THE TOMB OF THE INFERNAL CHARIOT

HOW TO VISIT

Visits to the tomb take place every Saturday and have
to be booked
in advance at the museum desk,
by phone 0039 0578269261 or by email
:

info.museo@comune.sarteano.si.it or

museo@comune.sarteano.si.it

Between October and May the visit takes place on
Saturday morning at 11,30 a.m.; between June and
September the visits take place on Saturday morning
at 9,30 a.m. and on Saturday evening at 6,00 p.m. 

Tickets booked by phone or e-mail should be
collected and paid at the Museum before the
start of the visit. The Tomb has to be reached
by private transport.

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HOW TO REACH THE TOMB FROM THE MUSEUM

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Enlarge Map

THE STORY

In October 2003, the annual excavations of the Museo Civico Archeologico of Sarteano in the Etruscan necropolis of Pianacce uncovered a tomb with an extraordinary pictorial cycle in excellent condition, datable to the 2nd half of the 4th cent. BC. It constitutes one of the most important archaeological discoveries made in Italy in the last decades. The monumental tomb, cut into the local travertine like all the other tombs  in the territory of Sarteano, has an uncovered 19 meters long corridor with four niches. Behind the entrance door a long corridor gives access to a room with a quadrangular ground plan and sides of approximately 3.5 m. On the left side the pictorial decoration extends to four areas: the main scene of a demon driving a chariot in the first part of the corridor, and the painting of two deceased reclining on a couch at the afterlife banquet in the second part of the corridor are separated from each other by a niche and are both bordered by a red and black meander at the top and a frieze with dolphins diving in the waves above a red skirting at the bottom; the end room  is decorated with a big three-headed serpent on the left side wall  and a hippocampus on the left of the back wall's pediment.

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The first and most complex scene constitutes a really unique iconography in Etruscan art and shows a red-dressed figure driving a chariot drawn by two griffins and two lions. A black cloud surrounds the wild beasts and arrives in front of the charioteer's face. Another presumably demonic figure, of whom only the feet and a wing tip have been preserved, is depicted in front of the scene of the chariot leaving the grave. The charioteer is identifiable as Charun, the equivalent of the Greek Charon, although he lacks the typical features that appear in the wall paintings of Tarquinia. Quite peculiar is also the presence of a fang protruding from his lower lip, which is attested in a rare iconographic version of Charun in Orvieto on terracotta reliefs. The otherworldly character of the coach is demonstrated by the kind of animals that draw it: lions refer to an iconography of the goddess Cybele, known in the Greek and Roman world, whereas the griffins -that in our case quite exceptionally have no wings- are similar to the “winged dragons” that draw the chariot of Persephone on two well-known amphorae of the Orvieto production with depictions of the journey towards the underworld. Another element of the scene that refers to ceramics from the area of Orvieto is the unique way in which the bodies of our animals are coloured in. In our grave Charun, with quite exceptional characteristics, thus appears in the absolutely original role of charioteer who has already accompanied the deceased to the underworld. So also in this case, his canonical function of a demon that accompanies the souls on their journey towards the underworld has been respected and the niche opening behind him, bordered by a so-called Doric door, forms the passage to the afterlife.

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To the right of the niche develops the second scene that shows a male couple lying on a dining couch. At this time we always have to do with the deceased themselves participating at the banquet in the Hades whereas the paintings of the late Archaic and Classical period depict the real banquet of the relatives. The two reclining men, following the usual scheme of the banquet of oriental origin, wear cloaks that leave the chest completely uncovered, and are characterized by a marked rendering of the age difference through different skin colour. And also the affectionate welcome gesture exchanged between the two does not have a parallel in Etruscan wall painting. It may either be the gesture between two lovers or between a father and son as the contact with the Golini graves in Orvieto -where the male figures on the couches are indicated by family inscriptions- seems to indicate. This painting is characterized by a series of “pentimenti”, i.e. scratched preparatory lines that have not been followed in the subsequent development of  the contour line and colouring when the painting was worked out. It is possible to draw a direct parallel between the image of the more mature deceased, the owner of the tomb burried inside the sarcophagus at the end of the room, and the profile portrait of Velθur Velcha on the right wall of the Tomb of the Shields in Tarquinia attesting the circulation of patterns between the different painting schools. Next to the two banqueters stands a servant with a transparent tunic who holds  a strainer to filter the wine in his hand. The youthful face with short light hair reminds very much of the servants' faces in the Golini I  tomb in Orvieto, and especially that of the double flute player.

