Tarquinia’s Medieval and Renaissance Ceramics Museum (Museo della Ceramica D’Uso a Corneto)

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Tarquinia from the air.

Tarquinia from the air.

Tarquinia’s situation, on a high hill back from the Tyrrhenian sea, is splendid. It is a luminous place, the stone walls and buildings are limestone, locally called “macco,” a creamy colored stone. Light bounces off the sea and the surrounding grain fields make it all the more light. If you walk to the top of the town, away from the water sea, looking over those walls, you are struck by the immense sea of grain.

Tarquinia is well known for its Etruscan necropolis with murals recording life’s pleasures. The portrait we get of the Rasna from the tombs, Rasna is how the Etruscans referred to themselves, is one of absolute joy–they feast, play at games, make music, and dance. The elaborate murals also show that the Etruscans were very prosperous. The many imported Attic and Corinthian ceramics in Tarquinia’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale reveals their taste for importing luxuries and their production of wine, with wine amphorae unearthed as far away as Spain and Phoenicia, documents their exporting reach.

With the ascendancy of Rome and then the Barbarian invasions, Tarquinia’s history dulls until the next era of prosperity in the Middle Ages, when it becomes an independent city state. It is then that the town is known by another name, Corneto, after the cornelian cherries (dogwood family) found here. Corneto is used until 1872 when the town becomes known as Corneto – Tarquinia, and then changes simply to Tarquinia during the fascist era. (In the same period Girgenti in Sicily becomes Agrigento). The impetus being the desire to reclaim the glorious classical past.

The Società Tarquiniense d’Arte e Storia has the cornelian cherry as its emblem. It is a society of 500 members who maintain an archive of important documents relating to the town, publish a bulletin of scholarly papers, exhibit the work of local artists, and provide space for concerts and lectures. This past May the Society reinstalled its Museo della Ceramica D’Uso a Corneto, a permanent exhibition of Medieval, Renaissance and later pottery.

Museo della Ceramica | Società Tarquiniense D'Arte e Storia | Gallery View

Museo della Ceramica | Società Tarquiniense D’Arte e Storia | Gallery View

Alessandra Sileoni, the Society’s treasurer, archeologist, and researcher at the Università della Tuscia, curated the exhibition. (Tuscia refers to Etruscan Lazio, as Etruria refers to Etruscan Tuscany.) Since it is a small place and people wear many hats, by curating we mean that Alessandra Sileoni photographed, conserved, researched, cataloged, and installed the beautiful exhibition. She unearthed some of the pieces as well. Anna Gruzzi, an objects conservator involved in numerous ancient and Medieval digs, also worked on the restoration, often having to pull apart incorrect restorations that had been done many years ago.

The main part of the collection comprises objects dug from the historic center of Tarquinia, many of which had been collected by Giuseppe Cultrera, an archeologist and founder of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. The ceramics had been stored for many years in the basement of Palazzo Vittelleschi, where the archaeological museum is housed. The hundred objects on display are mostly ceramic, but there are examples of glassware as well. To give context and color to the exhibit, a reproduction of a Renaissance stove discovered in 2005, while paving the Piazza del Duomo, is on view. Utilitarian digging often brings forth treasures in Italy.

Museo della Ceramica | Società Tarquiniense D'Arte e Storia | Renaissance Stove Reproduction

Museo della Ceramica | Società Tarquiniense D’Arte e Storia | Renaissance Stove Reproduction

Mark Twain’s “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” is useful when thinking of the progression of pottery styles across cultures, time, and even continents. The Museo di Ceramica’s pottery ranges from simple earthenware to geometric designs to plants and animals to story telling images. Much of the pottery was dug from dumps and that accounts for its fragmentary nature. (By contrast, the ancient pottery in the Museo Archeologico is often complete because it was dug from tombs–the dead were meant to use it in the afterlife.) That the pottery in the newer museum was used and then discarded, strangely, enhances its appeal. It makes one think of one’s own indecision about throwing out pottery, whether it shouldn’t be glued just one more time.

Bowl | Northern Lazio | End of the 14th Century | Museo della Ceramica | Tarquinia

Bowl | Northern Lazio | End of the 14th Century | Museo della Ceramica | Tarquinia

Most of the objects come from the region (Tuscania, Viterbo, the Duchy of Castro) and from nearby Umbria (Deruta, Perugia, and Orvieto). Sometimes, as with the Etruscan museum, objects come from far away places. Ceramics from as far away as Valencia underscore Corneto’s powerful trading network. We know of 12th century treaties with Genoa and Pisa to the North and that huge quantities of Cornetan cereals were sent, via sea, to Rome. Nowadays the sea is used for bathing and there is no port, but in the past the ancient port of Gravisca, later Porto Clementino, was critical for trade. Dante writes of the area around Corneto as being ferociously wild and of Rinier da Corneto, an infamous highwayman in the seventh circle of hell. The vast uninhabited area around the town–and the distances between these western Lazio towns are unusually great–must have been very dangerous, making sea travel all the more necessary.

One of the pitchers in the museum figures a simple blue drawing of a sword inside a decorative border. Defense is a key concept in the Medieval town.

Pitcher with Sword and Cross | Northern Lazio | Late 15th century | Museo della Ceramica | Tarquinia

Pitcher with Sword and Cross | Northern Lazio | Late 15th century | Museo della Ceramica | Tarquinia

Within the eight kilometers of wall, there are some twenty towers. There were many more, Corneto was known as the city of a hundred towers. Towers let you see who is approaching, what’s in store for you, and are also places to barricade yourself from trouble. The Società d’Arte e Storia is housed in the Palazzo dei Priori on the Via delle Torri and has, in fact, its own tower. That there are so many towers is intriguing because there is some thought that the word Tuscia comes from the Greek and Latin words for tower and that the Etruscans were known as the builders of towers. Only the foundations of Etruscan buildings remain, so we can’t know how high their buildings rose from the ground or if they approximated the Medieval towers in any way. It is the high view to the Tyrrhenian sea that is the constant wonder.

Museo di Ceramica D’Uso a Corneto
Società Tarquiniense D’Arte e Storia
01016 Tarquinia (VT)
For Visiting Hours Call (+39) 0766 858 194
website: http://www.artestoriatarquinia.it/

Pitcher and Bowl | Duchy of Castro | 16th Century | Museo della Ceramica | Tarquinia

Pitcher and Bowl | Duchy of Castro | 16th Century | Museo della Ceramica | Tarquinia

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About the author

Lucy Vivante

Lucy Vivante is an art dealer, translator, travel writer, and food expert who lives in Italy. She writes on old master drawings in her blog, Vivante Drawings.

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