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Steps leading to an Etruscan rock altar. (Mundo Analogico / YouTube Screenshot)

The Mysterious Ancient Etruscan Monuments of Selva di Malano

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Selva di Malano, which may be translated to mean ‘Forest of Malano,’ is an archaeological site located in Viterbo, in the central Italian region of Lazio. The site is known for its carved stone monuments, a number of which have been interpreted to be altars. It is believed that these altars date to the time of the Etruscans, though some of the site’s monuments are thought to be from the Roman period.

There is evidence that some of the Etruscan monuments were reused by the Romans for funerary purposes. It has been suggested that the monuments at Selva di Malano, as well as other Etruscan monuments in the area, played a part in the creation of the 16 th century Sacro Bosso (‘Sacred Grove’), located in nearby town of Bomarzo.

The Malano Jungle

Selva di Malano is a wooded area located between the municipalities of Soriano nel Cimino and Bomarzo. The forest is situated in the foothills of the Cimini Mountains, in the Vezza River Valley, and about 4 km (2.5 miles) to the west of the Tiber River . In terms of geology, the Selva di Malano “borders a long, exposed outcrop of quartzolatitic ignimbrite from the Cimini complex.” In other words, this is an area that has access to volcanic rock suitable for construction purposes. And there is evidence that the Romans carried out quarrying activities within the Selva di Malano.

The exploitation of this natural resource in the Selva di Malano, however, predates the Romans, as is evidenced by the monuments in the forest. Before the hegemony of Rome in Italy, the central part of the peninsula was dominated by the Etruscans. At the peak, during the 6 th century BC, the Etruscan civilization stretched as far north as the Po River valley and as far south as Campania. Additionally, by this time, the Etruscans had developed into three confederacies consisting of 36 cities. Central Italy, however, remained the heartland of the Etruscan civilization. This region, known as Etruria, corresponds roughly to modern day Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria.

The Etruscans: The People and Culture That Influenced Rome

The origin of the Etruscans has been debated since antiquity. Some have argued that they were an indigenous people of Italy, while others claim that they came from outside Europe, perhaps from Lydia, or from the Greek island of Lemnos. Though this debate continues even today, it is clear that the Etruscan civilization had a huge impact on Europe and the Mediterranean world, as a result of their influence on the Romans.

The Etruscans made a big contribution to Roman culture, as Rome was once situated within Etruscan territory. Moreover, there is substantial evidence that during the early part of Rome’s history, the city was dominated by the Etruscans. In fact, it was only in 396 BC when the Etruscan city of Veii was sacked by the Romans.

One of the important sources for our understanding of the Etruscan civilization are ancient texts. It may be pointed out, however, that these works were written by Greek and Roman authors, rather than the Etruscans themselves. In addition to these texts, archaeological work has also helped to shed light on this ancient civilization. Nevertheless, archaeology its own limitations. Very few preserved Etruscan constructions have survived, as the Romans who succeeded them built over their settlements.

On the other hand, archaeologists have discovered numerous Etruscan necropolises in the areas where they once inhabited. Amongst the most famous of these are the necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia, which have been designated as World Heritage Sites . The tombs and grave goods unearthed at these necropolises offer us a glimpse into the world of the Etruscans, especially their artistic achievements.

Steps leading to an Etruscan rock altar. Source: Project Tuscia

Steps leading to an Etruscan rock altar. Source: Project Tuscia

The Notable Etruscan Monuments of the Selva di Malano

Although Selva di Malano is an Etruscan site, it is not considered to be a necropolis since the original Etruscan monuments are not believed to have had a funerary purpose. Neither are the monuments that are remnants of a lost Etruscan settlement. Instead, the site is thought to have been a place where ritual ceremonies were carried out. Some have even speculated that sacrifices to the gods were performed by the Etruscans in the forest. Therefore, a number of monuments in the Selva di Malano have been interpreted as being ‘altars,’ or ‘sacrificial altars’.

