Sunday, May 27, 2012

The World of Children of Apollo - Part V - Etruria

In the previous installment we visited Rome, the centre of the world when the Roman Empire was at its greatest extent. We will now leave that ancient city for an even more ancient landscape. What we know today as Tuscany, the central and western region of Italy, was then part of the larger central Italian kingdom of Etruria. This region plays a large role in Children of Apollo, as it is the ancestral land of Lucius Metellus Anguis’ family. For them, the family estate is a place of childhood memory, of escape and of mystery. Their roots run deep in that ancient land.

The Chimera of Arezzo
I won’t go into detail about the history of the Etruscans here, suffice it to say that Etruscan culture was the dominant and more advanced culture in the Italian peninsula around 650 B.C and their realm included not only modern Tuscany but also Umbria, Latium and Emilia-Romagna. Indeed Etruscan kings ruled Rome itself until about 509 B.C. when the last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was expelled from Rome by Lucius Junius Brutus, who led the uprising. With the rape of Lucretia by the king’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, Etruscan kingship in Rome ended.

Etruscan Tomb Interior
However, the Etruscans left a legacy and influence over the Roman people, other than a hatred of kingship. The Etruscan kings were also responsible for much of Rome’s architecture and religious practices. Etruscan artwork too is stunning and, though it had a great deal of Hellenic influence due to trade with Greece, it has a style all its own, be it the massive, bronze burial urns, the elaborately painted tombs or the magnificent Chimera of Arezzo. To see a magnificent collection of Etruscan artefacts, the archaeological museum in Bologna is a definite must.

Tuscan Landscape
History aside for a moment, the thing that inspired me most about Tuscany (I’ll use the modern name now) was the countryside. I am deeply influenced in my writing by physical surroundings and Tuscany, particularly the Chianti Classico region where I spent some time and where part of the book is set, left a definite mark. Not to dissuade anyone from visiting Florence or Siena, those two medieval adversaries. I thoroughly enjoyed walking the streets of booth, eating bruschetta and gelato between museum and market stops. It is a magnificent region to visit.

Radda in Chianti
Heading into the countryside between Florence and Siena, leaving the world of the Medicis and tourist throngs behind, was a very special experience. I had expected a drier landscape my first time there, rocky and hot, similar to the Peloponnese or southern Italy. It was anything but. Tuscany was lush, quite hilly and tree-clad. The weather went from sun to storm quickly and then back to sun. Amid acres of vineyards where my favourite wine is made (Chianti, of course!), are castles and medieval towns where they still take siesta and where you can enter a cellar (there is a great one in Radda) to purchase bottles of magnificent wine, cheese and the best wild boar sausage you have ever had. And the bread, did I mention the bread? For those of you who are interested, you can rent a villa in Tuscany for a very good price, and it is well worth it.

Vineyards and Olive Groves
in Chianti Classico Region
After having driven around Chianti, I knew I had to set part of the book there. The Metellus family villa is, of course, fictional. However, the look and feel are real. The villa itself is a typical villa rustica, an open air villa in the countryside, usually at the centre of an agricultural estate, as it is in the book. It was not uncommon for many noble Roman families to have countryside estates outside of Rome to which they could escape for leisure or in times of crisis. These were often handed down generation to generation.

Interior Corridor of Etruscan Tomb
Castelina in Chianti
Up the mountain from the Metellus villa and outbuildings, is another tie to the family, something linking them to their Etruscan roots. In a part of the book, Lucius’ younger brother Quintus finds out a terrible family secret when he overhears a conversation in the tomb at the top of the mountain. Without giving too much away, this turns the young boy’s life upside down. The setting for the tomb of the Metellus family ancestors was inspired by the Etruscan tomb just outside of Castelina in Chianti. The tomb is quite unassuming on the outside, a large green mound topped by cypress trees which were often associated with the necropolis and rites for the dead in ancient times. The tomb is entered via stone-lined corridors with small chambers to either side. If you do go in, look out for snakes! It is nice and cool inside.

Etruscan Tomb Mound
Castelina in Chianti
There is more I could say about this beautiful landscape but really, there is no substitute for actually going there. For a great price, you can rent a refurbished medieval stone villa in amongst the vineyards and eat at a different restaurant in a different village every night. Enjoy wine and food (try the Trattoria Grotta della Rana in San Sano) and afterward walk along a small road flanked by olive groves on one side and grape vines on the other. Watch snakes and lizards skitter across dusty, sun-soaked lanes lined by sleek cypresses and listen to all manner of birdsong in the hills. Most of all, enjoy the history of the land on which you are walking and savour the fact that it has not changed all that much since the Etruscan chariots thundered across the valleys.

In the next instalment of The World of Children of Apollo, we will head south, along the coast, to ancient Cumae and the cave of the Sybil. 
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