English travellers in Etruria

D. E. Rhodes, Dennis d'Etruria D. H. Lawrence, Paesi etruschi

As it is well known, English people are great travellers. From the age of the Grand Tour, going through the glorious years of the Empire, we can find English people everywhere.

“The geographical and linguistic insularity of English people is one of the reasons for their attraction-repulsion for foreign lands” and, in any case, “whatever the reasons are, travelling for the British isn’t a luxury but something essential, it is part of the essentials in life”.1

The Grand Tour became popular during the XVIIIth century and it represented a sort of answer to what was an educational need ( and we know well that the century of the Lights was concerned with the Education of the individual). The aristocratic families, in fact, used to send their sons on a journey across the Mediterranean countries, so that they could complete their classical Education.
Two different traditions join together in the Grand Tour: the so-called peregrinatio academica, that is the journey that, during the Middle Age, the young scholar had to do in Paris and Bologna, at the time the main centres of erudition in Europe, before finishing his course of studies. On the other hand, there was the tradition concerning the journey of initiation of the knight, who had to go from Court to Court and to the holy places as well, which represented the stages of the pilgrimage.

The choice of the Mediterranean countries derived from the necessity to know the places which had represented the cradle of the Western civilisation. This kind of knowledge was considered fundamental to face life. To this regard, it is emblematic what Cyril Fielding, one of the characters of Passage to India by Forster, says: “The Mediterranean is the human norm. When men leave that exquisite lake … they approach the monstrous and extraordinary”.
There is a special relationship between the English travellers and Italy, probably due to the central position of our Country in the Mediterranean, the Mare Nostrum as it used to be called in ancient times.
But there is also a special tradition between the British and our land, Etruria, which was the cradle of the ancient, pre-Roman, Etruscan civilisation. This relationship dates back to the XVIIth century when Thomas Dempster, commissioned by Cosimo V De’ Medici, wrote De Etruria Regali libri Septem; however, the book was not published because Cosimo didn’t get his imprimatur. The next century, another Englishman, Thomas Coke, the future Earl of Leicester, bought Dempster’s book and published it after revising it. This book marked the beginning of English people’s interest for the Etruscans, interest which reached its climax during the XVIIIth century. The banker Thomas Jenkins was the first one to visit an Etruscan necropolis, followed by James Byres who planned (but never did) to write a book on the Etruscan history. Then, the meeting between Gian Battista Piranesi and the Scottish architect Robert Adam gave origin to that cultural phenomenon known as Etruscan Taste. This taste inspired in England, and in other countries in Europe as well, the production of furniture, silver ware, decorations. In addition to Robert Adam, we have to mention Mr Wedgwood who, in 1769, opened a pot factory called Etruria amid the English countryside! During the ‘800 the great success of the Pall Mall exhibition , in London, of the Cempanari’s brothers, from Tuscania, whose collection of Etruscan sarcophagi and objects was bought by the British Museum, induced many English people to visit the Etruscan places. Among these ones, Mrs Hamilton-Gray, author of the book Tour to the Sepulchres of Etruria in 1839. However, we can’t forget here George Dennis who visited Etruria together with his friend-designer Samuel James Ainsley; Dennis is the author of the well-known book Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria.2

It is this literary tradition, typically English and Romantic for the sentiment of the nature which characterises it, that has created the “Etruria of the Scholars” as Massimo Pallottino, the great Italian historian, has defined it. The natural landscape was, in fact, the main element through which both scholars and/or pseudo-scholars approached the Etruscan world to transfigure it. They could do it thanks to the mystery which has always surrounded the history of this ancient civilisation.

La targa posta dalla Società Tarquiniese d'Arte e Cultura sulla casa che ospitò D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence too, with his Etruscan Places, belongs to this literary and poetic tradition, with reference to which Massimo Pallottino observes: “there is an Etruria of the historians and an Etruria of the men of letters”. The travel-essays of the English travel-writers belong to the last one. Massimo Pallottino explains that people prefer the “truth of the imagination to the truth of science”, that is of the historical research. Maybe because in a hyper-technological society as ours is, there is the desire to preserve the last mysteries left to us. Today we know that the Etruscan studies have made a lot of progress and a great deal of the dark aspects of the extraordinary history of our forefathers have been unveiled. However, our dear land keeps on giving us fragments of mystery, coming from an ever more remote past.

Some years ago, in fact, a new necropolis was discovered in Tarquinia: a group of Villanovian Tombs dating back to IXth century, a late age which comes before the so-called Oriental Age (VII-V b. C.), during which the Etruscan civilisation reached its climax. As to say … the mystery goes on.

1 Paul Fussel, “All’Estero. Viaggiatori inglesi fra le due guerre”, Il Mulino, 1988.
2 Lo storico Bill Thayer, appassionato della nostra terra, ha pubblicato alcune notizie sulla Provincia di Viterbo. Nelle sue pagine fornisce alcune informazioni interessanti e il testo del lavoro di George Dennis.


Text by Marina Cerquetti