Tuscany is named for the Etruscans — those mysterious prehistoric tribes who inhabited central Italy before the ancient Greeks and Romans arrived. While it’s hard to wrap your head around anything that goes back 3,000 years, I find the Etruscans insistently fascinating. Although very little is known about them, it was the Etruscans who laid the earliest cultural foundation for what we today call “Western Civilization.”
The Etruscans peaked around the sixth century B.C., but were defeated and essentially absorbed over time by the more powerful Romans. (It was an Etruscan soothsayer who whispered to Julius Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March.”) Very few actual artifacts of their culture survive, which — to me — only adds to their allure. But a few fragments of art still do exist, exhibited in tragically under-appreciated museums scattered across Tuscany.
The delightful hill town of Volterra remains particularly close to its Etruscan roots. American expat Annie Adair — who leads excellent daily tours of Volterra for Rick Steves readers — once told me that, at a town meeting about whether to run high-speed Internet cable to the town, a local actually grumbled, “The Etruscans didn’t need it — so why do we?”
Volterra has one of the best Etruscan museums in the world, which displays one of my favorite pieces of art from any place or time: the haunting statue called The Evening Shadow (L’Ombra della Sera).
While more than 2,500 years old, this tall-and-skinny work — by an unknown artist — has an unmistakably modern aesthetic. With his supremely lanky frame, distinctive wavy hairdo, and inscrutable Mona Lisa smirk, this Etruscan lad captures the illusion of a shadow stretching long, late in the day. With his right foot shifted slightly forward, he even hints at the contrapposto pose that would become common in this same region during the Renaissance, two millennia later.
Most of what survives from Etruscan times are funerary urns — each one tenderly carved with a unique scene, offering a peek into Etruscan society. Many are decorated with well-dressed figures who recline as if lounging their way through the afterlife. But this pose offers insight into the ways of the Etruscans: People would lie down to enjoy a banquet, and the figures depicted on these urns are actually inviting the gods to a banquet that they hope will be impressive enough to earn them an invitation to paradise.
While there aren’t any striking Colosseum- or Pantheon-type Etruscan landmarks to see, there are a few places where you can see Etruscan tombs, which were built like huge stone igloos, buried deep into the ground.
Walking through a vast, lonely field of themes tombs recently — at Populonia, overlooking Tuscany’s west coast — I could feel the Etruscans reaching out, through eons of history, leaving their mark on Italian culture to in the present day.
Heading to Tuscany? I share a dozen of my favorite Tuscan experiences here.
Our new Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour — which begins in 2020 — incorporates many vivid experiences in Italy’s heartland…including learning about those mysterious Etruscans.
Or, to do it on your own, you’ll find all of the details you need in our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook.