A remarkable hoax

    By Ingrid D. Rowland
    Chicago University Press,
    $22.50, 230 pages
    Unless you happen to be an archaeologist or a collector, there are few more appealing crimes than forgery. Something deep down in us loves seeing experts embarrassed, the credulous made fools of, or connoisseurs hoodwinked, by someone with simple natural cleverness or pluck. Historian Ingrid Rowland's interesting new book, "The Scarith of Scornello," is the account of an archaeological hoax long-forgotten, but one that briefly — before being unmasked — was the talk of Europe.
    It began in 1634 when 19-year-old Curzio Inghirami discovered a strange capsule of pitch and hair on his family's estate in Tuscany while out fishing with his sister. The capsule — which Curzio called a "scarith" — contained documents written in Latin and (apparently) Etruscan, the as-yet-undeciphered tongue of the ancient culture of the region.
    A voracious reader of history, the young Curzio immediately knew the value of what he had found, and rushed to show his family. The buried document purported to be part of a testament of an exiled Etruscan priest named Prospero, trapped far from home in the besieged city of Volterra in the mid-first century before Christ.
    In his text, Prospero delivered obscure prophecies ("The Wolf is the mother of the Lamb. The Lamb shall love the Dog. A Pig shall come forth from the horde of Pigs and shall devour the work of the Dog," etc.) as well as a dramatic warning: Cave, cave, cave — "Beware, beware, beware." The discovery captured the interest of Curzio's father, his tutor, and other visitors to Scornello, the estate, and subsequent excavation produced more scarith containing further installments of the saga of Prospero as he awaited the final destruction of Volterra by the Romans.
    Amid the writings were oblique and uncannily accurate prophecies about the coming Christian era — seeming to confirm the wisdom of the ancient Etruscan civilization, which already had a reputation for religious sophistication. An influential uncle ensured that Curzio's find caught the interest of the Medici court in Florence, capital of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and the young man was aided and encouraged in publishing his discovery. The result, a lavish facsimile of Prospero's writings with drawings of the scarith (many of which Ms. Rowland reproduces in her abundantly illustrated volume), put Volterra — and Curzio — on the map.
    But scholars had every reason to be wary: Etruscan antiquities had been forged in the past — most famously, a century and a half earlier, by a mad Dominican friar who, under the name Annius of Viterbo, had penned the history of an ancient pan-Italian Etruscan kingdom founded by Noah after the Flood. Scholars not blinded by Tuscan pride or romantic notions about the past had little trouble seeing Curzio's scarith too as a hoax.
    A series of learned rebuttals were published over the next decade, finding fault with the ancient writings on both historical and stylistic grounds. First, there was the anachronism that "Prospero" had written on paper, despite the fact that the Etruscans were always reported to have written on linen cloth. (It was not until 1700, however — long after the affair — that someone noticed a modern watermark on the paper.)
    But the most damning criticism came from a Vatican librarian who savagely condemned the poor provincial Latin employed by the writer of the "ancient" texts. Unlike previous critics, he even went so far as to insinuate that the scrolls' discoverer himself was their true author.
    The librarian was of course right. "Prospero" was a thinly-veiled alter-ego of Curzio Inghirami, who had used his wide knowledge of Roman and Etruscan history to concoct a plausible scenario of a besieged Volterra in the first century B.C. Yet Curzio persisted in defending the authenticity of the scarith, finally publishing a 1,000-page rebuttal to the critics in 1645.
    The controversy over the scarith of Scornello had as much to do with national pride as with the search for truth: The Grand Duchy's intellectual reputation had been tarnished by Rome's treatment of the Florentine astronomer Galileo, who just a year prior to Curzio's discovery had been made to recant his heliocentric model of the universe. Tuscans were thus prepared to defend the new antiquities because their honor, their ancient past, and their present intellectual legitimacy were on the line.
    By the same token, Rome's zeal to denounce the artifacts arose less from scientific surety that they were forgeries than from a keen sense of threat: Among other things, Prospero's writings included mention of three mysterious new stars ("Caris," "Mor" and "Turg"), an astronomical observation that, it was feared, may vindicate Galileo.
    The motives of the forger himself are even more complex. Humor plays a big part: The author notes that the practical joke, the beffa, is a hallowed art form in Tuscany. Curzio's achievement, she suggests, should be seen as high parody, and even a deliberate, tongue-in-cheek homage to the outrageous concoctions of his 15th-century predecessor Annius of Viterbo. The first scroll, with its notice, "beware, beware, beware" — not to mention its pompous prophecy of Dogs and Pigs — were a deft taunt, one that even most of the scarith's critics missed. "A pig shall come forth from the horde of pigs and shall devour the work of the dog." Truly, what the dog Curzio had created, his fellow Tuscans — and briefly, many Europeans —were all too ready to eat up.
    The only weakness of Ms. Rowland's well written and well researched account of Curzio's beffa is that she doesn't include more excerpts. One would like to be able to savor this prank more fully. As it is, much of the appeal of her book is the appeal of its eminently likeable central character, who thankfully left enough record that the author is able to paint a fairly vivid picture of him three and a half centuries later.
    Although she only comes to it at the end, the most interesting part of the book is the redemption story Ms. Rowland is able to piece together from Curzio's grand hoodwink. Brilliant and curious, what the young man most wanted to do with his life was study the history of his beloved Tuscan countryside. But a lack of educational background (and the shaky grasp of languages his critics noted) closed off the historian's career path to him. So at 19, the pre-scarith Curzio saw unfolding before him a dull and unhappy existence practicing law — which among other inconveniences would have required going abroad to law school.
    Like the fictitious Prospero exiled from his hometown, the young Curzio may have imagined being trapped, doomed to die in some city far away from the idyllic landscape where he had spent his adolescence fishing. There's no telling what went through his mind when he created and planted the first scarith, but his rapidly snowballing beffa turned out to be just the ticket he needed to live the life he wanted. His forgeries made Curzio a de facto scholar. They both fed on and fueled his knowledge of Tuscan, and Etruscan, history. Later in his career he wrote an "Annals of Tuscany" — based partly on sources he himself forged.
    By the time the scarith were largely discredited by the end of the 1640s, it was too late to change Curzio's fortune. History had let him off the hook for his crime: Europe had forgotten about the scarith. In a real sense, he had saved himself: "He was a free spirit in an age of repression," Ms. Rowland writes. And thanks to Ingrid Rowland's diverting little book, he also won himself a bit of immortality.
    Partly because it is so amusing (at least in hindsight), this long-forgotten archaeological forgery, an objectively minor blip in European history, still raises some big and lasting questions. Particularly this one: What should our attitude to truth be if we tend to — as the reader likely will in this case — cheer on the deceivers?
    Eric Wargo is an associate editor at the Biblical Archeology Society in Washington.