Inventing the Etruscans

Natasha N. Bronn, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

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In his essay "Cerveteri" D.H Lawrence takes us down the broken pathways and rocky, sun-drenched cliffs of Italy to the tombs of the ancient Etruscans. His essay reads as a defensive plea to discover this noble and vanished tribe whose great structures once adorned the hillsides Italy. Lawrence is quite animated in his language, condemning the Romans who destroyed and buried Etruscan society and tenderly praising the Etruscan character. But what is most peculiar about Lawrence's passion and his detailed descriptions of life in the Etruscan world, is that, as he himself points out, "we know nothing about the Etruscans except what we find in their tombs"; their tombs that we raided and emptied long ago. Yet despite much evidence about any thing Etruscan, Lawrence himself acts as the last living voice of these long dead and long forgotten people.

His descriptions of the Etruscans have a magical tone to them, as he illustrates their architectural preferences which seem flow from Lawrence's imagination.

And on the parallel hill opposite [their homes] they liked to have their city of the dead, the necropolis. So they could stand on their ramparts and look over the hollow where the stream flowed among its bushes, across from the city of life, gay with its painted houses and temples, to the near-at-hand city of their dear dead, pleasant with its smooth walks and stone symbols, and painted fronts.

Lawrence further extracts the heart of the Etruscan character as well as the ethos of their long crumbled towns from the gray and empty ruins of their tombs:

The Greeks sought to make an impression, and Gothic still more seeks to impress the mind. The Etruscans, no. The things they did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction.

Lawrence's "Cerverti" is an exquisite essay and his descriptions of Italy are full with reality. However it is difficult to view his whimsical assertions about his beloved and model Etruscan society as travel writing or fact, perhaps it would be better as fiction.

1. Lawrence himself states that very little is known about the Etruscans yet he writes about their beliefs, wants, and character as fact. Does this add to or take away from the ethos of the piece or from Lawrence's credibility?

2. It seems that Lawrence is searching for a perfect society, one that he can praise, and can give him hope. Does he appear to find this in the Etruscans? Further, as a scholar and an elitist Lawrence certainly valued knowledge, yet he seems to believe that the Etruscans did no seek these ideals. What is his view of the Etruscans? Could they be his model society?

3. In the middle of his essay, Lawrence describes walking by the entrance to the tombs of the commoners. He states "no one looks at these damp little rooms in the low cliff-face, among the bushes. So I scramble on hastily, after the others." What does this say about Lawrence as a traveler and as a scholar with a curios mind?

4. Lawrence says of the Etruscan culture that "everything was in terms of life and living." Is there a certain hidden irony in this statement that a society whose only remains are of their tombs?

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Last modified 28 October 2003