BMCR 2023.03.05

Falerii Veteres. Il sepolcreto di Montarano: scavi, materiali e contesti

, Falerii Veteres. Il sepolcreto di Montarano: scavi, materiali e contesti. Monumenti antichi, 83. Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider, 2022. Pp. 800. ISBN 9788876893377

The Faliscan center of Falerii Veteres, modern Cività Castellana, lies at the base of Monte Soratte upon a tuff plateau deeply carved by the Treja river, a tributary of the Tiber. From the Iron Age onward, the site hosted a thriving Faliscan community.[1] In 241 BCE, when the Faliscans revolted against Rome, Falerii Veteres was sacked, and the site was largely abandoned for the new Falerii Novi, founded in the plain below. This settlement at the easternmost confines of South Etruria seems to offer a brilliant case study of an early “frontier” town whose cultural outlook was strongly shaped by communication with neighboring peoples, especially Latins to the south and Etruscans to the west.[2] Despite a fascinating material culture, however, Falerii Veteres features less often in modern scholarship than peer sites in its wider region, as the archaeology of its urban area remains far more obscure than that of Tarquinia, Veii, or Caere. I note with some excitement that this imbalance is poised to change thanks to new excavations by University of Rome Sapienza under the direction of Maria Cristina Biella. Meanwhile, a mass of material in storerooms from earlier excavations remains understudied and largely unknown to the wider scholarly community. Giovanni Ligabue’s book makes important strides both in repairing this state of affairs and in revealing why it emerged in the first place.

Ligabue’s enormous two-volume publication serves, first of all, to present over 1,700 objects from 67 tombs from the necropolis of Montarano, Falerii Veteres’ earliest known burial ground located to the north of the main settlement. The volume also reveals a second purpose, laying out the remarkable and, frankly, scandalous circumstances of this material’s discovery as it relates to the origins of one of the world’s premier museums of Pre-Roman archaeology, Rome’s Museo Nazionale Etrusco in the Villa Giulia. This second goal leads the author into a detailed account of archaeological intrigue revolving around the career of Felice Bernabei (1842-1922) during the formative moments of the modern nation-state of Italy. The story is as follows:

From 1875, Bernabei served as secretary of Italy’s director general of museums and excavations, and from 1886 as director himself. He helped found the Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità as a premiere journal for archaeological discoveries in national territory, while he committed himself energetically to the creation of a series of museums intended to present the new nation’s patrimony to the public in Rome. To support these interests, Bernabei was closely involved in a number of excavations. In those days before the creation of national antiquities laws in Italy, that meant coordinating with groups or societies composed of semi-amateurs working with private landowners and operating under local conventions. In the early 1880s, a society of this sort had made extraordinary discoveries of Pre-Roman material associated with two sanctuaries at Falerii Veteres. In the later part of the same decade, they turned their attention to the settlement’s burial grounds with a pace of excavation verging on frantic: well over a hundred tombs were dug in a few years. Bernabei worked to get ahold of newly discovered objects, which he hoped to present in a new museum of Pre-Roman culture. He especially sought tomb groups, as he envisioned the innovative step of displaying objects arranged chronologically by context, to instruct audiences in the progression of early Italian material culture over time.

By summer 1887, Bernabei had acquired several tomb groups from the area of Falerii Veteres and deposited them for the moment in the storerooms of the Baths of Diocletian, with the intention of using them as the nucleus for his new museum. By the next year, he had identified a destination for this collection: the old villa of Pope Julius III up on the via Flaminia along Rome’s northern edge. At that time, the structure was owned by the state but used as military offices. Bernabei had by 1889 started to convert the villa into a museum and was hard at work arranging 111 tomb groups from Falerii in three rooms upstairs above a presentation of material from sanctuaries of the same city on the ground floor. When the Villa Giulia was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by Queen Margherita in May 1892, its presentation very much focused on findings from Falerii Veteres and nearby Faliscan sites like Narce and Corchiano. Considering in those days that the Italian state held no automatic right to objects uncovered by these excavations, Bernabei’s efforts to retain this material for public display in Italy were laudable. Much of this material went abroad: perhaps only a fifth of the objects from the Iron Age necropolis of Narce remain in Italy today. Meanwhile, Bernabei’s pioneering chronological/typological approach to displaying the tomb groups initially received considerable international acclaim. The funerary material from Falerii Veteres and its surroundings were published for the scientific world in an 1897 monograph in the prestigious Monumenti Antichi series—the same series in which Ligabue’s work now appears.

At that point, however, storm clouds were starting to gather. A series of publications in the closing years of the nineteenth century began to raise doubts about the integrity of the tomb groups displayed at the Villa Giulia. Various scholars suggested that the scientific rigor of hasty excavations at Narce and Falerii Veteres had been compromised by the desire to provide Bernabei’s new museum as well as foreign buyers with quality materials. There were accusations that objects from different tombs or even different sites had been mixed up, and the grave groups were inaccurate reflections of the archaeology, despite Bernabei’s attempt to present them in a systematic manner. The scandal was brought to a head with the 1899 publication of Wolfgang Helbig’s popular and authoritative Führer durch dei öffentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom. Helbig’s guidebook excluded the Villa Giulia, his introduction explicitly attributing its omission to rumors of the collection’s unscientific nature. In many ways, this was modern Italy’s first cultural heritage crisis: an official committee was struck to explore the allegations, and Bernabei was forced from his position by March of 1900, even as the committee ultimately cleared him of wrongdoing. Ligabue calls the subsequent period the Villa Giulia’s “dark years” (anni bui), as the museum was shuttered to the public, and many of its finer pieces were put on display elsewhere. Even told here in fairly staid prose, the story makes for a gripping read.

