The Lost City of Norchia

Upper Palaeolithic flints, Eneolithic tombs, and remains of a Bronze Age semicircular hut, as well as a tomb with a Villanovan shield, show that the place evolved over time, before being bafflingly abandoned in the earlier Iron Age.

Norchia lingers long in the mind. Its appeal is not at all easy to define. The landscape is magical, but hardly more so than that of many other parts of Italy. Perhaps it is the melancholic sense of solitariness. Perhaps it is the romance of a lost realm, secreted below a woodland canopy that conceals two parallel sparkling streams. Perhaps its Etruscan spirit entwined with a near-secret medieval castle and the haunting ruin of a church with its crypt laid bare to the expansive Latium skies.

The father of Etruscan archaeology, the young George Dennis, tramping these open pastures in the 1840s with his friend, the painter Samuel Ainsley, could scarcely contain his excitement on discovering Norchia: ‘At length we turned a corner in the glen, and lo! a grand range of monuments burst upon us. There were – a line of sepulchres, high in the face of the cliff which forms the right-hand barrier of the glen, two or three hundred feet above the stream – an amphitheatre of tombs!’

ABOVE A city of the dead: the tombs that form the most striking vestige of the ancient city of Norchia have been captivating visitors for a long time. This Etruscan settlement flourished between the 6th and 5th century BC, but today much of its remains are cloaked in forest.
A city of the dead: the tombs that form the most striking vestige of the ancient city of Norchia have been captivating visitors for a long time. This Etruscan settlement flourished between the 6th and 5th century BC, but today much of its remains are cloaked in forest.

In his thousand-page treatise, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria (1848), Dennis compared the scale of Norchia’s monuments to the Colosseum in Rome and judged this was ‘the most imposing spot in the whole compass of Etruscan cemeteries’. Dennis’ mark on Etruscology was not to be equalled until a century later, when the Rome scholar Massimo Pallottino included it in La Sapienza’s new archaeological curriculum. No less taken with Norchia than the legendary Victorian, in his lyrical introduction to D H Lawrence’s Etruscan Places (1986), Pallottino wrote with unvarnished passion about the place:

‘The first motif through which writers approach Etruria so as to transfigure it is that of the landscape. All of us, even today, despite the tide of agricultural and industrial development which is invading the desolate silences of the Maremma, have experienced unique emotions in travelling along the ravines of Norchia, thick with brambles, among wild olives, mastic bushes, myrtles, along high banks of red volcanic tufa out of which innumerable tombs open their mouths and fantastic buildings are outlined, with perhaps a few rooks circling against the azure sky.’

Norchia belongs to a class of small Etruscan towns. At its zenith, it covered about 10ha, unlike its near neighbours: super-centres like Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Veii, Volsinii (modern Orvieto), and Vulci, which ballooned to 100-200ha in size. The conquering Romans carved the Via Clodia through the length of Norchia, continuing relentlessly onwards to Tuscania and southern Tuscany. Ironically, the new artery spelt the town’s demise. Only as the ancient world fell apart did Norchia experience a modest revival. Along with Tarquinia, Tuscania, and Viterbo in the borderlands contested between the Byzantine authorities of Rome and the parvenu Lombards occupying Tuscany, it offered a small illustration of the Italian story of villas becoming villages. Its medieval castle may owe its genesis to this moment. By the late 8th century AD, Norchia possessed a small church, a pieve. Its castle and the majestic church of San Pietro belong to a later liminality as the 12th-century papal state resisted Tuscan intrusion from the north.

LEFT A Roman road, the Via Clodia, was cut into the ridge occupied by Norchia, and is here seen at its north gateway. Rather than the new throughfare bringing prosperity, though, it coincided with a decline in the town’s fortunes.
A Roman road, the Via Clodia, was cut into the ridge occupied by Norchia, and is here seen at its north gateway. Rather than the new throughfare bringing prosperity, though, it coincided with a decline in the town’s fortunes.

Today, finding Norchia is a challenge. It lies about 6km north of the Vetralla–Tarquinia road (route 1 bis), 9km west of Vetralla. An old yellow sign used for target practice by local hunters is the only indication. From the winding main road, it takes about ten minutes along anonymous pitted lanes traversing the now fenced pastures. The lane terminates at a discreet car park. From here follow a dusty track past a row of eucalyptuses, prodigiously shedding their bark, to the secreted canyons containing the archaeological remains.

Pause and reflect here by a faded map with a history of the site. The topography today is not easily grasped because of the thick woodland. Very simply, the Pile valley immediately below is separated by a thin spine of rock surmounted by the Etruscan town and its medieval successor from a parallel valley, through which runs the larger, Biedano brook.

