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Etruscan couple depicted on their sarcophagus

Etruscan couple depicted on their sarcophagus

When in Rome…I drink wine. Lots of wine. So I was excited to take a Context Travel tour at the Villa Giulia National Etruscan Museum recently that focused on Wine and the Estruscans (and included a wine tasting). While I initially signed up for the tasting, it turned out that learning about the history of wine and the Etruscans was as tasty as a fine Primitivo. I got drunk on new knowledge.

Vino!

Vino!

It turns out the first wine came from Iran and Georgia around 5,000 b.c.

Early cradle of civilization map

Early cradle of civilization map

The production of wine likely started simultaneously in what is now Italy with the Etruscans, an ancient civilization that has since disappeared. The nearest comparison I can think of to describe the Etruscans is the Aztecs. They were a robust civilization whose people eventually got absorbed into the rest of Europe.

For the Etruscans, wine was a status symbol. And the upper class had a very specific way of drinking it. They never drank it straight, but watered it down. Drinking un-watered wine was considered barbaric and low-class. Instead, they mixed it with water or various spices and sometimes even cheese.

Etruscan wine bowls and casks

Etruscan wine bowls and casks

The cups and wine casks were strongly influenced by Greek designs. Most don’t look like what we think of as cups, but more like shallow bowls. One fun fact: the back of some cups are painted to look like a face, so when the drinker raised the cup, his face would be covered by the mask. Like this one…

Bowl with mask-like design.

Bowl with mask-like design.

The inside design of most cups reflected the person’s life, showing athletics, music, or some other interest for which the drinker was known.

Drinking bowl, decorated for a guy who may have been a musician. He was very proud of his instrument!

Drinking bowl, decorated for a guy who may have been a musician…or a “player!” He was very proud of his instrument!

Generally, they drank wine at big parties called “Symposiums” (which originally meant “drinking together”). Influenced by the Greeks, the Etruscans would get together at these symposiums and have a feast. After the feast, they would enjoy wine. The symposiums often included poetry, music, dancing and more. They were very refined banquets, not like the Homeric feasts of excess.

Rare fresco depicting an Etruscan symposium.

Rare fresco depicting an Etruscan symposium.

The Greeks wouldn’t allow women into their banquets but the Etruscans did — at least very privileged women. They often enjoyed their wine reclining on divans (or at least the men did), much like we think of the ancient Romans, lying back and eating grapes. The tradition, according to our guide, was oriental in origin and another sign that you were a part of the aristocracy if you drank your wine while reclining.

Drinking bowl showing a man reclining to drink wine.

Drinking bowl showing a man reclining to drink wine.

Among the women at the Symposiums were Geisha-like girls who served the wine (as you can see above). In Greek, they were called Hetaera. They were professionals, trained to entertain with dance and music. Not simply prostitutes (although most were), they were educated to carry on conversations, sing and dance. And they were hired. They weren’t slaves.

A dancing girl at a Symposium.

A dancing girl at a Symposium.

Aspasia bust, From Torre della Chiarrucia (Castrum Novum) near Civitavecchia.

Aspasia bust, From Torre della Chiarrucia (Castrum Novum) near Civitavecchia.

Our guide told us a fascinating story about how these girls often had been abandoned as babies, since girls were not as desirable as boys. But some who grew up to become wine servers, started their own businesses and took in other abandoned girls to train in the trade. It was a way for a woman to be more independent.

The most famous of these women was Aspasia, the companion of Greek statesman Pericles. A bold, independent thinker (or so it’s said, very little is documented about her), she was a philosopher who may have influenced Socrates’ writing. In Athens, she became a Hetaera and ran her own business. And paid her taxes.

Etruscan couple's sarcophagus. Once upon a time, they held actual wine cups.

Etruscan couple’s sarcophagus. Once upon a time, they held actual wine cups.

Because it was a status symbol, the nobility were buried with wine casks to show their place in society. And the tombs represented the wish that the afterlife would be a continuous symposium.

I’ll drink to that! Salute!

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