Bassani’s Cemeteries: the Ancient Etruscans and the Jews of Ferrara

Gavin McCormick

If my Italian were better than it is, I would certainly wish to spend some time with the work of the late novelist Giorgio Bassani (1916–2000) in the original. Bassani is the author of the Ferrara sequence of novels, which were a pleasure to read in their recent translation by Jamie McKendrick. This translation of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, first published in Italian in 1961 and perhaps the most famous in the series, has, for me, an additional resonance. This was the text I read to my mother as she lay in a hospice three years ago. It was a fitting and moving read, appropriate both for its richness and for the way it deals with sadness, beauty and hope, as well as because its Italian setting chimed with my mother’s own Sicilian background. The novel is set in the period just before she was born. It is a text which haunts in the best of ways.

Giorgio Bassani in the film Three Girls from Rome (Le ragazze di Piazza Spagna, dir. Luciano Emmer, 1952).

This is particularly true of a passage at the outset of the novel, which touches upon some of the ancient historical scenery around the city of Rome, including – for instance – the Etruscan archaeological remains at Cerveteri. These Etruscan remains provide the backdrop for some luminous passages in the novel, passages which combine topographical description with philosophical reflection about the historical longue durée.

The Banditaccia, the Etruscan necropolis near Cerveteri (credit: UNESCO).

The remains at Cerveteri have captivated many a visitor. They were written about memorably by D.H. Lawrence in his essay “Etruscan Places” (1932). Because we know of the Etruscans themselves mainly through their burial mounds, their artwork and their sarcophagi, they have often been portrayed as members of a mysterious civilisation, a characterisation some recent scholars have sought to dispel.[1] The Etruscan approach to art and burial, in particular, suggests a great deal about the creativity and sophistication of Etruscan culture, both of which are in evidence in the most famous museum exhibits of Etruscan remains – for instance the collection at the Louvre in Paris and (perhaps most notably) the Sarcophagus of the Spouses at the National Etruscan Museum in Rome. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are no extant Etruscan literary survivals, and knowledge of the Etruscan language seems to have been lost in antiquity. 

Map of Etruscan territory in 750 BC (green) and its expansion over the next three centuries (paler green).

In Bassani’s novel, the Etruscan remains at Cerveteri provide a subtle melancholy frame around some of the harrowing events to which the author alludes. Bassani uses (ancient) historical memory as a way to achieve perspective and to infuse sadness – but also (beautifully) to demonstrate the continuing possibility of an innocent kind of hope, as we witness the exuberance of a young girl’s attempts to grapple with moral questions, while engaging in serious historical thinking, for what seems like the first time.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis follows the fortunes of some young, upper-crust members of the Jewish community of Ferrara in the late 1930s. The youngsters in question have a fondness for literature and discussion, for food, wine and tobacco, and for game after game of summer tennis (singles, doubles, whatever). Against the background of this shangri-la-like existence, the marginalisation of the Jewish community in Ferrara over the course of this period, particularly as a consequence of Mussolini’s Racial Laws, gradually impinges in various ways on the characters.

Detail of the Etruscan “Sarcophagus of the Spouses” from Cerveteri, c. 520 BC “Sarcophagus of the Spouses” (Villa Giulia (National Etruscan Museum), Rome, Italy).

Despite the impending darkness that will soon consume the innocent world to which he introduces the reader, Bassani wants to show that the aforementioned atmosphere of tender young love, carefree innocence, and coming-of-age discussion (and this is a world in which books matter) had not yet been destroyed. He does this by revealing a tremendous level of poignancy, sensitivity and intimacy of feeling among his characters, the effect of which is to keep the reader focussed mainly on the contours of the personal relationships being described. The gathering political clouds which cast their increasingly ominous shadow over the ‘big picture’ landscape of the period are for their part kept mostly out of focus.

In the prologue of the story, set – later than the main body of the story – in the late 1950s, Bassani depicts his characters experiencing the Italian landscape as a theatre of ancient historical memory while out on a family day-trip. Driving toward the Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri, a discussion ensues among the family of passengers, the youngest of whom – Giannina – asks: “In the history book, the Etruscans are at the beginning, next to the Egyptians and the Jews. But Papa, who do you think were the oldest, the Etruscans or the Jews?” A tricky question for poor Dad, who understandably deflects it – and fortunately for him an attractive double row of cypresses provides a welcome temporary distraction through the window.

More tombs from the Banditaccia.

The conversation lulls. Before long, though, another question from Giannina breaks the silence: “Papa, why are old tombs less sad than new ones?” This time Dad feels confident enough to venture what seems a competent enough answer: “Well,” he says, “the recent dead are closer to us, and so it makes sense that we care more about them. The Etruscans, they’ve been dead such a long time – it’s as though they’d never lived, as though they were always dead.”