Bernabei’s dismissal and the downturn of the Villa Giulia goes a long way towards explaining why material from Montarano has taken so long to find full publication. It remains the case that scholars working with Faliscan material found during this era can simply point to the context of its discovery to dismiss its reliability.[3] Along with this archaeological issue comes an archival one: the vicissitudes of early excavations have resulted in a thicket of complex and sometimes contradictory attempts to catalogue this material. In sorting everything out, Ligabue works with no fewer than four separate cataloguing systems alongside inventory registers from the museum itself, from other museums receiving material from Falerii Veteres, and various other archival records.

Ultimately, Ligabue succeeds in putting things back together, laying everything out in a thorough catalogue of material from Montarano. He organizes objects by type: clay and then metal vessels, personal adornments, weapons, elements of chariots and harnesses, and instrumenta. Each object is described dispassionately. The single inscribed object from the necropolis, a five-letter graffito on an olla, is reported without discussion of debate over its language (probably Etruscan, not Faliscan). Ligabue confirms that the magnificent and remarkably well-preserved bronze cinerary urn in the form of a rectangular hut does indeed come from Montarano but does not dwell on the object at any length. There is an enormous amount of data for an Iron Age necropolis but nothing especially surprising. Instead, material tends to confirm the well-known outlines of the development of Italian funerary culture. We see the evolving realia of aristocratic status and the progressive appearance of a warrior elite, while the assemblage appears to end just as those more radical cultural transformations of the orientalizing period were reaching Faliscan territory.

Following the catalog, discussion turns to the necropolis as a whole, starting with the matter of chronology. Drawing only from contexts with good archival documentation, Ligabue establishes an initial group of burials in the area in the second quarter of the eighth century BCE. Montarano becomes increasingly active later in that century, especially in the early and middle orientalizing periods. The largest cluster of tombs date to the early seventh century, with only a handful of tombs from the middle and later seventh century. The smaller group of seventh century tombs are often marked by special ritual or objects, such as the return to cremation burial in the case of the tomb containing the bronze hut-urn. The latest tomb from the necropolis contains an Etrusco-Corinthian aryballos and belongs somewhere in the closing decades of the seventh century.

Discussion of the spatial and architectural development of the necropolis shows expansion from a central cluster of Iron Age burials to new sectors, first south then north, during the orientalizing period. Funerary ritual shifts as well, with pozzetto-type burials containing cremations giving way to inhumation burial by the middle of the orientalizing period deposited in fossa-type tombs and tombs accessed through a vertical shaft, so-called tombe a caditoia. Montarano’s abandonment coincides with increased burial activity along the settlement’s western edge, reflecting a shifting focus in the seventh century from the minor plateau of Vignale to the main plateau and especially to its western summit now occupied by the Forte Sangallo.

The book can be called laborious, by which I intend both positive and negative meanings. The challenging reconstruction of material demanded an enormous effort, and Ligabue has responded with remarkable dedication. To give but one example among many, the author has illustrated almost every object himself, filling up no fewer than 157 tables of drawings. At the same time, it seems unlikely that the author has left anything aside. The narrative of Bernabei’s downfall is broken up by a five-page table detailing the contents of every vitrine of the Villa Giulia’s original display. The surplus of information sometimes interferes with legibility, as with a table rendered completely unreadable. With a great deal of cross-referencing and condensed discussion, this is a technical book that will be most useful to specialists already well familiar with Iron Age burial or Faliscan archaeology.

The book’s density is perhaps not a defect for an archaeological report, but it may obscure the broader importance of Ligabue’s efforts. I hope it is not too forward to encourage the author to publish a more accessible synthesis of his results in another venue. What Ligabue has achieved is to underscore the close link between the early exploration of Falerii Veteres and the development of archaeology during the formative years of the nation of Italy. Without those early discoveries at Falerii Veteres, there would be no museum at the Villa Giulia today. At the same time, the fallout from Bernabei’s downfall seems to have created a barrier to modern study of this important site. Crucially, Ligabue’s painstaking work demonstrates that the situation is by no means hopeless. I can only hope this publication represents the start of a new phase of interest that restores Falerii Veteres to its deserved place in the archaeology of early Italy.



[1] For the site’s archaeology, see M.A. De Lucia Brolli, M.C. Biella, and L. Suaria, eds. Cività Castellana e il suo territorio: Ricognizioni archeologiche e archivistiche (Rome, 2012).

[2] G. Cifani, Storia di una frontiera: dinamiche territoriali e gruppi etnici nella media Valle Tiberina dalla prima età del ferro alla conquista romana (Rome, 2003).

[3] For response to just such a charge, see M.C. Biella, “Archaic Faliscan ‘Titi’ – An Obituary Notice: An Archaeological Reply,” ZPE 207 (2018): 308-12.