In the fall of 2022, archeologists digging through the clinging mud in an abandoned vegetable garden near the Tuscan spa town of San Casciano dei Bagni poked at a layer of tiles and made a startling discovery. Hidden under a protective cap of terra cotta was a bronze thunderbolt, the emblem of the almighty god Jupiter and a sacred object from the first century, consigned to the earth in the Roman ritual known as fulgur conditum, or buried lightning.
Other people’s religious practices, unmediated by the rationalizing of theologians, can’t help but seem just a bit weird, not least because they are often ancient and atavistic even to the robed priests who direct them. The power of ritual lies in its very strangeness and remoteness: the further such sacred ceremonies and duties can be distanced from the drab and familiar present day, the closer they must be to the time and place and attitudes of the faraway gods who preside over them. Rome in the first century was a highly sophisticated and complex society, but its outward urbanity could revert very quickly to the primeval when religious necessity demanded it.
A bolt of lightning, sent down from the heavens for inexplicably divine and therefore worrying purposes, struck a building at the thermal spa’s healing sanctuary 2,000 years ago. The observant Romans knew exactly what to do next: call for the Etruscans! And this is where the archeological find in scenic small-town Tuscany begins to connect with Sam Solecki’s The Etruscans in the Modern Imagination, a virtuosic investigation into the long disappearance and gradual rediscovery of a civilization given up for lost.
Romans could build level roads across Italy, no problem, but when it came to divining the more wondrous workings of the cosmos, they chose to rely on the remnants of a priesthood that interpreted the moods of the gods and the signs they sent down to mortals. Battles were joined, sacrifices made, landscapes organized and staked off, natural phenomena parsed for meaning, all with Etruscan diviners ready at hand, babbling in their mystic inaccessible tongue the revelations and rituals and remedies, laid down by their undomesticated omnipotent gods, that would inform the more earthbound Romans’ urgent decision making.
The elusive strangeness of the Etruscans, in Solecki’s telling, relative to the all too familiar accounts of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, has given them a special power to fascinate and stimulate the inquisitive modern mind. “To the Etruscan, all was alive; the whole universe lived,” wrote D. H. Lawrence with intoxicated admiration in Etruscan Places, his influential little travel book published in 1932. But even the Romans of the first century, the relentless modernizers of their era, managed to figure out that their hyper-organized world retained a pressing need for the Etruscans’ countervailing otherness, their innate ability to wrangle the cosmic forces that didn’t respond so deferentially to common sense and efficient scheduling.
So, naturally, the lightning that struck the holy spa in ancient San Casciano was duly studied and interpreted by expert priests known as fulguratores — other Etruscan seers specialized in the divining of bird flight or the revelations to be found in an animal’s innards — and then the bronze version of the bolt was safely interred to ward off future disturbance. Case closed, and everyone else could go back to being Roman, until the next weird eagle swerve, misshapen sheep’s liver, or sudden arrival of a hostile force at the city gates. As late as 408, Etruscan diviners were encouraged by no less a figure than Pope Innocent I to tap into their pagan spiritual influence and call down bolts of lightning on the invading Visigoths.
Even by the time of the thunderbolt burial outside San Casciano generations before, the Etruscans as a nation were a spent force. Their heyday in the contested Mediterranean was many centuries earlier, when their economic reach could be compared to that of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians and the prosperity of their localized city states, derived from mineral resources and intricate trading relationships, generated the aesthetic trappings of wealth prized by scholarly archeologists and plundered by market-savvy tomb raiders: vivid marble statues, monumental bronzes, delicately incised mirrors, masterful painted vases from the best Greek ateliers. For a time in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, Etruscan kings even managed to subdue the nascent state of Rome before being driven out by an anti-monarchical uprising that veterans of antediluvian Victorian poetry classes will remember from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome:
Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more.
(Macaulay was clearly immune to the spirit of cosmic vitality that floored Lawrence.) The ensuing Roman Republic’s gift for conquering — by the sword, via displacement and assimilation, or simply through steady bureaucratic incorporation and intimidation — eventually overwhelmed a dispersed, tradition-bound people who lacked the political unity and reactive energy to stave off an ambitious and innovative antagonist.
