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Etruscan Cerveteri: learning to be part of the modern world

‘ the tombs, to the tombs! On a sunny April morning we set out for the tombs. From Rome, the eternal city, now in a black bonnet. It was not far to go – about twenty miles over the Campagna towards the sea…’ D.H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places [1932] 1986, 32.

Tom Campbell is visiting and he wants to see the Euphronios Vase. It was repatriated to Italy just before he became Director of the Meteropolitan Museum in New York. The week before we call Cerveteri Museum to check and drive up on a sunny April morning. The museum is in the armoury wing of the dark castle. It is closed because – exceptionally - it had been open the day before on Pasquetta, Easter Monday! I contain my irritation but decide to try my luck in the Municipio to see if someone might let us in.

The Euphronios Vase in Cerveteri Museum

The secretary to the mayor is a young man who had had a wonderful time in Stony Brook University and loved the Metropolitan Museum. He called the Assessore, a lean man who joined us momentarily. The mayor was then bidden to meet us. Another young man keen to practice his English.

The next two hours we saw the exhibition of Giacomo Medici’s looted treasures, Cerveteri Museum and the necropolis courtesy of the Assessore. Each is world class and not surprisingly Cerveteri is on the Unesco World Heritage list. The Euphronios vase is a masterpiece by any standards, a work of a supreme artist. More extraordinary still is the “Tomba dei Rilievi” in the necropolis which we were privileged to see. Normally closed, it is the only Etruscan tomb with painted stucco. Descending the long staircase to the mausoleum, one new member of the Soprintendenza mutters that he’s never seen this and how grateful he is for our visit.

Tom Campbell in the Tomba dei Rilievi

Why we were accorded such a welcome? Italians love visiting American grandees (Tom and I, of course, are both British). They wanted photographs with us and the next day in a restaurant in Rome I was told we were on Cerveteri Facebook pages.

I prodded deeper determined to answer this question. Lawrence was not charmed by Cerveteri, the Assessore tells me (though he’s quoted on the Municipio’s website). It was papal and poor and Lawrence loathed the papacy. Cerveteri has been eclipsed by Tarquinia. That is until the Euphronius vase was returned in 2008 and then, with marketing, promoted in 2015. The museum had 60,000 visitors a year then. Now it has almost triple that number. Its very presence has led to the creation of a voluntary association to guard and protect the vast necropolis from tomb-robbers. They know, the Assessore tells me, that with tourist euros and dollars they can repair the roads. The connection to the Metropolitan Museum is a step towards their civic dream.

What party do they belong to, I ask. They don’t he says with pride.

As Lawrence noted, Cerveteri is close to Rome, but on a sunny April day in this bucolic setting it could be a million miles away. Rome needs to embrace this great Etruscan centre, like it needs to embrace Ostia Antica, Hadrian’s Villa, the Villa d’Este and Caprarola and keep its American visitors for longer to raise revenue. But things don’t change. Read Lawrence’s problems with local transport in 1927. These days making Rome’s comune and regione operate strategically to plan and invest in embracing these wondrous places is to ask the impossible.

Italy needs all its mayors to emulate Cerveteri’s mayor. Young people will find work in managing museums, archaeological parks, and mending roads. This involves grasping the importance of ….strategy, and making the most of the fortune to have an asset like the Euphronios vase returned from America.

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