A guest post by Vera Marie Badertscher.

I could not help but think about this old gag when I read the new reprint of D. H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places: Travels through Forgotten Italy.

And what does this ink blot remind you of?” asked the psychologist. “Sex.” “Hmmm, and this one?” “Sex.”  And so it went, until the psychologist said, “You certainly think about sex a lot.” And the patient replied, “Who? Me? You’re the one with the dirty pictures.”

An Etruscan necropolis near Tarquinia, Lazio in Italy

An Etruscan urn-field and necropolis near Tarquinia, Lazio. Photo © louis-garden

Lawrence looked at the Etruscans and saw sex. One must take Lawrence’s amateur ethnological musings with a grain of salt, knowing that his favourite intellectual rant had to do with sexual freedom. He looked at Etruscan tombs and vases and paintings and saw a joyous, free-spirited, phallic-inspired civilisation.

At times Etruscan Places reads like a not-quite-final work and indeed the new foreword  by Michael Squires (author of nine books about Lawrence) tells us that Lawrence intended this to be a longer work.  The six essays themselves seem rather raw, as though the author had not finished arranging paragraphs and sentences in logical sequence. And I will admit to skipping lightly over pages of dense philosophising, and concentrating on his sharp, clear portraits of what he saw and experienced.

The power of Lawrence lies in those superbly descriptive sentences. Unhampered by the need to appear scholarly (although he clearly has read widely on the subject) he lets his imagination loose to wander among the Etruscans and interpret their lives. He warns against being influenced by scholarly interpretations, “thinking how things ought to be, when already they are quite perfectly what they are.” He seems to have missed the resemblance of Etruscan tombs to miniature houses, as they are generally described today. The only ones I have seen were under the Vatican, a tour I can highly recommend. You traverse narrow streets between the little houses, where, we were told, the living would come for banquets celebrating the lives of the deceased.

Frescoes from within an Etruscan tomb near Tarquinia, Lazio in Italy

Frescoes from within an Etruscan tomb near Tarquinia. Photo © Eigene Aufnahme

Lawrence spent his life fighting against restrictions on his free-thinking books that celebrate not just the joy of sex, but the centrality of sex to humankind. After several decades of  steamy soap opera and bawdy reality shows on TV and R-rated movies, someone coming to his books in the 21st century is going to wonder what all the fuss was about 80 years ago when he was taken to court for writing obscene literature.

Lawrence never shies away from giving his opinion. For instance, he describes the Palazzo Vitelleschi, the museum in Tarquinia, as “exceedingly interesting and delightful … ” He goes on to say:

“If only we would realise it, and not tear things from their settings.  Museums anyhow are wrong.  But if one must have museums, let them be small, and above all, let them be local.  Splendid as the Etruscan museum is in Florence, how much happier one is in the museum at Tarquinia, where all the things are Tarquinian, and at least have some association with one another, and form some sort of organic whole.” [Emphasis by Lawrence]

Later in the book he describes in detail a family tomb recreated in Florence’s Archaeology Museum.

“But one is filled with doubt and misgiving. Why, oh why, wasn’t the tomb left intact as it was found, where it was found?  The garden of the Florence museum is vastly instructive, if you want object-lessons about the Etruscans.  But who wants object-lessons about vanished races? What one wants is a contact.  The Etruscans are not a theory or a thesis. If they are anything, they are an experience.”

An Etruscan sarcophagus now in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston.

Etruscan sarcophagus in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. Photo © Svadilfari

In 1927 he traveled to Cerveteri (northwest of Rome), Tarquinia (90 minutes by train from Rome), Vulci and Volterra in Tuscany (Also popular with fans of twilight and vampires). Unesco considers the significance of Cerveteri and Tarquinia as World Heritage Sites here. Today, most of the sites that Lawrence visited have been at least partially excavated and one can no longer clamber at will over the mounds and dive into the tombs. Instead, vast archaeological parks surround the ruins, and you can find tourist accommodations much more easily than Lawrence could when he and his friend roamed the area. Research continues and in 2010 the first intact house was discovered; and at another site, the discovery of what is called the Queen’s Tomb.

Incidentally, I read a quote from a travel writer calling Lady Chatterley’s Lover the best guide ever written to England’s Midlands, so maybe Lawrence was really meant to be a travel writer and only accidentally became a novelist. I’ve lost the reference, and if you know who said that, please end my sleepless nights by letting me know.

Archaeology Travel’s Guest Blogger

Vera Marie BadertscherVera Marie Badertscher writes about books and movies that inspire travel at A Traveler’s Library. Vera’s articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler, AAA Living, Arizona Highways, American Style, Islands, Rolls Royce Owner’s Desk Diary and Luxury Travel, among others as well as numerous websites. She is also the co-author of Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist, an award-winning biography.

On Archaeology Travel

Giacometti and the Etruscans at the Pinacothèque in Paris ends 8 January 2012.