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In the end room, which symbolically represents the recesses of Hades, an enormous three-headed serpent reaching up to the ceiling is depicted on a white background. The heads have combs and beards and the body is rolled up in one single big loop. The huge three-headed monster is, as usual for hell beasts, a clear allusion to the chthonic sphere, and is a recurrent symbolic presence in vase and wall paintings from the 2nd  half of the 4th cent. BC. And once again  the closest  resemblance with the monster of Sarteano is found  in the area of Orvieto, although it is clearly much smaller in size than the monster of Sarteano: a two-headed snake struggling with small Heracles on side A of a stamnos by the Settecamini Painter, active in Orvieto between 360 and 330 BC. There are therefore many similarities between the figurative decoration of the tomb in Sarteano and Orvieto, and especially the tombs of Settecamini. However, similar animals are quite frequently depicted on pottery of the last decades of the 4th cent. BC with scenes of the journey towards the underworld and on sarcophagi while images of snakes with combs and beards are also common in both the Greek and Italiot world.

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The semi-tympanum of the back wall is decorated with a large hippocampus which, like the dolphins of the frieze in the corridor, is a symbol of the marine world as a metaphor for transition: the  dive into sea waves is ment as the moment of transition between the earthly world and the afterlife. The hippocampus, alone or together with other figurative scenes, is the most common decoration of the pediments in the archaic tombs of Tarquinia and is also attested in some tombs of the 2nd  half of the 4th cent. BC. Under the tympanum stands an colossal sarcophagus with the reclined deceased sculptered on the lid and a double couch in low relief on the chest. The now fully restored sarcofagus, made of gray alabaster from Volterra but decorated in Chiusi, was found smashed to pieces by a sledgehammer. This largest and oldest example of sarcophagus from Chiusi is also the only one that was found together with the grave goods because all the others come from 19th century excavations.

The grave goods, recovered in an extremely fragmentary and disturbed state, were reassembled in a very short time to be exhibited at the Museo Civico Archeologico of Sarteano. They include three locally produced kylikes of the so-called Clusium Group which, like the paintings, are datable to the decades between 340 and the 320 BC and numerous black-glazed ware, gray ceramics, two big amphorae, numerous terracotta incense burners decorated with little birds and many bronze objects.

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The grave goods are therefore perfectly consistent with the chronology based on the style of the paintings and especially with the numerous similarities with the products of the painters and potters working in Orvieto in the 2nd half of the 4th cent. BC. This work in the territory of Chiusi was evidently carried out by those painters and forms therefore the antecedent of the ceramic products. It also provides archaeological evidence of a phenomenon already amply demonstrated by the epigraphic relationship: that of a strong political integration between the centres of Chiusi and Orvieto  not only in the period of Porsenna but also in the 4th cent. BC. And, as a matter of fact the discovery of Sarteano is exceptional not only because of its revolutionary new iconography or the fact that it forms a  rare example of painting from the 4th  cent. BC with themes that are closely connected to the underworld, the journey towards the afterlife and  the symbolism of death (which are totally different from those of the Archaic period) but also because it turned all the historical and archaeological knowledge about the 4th cent. BC. in the area of Chiusi competely upside down. Until now, the information furnished by the Roman sources of an almost total depopulation of the countryside of Chiusi in the 4th cent. BC and the scarcity of finds of this period around the centre of Chiusi had created the false belief of a desertion of the countryside in this phase. The painted tomb of Pianacce is in fact a very striking but not isolated testimony of the occupation of territory by an aristocracy of urban level. It is part of a series of discoveries made in recent years in the territory of Sarteano which show a continuity of settlement that was unknown until a few years ago. The impressive portrait of the demon in the tomb of Sarteano, named “Tomb of the Infernal Chariot” after its most significant scene, will be from now on one of the most vivid and original testimonies of 4th cent. Etruscan art.