An archive photograph taken by one of the Bulwer sisters – Agnes and Dora, once active members of the British and American Archaeological Society of Rome – provides a sense of what Norchia looked like around 1900 (50 years or so after Dennis’ visit). Their snap shows the thin spine on which the town sat with the ashlar-built church towards one end, a countervailing presence to the distant keep. Today, the crenellated castle sits above an ocean of trees, while San Pietro lies concealed in the arboreal depths along with hundreds of extraordinary Etruscan tombs.

A photograph taken by Agnes or Dora Bulwer shows the site of Norchia, on the far side of the Biedano valley, c.1900 (courtesy of the British School at Rome). Closest to the camera is the ruin of San Pietro, while in the distance lie the remains of a papal castle raised in the 12th century by Hadrian IV, the only English Pope. Much has changed since the Bulwer sisters visited, and today the castle is shrouded in trees.

Norchia – the archaeology

The ancient name of Norchia is a matter of doubt. It may well be ancient Orcla/Orclae, attested to in a papal document of c.AD 775 and appearing on a late Rennaisance map by J Oddi in 1637. There is an obvious similarity to a likely Etruscan nobleman called, in Latin, Orculnius, who in the first half of the 4th century BC was a king of Cerveteri (ancient Caere) according to the fragments of the Elogia Tarquiniensia inscription (found at Tarquinia).

Excavations over the past century have picked out a long prehistoric genesis for the Etruscan settlement. Upper Palaeolithic flints, Eneolithic tombs, and remains of a Bronze Age semicircular hut, as well as a tomb with a Villanovan shield, show that the place evolved over time, before being bafflingly abandoned in the earlier Iron Age. The crevices in the high rock faces provided inviting shelter, while the twin brooks have created rich ground in the tight canyon floors.

Norchia’s heyday came at the beginning of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, when the first tombs with benches were excavated into the friable tufa walls of the gorges. By the mid 4th century BC, Norchia emerged as a powerful place. It appears to have occupied a buffer zone between Tarquinia and Viterbo, and between the little town at San Giovenale to the south and the imposing Tuscania a few kilometres to the north. By this time, the town – guided by its own magistrature – felt the need to defend itself. A deep ditch was cut to defend the southern end of the hilltop, to which was added a curtain wall made of local tufa.

The maximum concentration of rock-cut tombs cluster around the west side of the narrower Pile valley (the one immediately reached from the distant car park). Systematically excavated between 1969 and 1981 (after countless antiquarian interventions), the grave furnishings date these as 4th- to 3rd-century BC tombs. Rising in lines up the rock face, they evoke the ghostly sense of a city of the dead. The lower tombs tend to be smallest, while grander versions with frontal terraces reached by rock-cut steps line the upper reaches. Commonly, following a local convention, the uppermost tombs have porticos featuring Tuscan-style columns and rooves that had been covered with tiles. Of the grandest tombs, two stand out: one belonged to the gens Smurina and the other is named the Lattanzi Tomb, after the local doctor who excavated it in 1850.

The Smurina tomb overlooks the Pile stream with a dizzy overhang above and below it. Its portico included six columns and its sarcophagus is estimated to date from the second quarter of the 3rd century BC. The most conspicuous feature is a thick Doric pillar carved in relief on the canyon wall. Above was a pediment, which – with the formidable pillar – brings to mind temple-tombs in southern Turkey.

An early Etruscan tomb, high up in the cliff face of the Pile valley.

No less grandiose is the Lattanzi Tomb, first identified in 1832 and now being re-excavated by the École française de Rome. The tomb, overlooking the Biedano brook on the northernmost point of the town, is flanked on its left by four other tombs. It contained five sarcophagi, the oldest of which belongs to the late 4th century BC and closely resembles the Archokràteion at Lindos on Rhodes. The Doric architecture is elaborate with relief columns and a pediment worthy of any temple with a portico, like the Smurina tomb that extended on to a rock-cut terrace.

Its pronounced pediment is decorated with a frieze of dolphins, while a celebrated griffin frieze graces its entablature. A lower room with four beds carved out of the tufa was intended for a funeral banquet. The new excavations have also brought to light a fragment of sphinx wing carved out of the rock and belonging to a monumental sculpture that once guarded the tomb. The French excavators believe that this was a funerary stone portraying the deceased, likely as not the tomb’s founder, lending him the features of Alexander the Great. Whether this great funeral house was plastered and painted, as the Tarquinia tombs were, is not known.

The Smurina tomb was carved into the canyon overlooking the Pile stream and features a distinctive Doric column. On the strength of its sarcophagus, the tomb probably dates to the 3rd century BC.

Norchia’s later Hellenistic tombs are simpler in design. Most are one or two cubes excavated out of the soft rock. Hundreds of them, now partially concealed by rock falls, line the lower Pile canyon walls. Falling under Roman hegemony, the tomb architecture lapsed, save for enlarging earlier tombs to accommodate the dead from a rapidly diminishing community. Then the burial rite changed. Cremation replaced inhumation in the early Empire, and urns containing the ashes of Norchia’s last ancients were placed in niches outside some of the half-millennium-old temple-like tombs, as well as a conspicuous columbarium.