A pause.

“But now you say that,” young Giannina responds, “it makes me think the opposite, that the Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others.”

The tenderness of this remark, it turns out, sets the tone for the family’s whole visit to the Etruscan necropolis. It allows them to wonder with open minds not just about the Etruscans’ tombs and burial practices, but about the passage of time and the vagaries of historical memory – about the fate of this archaeological site which has survived ever since the time when “Etruria, with its coalition of free, aristocratic city-states, dominated almost the entire Italian peninsula.” In time, Bassani explains, “new civilisations, cruder and less aristocratic, but also stronger and more warlike” had held the field and the Etruscans slid into insignificance. Italy, in other words, had become the Italy of the Romans.

Fresco from the Etruscan ‘Tomb of the Leopards’, decorated in the early/mid 5th cent. BC, and discovered in 1875 near Tarquinia, Lazio, Italy.

In the end, the narrator asks, what does this all matter? It’s a bold and jagged question, and it turns out to be rhetorical. No direct answer to it is ventured. What matters, when it comes to historical memory, is something that can be difficult to spell out. Instead of trying to do so directly, Bassani whisks us away from the scene at Cerveteri – not by car, but in our narrator’s imagination – all the way back to his own childhood in 1930s Ferrara, to its grand old Jewish cemetery, and to the scenes of his youth which unfolded there.

The Cimitero Ebraico (Jewish Cemetery of Ferrara, first used in the 17th century.

The juxtaposition of the Etruscan and Jewish burial grounds in the novel enables Bassani to suggest an implicit if unnerving parallel between the two. Both burial grounds – once imaginatively engaged with – present a silent face of Italian history, one which can be seen but not heard. And whereas his own memories in one of them are fresh, so that he can give voice to them, as he does throughout the remainder of the novel, this is nevertheless a world which is now but a distant memory: much in that world, after all, has gone, just as much in the ancient Etruscan world has also gone, irrevocably lost and surrendered to forces outside its control. However, through the imaginative openness of a young child’s questioning, Bassani shows how space can be opened to reflect on what has been lost and on how we lose track of the past in the most innocent and moving of ways: even the ancient dead, we learn, can be brought back within the (evidently) limited purview of human sympathy.

Etruscan bronze handle of a cista (cylindrical box) with Sleep and Death carrying off the slain Sarpedon, 400–380 BC (Cleveland Art Museum, OH, USA).

The space to wonder freely about the ancient past is one thing that Mussolini’s government had attempted to deny to 20th-century Italians, as it foisted its fascist vision onto the past, as well as the present.[2] This attempt, mercifully, failed. And it is worth reflecting that the freedom to contemplate the ancient past, with all its enriching and challenging realities and ambiguities, with an open mind and in the absence of warped ideological interference, as Giannina and her family try to do, cannot be taken for granted. It is a fragile freedom.

In his novel’s rich and colourful account of memories of the recent Jewish and Italian past, it seems important for Bassani to set his record somewhat in context against the grand and merciless sweep of the Italian peninsula’s wider history. In this way, the fragility of his characters’ existence is not lost within the vividness of its portrayal. And in this way, Bassani is able to hint with solemn knowing that the unforgiving canvas of ancient history can be taken as a way to broach the tragedy of the Jews of 1930s Ferrara. It is a sobering, and on reflection disturbing, passage.

Gavin McCormick is a teacher and writer. His previous articles have concerned the death of Creusa in Virgil’s Aeneid and the power of Latin in ecclesiastical music.

The image at the head of this article shows Bassani’s tomb in the Jewish cemetery at Ferrara.

Further Reading

Giorgio Bassani’s Ferrara sequence of novels need not be read in order. An excellent entry point into the sequence is the fourth novel, Behind the DoorThe Garden of the Finzi Continis, the most famous of the novels, can also be viewed in the film version of 1970, directed by Vittorio De Sica. Readers interested in learning more about the ancient Etruscans might start with the excellent Very Short Introduction of Christopher Smith (Oxford UP, 2014). D.H. Lawrence’s essay, “Etruscan Places,” remains an enjoyable read. Many brilliant books deal with Etruscan art: Nigel Spivey’s Etruscan Art (Thames & Hudson, London, 1997) is a very good starting point, along with Federica Borrelli’s The Etruscans: Art, Architecture and History (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2004).


1 See, e.g., Christopher Smith, The Etruscans: A very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2014).
2 See further e.g. Marla Stone, “A flexible Rome: Fascism and the Cult of Romanità,” in Catharine Edwards (ed.), Roman Presences: Receptions of Rome in European Culture 1789 –1945 (Cambridge UP, 1999) 205–21, and Joshua Arthurs, Excavating Modernity: the Roman Past in Fascist Italy (Cornell UP, 2013).