The land of the Etruscans: from Florence to Rome


Here is a journey from Florence to Rome, two cities that represent very different elements in the history of Italian art and culture as it has developed through the centuries.

In making this journey we pass through the land of the Etruscans, the fabled a Tyrrhenians of Herodotus.

They came from the East, landed on the shores of Tuscany and quickly spread out round the lakes and volcanic hills of the interior until they reached the shores of the Adriatic.

They founded the first great civilization of Western Europe: they were fond of the good things of life-luxury, jewels and good food.

Their cities rivaled each other in wealth and power, but they were not alive to the need to make a common front against their half-barbarian and turbulent neighbor, Rome which began to press up from the south. Its march to world domination had begun. One by one the Etruscan cities were conquered and burnt.

When the long history of Rome closed, ancient Etruria rose again and her cities were rebuilt close to the sites of the ancient ones. With the mediaeval communes the old individualistic and rather anarchic rivalry of cities began again. Tuscany revenged defeated Etruria.

Even while they shared in the flowering of the Renaissance, Florence and Rome maintained their essential difference, the one measured and balanced, the other grandiloquent and massive. In this land, which lies et the very heart of Italy, there is a mingling of all kinds of elements Roman, Etruscan, Medieval, Renaissance, in the abbeys and the cities.

The itinerary:

Two days are the minimum needed to visit Florence.

At the end of our visit to Florence, by way of Via Borgo Pinti and Via degli Artisti we leave the center, arriving at Via Alessandro Volta, from which branches off Via San Domenico, linking Florence and Fiesole.

The road winds up to Fiesole through a most beautiful landscape of hills, parks, villas and cypresses. About 3 km. (2 mi.) from Fiesole rises the 15th century Church of San Domenico where the friar painter Beato Angelico, who was parish priest here for some years, left a gentle Madonna, painted op wood, and a fresco of the Crucifixion.

Panorama from Fiesole – Photo © hungoverdrawn
Panorama from Fiesole – Photo © hungoverdrawn

FIESOLE was an important Etruscan city, as the ruins of massive walls show. Sella established a military colony here to punish the people of Fiesole who had taken the side of Marius.

We can glimpse Arezzo on arriving in the evening, seeing it in greater detail on the following day.

Leaving Arezzo, one climbs to the Face di Scopetone (526 m.-1725 ft.); there is a fine view and an even better one of the Upper Tiber Valley, before beginning the descent to Sansepolcro where one can eat before returning to Arezzo for the night.

After 18 km. (11 mi.), on a fortified hill-top, rises the high tower of CASTIGLION FIORENTINO (fresco by Signorelli in the Church of the Consolazione, Adoration by Lorenzo di Credi in the Collegiate Church, small Civic Museum). Ten kilometers (6 1/4 mi.) farther on in the midst of the pleasant countryside between Tuscany and Umbria, rises CORTONA Sansepolcro.

Cortona – Photo (C) marcobillo
Cortona – Photo (C) marcobillo

CORTONA once an ancient Umbrian fortress, then Etruscan and then a Roman city. Its importance in Etruscan times can be seen from the massive city walls. Before entering the city itself through Piazzale Garibaldi, one should see the Church of San Domenico with an altar-piece by Beato Angelico and other works by Sasseita and Signorelli.

A masterpiece by Angelico, one of his finest, is to be found in the former Church of the Gesu, in front of the Cathedral, which is now used as a Diocesan Museum with other important works by P. Lorenzetti, Signorelli, etc. In the Cathedral, Romanesque but enlarged by Giuliano da Sangallo, there is a remarkable Roman Sarcophagus.

CHIUSI on its plateau of tuff. It is difficult to realize, as one wanders through its medieval streets such as the delightful Via Lavinia that this town was once a great power, perhaps the greatest city of Etruria (Clusium): it marched against Rome, besieged it and partly occupied it, when Lars Porsena of Clusium tried to restore Tarquin the Proud to the throne. Something remains of its Etruscan wealth, in spite of the fearful antiquarian tooting (material from Chiusi is found in every considerable museum in the world).