Most people disappear from history. We know this at the personal dust-to-dust level, but it is just as true among nations: conquered, killed off, assimilated, enslaved, forgotten, or just plain ignored, humanity on a collective scale is fated to turn into a past participle. Do not read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as I did during the first lost year of the pandemic, if you want to have much confidence in the ability of proud, preening peoples to maintain their identity and integrity over time. Given the passage of centuries and the ceaseless human capacity to disrupt and destroy someone else’s certainty, each of our people’s republics and holy empires and steadfast military alliances and Team Canadas will eventually turn into something else just as mistakenly sure of its own long-term glory. (There once was a powerful Germanic confederation called the Alemanni. I’m the residue of their vaunted fierceness and strength. There’s not a lot of power left, I can assure you, and very little influence. Only the taste for sauerkraut and an atavistic rebellious streak vainly looking for its outlet remain.)
Ancient Rome was a winner for as long as anyone, a constantly reinforced fact that displaced and discarded peoples like the Oscans and the Samnites and the Sabines knew to their cost. But even Rome, for all its self-glorifying monuments and boastful epics and confident imperial pacification, had to face waves of defeat and disintegration, leaving behind the simulacra of long-term national success: overcrowded tourist sites thronged by initial-carving know-nothings, underfunded museums straining to place a once idealized past into the critical context of a messier present, shrinking university departments determined to impose the bloodless imperialism of grammar and syntax on students who are more likely to identify with Carthaginian Dido than with Trojan-turned-Roman Aeneas, if they ever get that far. So much for the Eternal City.
Take the long view and every defiant kingdom is set to become the scattered paraphernalia of another nation, the broken pots and plates buried beneath future feet, parenthetical etymologies in someone else’s lexicon, an eternal rejumbling of DNA. So, if we’re destined to become “history’s losers,” in Solecki’s arresting phrase, maybe we should find comfort in his single-minded pursuit of the elusive Etruscans, who became the most beguiling of subordinated peoples in their unexpected cultural afterlife.
Despite being declared dead as a failed nation, the Etruscans managed to persist as an idea. And it wasn’t just by virtue of their cosmic connectedness. Their aura of archaic otherness remained available to be reclaimed by aristocratic Romans in a sign of kinship with ancient authenticity, much as upper-crust Americans like to trace their pedigree back to the Mayflower’s eccentric Pilgrims or the urban Upper Canadian elite pack their children off to lakeside summer retreats with Indigenous names and earnest fantasies of honouring First Nations. As a decorative notion, a safely exotic distinguishing mark that set a noble Roman off from the commonplace mob, Etruscanness was even ascribed to Augustus’s right-hand man and fixer Maecenas, legendary patron of the useful imperial poets Virgil and Horace — though in his case, the association may have had more to do with both his personal hedonism (pleasure was no sin in decadent old Etruria, to judge from sybaritic tomb decorations) and his public mandate to portray a disparate Italy jigsawed into harmonious unity by a dominant power that saw the corporate value of venerating ancient ways. Compare the dutiful land acknowledgments in our time: even those high‑end summer camps now find it necessary and useful to avow that their canoes are paddled across traditional Indigenous territories with the deepest respect.
The indigenous Etruscans found a way to persist through the centuries, if only in the readily susceptible minds of others, and it is this belated return, crafted from the interplay of archeological finds, historical reinterpretation, and imaginative artistic leaps, that captivates Solecki, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Toronto who wrote his doctoral thesis on D. H. Lawrence; who has published variously on Al Purdy, François Truffaut, Joseph Skvorecky, and Michael Ondaatje; and who has travelled widely and thoughtfully to his own atmospheric Etruscan places. As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, little knowing what he was letting himself in for, he had the immense good fortune to study early Roman history under the visiting English scholar R. M. Ogilvie, who piqued his interest in the latest Etruscan research. Throughout his working life Solecki kept a notebook of recurring Etruscan references, and this book is the result: not so much a history of the Etruscans through the ages — though it is very helpful and endlessly thought-provoking to anyone coming to the subject cold — as a brilliantly annotated compendium of seemingly stray citations reorganized into the ongoing history of a perpetually stimulating cultural idea.