THE PIANACCE NECROPOLIS

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The necropolis of Pianacce was investigated for the first time in 1954 by archaeologist Guglielmo Maetzke who discovered two tombs. Subsequently, the Soprintendenza per I Beni Archeologici of Tuscany interrupted the research and between the 70s and 80s of the last cent. the area was intensely looted by grave robbers who brought to light at least 5 other tombs. In 1984, in fact, the Sovrintendenza created an archaeological map of the area in order to declare it an archaeological restraints area on which 7 tombs are visible. Then the area was abandoned another time, the tombs were covered again, vegetation took over and only the great monumental tomb excavated by Maetzke remained visible thanks to the care of the land owner Franco Fabrizi. Thanks to the willingness of the landowners, the Museo Civico Archeologico of Sarteano - in collaboration with volunteers of the local archaeology group Etruria and  with the consent of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali - was able to resume excavations in the Summer of 2000. During these campaigns another 20 tombs were uncovered and 15 of them were made accessible to the public. The necropolis forms only a small part of an enormous burial ground that occupies the entire rocky ridge at the end of the Sarteano plateau: it stretches from the area of Madonna del Belriguardo with very old tombs from the late Orientalizing and Archaic periods to beyond the Pianacce-Cristianello area, a distance of almost a kilometre as a crow flies. The magnificent view over the Val di Chiana, that reveals the vicinity of the then hegemonic Chiusi and nowadays Città della Pieve, and over the Umbrian valleys leading to Orvieto shows what kind of strategic position had been chosen for the burials and certainly also for the nearby (not yet localized) settlement.

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The oldest burials in the Pianacce necropolis are located in the south-west. The small to medium-sized tombs are datable to the 2nd half of the 6th to the 5th centuries BC and all of them are cut into the travertine. Monumental chamber tombs, also with enormous entrance passages, are situated in the central area of the necropolis. Each of these big tombs has a different ground plan and different architectonic features. They date from the period between the second half of the 4th and the beginning of the 2nd centuries BC and the traesures found inside of them show the incredible wealth of the people who commissioned them. The painted "Tomba della Quadriga Infernale" (Tomb of the Infernal Chariot) deserves special mention. The tomb, named after the main scene depicted in it, is one of the most spectacular discoveries of Etruscology in the recent decades. Of great importance is also the semicircular podium-altar built of travertine blocks that was excavated between 2007 and 2009 in the northern part of the necropolis. This construction, which belonged to the three underlying tombs, was used for funeral ceremonies and is an unicum in Etruria. The semicircular podium-altar with a diameter of 16.5 meters was accessed by a ramp. On top of it stood a baldachin made of cloth and four wooden posts, like the ones that are depicted on the cippi of Chiusi in pietra fetida (i.e. "stink stone", a sulphur-containing stone)  under which the body of the deceased was displayed before being burried. Funeral rites like dances, athletic games and banquets took place around it. The podium altar probably had decorations in travertine, as shown by a vault found near the ramp, and in pietra fetida, as attested by the enormous quantity of sometimes decorated fragments that were discovered all around the wall.

THE RECONSTRUCTION OF THE TOMB OF
THE INFERNAL CHARIOT INSIDE THE MUSEUM

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The access to the tomb of the Infernal Chariot, that opened to the public two years after the discovery, is limited for reasons of conservation and can be visited only once a week. Therefore, the idea was born to offer Museum visitors also in other days the possibility to get an impression of the visit to the hypogeum. A life-size reconstruction of the tomb was realized inside a room located in the basement of the museum. It is surrounded by travertine foundations of the Renaissance palace which combine harmonically with the reproduction of the travertine  of the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot. An innovative technique, used for the first time in Italy, was employed for the reconstruction: the Etruscan wall paintings were reproduced with a digital printer on a layer of plaster applied to a support of polystyrene which was worked like set designs in order to recreate the emotional impact of the underground visit but with philological attention for the development of the monument. And the grave goods are exhibited in the same room, as contextualized as possible, on the right side where the real tomb of the Infernal Chariot has only a rough travertine wall due to a destruction in the early Middle Ages.

The reproduction of the tomb was made by the firm “Replica” of Lorenzo Morigi of Bologna, specialized in the reconstruction of archaeological monuments.

WATCH THE VIDEO

http://www.archeologiaviva.tv/ondemand/la-tomba-della-quadriga-infernale-di-sarteano

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