Thursday, April 18, 2019

Exploring the Vie Cave, Etruscan roads with mysterious purpose

Roger, Rosemary and Lucy at the beginning of
Via Cava San Giuseppe.

I’ve seen many Etruscan tombs, walls, statues and pottery in my time, but until this week I had been largely unaware of the impressive roads the Etruscans built into the tufa hills around Pitigliano, Sovana and other ancient cities of Southern Tuscany. Some call them the Vie Cave (excavated streets), others Cavoni or the Hollow Paths—but by whatever name, these remains of pre-Roman civilization are well worth seeing.

Some of the steeper paths have carved steps.
The Etruscans were a well-organized society that occupied much of central Italy and reached their height of influence between 600 and 400 BC. A Via Cava is a man-made road excavated between two towering tufa walls. In Pitigliano, these long, shadowy corridors sometimes reach heights of 100 feet (30 meters) and wind through rocky outcroppings of light, crumbly volcanic stone. On the high vertical sides, carvings of symbols and numbers from various periods can be observed: Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and even more modern times.

Some controversy surrounds the purpose and origins of these pathways. Carlo Rosati, author of “The Etruscans and the Hollow Paths,” writes, “Techniques of excavation, period, function and symbology can all be discussed, but every new theory provokes another contradictory one.”
Here it is easy to see how the roads gradually became deeper. Each time the crumbly tufa wore down in the middle, the road would be re-leveled by digging down to the lowest level. You can see along the edges various higher road levels, as well as the foot- and hoof-pathways worn down in the middle.
A collapsed tufa boulder with a painting of San
Giuseppe in an overhead niche.
Some suggest that the roads were built to connect various necropoli, Etruscan burial tombs. They speculate that because a necropolis was designed much like an Etruscan city, the tombs were regarded as houses where the deceased lived on for eternity in an invisible realm. The city of the dead had to resemble the city of the living as much as possible, with well defined houses, squares and roads. Because a necropolis is almost always found at the top of a Via Cava, perhaps the roads were designed to allow easy transit for the departed souls.

Experts all agree that religion held a fundamental role in Etruscan civilization. “Every earthly manifestation, like the flight of birds, lightning, the passage of the sun, the hot springs or the sprouting of a tree was the expression of a particular deity manifesting his or her will,” Rosati notes. “The most powerful and important deity—and the one that attracted a following even before the Etruscans—was Mother Earth, responsible for life, and in this light, the Vie Cave can be considered as sacred pathways, carved into the earth as a form of penetration to get nearer to worship the mother divinity.”

This slippery and mossy road is part of the Gradone
Via Cava.
In addition, many sacred symbols and inscriptions were carved by the Etruscans along the rock walls of the Vie Cave. A sacred well is found in Sovana “inside which numerous bronze and ceramic objects of marked sacred symbology have been found,” Rosati points out. “You could say that no one would do a thing like that at the beginning of a Via Cava without any strong religious motivation.”

Other scholars hold that the Vie Cave were built for much more practical reasons: To connect cities with roads in which the grade remained as consistent as possible to facilitate easy passage. When the builders encountered a hilly outcropping, they carved a path through it instead of detouring around it or constructing a steep and dangerous grade that would be nearly impossible to negotiate with a loaded cart.

One can still see the hoofprints of donkeys as they
carried their loads up the Gradone.
I recently visited four Vie Cave near Pitigliano with my brother Roger, who has spent much of his life in the road construction business, and I’ve had some experience in this field as well. We noted that above and below the deep digs, the roads continued on terrain that was for the most part flat. The need for the excavated portions seems to us to be the obvious necessity of maintaining a gradual slope. Since tufa stone is relatively light and crumbly, it wouldn’t have taken an unreasonable effort to chisel through it. The Egyptians made similar excavations in much harder granite.

We also saw much evidence that the roads were initially not nearly as deep as they are today. Tufa is delicate rock, and Rosati points out that every 20 years or so, the center pathways that man and donkeys created had to be re-leveled. Rather than trying to fill the impressions, the builders would lower the rest of the road bed. If each improvement process “resulted in the lowering of the floor by 30 centimeters each time,” he wrote, “we can conclude that it took centuries for the Vie Cave to reach their current level.”

