‘To the Etruscan, all was alive: the whole universe lived: and the business of man was himself to live amid it all. He had to draw life into himself, out of the wandering huge vitalities of the world.’ (D H Lawrence – Etruscan Places.)
I was recently drawn back into D H Lawrence’s most-particular perspective of the world, revisiting a couple of favourite novels and starting to read one I had never picked up before…but, just as quickly, felt the moment drift away as I found other things to read that felt more present-day relevant. Yet Lawrence and I have done a very long dance together, spanning many decades, since I grew up just a handful of miles from where he also did, a century earlier. He took me to deep places in my teenage years, when his raw and painterly language spoke warmly to my soul in a way that other writers left me, at most, simmering-to-cold. Since then, he has been like a wildly-plumed bird that lands on my shoulder just before I spot something interesting; like a talisman or guide into the underbelly of things that might otherwise press their surface layer upon me…until my attention is taken far deeper by the mere fact of his sudden arrival.
That happened once again, today, when I discovered some of his writing on the subject of the Etruscans, as quoted above. Newly returned from Tuscany just yesterday, I had that rarest-of-rare (these days!) fire in my belly to dig into historic matters, which only happens when I am about to go beyond the “given” version of what that typically entails; yes, there is so much beneath the surface of what we are presented as the masculine version of our past. We had spent the day before that in Volterra and I noticed a particular feeling there; one I truly relished, that felt familiar…and I noticed how it energised and invigorated me, how I walked in unfamiliarly brisk strides up steep inclines that would normally have me paused in pain many times over.
The night before, I had dreamt of a glowing city that was almost a seamless part of an outcrop at the top of a sheer cliff-edge-like hill, high above an astronishing landscape, and the word “citadel”, which I had hardly ever given consideration to or used before, rang clearly in my head over breakfast. I hardly knew a thing about Volterra before we set off, except that it had impressive Roman ruins and an Etruscan beginning. I had spent several visits to Tuscany staying in the once Etruscan hill town of Vetulonia when I was in my 20s and found the energy there quite dark…heavy…for all the busloads of colourful tourists yabbering and snapping pictures beneath the ancient Etruscan wall that made up the lower portion of the house in which my bedroom window was tucked just beneath roof tiles. The nights there had been hot and challenging, my dreams troubled and restless until those first tourists showed up to disturb me (more often, I was to be found snoozing in a deckchair on the roof, having got up to watch the sunrise). I therefore had no particular desire to repeat this rendezvous with what I remembered of “an Etruscan feeling” and Volterra’s antiquity didn’t draw me; rather, it seemed to put me off to the point I kept changing my mind back and forth. However, we had only one day left in Tuscany, it was meant to be one of the “best” places to visit in the region and held the promise of vegan food, an absolute rarity in Italy, which is often a clue as to an unexpectedly resonant place.
So we went and it was only as we drove the steep hill towards the town that I realised it looked more than somewhat like my dream-place, if a little time-weary and far less dazzling or pristine above the still-impressive Tuscan landscape at its feet. Once there, we spent perhaps too long enjoying lunch in that vegan restaurant, owned by a wonderfully energised native of that town, Enrico, who told us enthusiastically and at length (with much arm gesticulating) about multiple eco-projects he has up his sleeve. He also told us a far more intimate history of Volterra than the guidebooks get close to, informing us that out of the 12 Etruscan cities (…that sacred number no accident…), Volterra was its spiritual centre; its beating heart. We talked to him at such length that, when we got there, I found the Roman ruins not only less interesting than I expected but out-of-bounds, having been locked up for the day or perhaps even the season (we never found out which) and had to take our view of them from either up-high or through fences. Yet I’ve long since stopped regarding such a mishap as a disaster but as more of a source of curiosity in the way of a clue to something unexpected about to happen.