Sasso del Predicatore or ‘Stone of the Preacher’ in the Selva di Malano. ( Youtube screenshot )

Amongst the most notable monuments in the Selva di Malano are the two so-called Sasso del Predicatore (‘Stone of the Preacher’). The monuments were given this name due to their resemblance to pulpits. Both monuments are quite similar, consisting of an ovoid boulder with an altar on its flattened top. A flight of stairs is carved into the boulder, which allows access to its top. On the top of the first Sasso del Predicatore are the remains of what may have been a small altar. The top of the second Sasso del Predicatore , on the other hand, was modelled into a cube-like structure, which is still visible today.

The actual function of these two monuments is unclear, though it is quite unlikely that the Etruscans used them for preaching. It has been suggested that the monuments were used for haruspicy, a form of divination involving the inspection sacrificed animal entrails. Alternatively, it has been speculated that the two monuments were used for augury, specifically the interpretation of omens based on the flight of birds, or that they were used for astronomical observations .

Incidentally, there is another Etruscan monument not far from the Selva di Malano that resembles the Sasso di Predicatore . Tacchiolo, near Bomarzo, is the location of the so-called Piramide Etrusca di Bomarzo (‘Etruscan Pyramid of Bomarzo’). In spite of its name, the monument bears more resemblance to the Etruscan altars in the Selva di Malano. Like the Sasso del Perdicatore , steps were cut into the rock. The first flight of stairs leads to a pair of intermediate altars. Beyond the altars is another flight of stairs, which leads to the top of the rock, where there seems to have been another altar.

Piramide Etrusca di Bomarzo or the ‘Etruscan Pyramid of Bomarzo.’ (Alessio Pelligrini / Flickr)

Piramide Etrusca di Bomarzo or the ‘Etruscan Pyramid of Bomarzo.’ (Alessio Pelligrini / Flickr)

Within the Selva di Malano, the second Sasso del Predicatore is not the only monument in the area with a cubic structure. Not far from the first Sasso del Predicatore is another cubic monument called the Ara Cubica (‘Cubic Altar’). Unlike the two monuments mentioned previously, the Ara Cubica is thought to have been created during the Roman period, and that it served as a sepulchral memorial stone. The problem with these three monuments, however, is the fact that there are no identifying or epigraphic marks on them. This means that their date of creation and their purpose are still nothing more than speculations. Nevertheless, one cannot help but marvel at the ability of the Etruscans and Romans to carve such perfectly shaped cubes out of rocks.

Etruscan Sasso del Predicatore rock cube in the Selva di Malano, Italy. (Project Tuscia / Youtube screenshot)

Etruscan Sasso del Predicatore rock cube in the Selva di Malano, Italy. (Project Tuscia / Youtube screenshot )

Rock-cut ‘Dice Tombs’ of The Selva di Malano

At the bottom of a steep tufo (or volcanic tuff) cliff in the Selva di Malano are three rock-cut tombs, which are also believed to have been created during the Roman period. The tombs are known as tombe a dado in Italian, which roughly translates to mean ‘dice tombs.’ They are believed to have been made during the Late Republican or Early Imperial period, based on the observation that they possess both Roman and Etruscan characteristics. One of the tombs is surmounted by a low relief pediment and entablature, which are supported by five fictive Doric columns in sunken relief. As these features were carved into the rock, it looks as though the monument is emerging from the rock.

Etruscan tombe a dado or “dice tombs” in the Salvo di Malano. (Giulio Monaldi / Flickr)

Etruscan tombe a dado or “dice tombs” in the Salvo di Malano. (Giulio Monaldi / Flickr)

Another tomb has the inscription “Heros V.A. XXV”, above a niche, indicating that this was the tomb of a 25-year-old slave with the Hellenized name of Heros. Interestingly, a Benedictine abbey called San Nicolao was built on the top of the cliff much later. Today, however, the abbey lies in ruins.  

