I am taking care of the final details for my trip to Italy. I confess I am feeling uncharacteristic apathy. Don’t get me wrong…I close my eyes and imagine myself relaxing with a glass of wine on the terrace of the villa in Poppi and I anticipate a monumental sense of bliss and relaxation. But I am finding it hard to rally the enthusiasm. I haven’t done my usual cultural and historical prep work for the trip.
OK I did a little bit. For example, what do you know about the Etruscans? Like so many obscure topics, I have always been aware there were people knows as Etruscans, but that is about the extent of what I knew. They were indigenous to what is now Tuscany, so I did a little digging to understand that culture more.
Most of what we know about Etruscan history is second hand from the writings of ancient Greek historians or derived from treasures found in Etruscan graves. The ancient Roman name for the Etruscans “Trusci” is the origin of the word Tuscany, itself. They are a mysterious civilization who left little behind to teach us about their history and culture. The first evidence of the Etruscans dates back to approximately 900 BCE. Mitochondrial DNA examination tell us the Etruscans had a Near East lineage, not a European one. Somewhere in the 5th century BCE the Etruscan culture mingled into Greek culture. The Etruscans are believed to have founded Rome. Their architectural knowledge exceeded that of the Greeks.
They were a monogamous society which valued marriage. They believed the bare breasts of a woman could ward off evil, which is the origin of the carvings on the figureheads of sailing ships. Women had a more respected and liberated role in society than the neighboring cultures at the time.
The Etruscans worshipped three layers of deities (male and female) who could be petitioned to intervene for humans. Historians are piecing together what they can, which is not much, to understand the Etruscan language. Etruscan cannot be shown conclusively to be related to any other language, living or dead. We have their alphabet and just a few surviving texts. The alphabet was runic, and influenced what would become the Greek alphabet.
Much of what we know about Etruscan daily life we have learned from their murals. It is clear that banquets played an essential role in every major event. It is even said that the Etruscans probably introduced grapes, and then wine, to the region from the Saudi peninsula around 900 BCE. How appropriate, then, that my introduction to Etruscan history comes as I prepare for my week at a culinary school in Tuscany.