Tarquinia: Visit the Painted Tombs of Etruscan Places

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O. Louis Mazzatenta / National Geographic / Getty Images

Death sells The alluring legacy of the Etruscans continues to attract visitors to the beautiful painted tombs at Tarquinia

In 1927, D.H. Lawrence was still young but dying of tuberculosis. While in self-imposed exile from his native England, which had banned Lady Chatterley's Lover, he took a tour of the mysterious painted Etruscan tombs in the town of Tarquinia on Italy's central west coast. Scrawled with images from an ancient world in scarlet, indigo, gold and green — and depicting lithe men and women dancing, hunting, fishing, gaming, banqueting, playing music and having sex — these burial chambers provoked Lawrence into writing his final and perhaps most heartfelt travelogue, the posthumously published Etruscan Places.

Lawrence, the educated son of a working-class miner, and one of England's greatest and most controversial writers, had spent 10 years searching for a place and a race that would embody what literary critics later called his "phallism," a romantic philosophy that involved thinking with the loins, and elevated instinct over intellect. In the Etruscan tombs, he finally found his people. "The curves of their limbs show pure pleasure in life," he wrote, sitting on a grassy mound above one of the tombs in Tarquinia in 1927. "It is as if the current of some strong different life swept through them, different from our shallow current today: as if they drew their vitality from different depths that we are denied."

In 1927, the tombs were accessible to anyone who wanted to descend into them, carrying a torch to illuminate the walls. Their treasures had been plundered over the centuries, given by the medieval Tarquinians as tax to the Vatican. Some of the bronze and gold hoards they held found their way to museums in Rome and around Europe. But the wall paintings remained in situ.

Since Lawrence's visit, Tarquinia has grown from a backward, malaria-ridden medieval ruin of a town of almost 8,000 souls into a tourist destination on the seashore an hour from Rome. Beginning in the late 1950s (a decade when, coincidentally, censors finally relented on Lady Chatterley's Lover in the U.K. and the U.S.), archaeologists began discovering hundreds of tombs under the hilltop where Lawrence visited only five. Tourists today can visit the same tombs — they number at least 2,000 — but only stand at the doorways and view the walls through a pane of glass, installed to protect the paintings from further decay. The dancing figures that so transported Lawrence are still visible, playing the double flute and zither, reclining at banquets, chasing deer and competing at games. They seem surprisingly gay for people in funeral mode. In some tombs, they are even depicted making love, sometimes in orgies.

To us moderns, the sexy death celebrations of the Etruscans are baffling. To these ancient Mediterranean people — probably a mixed race from the Middle East and Italy who carried with them a mélange of belief systems from Egypt, Babylon and Greece — death was very much a part of life, to be celebrated as we do weddings. The death of prominent individuals was marked by Dionysian rituals of drunkenness and sex, led by shamans who augured the future from the flight patterns of birds and the patterns of blood flowing from the still-quivering livers of sacrificed sheep.

The ancient Romans completed their slow conquest of the Etruscans around the 3rd century B.C., eradicating their culture and language, but retaining their religion — save for the orgiastic death banquets, which were so wild that even the licentious Romans eventually banned them. That, of course, only confirmed Lawrence's worldview, in which dehumanizing morality and rationality crushed nature, sex, instinct and emotion. "Only a few are initiated into the mysteries of the bath of life and the bath of death," he rhapsodized.

Just under three years later, Lawrence himself was dead at 44, leaving among his body of work a sex-drenched tome that would become one of the key texts of 20th century bohemianism. Tarquinia's vivid tomb paintings meanwhile still attract tourists and lovers who linger late on dark staircases, gazing at timeless meadows where shepherds trail their flocks. To the west, the sun leaves strips of red in the indigo above Homer's wine-dark sea.