Norchia may have declined in Roman times, but carving the Via Clodia along the length of the old urban spine was no mean feat of engineering. Norchia’s late-8th-century AD pieve was positioned beside the north–south highway, close to the point where it punctured the hill. Further along, it also served the papal castrum made by Nicholas Breakspear, England’s only pope (Hadrian IV, 1100-1159). Eventually, the castle was to be owned by the Prefect of Vico, a landowner from the Campagna Romana and perhaps an upstart knight of 13th-century Rome. As is commonplace in Latium, many of the Etruscan tombs were remodelled as peasant dwellings and byres. Telltale holes for inserting rafters, as well as poorly made closure walls, are all that remain from this new Christian community. By 1435, the castle was abandoned, and the place was effectively lost until George Dennis stumbled on it.

Visiting Norchia

Lost in the woods, the path through the remains is a bit of a magical mystery tour. While descending gingerly down the rock-cut path from the clifftop, it immediately becomes clear that the canyon walls are honeycombed with tombs of all shapes and sizes. Thousands of them can be glimpsed through the thick woodland curtain. Some tombs have benches. Some are accessed by steep stairways into sepulchral black holes. Many were once decorated with sculptural reliefs like the Lattanzi Tomb. George Dennis’ companion, Samuel Ainsley, paused to draw several, evoking a haunted spirit lurking in these two vertically sided trenches.

A terrace in front of the Smurina tomb provided space for a portico, which featured six columns.

Leaving the information panel, descend into Norchia by the deep rutted path that Dennis surely took. On reaching the lower terrace, turn right along a narrow path and visit the grand Smurina tomb. Then drop down to the wide track traversing the woodland glade. Turn left at this track and almost immediately cross the first footbridge, which has seen far better days. The narrow path winds up through the low hazels and oaks clinging to the steep face of the old town, reaching its pinched south end. Here a columbarium as well as small cremation niches have been poked into the soft, worn tufa.

Turn back, cross the Etruscan defensive works, and follow the well-worn path above the Biedano river through the narrow passage into the medieval outer gatehouse and on into the bailey of the fortress. The tall medieval keep lies surprisingly enshrouded in dense dark woodland to the right. Onwards and the broken eastern end of the 13th-century pieve emerges like a beacon. Constructed of reddish tufa blocks, pockmarked by time, this triple-apsed ruin is almost designed for romantic artists and photographers. Its crypt can be entered by a keyhole-shaped door whose lintels have been brushed by Dennis, Pallottino, and doubtless hundreds of others curious to find tombs below. Tombs there are not. The relics have long since been removed. Only collapsed walls extending back to a ghostly nave now shrouded by oak woodland provide a sense of the former monumentality of this once fine building.

The columbarium, which contains niches where urns holding the cremated remains of Norchia’s latest ancient occupants were placed.

The path continues onwards and winds back some paces towards the flank of the Pile, before turning north down the dark, rock-hewn track that is the Via Clodia. This thoroughfare comes upon you as something of a surprise. Immersed in this anonymous arboreal hilltop, its precise engineering tells everything about Roman resolution. The rock-cutting is as sharp as it was two millennia ago. After 100m, the track is blocked by fallen rock and, to the left, through a crevice leading down into a chasm, spy a high steel ladder. This descends to the Lattanzi Tomb. It is only for the brave and those archaeologists from the École française de Rome currently re-examining this great mausoleum. Towering cliffs fall away below the tomb to a shallow lip alongside the dappled Biedano brook. Strangely, these high canyon walls have remarkably few other tombs, as the Bulwer photograph from about 1900 shows clearly. It is from this part of the Via Clodia that the rock-cut path turns back and winds down to a Heath Robinson footbridge over the Pile stream and the main track.

The 13th-century pieve of San Pietro is a majestic ruin. At the base of one of its three apses, a keyhole-shaped door provides access to its crypt.

The stillness of this place, in a landscape that is thinly inhabited today, certainly makes it feel full of phantoms. Past attempts to tame the woodland, to erect suburban-style signs, to make bridges and paths belong to an age that has long since gone. Instead, Norchia feels forgotten. The rock-carving may not match the majestic monumentality of Cerveteri or the vitality of Tarquinia’s tomb-painters, but it has nonetheless created an ethos of its own that is close to the natural order of the tufa world of northern Latium. This is not to demean the scale, artistry, and communal importance of Norchia’s remains. Rather, it is a reminder that even the grandest of places, after flourishing for centuries, can simply disappear. Of all the Etruscan cities, Norchia – in all its unvarnished arboreal mystery – excites the senses today just as it did in George Dennis’ time.