Report of the Sixteenth Meeting of the London D. H. Lawrence Group
Lawrence’s Representations of Ancient Italy and the Rise of
European Totalitarian Regimes
Thursday 17th June 2021
6.30 pm BST – several hours later
36 people attended, including, outside of England, Philip Bufithis in West Virginia, Monserrat Morera in Barcelona, Simonetta de Filipppis and Renzo in Italy, John Worthen in Germany, and Kathleen Vella in Malta.
In 1926-7 D. H. Lawrence visited certain Etruscan sites, and museums containing Etruscan objects, having already read the most important existing books about the Etruscans. He planned to visit more sites, and to write twelve ‘sketches’ about the Etruscans, but was prevented from doing so by ill health. The six sketches that he wrote were posthumously published as Etruscan Places in 1932. Lawrence interpreted the Etruscans in the light of contemporary political developments in Italy, as well as of his own philosophy.
Stefania Michelucci’s paper was very kindly read out by Jane Costin (in Manchester), since Stefania Michelucci could not attend. The following is an edited version of the paper.
Lawrence’s longstanding attraction to the Etruscans is evidenced in several places, for example the poem Cypresses’ (1920), written as a result of Lawrence’s visit to Tuscany, and a passage in Sea and Sardinia about ‘the strange “shrouded gods” of the Etruscans’. He read several texts about them, including The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria(1907) by George Dennis, Etruskiche Malerei (1921) by Fritz Weege, Roland Arthur Lonsdale Fell’s Etruria and Rome(1924), and the Italian book Etruria Antica by Pericle Ducati (1925). He had also read widely in anthropological texts such as Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1905), Jane Harrison’s Ancient Art and Ritual (1913), and Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Form of Religious Life (1912). During his last stay in Tuscany (1926-1928) he formed the idea of writing a book about the Etruscans. In spring 1926 he visited Perugia and the National Archaeological Museum, famous for its Etruscan Urns. In April 1927 he visited Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci and Volterra. The book he had in mind was never completed, but the six essays that he wrote were collected posthumously as Etruscan Places (1932). The book is in part a guide book: it gives details of routes, transportation, hotels, eating places, as well as of museums, the structures of the tombs, and historical notes.
Beyond that: ‘I shall just have to start in and go ahead, and be damned to all authorities! There is really next to nothing to be said, scientifically, about the Etruscans. Must take the imaginative line.’ The fact that so little was known about the Etruscans gave Lawrence a freedom to interpret them in his own terms, and to see in them possessors of a lost vitality. For him the Etruscans were ‘young’ in their vitality, yet also the keepers of the ancient secret of life.
No original written sources on the Etruscans have survived, and early writing about them was filtered through the culture of their conquerors, the Romans. From the beginning of his book, Lawrence rejects the views of nineteenth-century historians such as Theodor Mommsen, who celebrated Rome: ‘A great scientific historian like Mommsen hardly allows that the Etruscan existed at all. […] The Prussian in him was enthralled by the Prussian in all conquering Romans. So being a scientific historian, he almost denies the very existence of the Etruscan people.’ Historians such as Mommsen transmitted an image of the Etruscans as a depraved, weak people who deserved to be wiped out by Roman expansion.
Lawrence praised their celebratory relationship with the living universe and spirit of place, and their serene acceptance of death, which was a continuation of earthly existence (the composition of Sketches of Etruscan Places coincided with that of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and both books concerned the rebirth of the body). He also praised the Etruscans for their relative gender-equality; later Etruscan paintings and sculptures show women as involved in public feasts and celebrations, and children had matronymics as well as patronymics; Greek and Roman travellers were shocked by the freedom of Etruscan women. Lawrence also thought that the Etruscans’ slaves and animals demonstrated joie de vivre, and that Etruscans were notably tolerant of the differences between the various tribes that made them up.