Epigraphic marks and artistic features allow us to attain a better understanding of the monuments, as seen in the case of the tombe a dado . Another monument where inscriptions have been found is the so-called Coelius Altar, known also as the Coelius Tomb or the Coelius Monument. This monument is believed to have originally been made by the Etruscans. Later on, however, it was reused by the Romans. The inscription on this monument reads “D. Coelius D. L. Alexander / Quintia P. L. Hilara”, which means “Decimus Coelius Alexander, freedman of Decimus and Quintia Hilara freedwoman of Publius.” In addition to this inscription, a small modification was made to the original monument, in order to make it suitable for its new purpose. Two niches were carved on the top of the Coelius Altar. These were meant to hold the ashes of Coelius and Quintia.

Glaucus in the Parco dei Mostri, Bomarzo. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Glaucus in the Parco dei Mostri, Bomarzo. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Connections Between Selva di Malano and the Parco dei Mostri

The monuments in the Selva di Malano may be regarded as relics of a lost civilization. Nevertheless, it seems that they were not entirely forgotten by the inhabitants of that region. Similarities have been drawn between these ancient monuments and the Sacro Bosso , a Renaissance garden in nearby Bomarzo. This has led to the suggestion that the garden was partly inspired by the monuments of the Selva di Malano.

The Sacro Bosso is known also as the Parco dei Mostri , or ‘ Park of the Monsters ,’ due to its grotesque sculptures. The garden is located beneath Orsini Castle, and was commissioned in 1552 (based on an inscription in the park) by Pier Francesco Orsini, known also as Vicino Orsini. According to one interpretation, the garden was designed as an expression of grief, and was meant to shock those who visited it. In any case, in order to comprehend the Sacro Bosso , one has to first gain some understanding of its patron.

Pier Francesco Orsini was born in 1523. He was the second son of Duke Gian Corrado Orsini of Bomarzo and Clarice di Franciotto di Monterotondo. When he grew up, Orsini became a condottiere (a mercenary captain) like his father and served under the banner of the Farnese family. In the early 1540s, Orsini married Giulia, the daughter of a fellow condottiere, Galeazzo Farnese. During the 1550s, Orsini was active in the field. He retired from military service around 1560.

It was also around the time of Orsini’s retirement that his wife died. It has been argued, therefore, that the death of Giulia left Orsini inconsolable, and that he created the Sacro Bosso in her memory. An alternative interpretation argues that the garden was Orsini’s pet project. This takes into consideration Orsini’s infidelity and the pride he took in taking nobles and learned men (Orsini himself was an accomplished man of letters) around the garden.

As mentioned earlier, the Sacro Bosso was filled with grotesque sculptures, many of which make a clear reference to classical mythology . These include the Orcus Mouth, Proteus with the weapons of the Orsini family, and a triton in a niche. Other sculptures include a war elephant seizing a Roman legionary in its trunk, a turtle with a winged woman on its back, and a giant tearing its victim apart.

If the inhabitants of the region during the Renaissance had no memory or understanding of the Etruscans, then the monuments of the Selva di Malano would have made no sense to them. In this case, the monuments in the forest and the sculptures in Orsini’s garden would have been similar, in the sense that they are both enigmas that puzzle on-lookers. Moreover, both the ancient monuments and the grotesque sculptures are covered with moss and lichen. In Orsini’s garden it is unclear whether he intended his sculptures to have this look, though one may imagine that he was inspired by the monuments in the forest and to allow nature to add the ‘finishing touches’ to his art pieces.

Today, the monuments in the Selva di Malano remain as enigmatic as they have ever been. Although the monuments in the forest may be tourist attractions, the absence of trails and signs make it difficult to locate them. Looking at the issue from another angle, however, the lack of tourist amenities in the Selva di Malano means that the site, as it has been for centuries, is left intact, thus allowing visitors to view the monuments in their natural state.

Top image: Steps leading to an Etruscan rock altar. (Mundo Analogico / YouTube Screenshot)

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                     

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