There’s an earthy reality to the Etruscans that resists creative over-intellectualizing simply because so much of their distant reality comes directly from the ground and has to be interpreted through entrancing objects and artifacts like the bronze thunderbolt. The archeological basis of modern Etruscology defines all later understanding and sets the boundaries for flights of modern fancy, not just for the creative writers Solecki analyzes — from William Blake and Nathaniel Hawthorne, via Aldous Huxley and Lawrence, to Zbigniew Herbert, who recognized his own vulnerable Polishness in the disappeared Etruscans’ fate, and Anne Carson, a rare Canadian attuned to Etruscan mysteries — but also for the potter Josiah Wedgwood, whose Etruscan ware became a best-selling eighteenth-century brand, the princeling Lucien Bonaparte, who made a fortune with the chance discovery of vase-filled tombs on his central Italian estate, and even, quite remarkably, an obsessive antiquities collector named Sigmund Freud. The Austrian neurologist styled himself an archeologist of the mind, but it still feels surprising to find him in a book about the place of the Etruscans in the modern imagination (and whose imagination was more modern?), analyzing his own dream about rejecting a drink of salty water proffered by his wife in an Etruscan funerary urn.
“Why were you always so interested in the Etruscans?” Solecki’s son once asked him, presumably after yet another tomb visit in the footsteps of Lawrence. It was an astute question, since the Etruscans metaphorically as well as literally went underground for centuries, leaving behind very little to be known for so very long. Their lingering role among the Romans, who overwhelmed and largely obliterated them, was as an unforthcoming arcane presence. Their monuments are few. They provided posterity with no literature, let alone a national epic on the scale of the Iliad and the Aeneid or systematic histories comparable to Herodotus and Tacitus. Their language remains mostly undecipherable. Even many of the beautiful vases plundered from Etruscan tombs and bought up over the centuries by tasteful connoisseurs unfussy about provenance have turned out to be Greek, overturning a myriad of glib generalizations.
“Because they almost weren’t there,” Solecki told his son. History’s losers, he argues, have a natural appeal to the modern imagination, which is to say to writers and artists and thinkers disenchanted with the progress-driven values inculcated by the winners of the Western world. Lawrence, in particular, championed this idea of the evanescent Etruscans as he wandered through the brightly painted tombs, opened up from the eighteenth century onward, and experienced a rush of prelapsarian cosmic vitality unavailable to sensitive souls in his dark version of the industrialized, urbanized, Christianized, guilt-ridden, war‑torn twentieth century.
“His exasperation with the present turns once more into idealization of the past, this time a safely mythical past,” George Orwell wrote of Lawrence, critically of course. Orwell demanded that his over-aestheticized literary contemporaries face facts, fight fascism as he was soon to do in Spain, and turn the life of the mind into a confrontation rather than repose in melancholic, defeatist mythmaking. Put another way, what kind of intellectual goes to Italy in the 1920s and fixates on the life-altering pleasure of buried ruins while blackshirts are tramping through the streets and real‑world walls are painted with paeans to Mussolini?
No one misses the point quite as persuasively as Orwell, who in his non-combative moments could fall into a similar yearning for tranquil introspective escapes, albeit less cosmic and ecstatic and idiosyncratic: a nice cup of tea, the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, Sunday papers read slowly by the fire, tending the garden, a pint at the pub, a puff of the pipe. For someone else — not naming names — it might be deep‑dive cryptic crossword puzzles, the mesmerizing slowed-down rhythms of TV golf, the defiant challenge and hopeful prospects of the chin‑up bar, the fully formed fictional universe of Mick Herron. We all do it. We all need our vivid parallel worlds. But an affinity for the Etruscans seems to have the peculiar effect of fully unleashing the creative imagination from the restraints of our more pedestrian pursuits — precisely because of the fact that they almost weren’t there.
“Etruria,” Solecki writes in his trenchant scholarly style, “is the exemplary victim whose remains offer us the aesthetics of the dispossessed and the melancholy always inherent in ruins.” Melancholy is an acquired taste, definitely not for the action-driven Orwells of a more politicized world but an aromatic ingredient in the refined pleasures that more contemplative Etruscan-spotters enjoy. Because the legacy of Etruscan civilization is so scarce, their very unknowability rouses curiosity and excites possibility in the creative class: you can conjure up your own version of the Etruscans based on limited evidence and immediately make their world contemporary in a one‑way artistic dialogue with the past. The histories of Greece and Rome appear stratified by contrast, simply because they are; the inflexible facts belong to someone else and the textbook details pin you down. Not so for the Etruscan-inspired artists and thinkers marshalled by Solecki in his extended meditation on cultural transmission across the millennia.
