Romance and the Etruscan

Michael Talis '02, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

The role of travel writer is a problematic one. As readers, we expect a travel writer to act both as our eyes, providing a comprehensive and objective view, as well as our interpreter, contextualizing the scene and offering insightful commentary. This is quite a burden for the author to bear, particularly when the reader has never visited for him or herself the place in question. Early in Etruscan Places, D.H. Lawrence offers us an instance of this dilemma.

The tombs seem so easy and friendly, cut out of rock underground. One does not feel oppressed, descending into them. It must be partly owing to the peculiar charm of natural proportion which is in all Etruscan things of the unspoilt, unromanticised centuries. There is a simplicity, combined with a most peculiar, free-breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movement of the underworld walls and spaces, that at once reassures the spirit. 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 as 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. [12]

Lawrence's description of the Etruscans as "unspolit" and "unromanticised" may be an accurate one, yet how are we to understand these people as such when Lawrence in fact romanticizes them with his own writing? Take, for instance, this passage at the end of Cerverteri as an example of this romanticization:

But when you sit in the post-automobile, to be rattled down to the station, about four o'clock in the sunny afternoon, you will probably see the bus surrounded by a dozen buxom, handsome women, saying good-bye to one of their citizenesses. And in the full, dark, handsome, jovial faces surely you see the luster still of the life-loving Etruscans! There are some level Greek eyebrows. But surely there are other vivid, warm faces still jovial with Etruscan vitality, beautiful with the mystery of unrifled ark, ripe with the phallic knowledge and the Etruscan carelessness! [17]

These two passages raise a number of important questions.


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Last modified 17 March 2002