Updated: May 24, 2021
A journey through Italy's revelrous beginnings
After winning the 1960 Palme d'Or, Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita became a global phenomenon overnight. The sentiment that the film's title expresses, in English: the good life, came to represent the international intrigue of mystery and romance that Italy had long held in the imagination of travellers. It evoked moments of sweet indulgence amongst the remnants of a bygone civilization scattered across that alluring and magical country. But despite many of the film's scenes being shot in and around the glorious ruins of the Ancient Romans, the true spirit of la dolce vita can be much more accurately attributed to their predecessors, the Etruscans.
When Rome's eponymous mythical hero, Romulus, fled from the burning city of Troy and took refuge on the Italian peninsula, a thriving civilization was already there. Archaeologists believe that by 900 BC the Etruscans ruled over a huge swath of land hugging the Tyrrhenian Coast from Lazio through Tuscany, and further inland into the dense forests of Umbria. These early Italians were avid merchants, selling precious metals to Greek and Phoenician traders in exchange for fine ceramics and exotic jewels from the Near East. They're known to have developed an alphabet, a signature architectural style, and a sophisticated religious system that promoted a belief in the active and living nature of the universe. But above all, like the current occupants of Italy, the Etruscans may be most remembered for their ethos of indulgence and love of the good life.
Abandoned Treasures of Etruria
As evidenced by the vivid paintings that flank the walls of the Tombs of Monterozzi, the Etruscans took pride in their merrymaking. Located outside the medieval gates of the sleepy hilltop commune of Tarquinia - an easy day trip north from Rome - one will find a vast necropolis that is the burial site of hundreds of elite Etruscan families. As visitors descend into the chilly underworld of Italian past, they are transported to a time before Rome's rigid order dominated the peninsula. Colorful frescoes depicting scenes of debauchery are prominently displayed above the places where shrouds once stood: wine-drinking, music-making, and languorous men and women seated before banquet tables covered in sumptuous fruits and bay leaves are just some of the displays of joyful Etruscan luxury that await. It's as if all of Etruria's chimerical beasts, deities, and lofty nobles come to life for a celebration of its long-forgotten delights.
"Tarucha," as the Etruscans called it, was the preeminent home of kings, or "lucumones," and nobility, but it's modern Italian successor is far less regal. Unaccustomed to the barrage of tourists that Italy's major cities receive each year, Tarquinia itself, like many other provincial towns, is quiet. An average scene is a group of children kicking a soccer ball around a square where locals meet to eat gelato on a late summer afternoon. Its people possess a soft and friendly character. And both English speakers and credit card machines are few and far between. Inside the medieval city is a magnificent Etruscan museum housed within the Palazzo Vitelleschi, a Renaissance masterpiece, containing some of the finest extant pottery and sculptural art of ancient Etruria. Upon departure from the city's western gate, just outside the museum, the high vantage point offers a commanding view of the surrounding countryside and glittering Mediterranean Sea beyond it.
Journey northward, out of Lazio and into Tuscany: Italy's most famous region and the ancestral heartland and namesake of the Etruscans. Perhaps out of regret or a bizarre sense of nostalgia, after wiping them out the Romans dubbed the wreckage of Etruria "Tuscia" - the Latin word for Etruscan. But their legacy here extends well beyond name only. The Etruscans are credited with introducing viniculture to Italy, and the region, perhaps, has its first inhabitants to thank for the ongoing tradition of producing so many of the world's most beloved wines.
Etruscans planted vines in Tuscany's fertile soils and sold their byproducts throughout the Mediterranean World for a profit. The amphorae used to ship their exports have been uncovered in such far-reaching places as Corinth, in modern-day Turkey. And recent archeological research indicates that the Etruscans also brought their wine culture to Southern France; they taught the Celts who lived there to grow grapes, the fermentation and aging process, and even how to enjoy the beverage properly. The ease with which they exported their culture indicates that the practice had already been advanced in Etruria for a long time.
It's believed that the Sangiovese grape variety, the most common in Central Italy, is ancestor of the ancient vitis vinifera species which was first cultivated by the Etruscans. And in the present day it's still the main variety used in blends from Chianti and Montepulciano. Both are idyllic hilltop towns in the province of Siena, just under an hour's drive from the famous medieval Tuscan city of the same name. And both are worth visiting, even if only to have a gander at their jaw-dropping, screensaver landscapes. But the dry, full-bodied and aromatic reds that come from these places are truly the main event.
Farther north, in the shadow of Florence, where High Renaissance art and architecture rule the day, there is a decrepit Etruscan wall which once protected a bustling city called Viesul. Modern-day Fiesole is a wealthy suburb dotted with stately villas, but it's managed to retain some of its age-old culinary tradition. Utilizing an ancient grain that was a staple in Etruscan kitchens, farro soup, or zuppa di farro, is still eaten and prepared in a variety of ways here. Cooked with a profusion of local vegetables, legumes, and herbs, it's a savory vegetarian delight. But with the addition of pancetta or prosciutto it can be made perfect for carnivores.
To The Sea
The rolling hills of Tuscany eventually slope downward to meet the Tyrrhenian Sea - aptly named for the Etruscans since they inhabited its entire coastline and numerous archipelago islands. From Cerveteri to Piombino, faint remnants of Italy's first lovers of life can be found almost anywhere. But, just off the mainland, their presence on Isola d'Elba proved critical to their wealth and prominence as a mercantile power. It's best known as the setting of Napoleon's exile after signing the Treaty of Fontainebleau, which relegated the diminutive tyrant from self-styled Emperor of 70 million Europeans to that of a sparsely populated, 86-square-mile island. In ancient times, however, Elba was famed as the main source of an abundance of minerals and precious metals that enriched Etruria.
Early on it made them a sought-after trading partner, particularly in the Phoenicians who used Etruscan gold to appease their belligerent Assyrian neighbors in the Levant. But the vast mines have since been exhausted, and today one can experience the good life on Elba simply by cruising along its mountainous terrain on a Vespa and soaking in the breathtaking vistas: the silhouette of Corsica in the distance, the pointy hat of little Montecristo, and, above all, the ubiquitous blue dream that is the Mediterranean. There are many hidden beaches scattered along the island's precipitous coast, where famously clear waters can be enjoyed in private. And there are still a number of high quality restaurants serving up freshly caught seafood fit for a Lucumo.
"So he was a prince, a king, a god, an Etruscan Lucumo; Pharaoh, or Belshazzar, or Ashurbanipal, or Tarquin; in a feebler decrescendo, Alexander, or Caesar, or Napoleon. This was the idea at the back of all the great old civilizations."
Etruria, Italy's oldest gem hiding in plain sight, is waiting to be seen, touched, and tasted. Another glass of Chianti? Why not? In pursuit of the good life - Etruscan-style - one should never turn down an opportunity to indulge in added flavours.