now and over-ripe, the Tuscan countryside conceals the harsher world
of the Etruscans, who reigned from 900 B.C. until crushed by the
Romans in about 250 B.C.
The mystery of the Etruscan
|By Mary Blume International
Herald Tribune |
Thursday, December 2,
The Etruscans - the long-nosed
Etruscans, D.H. Lawrence confidently described them - have been a
mystery to generations of patient archeologists and historians, each
unearthed shard a hopeful clue to their civilization. Over the
centuries an answer has also been offered by a less patient group of
diggers: the forgers.
One of the first of them is described
by Ingrid Rowland, a Renaissance scholar and professor at the
American Academy in Rome, in "The Scarith of Scornello," to be
published next week by the University of Chicago Press. The hoax,
which Rowland came upon while researching a weightier subject,
ultimately involved such heavy players as Pope Urban VIII and
It began after lunch on Nov. 25, 1634, at the villa
Scornello, in the hills south of Volterra, when the 19-year-old
Curzio Inghirami said he thought he'd go fishing with his younger
sister. History does not record his catch, but he did net a curious
clod, which turned out to be an oblong capsule containing linen rag
paper marked with mysterious letters and prophecies, including the
coming of Christ and phrases weird enough to sound convincing, such
as "the stones shall sweat with horror." The purported author was an
Etruscan priest named Prospero of Fiesole.
Volterra had many
Etruscan relics and ruins, so Curzio's wonderful discovery was not
astonishing, although excitement increased a few weeks later when
the young man, his tutor and a band of tenant farmers uncovered
another bundle of papers in Etruscan and Latin. Later that month
more bundles were found and given the presumably Etruscan name,
unchanging whether singular or plural, of scarith. Over the years
this cottage industry produced more and more scarith: By the time
Curzio was 31, there were no fewer than 209.
scarith were the most interesting for their references to the Roman
conquest of Etruria and the proof they offered that Volterra had
been the jewel in the Etruscans' crown. The second find also
included references that were to explode beyond civic pride:
Prospero referred to his sighting of three new stars, Caris, Mor and
Turg, and the scarith's religious references indicated that the
Catholic, rather than the Calvinistic, interpretation of free will
had from the start been the right one, which is of course what
Catholics already knew but which was balm in the heat of the
religion-inspired Thirty Years' War.
Florentine cousin, Cavaliere Giulio Inghirami, urged that the
scarith be brought to the attention of the Tuscan ruler, Grand Duke
Ferdinando. After all, the scarith also showed that Volterra had
been founded by Noah. But first the discoveries had to be vetted by
local learned societies and academies, which were so respected in
those times that when Galileo published his "Dialogue Concerning the
Two Chief World Systems" in 1632 he identified himself by the
academy he belonged to.
The learned arbiters had some doubts
about the scarith, especially the rag paper they were written on, so
the next step was for young Curzio to publish his discoveries and
arguments for their authenticity. Publication in 17th-century
Tuscany, Rowland shows, was no simple matter.
ecclesiastical censors in Rome and, to be safe from charges of
heresy, civil ones as well. Still, there was the risk of falling
into the Inquisition's dread Index as the Tuscan Galileo had in
1632. The risk was especially great with the scariths' prophecies
and astronomical lore, but Cavaliere Giulio took the necessary
precautions and the enterprise was helped by the exciting discovery
of 13 new scarith during a visit by two officials from the Grand
By late 1636 Curzio's Ethruscarum Antiquitatum
Fragmenta went to press in Florence, cautiously bearing the false
imprint of a publisher in Frankfurt. It described the 109 scarith so
far uncovered and wide debate ensued, particularly on the paper
used, putting the problems of content in second place. Curzio was
attractive and persuasive defending his work in Tuscany; Rome, as he
discovered, was a different affair.
Pope Urban VIII was
Florentine but once elevated to the papacy, Rowland says, he saw
himself as a Roman sun king, refined and immensely grand. The
scarith, she maintains, became a contest between relatively
provincial Tuscany and cosmopolitan Rome.
The key to the
scarith story, she says, is summed up in one word: Galileo. The
printed results of Curzio's fishing trip reached the Vatican shortly
after Galileo had been condemned by the Inquisition and with their
prophecies and references to three unknown stars they could be
interpreted as suggesting there was some merit in the scientist's
heresy, strengthening Galileo's cause by referring his expertise in
astronomy to his Etruscan heritage. The scarith had to be exposed as
fakes and Rome's supremacy ensured.
As scholars pored over
the texts, there were arguments about Etruscan spelling and style
and, once again, paper (it took until 1700 to establish that the
"Etruscan" paper was modern). Curzio's Latin was found wanting, and
in his next book, in 1645, he sensibly wrote more confidently in
Tuscan vernacular. Interestingly, while several putative forgers
were named in attacks, Curzio was not among them. In fact, by
objectively discussing possible forgers by name, Curzio in effect
eliminated himself from the list. By the end of the Thirty Years'
War in 1648, many of the political and theological reasons for the
debate had vanished and the scarith, says Rowland, reverted to a
topic of primarily local interest.
Curzio married, became a
salt inspector, and died at age 41 in 1655. Excluding himself as a
possible perpetrator in 1645, he had asked why on earth he would do
anything as odd and costly as forging Etruscan texts.
indeed, which is always the interesting point about forgers. Forgers
are not mere copyists. They can be complex - egomaniacs, or
frustrated scholars, or humorists like the creators of Piltdown Man.
Rowland suggests that for Curzio the last two explanations
In an unpublished text by Curzio on the history of
Volterra, Rowland found a reference to the young man's frustrated
wish to become a historian rather than, as his parents wished, a
lawyer. But he lacked the proper academic background, as his poor
Latin later showed, and he was lazy. With the scarith he could put
aside law and concentrate on learning more of Etruscan and Roman
history (he later expanded to forging late Roman and medieval
Curzio sounds an engaging fellow and Rowland argues
that the hoax was just that: a practical joke or beffa as the
Tuscans called it. "Judged as a classic Tuscan beffa rather than an
antiquarian find, the scarith of Scornello were nothing short of
magnificent," she writes. "What started as the prank of two giggling
teenagers ended up as Europe's antiquarian sensation, with zealous
partisans pro and con scattered from the Baltic coast to the
Mediterranean fastness of Malta."
Curzio's joke also
enlivened deeper study of the mysterious Etruscans. This in turn
means continued fakes. There are Etruscan forgeries in all the best
places. The Louvre owns three "Etruscan" mirrors, and in 1960 the
modern glaze on the Etruscan warriors so prominently displayed at
New York's Metropolitan Museum since their acquisition between
1915-21 indicated that were not what they seemed.
One of the
forgers was still alive, and he clinched the debate by producing the
home-made thumb that was missing from one of the long-nosed