Rosia, an Etruscan necropolis, he told Ranuccio he wanted to do something more than dig tombs. Ranuccio gave him a list of places where he thought there might be something, and Dad spent the summer of 1965 evaluating them. He settled upon Poggio Civitate, the top of a hill across the valley from Murlo, where a pit called the Buca del Tesoro (Treasure Pit) had yielded some artifacts.
Murlo was a very different place then. The only water to be had was from the well in the main square, the electricity sputtered when there were thunderstorms, and dust blew up from the packed dirt of the town's streets and square when it was windy. To watch TV one had to go to the nearby town of Vescovado, where there were two sets, one in the Casa del Popolo that was the Communist Party's headquarters, and the other in a bar run by the Christian Democrats. By 1968 there was a second spigot by the gate, and by 1970 people had begin to add plumbing (and televisions) to their homes, while the packed earth streets were bricked over. And now Murlo boasts both a restaurant and a Ristorante Pizzeria, which I rather enjoyed the last time I took friends to see the museum.
Getting there: Murlo is half way between Siena and Buonconvento; if you are driving, take the Cassia south from Siena and turn off after Monteroni D'Arbia (you can also take the bus from Siena). Visiting the museum will take a morning. Should you want to finish your day with a delightful change of pace, you have two options:
Monte Oliveto Maggiore, with Sodoma's magnificent frescoes of the life of Saint Benedict, is a half hour's drive, just beyond Buonconvento.
San Galgano, a spectacular Cistertian monastery, and the round temple of Monte Siepi, where the saint's sword is thrust into a stone, are a half hour in the other direction, towards the Val di Merse.
Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.
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