Etruscan Culture, Land and People
Those Mysterious Etruscans
The Italians have a word, etruscheria, with the same slightly mocking overtone as in chinoiserie, and we are apparently in the midst of another floodtide. When even a first-rate professional of many year’s experience, Axel Boethius, can close his lively account of “The Etruscan Centuries of Italy” in the Swedish volume with these words,
…never to forget that Etruria was the homeland of renaissance. It was the land which…hidden, inscrutable, inner sources of strength has decreed to be the mother earth for the greatest rejuvenation of our western culture since fifth-century Athens.
it is obvious that this is a field for the tough-minded alone. With Professor Boethius this sort of thing is no more than an occasional lapse. But when Dr. Vaughan tells us that “life for the Etruscan was not thought; it was something that was meant to be lived, and lived to the fullest, through the sense and the imagination.” we are being asked to take leave of thought ourselves.
The Etruscan “mystery” has been expounded once for all by D. H. Lawrence.
Myself, the first time I consciously saw Etruscan things…I was instinctively attracted to them. And it seems to be that way. Either there is instant sympathy, or instant contempt and indifference.
My instinct is to react sharply the other way. But Lawrence was a genius, and he did not pretend to be a scholar or to be writing history. If I want his kind of reaction, I go back to him every time. There is no need to do it again, badly.
To most people, of course, the great “mystery” of the Etruscans is that of their language. Has it been deciphered? The answer is both no and yes. No one has succeeded in finding a key, as champollion found the key to Egyptian hieroglyphics or Michael Ventris to the Linear B script of Create and Mycenae. Yet a large number of Etruscan texts can be read with certainty, and there is no paradox. To begin with, the alphabet of twenty-six letters was borrowed from the Greek and has never been a problem, apart from two or three letters. Of the more than 10,000 texts now known, all but a tiny number are brief, easily apprehended formulas: “I am the jug of Enotenus”; “Memarche Velchana dedicated me” (on a vase dedicated to a deity); “Vel Partunu, son of Velthur and of Ramtha Satlnei, died aged 28.” Other words (especially names of gods and titles of officials) were either taken over from Greek or Latin or entered the Latin vocabulary from Etruscan. By painstaking manipulation of such elements, Etruscologists progress inchwise. Unless further excavation produces a large bilingual text, which is not unthinkable but becomes increasingly improbable with the years, that is the only road to further advance, and the only tempo.
Not everyone has the patience, however, and despite the fact that the history of Etruscan studies is littered with the wreckage of nine-day wonders of decipherment, we have not seen …