More Mysterious Etruscans

‘The mysterious Etruscans’ is an almost tautological phrase. They were a truly mysterious people from the doubts as to where they came from to their almost impossible language, more difficult to decipher than Cretan Linear B, to their thoughts on the universe to their presumed demise.

In fact, Tuscany derives its name from ‘Tuscia’ which is the ancient word for Etruscans and, in a subtle way, the Etruscans are still with us in the Tuscan people themselves. Their cult of the dead, their dexterity, their love of beauty, their philosophy, their physiognomy and character are all derivations of Etruscanicity, if such a word can be made up.

Prato, a very beautiful city and the ideal spot to escape from the tourist crowds now beginning to besiege Florence is a place I’ve already described in my post at : . It has a truly picturesque historic centre and is easily explored in a day.

Prato also has some cheap and excellent eateries:

It also contains some wonderful museums (the textile museum is brilliant for anyone who has an interest in fashion and clothes) and extraordinary buildings. The Duomo is quite stunning with its zebra-like marble effects:

The apse has wonderful frescoes by Filippo Lippi illustrating episodes of the life of Saint John the Baptist and including Salome’s dance and her reward for it:

The cathedral’s well-organised museum and beautiful cloister is a must-see.

The palazzo Pretorio had been closed for thirteen years for ‘restoration’ but when it opened in 2013 I felt the wait was worth every minute of it. Last week we returned to the palazzo, which contains a fine museum, to visit the exhibition on the Etruscans appropriately called ‘the shadow of the Etruscans.’

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If you are intrigued by these people then visit the palazzo before the end of June when the exhibition ends. It will save you a lot of wandering around difficult-to-reach places in Tuscany for the museum has collected some of the most stunning cippi and stele belonging to this enigmatic civilization. What is a stele anyway? It’s a slab usually of stone taller than it is wide used for a commemorative or funerary purpose. And what is a cippus? It’s a sort of column, in Etruscan times, more of an onion shape, which holds an altar.

Many of these strange objects were found stuck in the stone walls of houses built much later and used as building material so they’ve been retrieved by chance.

The objects on display cover the whole area of Tuscany from north of the Arno river, along the Arno plain to Pistoia, the Mugello area, the Val di Sieve.Here are some votive statuettes followed by some of the stele and cippi on display.

The exhibition also centres on Prato and Gonfienti, an Etruscan city close to Prato and only re-discovered in 1997, by accident, by Silvio Biagini when a motorway service centre was being built. The Etruscan town of Gonfienti has the distinction of having the largest house ever discovered among these people (1460 sq. metres) in which was found an incredibly valuable object, the kylix (cup) of Douris, an artist of whose production very little remains.

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Only a small fraction of Gonfienti has been excavated. Who knows what other treasures will be discovered there….


For more information see

The exhibition is run in conjunction with one in Cortona (see and is also covered by an article  in this month’s ‘Grapevine’ magazine.

Finally, the use of the word ‘ombra’ (shadow) in the exhibition’s title is a connection with the famous Etruscan statue you can see in Volterra’s very worthwhile Guarnacci museum and which was baptised ‘l’ombra della sera’ by poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Here it is: