One afternoon in November 1634,
Curzio Inghirami, a young Tuscan nobleman, came across a curious object
while tossing stones near a riverbank on his family's estate near
Volterra. It looked like a clod, but when Curzio picked it up, it fell
apart, revealing a kind of capsule that contained fragments of linen rag
paper. On closer inspection, a message in Latin could be seen, an obscure
prophecy dating from the Etruscan period. It was attributed to
"Prospero, Guardian of the Citadel" and ended with the words:
"You have discovered the treasure. Mark the spot, and go away."
Curzio, a keen amateur historian, marked the spot, but did not go away.
Instead, he began digging, uncovering urns and clay vessels filled with
the mysterious capsules known as scarith. Eventually, he would find more
than 200 scarith whose story, when pieced together, threw scholars all
over Europe into an antiquarian frenzy, vividly recreated by the author, a
professor at the American Academy in Rome. Prospero, it seemed, was an
Etruscan soothsayer from Fiesole who, in the chaotic days after the
Catiline revolt against Rome in 64 B.C., found himself in an unlikely and
unenviable position. As vengeful Roman armies descended upon Volterra, in
the Etruscan heartland, he was pressed into military service and stationed
in a citadel on Scornello, a hill across from the city. There, he gathered
together his household gods and sealed his papers in capsules, hoping that
they might be discovered in a later, happier time. Foreseeing the day when
Etruscan might no longer be understood, he helpfully wrote in Latin as
well as his native tongue.
An Etruscan text of any kind would naturally attract attention. But
Prospero's texts contained startling information. For one thing, they
seemed to suggest that the Etruscan augurs knew more about the coming of
Christ than even the Hebrew prophets. "I came to believe in the
coming of the Great King, after whom the years shall be numbered,"
Prospero wrote. He also described Aesar, the deity worshiped by the
Etruscans, as having created human beings and endowed them with free will,
as the Roman Catholic Church taught. This very point of doctrine was
central to the dispute between Calvinists and Catholics, then embroiled in
the Thirty Years' War. Elsewhere, Prospero suggested that the Etruscans
had been experts in the science of astronomy. For the Grand Duchy of
Tuscany, whose prestige increasingly depended on its cultural heritage,
the discovery of the scarith ranked as headline news.
There was one little problem. From the very outset, reputable scholars
smelled something fishy about Prospero and his scarith, and when Curzio
published his findings in a lavishly illustrated book they went on the
attack. Etruscans, according to writers like Pliny and Livy, wrote on
bolts of linen, not paper. Curzio was unfazed. The scarith, he replied,
showed that the "linen books" referred to by the ancients were
in fact paper made from linen rags.
He was less successful when the debate over the scarith spread beyond the
polite confines of Tuscany, and the finest textual scholars in Europe
began picking apart Prospero's Latin. The leader of the wolf pack was
Leone Allacci, a Greek librarian at the Vatican, who reveled in the
bare-knuckle debating style popular in Rome. "A new Augean stable,
full of foul odors and outrage," he wrote, "can scarcely slow my
angry charge against ridiculous fables and pure trifles." Warming to
his task, Allacci homed in on the Latin anachronisms in the texts and the
"plebeian" quality of the writing. Why, he wondered, did
Prospero break off his narrative by saying he had run out of paper, when
many of the texts were wrapped in paper with no writing on it? "Who
is going to believe that paper is what runs out during a siege?" he
asked. . He dismissed Prospero as "this fogmaker from Fiesole"
and "this Balaam's ass."
Curzio, stung, responded with a defense that ran to more than a thousand
pages. Fearful of exposing his Latin to ridicule, he wrote in the Tuscan
dialect. But the battle was already lost. Although Allacci had stopped
short of accusing Curzio of forgery, the verdict was in. The question was
not who done it, but why he did it.
Ms. Rowland skillfully weaves her way through this long-forgotten
controversy, framing it within the cultural and political struggles
between Rome and Tuscany, and the larger intellectual debates of the
period. At every turn she provides fascinating detail about the workings
of the scholarly world at a highly sensitive moment, just two years after
Galileo (like Pope Urban VIII, a Tuscan) had been forced to recant his
theory of the solar system. In a mere 150 pages, not counting endnotes,
she summons up a world and an age.
So why did Curzio do it? Apparently, because he did not want to go to law
school, which was the family's plan. By forging Etruscan texts, he could
look forward to years of happy immersion in the subject he loved the most,
history. Ms. Rowland does not discount the Tuscan love of practical jokes,
or beffe, so prominent in Boccaccio's "Decameron." How else
could one read Prospero's predictions, which often sound like cut-rate
Nostradamus: "The vulture hath raised its voice from the face of the
Locust. The Locust shall devour Lions. The stones shall sweat in
horror." If it was a practical joke, it was a good one. In 1985,
which the Italian government declared "The Year of the Etruscans,"
thieves broke into the Palazzi Inghirami, Curzio's family residence, and
made off with the scarith. Fittingly, Curzio had the last laugh.