The Tomb of the Leopards at Tarquinia

(La Tomba dei Leopardi) (italian version)

The Etruscans are defined, also now, one of the "mystery peoples" of the antiquity and this is due to the fact that their literature was deliberately destroyed in the first centuries A.D. Of first-hand knowledge we have nothing except what the tombs offer. Quoting Lawrence, "so to the tombs we must go" . In fact , unfortunately, almost all that is certainly known or reasonably inferred about the Etruscans comes to us by tomb-frescos and tomb-furniture . The early tomb-paintings shows a people who enjoyed life and for this they were called 'immoral' by Romans and overall by the first christians. But now it is clear that instead our contemporary civilization with christian origin is immoral because is responsible of the destruction of our cultural origin!!

The early tombs seem so easy and friendly that one does not fell oppressed, descending into them. There is a simplicity, combined with a naturalness and spontaneity , in all the figures, movements of the tomb frescos, that at once reassures the spirit.

The Tomb of Leopards show again a feast in which one of the banqueters, probably , the men who has died, is holding up, between thumb and forefinger, an egg, showing it to the yellow-haired woman who reclines next to him. But this egg is the symbol of rebirth and then now we can understand this glad vision of life and death.

Below I report the description of this Tomb by Lawrence:.

The Tomb of Leopards has two spotted in the triangle of the end wall , between the roof-slopes . Hence its name.

The Tomb of the Leopards is a charming, cosy little room, and the paintings on the walls have not been so very much damaged. All the tombs are ruined to some degree by weather and vulgar vandalism, having been left and neglected like common holes, when they had been broken open again and rifled to the last gasp.

But still the paintings are fresh and alive: the ochre-reds and blacks and blues and blue-greens are curiously alive and harmonious on the creamy yellow walls. Most of the tomb walls have had a thin coat of stucco, but it is of the same paste as the living rock, which is fine and yellow, and weathers to a lovely, creamy gold, a beautiful colour for a background.

The walls, of this little tomb are a dance of real delight. The room seems inhabited still by Etruscans of the sixth century before Christ, a vivid, life-accepting people, who must have lived with real fullness. On come the dancers and the music-players, moving in a broad frieze towards the front wall of the tomb, the wall facing us as we enter from the dark stairs, and where the banquet is going on in all its glory. Above the banquet, in the gable angle, are the two spotted leopards, heraldically facing each other across a little tree. And the ceiling of rock has chequered slopes of red and black and yellow and blue squares, with a roof-beam painted, with coloured, circles, dark red and blue and yellow. So that all is colour, and we do not seem to be underground at all, but in some gay chamber of the past.

The dancers on the right wall move with a strange, powerful alertness onwards. The men are dressed only in a loose coloured scarf, or in the gay handsome chiamys draped as a mantle. The subulo plays the double flute the Etruscans loved so much, touching the stops with big, exaggerated hands, the man behind him touches the seven-stringed lyre, the man in front turns round and signals with his left hand, holding a big wine-bowl in his right. And so they move on, on their long; sandalled feet, past the little berried olive trees, swiftly going with their limbs full of life, full of life to the tips.

This sense of vigorous, strong-bodied liveliness is characteristic of the Etruscans, and is somehow beyond art. You cannot think of art, but only of life itself, as if this was the very life of the Etruscans, dancing in their coloured wraps with massive yet exuberant naked limbs, ruddy from the air and the sea-light, dancing and fluting along through the olive trees, out in the fresh day.

The end wall has a splendid banqueting scene. The feasters recline upon a checked or tartan couch-cover, on the banqueting couch, and in the open air, for they have little trees behind them. The six feasters are bold and full of life like the dancers, but they are strong, they keep their life so beautifully and richly inside themselves, they are not loose, they don't lose themselves even in their wild moments. They lie in pairs, man and woman, reclining equally on the couch, curiously friendly. The two end women are called hetaerae, courtesans;. chiefly because they have yellow hair, which seems to have been a favourite feature in a woman of pleasure. The men are dark and ruddy, and naked to the waist. The women, sketched on the creamy rock, are fair, and wear thin gowns, with rich mantles round their hips. They have a certain free bold look, and perhaps really are courtesans.

The man at the end is holding up, between thumb and forefinger, an egg, showing it to the yellow-haired woman who reclines next to him, she who is putting out her left hand as if to touch his breast. He, in his right hand, holds a large wine-dish, for the revel.

The next couple, man and fair-haired woman, are looking round and making the salute with the right hand curved over, in the usual Etruscan gesture It seems as if they too are saluting the mysterious egg held up by the man at the end who is, no doubt, the man who has died, and whose feast is being celebrated. But in front of the second couple a naked slave with a chaplet on his head is brandishing an empty wine jug, as if to say he is fetching more wine. Another slave farther down is holding out a curious thing like a little axe, or fan. The last two feasters are rather damaged. One of them is holding up a garland to the other but not putting it over his head as they still put a garland over your head in India, to honour you. Above the banqueters, in the gable angle, the two great. spotted male leopards hang out their tongues and face each other heraldically, lifting a paw, on either side of a little tree. They are the leopards or panthers of the underworld Bacchus, guarding the exits and the entrances of the passion of life.

There is a mystery and a portentousness in the simple scenes which go deeper than commonplace life. It seems all so gay and light. Yet there is a certain weight or depth of significance that goes beyond aesthetic beauty. (D.H.Lawrence, Etruscan Places)






To see other Tombs :


Prof. Graziano Baccolini

Dipartimento di Chimica Organica, Università di Bologna

FAX: 051-209-3654 E-mail:

March 2004


Index- Montovolo Retreats