Let Orwell complain that Lawrence’s idealized interpretation of the Etruscans goes far beyond verifiable certainties, that he is simply mythologizing a primeval version of the noble savage. Solecki, so astonishingly well-read, is fully aware that scholars and scientists have found fault with the speculative musings of free-floating amateurs over the centuries, but that is not the point in a book about cultural transmission, where the imagination is allowed to run rampant just to see where it leads. The vaunted mysteriousness of the Etruscans says more about our reaction than about their national character: if they remain a mystery, it is simply because we do not yet know enough about them, and we probably never will. Visit their tombs on a Tuscan walking tour, study their sensuous, celebratory response to death, look at the strange inviting smiles on their statues, ruminate on their legacy over a glass of Chianti at an outdoor café in a Renaissance piazza, and it is hard not to start believing with Lawrence that they had tapped into some cosmic life force unavailable to more clear-headed cultures. But the salient scientific fact is that the luxuriant burial places, with their comforting fantasies of a well-stocked afterlife, are simply what happened to survive, as long-hidden chambers tend to do, when much else about the everyday Etruscans, whatever it might have been, has disappeared. Why would we assume that any rich aristocrat’s final place of rest could prompt meaningful generalizations about the living thoughts and behaviours of common people over a thousand years?
But this is beside the point in Solecki’s generous and all-encompassing history. “The sparseness of the remains,” he writes, “is an invitation to the imagination as well as to scholarship.” The creative interaction of the artist with the fragmentary source material “recreates the past as something contemporary. The artist is inevitably dominant in the dialectical encounter since so much about the Etruscans demands completion, translation, and interpretation.” We can appreciate and recognize the basic human instinct to make much out of little in less scholarly situations. Consider the extravagant autobiographical narratives your friends devise for themselves based on highly partial DNA tests or the ads for ancestry sites that promise to give TV viewers moored in the anonymous tedium of the channel-changing moment an extensive backstory replete with fascinating forebears. Tiny bits and pieces of the past are more easily reshaped into deepened personal meaning, however imaginary.
“Cultural reception” is the high-minded phrase by which the more intellectual field of selective time travelling has come to be known. To skeptics, it sounds a lot like a fancy name for taking a mental shortcut, for validating personal response as legitimate history, especially when the relationship between the silent past and the voluble present is so one-sided. The work of the Greek poet Sappho exists almost entirely in fragments, and at the scholarly level it may seem absurd that modern poets enamoured of her unusual status as a woman in the man’s world of classical literature will try to fill the gaps in a homage of creative communion, with a nod to contemporary queer theory. The translator is a traitor, according to the wise old Italian saying, but not anymore. Chroniclers of cultural reception likewise make no such easy value judgments. The stimulating force of artistic connection between then and now is an end in itself, worthy of curiosity, understanding, and explanation. Both Macaulay and Lawrence wrote about the Etruscans; the subject is the same, in broad outline. Why do we suppose the didactic Victorian empire builder treated his theme so differently than did the iconoclastic tomb visitor of Etruscan places? The answer tells us something about the Etruscans’ malleability, but it says much more about the writers and the cultures that receive and reshape them.
Even Massimo Pallottino, a renowned and fastidious scholar of the Etruscan world whom Solecki relies on to correct many overblown assumptions and sentimental insights, found himself willing to appreciate the effusiveness of Lawrence and the enthusiasm of the modern imagination that he represented, albeit from a safe distance. The measuring stick of historical truth shouldn’t be applied to the transcendent experiences described in Etruscan Places, Pallottino said. Lawrence’s rediscovery of the disappeared Etruscans in their ancient tombs was much more a journey of discovery into his own mind. “Etruria,” concluded Pallottino, “is a mere pretext for self-revelation.” Solecki, quite understandably, takes issue with the word “mere.”