Bunga Bunga and Dan Brown?

Bunga bunga sells. With some American strategic thinking in the extraordinary case of the Unesco World Heritage Site of Tarquinia, it might help create jobs rather than contribute to losing some!

Aggressive American marketing is alien to Italy. Yet one marvelous example of Medieval bunga bunga surely cries out for some old-fashioned transatlantic opportunism.

Etruscan Tarquinia is a world heritage site that lives up to its name. The extraordinary frescoes that decorate these subterranean tombs have been known since the 19th century, and world famous since D.H.Lawrence published his book, Etruscan Places. In the early 1960s the Lerici Foundation made dozens of well-preserved tombs accessible to the public. Turning this windswept hilltop overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea into an art gallery was an improbable ambition, but one that succeeds magnificently. Of course you have to know what you’re looking for, otherwise the strange Iron Age sexually-charged rituals of the Etruscans often appear Incan or Mayan as opposed to steeped in a rich Hellenic mythology.

Granted world heritage status in 2004, the operating style of this remarkable place involves no car-park, a minimal bookshop and a tiny bar. It is underwhelming. There are guidebooks to all Etruria, but none to the great gallery on this hilltop. So, you are on your own; it scarcely feels world class even if it is.

The Bartoccino Tomb

In amongst the many tombs one stands out for its salacious afterlife. The Bartoccino Tomb is superficially unexceptional. The sign says that the richly decorated tomb with its grand banqueting scenes was reused in the Middle Ages. Only when you get inside does a little video presentation show you what an understatement this is.

The tomb in its anonymity

The real story is gripping. Carlo Tedeschi, a distinguished professor of medieval palaeography at Chieti University discovered Medieval graffiti all over this painted tomb.

Some 20 13th-century graffiti defaced the checker-board Etruscan painting. Several roughly made lines record sexual liaisons between Templar knights and local women – for example, between Meliosus and Maria, and Gregorio and Ganfreda. Secreted away, protected by crosses incised into the tomb walls, these Templar priests sanctified their illicit underground actions and orgies. Far from the ashlar palaces and churches of Tarquinia, the Templars found the boldness to register their deviances for posterity. D.H. Lawrence would have been thrilled by the priestly mis-adventures beneath 6th-century BC scenes of regal banqueting. But better still: I can think of someone whose fiction about such mischief might bring huge numbers of tourists to Tarquinia: Dan Brown.

The Bartoccini Tomb - note the incised cross

Surely, the man whose website claims he saved the book publishing world needs to be told! It is a story that reaches across the ages and globe, and is vividly told, albeit with the signs and emblematic symbols of Etruscan and Medieval elites. With some skillful marketing it is hard not to imagine that visitor revenues would suddenly rocket upwards. Would an American museum or archaeological site not turn this story into dollars? The marketing need not be anything other than an attempt to sell exactly what is there. The result, though, should help finance a new visitor centre to explain these great tombs and their decoration, dedicated to making the Etruscan and Medieval rituals – orgies, by any other name – accessible. Perhaps, even a guide book to the tombs might be possible?

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