Lucy peeks out after exploring
a cave in the Poggio Cani Via Cava.
While it is true that often necropoli were located above a Via Cava, we also noted that the roads continued on to connect one city to the next. It could just be that the Etruscans liked to build their necropoli at higher locations, which coincided with the upper portion of a road excavation.

Rosati presents both arguments before summarizing: “But perhaps the best thing to do to draw one’s own conclusions is to immerse oneself in a Via Cava, and, holding one’s breath, to listen and to savor in silence the spectacle before our eyes, trying to hear the voices of all the people who passed through here, trying to merge with the environment and imagining to jump back in time to touch the mystery and charm of the Etruscan culture.”

Good advice! Visiting a Via Cava is an evocative experience, prompting us to ponder the daily lives and activities of Etruscans and to study historical sources to learn more about this fascinating and once-thriving society that taught the Romans much of what they knew about engineering.
This old farmhouse is for sale, with a river on three sides and in walking distance of three Etruscan Hollow Roads. It also has a nice view of Pitigliano in the distance.
Rosemary found the missing signs.
We had some difficulty locating one of the important Vie Cave parking areas. The guidebooks said it was near the bridge over the River Lente, but they also said it was well-marked. We found no signage, but upon pulling onto a dirt road near the bridge, we found all types of signs lying in a pile—waiting for some construction crew to reinstall them. We found that from this parking area, we were able to easily reach three Vie Cave, two necropoli and a picnic area at the Fontana dell’Olmo, the fountain of the elm tree.

La Fontana dell'Olmo
We first explored the Via Cava di San Giuseppe, part of which is now a tunnel because one side of the tufa wall collapsed and leans against the other side. In more recent times, a contemporary artist has created a painting of San Giuseppe in a niche that once housed a fresco now completely crumbled away. The niche is inclined to match the angle of the subsided tufa wall, which occasionally needs additional reinforcing because of the crumbly nature of tufa. The image of San Giuseppe is linked to a typical regional festivity, the torciata, a torchlight procession which in Pitigliano takes place each year on March 19.
Visit to a cave in the Poggio Cani.

To reach the Via Cava Fratenuti, we had to cross a narrow stream on stepping stones, requiring some skill in balance and dexterity to keep our feet dry. It is one of the deepest of the digs. Near its beginning, we also found an abandoned farm with a sign indicating it is for sale. We walked around in the yard for 15 minutes, admiring the partly restored farmhouse, fields, courtyards and outbuildings while remarking on what a fantastic location this would be for an agriturismo or bed and breakfast. The Lente River loops around and through it, and it’s within a stone’s throw of three important Vie Cave—in fact, it in the middle of the intersection of the Poggio Cani and Fratenuti pathways.

As for the Poggio Cani Via Cava, we particularly enjoyed exploring some of the caves we encountered in the tufa walls, which easily allowed us to imagine what life may have been like for ancient people who used them as burial sites, homes and wine and tool cellars. We also drove to the Gradone Via Cava, which had a more pronounced grade on slippery moss-covered rock that was somewhat difficult to navigate. Here we were able to see hoof marks etched into the road bed that had been left by donkeys making the steep climb.

Given more time, I would love to explore other excavated Etruscan roads in Sovana and Sorano, but we had only a few days, and the area has so many other attractions, such as a Jewish quarter in Pitigliano, hot springs, the ghost town of Vitozzi next to San Quirico and complex and elaborate tombs in and around Sovana. In addition, every medium-sized town in the region has museums which feature topics such as history, archeology, mining and minerology, nature, culture, wine, oil and various types of art. Even the city centers themselves are works of art worthy of days of wandering and exploration.

Horses and riders taking an evening stroll in Pitigliano.
While we had read some guidebooks and looked at pictures prior to our visit, nothing can match personal experience. The lens of the eye is so much more revealing than that of a camera, and photos can’t compete with the sounds of rustling tree leaves, bubbling streams, bird songs, horses’ hooves clopping through the streets or snippets of conversations from the lives of inhabitants. Don’t let reading about our adventures and looking at these photos substitute from making your own excursion to Pitigliano and the amazing Maremma.

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