Ingrid Rowland’s remarkable book about an Etruscan forgery in the age of Galileo begins at Scornello, a hilltop near Volterra, the most isolated of all the cities of Tuscany, lying in the middle of a triangle running from Florence to Siena and the Tyrrhenian Sea. Though a real place, Scornello is not to be found even on large-scale maps. But between 1634 and 1636 a nineteen-year-old Tuscan nobleman, Curzio Inghirami, scion of an old Volterran family, made it famous among the learned all over Europe.
One autumn day in 1634, Curzio was playing by a stream near his family villa in Scornello when he stumbled across a strange hard object half buried on the bank. Covered with hair and pitch, it turned out to be a kind of waterproof box that contained mysterious writings on paper, fragmentary but still legible after a long time underground. It was not hard to recognize the script as Etruscan, which was known from inscriptions collected by Renaissance scholars but was of course still undeciphered. The box itself was an object Curzio called a scarith, a completely unfamiliar but Etruscan-sounding word. But as more scarith (the word is both singular and plural) emerged from the ground and were opened, more texts were found, in both Etruscan and Latin. Eventually ninety-four scarith were discovered in a year of excavations. Better than a Rosetta stone, these papers seemed to be a whole archive of Etruscan history and prophecy, translated into a readable language. Young Curzio imagined himself riding to international fame on a sensational discovery.
There were of course obstacles. When the news of the scarith spread, the police of the grand duke of Tuscany were called in, but an investigation found the discoveries legitimate. Then Curzio had to disseminate his finds, something expensive and difficult in a province where publishing was in serious decline. But a printer who was just setting up shop in Florence took the book on, and there were probably hidden subsidies from the grand duke, Ferdinando II, who was sensitive to the prestige such discoveries might bring to his beleaguered state. These were, after all, rather dreary times in Tuscany. The last major Florentine book, Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, had been published in 1632, but its author was tried by the Roman Inquisition the following year and the book condemned.
Etruscology was safer. And it could teach useful political lessons. The factious duchy of Tuscany was made up of formerly independent cities which were always ready to break from the center. It was salutary to remind them of the Etruscan League, in which twelve cities banded together to confront a common danger, the advance of imperial Rome.
In the two years between the discovery of the first scarith and publication in Florence Curzio Inghirami was roughly the age of a modern undergraduate writing a senior thesis. Yet his Ethruscarum Antiquitatum Fragmenta of 1636 runs to over three hundred double-column folio pages in Latin. It claims to …