It is 11 km. (7 mi.) from Chiusi to CITTA’ DELLA PIEVE, birthplace of Perugino who left two fine Panel Paintings in the Cathedral, Romanesque-Gothic of the 12th-13th centuries an Epiphany in the Oratory of Santa Maria del Bianchi and another fresco in San Pietro. The road now winds through beautiful country until, on the skyline, rises a towered city built on a high bastion of reddish rock.

Orvieto Cathedral – Photo © dedde
Orvieto Cathedral – Photo © dedde

This is ORVIETO one of the most interesting cities in Italy, unique for its position, for its mixture of Etruscan, medieval and Renaissance cultures and the remarkable preservation of its ancient atmosphere, and for its Cathedral, an architectural jewel and another of the sanctuaries of Italian painting, as it contains the great frescoes of Luca Signorelli.

Here too, one can spend the evening in a first walk round, before seeing the city thoroughly the next morning… the Piazza del Duomo, the narrow streets, the wonderful, view over the plain. Sightseeing the next morning should begin with the Cathedral, a stupendous monument whose building took from 1290 to the seventeenth century, with a legion of architects, decorators, sculptors, painters and mosaic workers.

Here the Sienese architect Maitani began in 1308. The interior is a harmonious Romanesque Latin cross plan. The south transept opens into the Chapel of San Bruin with Luca Signorelli’s epic painting of the Last Judgment. This was the largest Italian paint ing on a single theme until Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Signorelli worked uninterruptedly for four years on this immense work.

TUSCANIA Here is another important Etruscan city with a highly significant name. It kept its importance from the 8th to the 13th centuries and then declined into its present state. There are few Italian cities which have so authentic a mediaeval air, with its ruined Towers, the remains of the ancient Archbishop’s Palace and the two wonderful churches of San Pietro (considered the finest Italian church of its date) and Santa Maria Maggiore (12th cent. and later). One lingers with pleasure at Tuscania, among the narrow streets rich in medieval houses, towers and this, churches before taking the road which in 24 km. (15 mi.) brings us to VITERBO.

Viterbo Pope Palace – Photo © Becky Young
Viterbo Pope Palace – Photo © Becky Young

VITERBO. Like Tuscania the atmosphere is medieval, but unlike Tuscania, here there is no decay; Viterbo remains a busy and lively town, full of fine churches, monuments and palaces.

The following morning let us go to the Piazza della Cattedrale, along one side of which runs the most important palace in the city, the Papal Palace (1257-1266) battle treated, with an airy arched loggia flanking it. In the Hall, renowned conclaves were held; from here thunderous excommunications were issued, like that against the entire population of Viterbo who had demonstrated against the election of the French Martin IV through the machinations of Charles of Anjou. Passing Palazzo Farnese (early 15th century) we go along Via Cardinal La Fontaine to the splendid Fontana Grande (Great Fountain) of the 13th century.

From Viterbo we take the pleasant road which skirts Lake Vico, passes towered Ronciglione and the severe mass of tuff on which Sutri stands (30 km. – 18 3/a mi.), with remains of an Etruscan Amphitheatre and the church of Madonna del Parto carved out of the living rock. Then comes a long solitary drive to Isola Farnese (60 km.-40 mi.), near which are the ruins of VEII.

VEII, a proud Etruscan city destroyed by the Romans. In 1916 what is considered to be the greatest masterpiece of Etruscan art was discovered here, the so-called Apollo of Veii, now in the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome. It is said that the workman who uncovered the head found it so beautiful that he covered it with kisses. When the statue was uncovered it was found standing on its feet- Although his city fell, the Apollo of Veii did not stoop to the Romans!

To go through the cultivated fields which were once the city of Veii is to experience that same melancholy which assailed Chateaubriand when he gazed at the ruins of Sparta. If a guide can be found, one can visit the tombs of the Veil necropolis, among them the Campana tomb and that of the Painted Lions- We are now at the gates of Rome, which rises clearly before us. Seventeen kilometers from Isola Farnese (10 3/4 mi.), we enter ROME through the Porta dal Popolo.

A two days visit, or better, a four days visit should be planned for Rome.

Part 2: Back from Rome to Florence
Recommended itineraries in Italy
Itinerary partly courtesy of ENIT