Rome And Etruria – The House

From the tomb we also get our best idea of the Roman house. The Roman house as we know it is of the type inaugurated not long before Cicero’s time. For its long and varied previous development we must look to Etruscan remains, not so much in the form of actual houses as in reproductions of them in tombs and on urns. When Pliny tells us that before the war with Pyrrhus there were only thatched and shingled houses in Rome, we infer that the houses (domus) were of wood and the blocks or insulae of brick. There is no doubt that when Rome was first built the houses were nothing but circular or oval huts made of hides and poles or wattled and thatched. Their simple structure was either sup-ported on a central pole or by a horizontal ridge-pole resting on forked or curved sticks joined to the sides. These various types are reproduced either in tombs or in the earliest form of urn, the cabin urn. In the center of this single room was the hearth. There was undoubtedly a religious and astronomical significance to this form, which was the reproduction on earth of the templum of the heavens in its earliest circular form. Owing to Roman conservatism it remained the favorite form of monumental tomb until the fall of Rome. We know that the house was consecrated, together with a narrow strip of ground about it, in exactly the same way as was the site of a temple, of a city and of its territory. It is a curious fact that at a certain time the shape both of this celestial and terrestrial templum passed from the circular to the square. The earlier form was perpetuated in the temple of Vesta; the later in the “Roma quadrata” and the military camp. The change from circular to quadrangular form in the house probably coincided with this ritualistic change, and this change has been identified with the Etruscans. We are apt to call the circular hut-house Italic, the rectangular house Etruscan. But while the rectangular form undoubtedly came into use as early as the seventh century B.C., the older form died hard. In the same way as the Romans of the Empire still used in certain antique ceremonials (e.g. Arval Brothers) the same type of primitive earthen vessels employed in the eighth century, so their stanch adherence to tradition led the peoples of Etruria and other provinces to maintain the circular form for the tomb long after it had gone out in practical life. The houses recently found at Satricum showed for the first time that the passage to the rectangular hut with tiled instead of thatched roof began as early as the seventh century.

The most impressive of Etruscan tomb interiors, in fact, are those of this type, such as the Regulini Galassi tomb at Caere with its pseudo-pointed arch corridor and the domical or tholos tomb illustrated at Vetulonia,in the Tomba del Duce, at Volterra. These are translations into stone of the wooden huts. Near Rome they can be seen along the Via Appia.

If the tombs show us the interiors, the cabin urns exhibit the exteriors of these huts, with the one door, the side windows and the upper window for letting out the smoke. Traces of the actual huts of this type have been found in the streets of Etruscan Bologna (Felsina), showing that in this backward city this form of house was still used in the fifth century B.C. That it was the common primitive form of Roman house is shown by the so-called shrine hut of Romulus or of Faustulus so often renewed up to imperial times.

We must believe that under the Tarquins the later type of quadrangular house had been introduced into Rome by the Etruscans. This house was at first of only one room, like the circular hut, though surrounded by a covered loggia, but the aristocracy soon developed a residence with several rooms grouped around a central court or atrium ; this began as early as the sixth century, if not before. In most cases we must think of them as of wood, roofed with shingles or tiles or with flat terraces, though there was probably in the richer houses not only a profuse painted decoration but the use of terra-cotta revetment as in the temples. These developed into houses of crude bricks roofed with tiles.

The prevalent early type was an oblong structure with a plain gabled roof ending in a deco-rated façade at both ends. How decorative this could be made is shown in a model of such a house in the Florence museum. The effect is quite charming. Pilasters at the corners support the gable and roof entablature; the arched doorway is flanked by half-columns. Roof and gable project so as to protect a charming colonnaded loggia, and nearly the entire long side is occupied by a recessed and trellised window’ in front of which is a parapet, while the recess is framed by two pilasters or pillars in antis. The wooden structure is quite evident in this model. There is a passage in Polybius which can be used in sup-port of the idea that the Etruscans even used free-standing columns in connection with their houses. It is very easy to develop this type of house into the one represented by the gabled façades of Norchia and Castel d’Asso, where the free-standing columns support the overhanging gable. One merely hesitates, perhaps mistakenly, to make the private house approximate so closely to the type of the temple. Sometimes stone in-stead of wood was the material, as we see by the façade of one of the urns of the Volumni, from Perugia.

The many-roomed houses of the rich did not differ at first very much from this single-roomed house in their exterior form, except in the arrangement of the roof. In the center a covered opening was made to light the central hall or atrium and around it was an open or a covered loggia or both. This was the type of atrium displuviatum, which is shown on some urns at Florence. In both we can see how easily columns could be used on the outside. The internal arrangement of the atrium is reproduced in a number of tombs. I shall give a section of a Vulci tomb of the fourth century B.C. showing how the builders arranged their heavy planks so as to finally bring the opening at the top of a pyramid-shaped ceiling. Another way is shown in a tomb of Tarquini. This atrium was reached through a passageway, a vestibule-ostium, and on the other three sides there opened out of it the other rooms of the house. There was usually one on each side, and sometimes two. The Vulci tomb shows how the ceiling of these rooms was often built, with a central rafter and cross beams set in low gable slant. The plan in the case of an earlier Vulci tomb shows some elaborate schemes of woodwork, especially the fan-shaped arrangement in the room on the left. But in this plan, while it shows how the rooms were built and how they were connected, they are, of course, not grouped as to their outer peripheries in the way they would have been in a house where the outer walls must be reckoned with. One of these rooms is given in plate xxii. The decoration of the interiors was probably quite rich, if we can judge from that of the tombs. In plate xxi, 5 from the Tomba del Triclinio at Tarquinii we have a banqueting scene in progress, and it is allowable to infer that the ceiling and walls of the dining halls were ornamented with wall paintings of this character and design in the period from the fifth to the second centuries B.C.

