Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Populonia, An Etruscan City by the Sea

We're in Pisa, having left behind the bright lights of Paris and the bustling street views. Our apartment here  looks down on the rooftops of medieval buildings, into gardens hidden from view at street level, and out beyond the town to the gentle, undulating Pisan Hills. To get to this sun-filled room with a view, we have to climb 89 time-worn, stone steps. Inside all is open and modern, but the building shows its age in the huge oak beams, the brick-lined ceiling and the thick stone walls. (Click here to read about the medieval skyscrapers of Pisa.)

As old as Pisa is, however, it is a newcomer on the Italian stage when compared with Populonia, an Etruscan city south of Pisa on the Bay of Baratti. Named for the Etruscan version of the god Bacchus and famous in antiquity for its wine, Populonia's origins go back almost 3,000 years.

The Etruscans have intrigued me ever since my Italian grandfather told me about an Etruscan chariot discovered in his hometown of Monteleone di Spoleto. Now housed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the chariot is one of the great treasures of the Etruscan civilization. So, on a recent sunny and warm Sunday when our friends Fabrizio and Roberta proposed a visit to Populonia, we gladly accepted. 

An hour's drive through the verdant Tuscan countryside brought us to the little weekend cottage of Roberta's brother not far from the ancient town. After introductions and warm Italian greetings, the four of us set off through the hills for a 10-mile hike that would take us down to the port of Populonia and then up to the fortified part of the town, known as Populonia Alta. 

It is uncertain if the Etruscans were a people indigenous to Italy or if they migrated to the Italian peninsula, most probably from the Near East. Although examples of the Etruscan language are found on their tombstones and in one or two fragments of written texts, there is no Etruscan "Rosetta Stone" to aid modern linguists. It is known, however, that the Etruscans were at the height of their power, both commercially and militarily, in about the 5th century b.c. In the following centuries, the Etruscan civilization was gradually assimilated into the Greek and Roman cultures.  

Our walk began in the rolling hills where the Etruscans once farmed wheat and cultivated their vineyards. As we topped the last hill, we got our first view of the beautiful wide curve of the Bay of Baratti lined with the remains of forges from the 4th century b.c. Its curiously sparkling black sand is all that remains of the profitable metal industry of the Etruscans, who exploited the rich cooper ore in the area of Populonia and later the iron ore from the nearby island of Elba. 

The Romans and all who followed continued the mining, depleting the area of its metal resources and producing enormous mountains of slag that buried all traces of the once-great Etruscan city. As the centuries passed, all that was left of Etruscan Populonia was the memory of its name. 

As we stood on the beach, however, we could see the remains of metal forges, large groups of Etruscan tombs and an enormous round tumulus. Although some Etruscan artifacts were found in the early 1800s, it was not until 1897 that the first tombs of ancient Populonia were uncovered by a self-taught Italian archeologist named Isidoro Falchi. In 1929, an Italian mining company began operations to extract valuable metals that still remained in the huge slag heaps. As the material was removed, more traces of Etruscan Populonia began to emerge. The downside, according to some archeologists,  was that the use of heavy machinery not only destroyed many items, but also profoundly modified the stratigraphic distribution of the archeological find.

In spite of this, the necropolis of Populonia is still one of the most important monuments of the Etruscan civilization. Along with an industrial area and an extensive Roman-style acropolis, the necropolis can be seen at the Archeological Park of Baratti and Populonia

Since it takes many hours to visit the park, we decided to leave it for another day. Instead, we walked along the sea to the edge of the port and then uphill on the Romanella Path. Although rebuilt many times over the centuries, the path is the same one used by the Etruscans to get from the industrial lower part of their city to the fortified town above. As we walked, we passed long stretches of the original Etruscan wall that dates to the first half of the 5th century B.C. 

We ate our picnic lunch in front of the imposing 15th century fortress built by the Lords of nearby Piombino, using the foundation of an earlier Etruscan building and stones from Etruscan tombs. Beneath us were the remains of the acropolis and a view out across the sea to the island of Elba just visible on the horizon. We sat a while in the sunshine, had an espresso in a cafe (in Italy, there's always a cafe nearby) and then headed downhill.  

Our return route took us along the edge of the archeological park with a view of many of the tombs, across fields and down a wooded path back to the cottage. We arrived just in time for a glass of wine and the last few pieces of a delicious frittata made with spring leeks. After recounting the day's adventures, we said our goodbyes and headed back to the much-more "modern" Pisa.

To see more photos, click here.

A presto,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. Fascinating. I'd never even heard of Populonia. If enough people read your latest posting, youj may be responsible for a big upsurge in tourism to the place. M.

  2. E` veramente un posto stupendo tutto il comprensorio, Baratti. Populonia, gli Etruschi, il mare. F.

  3. I've been to Pisa, but not to Populonia--how gorgeous and what a fascinating history. I really enjoyed this, Geraldine!

  4. I loved this last blog about Populonia. I am always fascinated by the ancient remains lying around so close to modern society.
    Thanks for the history lesson and the great photos.

  5. This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free.


Thanks for your comments.