Because it was at the “Roman cistern” more so than the far more impressive theatre (that cistern, really, an Etruscan acropolis desecrated by being turned to such watery use) that I paid most attention for all I was, once again, stood outside a wire fence looking in. It was like I was being held in an energy vortex and heard the sweet sound of a most particular frequency coming in through my crown while I was standing there, in spite of all the chatter and distraction of our group and the nearby children’s play area. I could even “see” this place as somewhat how it would have been at the edge of that astonishing view, long before city carparks grazed outside the town’s border and tumbled down into housing estates and industrial areas. My husband, seeing my dead-stillness, started to stroke my shoulder, concerned, but I remained absolutely still, needing to throw off all reminder of present time as I strained across the bridge of time towards some other feeling, waiting there still. There was such a potent sense of “return” that I was riveted for as long as I was able to prolongue the visit, held at bay from the actual spot by chicken wire and a locked gate. I knew I had found some lost fragment of myself and that this place was so profoundly, potently, powerfully feminine as to feel like being swept off your feet by it yet somehow made more complete, more forbidible, for the reunion. These Etruscan ancestors may have dwindled their sacred feminine way toward another kind of society, a later political excuse for being there, one not so very dissimilar from that of the Romans who subsequently came along and absorbed them into “empire” with bearly a break in their stride, but I knew I was feeling into a much earlier Etruscan intention, with more of the feeling of “matriarchy” about it (or at least a society founded on equality; there seems to be some evidence of that), a sense of their mortal life being lived in connection with, and consideration of, the vast universe at large and of profound respect for Gaia. I later learned that the principle deity of the Etruscans was the goddess Uni; “who has facets of a mother Goddess, birth Goddess, star Goddess, and love Goddess” (The Obscure Goddess Online Directory). This is what I was tuning into; and this, I have now discovered, is what DH Lawrence also tuned into so powerfully during his time spent living in Tucany, as so eloquently written about in his posthumously published work “Etruscan Places”. Why was I surprised to find that, once again, he and I were so in tune?
Lawrence, akin to many of us today, was at large in an era that felt desperately out of sync with himself; straddled as he was between the high-Victorian industrial~religious frustration of his youth and the fascist regime that was now sweeping across Europe following the mass destruction of World War I. All the primal passion and feminine-creative flow that he took inspiration from felt like it was being knocked into a cocked hat by a generation driven mad by materialism, modernism, greed and power (oh, I so get that feeling). The quote above captures something of the feeling that seemed to pulse out to him from all those mammoth Etruscan stones (how ever did they lift them?) still serving as foundation to so many once-Etruscan settlements and particularly that era’s artworks with its raw subjects and the sheer primal passion of their wild colour-juxtapositions. To quote Xavier Salomon writting for Apollo Magazine, to Lawrence, who was also an artist, ‘one Etruscan leopard, even one little quail, is worth all the miles of’ John Singer Sargent, who Lawrence somewhat unfairly, but true to his own taste, describes as ‘utterly uninteresting, a bore’. Whatever it was that he felt, I caught more than a trace of it for myself and, for an afternoon, it transported me; was as alive in me as it ever was maybe almost 3000 years ago, maybe long before that. Yes, these folk have long antiquity, though the details are mostly vague, missing or made up of contrictory academic speculation; instead, I would just remain open to what their remnants wake up in us, breathing it in as an energy charge…as Lawrence so clearly did. I should add for the sake of clarity, I had no idea Lawrence had written a book about the Etruscans until I chanced upon it this morning, after my return, though I knew he has spent time in Italy; but why should I be surprised.
My time spent in Volterra certainly charged me up and stays with me since; stirring up new curiosity and alertness to something – call it a frequency – and with the distinct feeling of having just answered a familiar call across resonant wavelengths in this place far from home. I think, without question, Enrico (with his enthusiastically vegan restaurant built over Etruscan ruins closely viewable through a glass floor beneath tables and chairs) is thoroughly tuned into it, day in and day out; plus I think there is probably something in the water. I never felt such potent energy spiralling out of one individual so eager to change the world with the vibration of love (he talked about that a lot and you could feel it distinctly) and one eco-project at a time. It was a truly invigorating place!
If you happen to visit Volterra, make sure you go to…
Life Bistro – much more than just a vegan restaurant in Volterra; also accomodation and retreats and lots of enthusiasm to make the world a better place!
DH Lawrence Among the Etruscans – an article worth reading as an introduction to Lawrence’s Etruscan Places (now on my read list). Interesting to hear Lawrence’s view of museums as I found myself totally unwilling to go into any of these on this latest trip to Italy, recoiling from the sense of “out of context” disassociation of artefacts from their intended location as well as the insistence upon reading information over feeling into what these objects have to say.