The same frescoes, helped out by the remains of the objects themselves, give us the furniture and furnishings of these houses at different times in the way of couches and beds, tables and stands, chairs and stools, candelabra, vases, dishes and platters, drinking cups and ewers. There is hardly a thing left to conjecture. One may even go so far as to say that the tally is almost as complete in those things of daily use as it is at Pompeii. It is even more complete in the way of costume and personal adornment, the Etruscan Graeco-Campanian jewelry being wonder-fully exquisite and varied. For every century we can say what was worn and used by the wealthy Etruscans and consequently by the wealthy Romans.

I must not trespass further on this field, but must return to the development of the house architecture. We had reached the stage of the covered atrium, or atrium (cavaedium) displuviatum and testudinatum, the kind of house that was commonly used, e. g. in the rebuilding of Rome after the capture by the Gauls and throughout the fourth century B.C. In this type the central opening for the admission of light was too small to be satisfactory and the next step was to modify the arrangement so that it could be very much enlarged and thrown entirely open, the roof slant being reversed so as to carry the water in instead of away and to catch it in an impluvium or basin in the center of this inner court. This open atrium was called Tuscanicum, by the Romans, who adopted it from the Etruscans. Al section of such an atrium is shown in plate xxiii. I also agree with those who believe that the Etruscans went a step farther in the development of the atrium and used rows of columns to enlarge it on the ground floor, in the form of a small cloister, which went by the name of atrium tetrastylum if there were only four columns, one at each corner, or atrium corinthium if there were more. There probably elapsed some time before the simple tetrastyle type was developed into its richer form and this brings us up to the age which is represented by Pompeian architecture.

The conclusion is evident, then, that to learn about early Roman houses we must make a tour of Etruscan sites in Central Etruria.

On the other hand the connection is not so close as is supposed in works of engineering. The Cloaca of the Marta at Graviscae, for instance, has been cited for comparison with the Cloaca Maxima as an Etruscan prototype, ever since its discovery by Dennis over half a century ago. I regret to disturb so complacent an inmate of all handbooks, but there is no doubt in my mind that this arched passage is a work of the Roman Empire. I have yet to see a single arcade surely constructed before Augustus with vous-soirs interpenetrating the body of the masonry such as are here used. The general rule for Etruria, for Rome and for Latium in the pre-Augustan age was that the masonry should be cut so as to fit on to the perfect curve of the voussoirs, of which there was often a double and even a triple line.

There is, however, one bridge at least, at Bieda (Blera), which can be set beside the one at Cora as of pre-Roman workmanship, or at least, previous to the third century B.C. It is of large blocks of tufa without any of the mixture of materials, without the apertures in piers and the breakwater buttresses which characterize Roman work even of the late Republic. Much as I am tempted to do so, however, I will not attribute to the Etruscans the superb bridge near Vulci called Ponte della Badia. It is at all events not later than Augustus and may be earlier. Its main arch has a span of sixty-two feet and rises nearly one hundred feet above the Fiora, and its length is almost two hundred and fifty feet. It is surpassed only by the bridge at Narni.

If I were to reduce this question of the monumental relations of Rome to Etruria to its simplest expression it would be to advise a visit to Corneto-Tarquinii and to Cervetri-Caere as the sites most accessible and also best adapted in their painted tombs, mounds and museums to furnishing a continuous picture of the best Etruscan art. Perugia and Volterra are also important, but what can be seen at these sites is mostly of a late period and so is rather one-sided. The street of tombs at Volsinii (Orvieto) is the best remaining instance of the way the Etruscans constructed a city of the dead with regular streets of houses with encircling ditch and ram-parts, after the fashion of the city of the living, of which an earlier example of circular form exists at the Poggio Gaiella of Chiusi.

But there are also two cities of Etruria which not only are better preserved architecturally but which should interest us as vividly individualizing two phases of the relations of Rome to Etruria. They are Perugia and Falleri. Perugia (Perusia) is the type of Etruscan city which, after Roman superiority had been clearly proved, accepted conditions and became an allied city, civitas foederata, remaining so until it received citizenship with the rest of Etruria in 90 B.C. Falleri (Novi Falerii) exemplifies those cities, few in number, whose inhabitants, after a revolt or continuous contumacy, were obliged to see their too-strong mother city destroyed and were condemned to build a new home.