The mystery of the Etruscan texts

By Mary Blume International Herald Tribune
Thursday, December 2, 2004

Over-priced 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 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 Galileo.

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.

The earliest 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.

Curzio's excited 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.

There were 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 Duchy.

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.

Why 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 apply.

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 texts).

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 warriors' hands.

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