Hunt for Tuscan treasures yields adventure, little else

PITIGLIANO, Italy

It is an hour before sunset and the sculptural crags of southern Tuscany are aglow. The air is soft and from somewhere faraway I can make out two men singing bits of Verdi.

But my mind is on something different. As I plod through a steep forest, behind a man dressed all in black, I am beginning to wonder if my penchant for living like a local is at last going to get me jailed. It is one thing to eat from street vendors and hang out with old ladies in black, but what I was doing now . . .

Suddenly my Italian friend whose backpack I had been following for an hour stops and faces me. Ask no questions, he says. "Be silent and watch."

"Watch for what?" I want to know as we resume our climb up the steep terrain surrounding this 12th century town. "Look at his palms," my friend says, as we struggle to find the cave where the grave-robber had said to meet him. "If he has dents on his palms, we can believe he truly knows where the tombs are. He will have marks from pushing poles into the earth and deep into buried tombs."

When my friend, who lives in a storybook stone cottage, had invited me to visit Pitigliano and this serenely undulating region of Tuscany, I had expected to be sipping wine and twirling pasta for two weeks. Instead, here we were in a rocky forest, ready to inspect illegally obtained Etruscan artifacts. But it is all right. The local mago (magician), who lives in the valley below, has told us we will not be discovered. All the locals believe him — why shouldn't I?

And there is more. The Italian philosopher-mechanic, who heroically keeps our moribund Jeep running in a kind of dead-man-walking state, and the sexy British expatriate beekeeper both had shrugged that, "It is a sin that such beautiful Etruscan objects should sleep beneath the earth." Yes, of course, we had all decided, we should help to awaken them. Beauty must see the light of day. Of course, we all knew the Italian government might have a different take on our stealthy activities. The removal of antiquities is strictly forbidden and punished with a fervor unexpected in the usually laid-back Italian bureaucracy.

A walk though history

Still, the romance that seems to swirl through Tuscany like smoke on an autumn night has enveloped us all. Gazing upward through the trees, I can see the grand specter of the town, parapets piled one on another, the massive city wall menacing to intruders, and the whole cliff aglow in sunset-sienna.

From the 10th century B.C., a town had perched on this cliff watching over the confluence of three rivers from its strategic position above. Neolithic dwellers, then Etruscan tribes, and finally the Romans who migrated north had all felt safe here. By the 13th century, the town of Pitigliano was home not only to Christians, but also to a large Jewish community as well. For much of the next 500 years, Pitigliano came under the protection of two great Italian families, the Orsinis and the Medicis, before becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy. Today, the 1545 Orsini fortress squats squarely within the great walls and the sounds of baroque concerts are heard throughout the summer. And of the Jewish population that once was so large it was called "Little Jerusalem"? There are but three people left.

Deep in the forest, we squat in the ebbing light beside a boarded-up opening in a tufa wall. These porous cliffs were dug into by each of the peoples who lived here. Living quarters, sheds, wine cellars, animal pens, and some above-ground tombs, the tufa was warm, smooth and soft.

A heritage disappears

As we wait for our nefarious contact, the beekeeper admits she is nervous. Speaking Italian like a local, she says she's not sure she trusts the grave-robber to produce authentic vases and artifacts, yet she'll be even more anxious if he does. She decides to change the subject to calm herself.

"Did you know I was Jewish?" she says, by way of conversation. "I can take you to several restaurants in Pitigliano with wonderful kosher risotto and gefilte fish with an Italian twist. We even have a kosher white wine and chianti." The beekeeper relaxes as she goes on. "After living in the expanding ghetto for centuries, the Jewish population comprised nearly one-third of Pitigliano. It was when Italy became a nation that the Jews were free to go. They dispersed all over Europe. And that was really the end here. The 'unleavened bread bakery' that sits under the street near the synagogue, the Jewish cemetery and the Jewish University — all were forgotten." Thankfully, she says, restorations begun in 1995 have now made Pitigliano's Hebraic sites a kind of pilgrimage stop for Jewish visitors.

Suddenly, there is movement in the near darkness around us. My friend, who knows his Etruscan earthenware and vouches for the grave-robber's "credentials," stands up. The philosopher-mechanic remains still — perhaps pondering "the greatest good for the greatest number." The beekeeper seems to inhale quickly as she glances at the mago. The magician, who had "read" the patterns of oil poured into water, seems calm and diffident and quietly takes her hand.

Me? We are a band of multinational nincompoops, I think to myself. Like Cub Scouts in the woods, we should just go home for hot chocolate before the Italian authorities haul us all away. And then the grave-robber steps out of the darkness.

Not the real thing

Carrying a weathered cardboard box, he shrugs at my friend and nods to the rest of us. "Ah," he says in Italian, "Sometimes we have luck and sometimes, she goes away . . ." He reaches into the box. With flashlights poised, we focus on what he pulls out. From a jumble of pottery, he extracts a small, black vase with exquisitely curved handles on a narrow base. Coated with dirt, the umber and white paintings are still visible. An Etruscan vase — I'm thinking — it must be 8th century. And then, "Sfortuna, unfortunately," he says, "this is a copy." We all turn our flashlights toward his face. With a smile he gestures at the box. "Another buyer, he buys all the real ones . . . but these! These are beautiful, are they not?"

With relief, I snap up a couple of imitation Etruscan vases for souvenirs, grateful I won't be handcuffed coming out of the forest with genuine antiquities. My friend, however, is disgusted. He has gotten some prize pieces just this way, he assures us. The philosopher has remained philosophical and the mago says he had predicted there would be no problems all along. The beekeeper's Italian had developed an English accent in her nervousness, but now she is giggling as we tramp out of the forest.

On our way, she invites me up into the town of Pitigliano for a glass of kosher bianco vino. As we climb through the darkness, I ask her, "Did you notice anything unusual about the grave-robber's hands?" With a quizzical look, she says no. I tell her about the dents on the palms of real robbers. Then with an Italian shrug acquired through many experiences just like this one, she says, "The only thing real about this grave-robber was the dust on his hands from digging the fake vases out of his garden. Even new dirt looks authentic in the dark!"

Marina Brown, a frequent contributor to the St. Petersburg Times, is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee.

Hunt for Tuscan treasures yields adventure, little else 03/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 1:07pm]

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