The book also constitutes an anticipation of postcolonial critiques of imperialism, and compares the Romans to Christians in their imperialist treatment of heathens in more recent times. Lawrence’s representation of modern Italy is as one contaminated by a Fascism which praises the Romans and overlooks the Etruscans. Yet he believes that ‘Italy today is far more Etruscan in its pulse than Roman’.
Stefania particularly acknowledged her debt to Simonetta De Filippis’s 1992 ‘Introduction’ to Sketches of Etruscan Places and Other Italian Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. xxi-lxxiii.
Kathleen Vella argued that Lawrence found in the Etruscans a conception of binaries that was not Manichean but more ‘yin and yang’. Being tormented by multiple dichotomies himself, he was attracted to this conception. Terry Gifford was struck by the fact that the Etruscans depicted human bodies in the context of the bodies of trees and flowers, and as integrated with them in a recuperation of not just animality but ‘transcorporality’ – learning from others’ bodies. Having seem them in situ himself (in the company of Neil Roberts), he asked the group how they thought that the frescoes provided visual evidence for Lawrence’s reading of the culture they represent.
Kathleen said she had been to the Villa Giulia in Rome (the National Etruscan Museum), and had found it very vivacious compared to Greek art. She also thought that the Romans had been jealous of its celebratory qualities, and that this had been a factor in their cultural suppression of the Etruscans. Isobel Dixon said she had also been to the Villa Giulia, and had also visited Etruscan objects in Florence (as Lawrence had). She was struck by how playfully the practical objects were made – for example a pitcher in the shape of a pig with a thoughtful eye. The animals were not just heraldic symbols, nor affirmations of human triumph over them. There was a strong sense of community produced through music and dance.
And for Lawrence the Etruscans were a true discovery; they weren’t handed down to him, in the same way that the Romans were. Jonathan Long affirmed that the Villa Giulia was a world-class museum that deserved to be far better known. He had also visited Cerveteri, and found it an extraordinary experience to walk round the large ancient town. Jane Nichols had walked round the frescoes at Tarquinia whilst reading Lawrence’s book; this had produced a feeling of great closeness to him. Monserrat Morera was struck by the homosexual activities depicted in one painting with a bull looking on; Stefania (after the event) responded that homosexual love was certainly included in the ‘cosmic flux’ of the Etruscans’ world view.
Jonathan Keates (Chair of the Venice in Peril Fund, and author of several books about Venice and Italy) observed that Lawrence used the Etruscans as a stick with which to beat not just the Fascists, but the English (as many writers ancient and modern have used a foreign culture as a standpoint from which to critique their own). He found it interesting that Lawrence had read George Denis’s 1846-7 Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, which was the first serious book on Etruria. Denis was an adventurous Victorian traveller who accomplished an impressive amount of travel over the appalling roads of the Papal States at that time in order to visit what were then extremely remote Etruscan sites. Jonathan himself is currently trying to get the book republished, and is certain that it inspired Lawrence.
Catherine Brown questioned quite how valid it was to present Lawrence as consistently anti-imperialist, as Stefania’s talk had done. Terry agreed that Lawrence shared some of the colonial blindness to the pre-European culture of Australia, for example, but found abundant critique of colonial powers in The Plumed Serpent. Neil Roberts, author of D. H. Lawrence, Travel and Cultural Distance (2004) agreed that there were no aboriginal people in Kangaroo, but attributed this to the fact that Lawrence simply didn’t meet any; he nonetheless wanted to access some spirit from the aboriginal land. In the Americas the picture was also mixed; he was critical of Spanish colonialism in Mexico, but did not identify with any positive promotion of native American rights. John Worthen pointed out that Lawrence’s 1926 review of R. B. Cunningham Grahame’s recent book Pedro de Valdivia: Conqueror of Chile was sharply critical of those who have no interest in Indians. Michael Bell said that we should not expect Lawrence to conform to contemporary political correctness in his discussion of racial and imperial matters, but that considerable anti-imperial critique could be found in Lawrence: for example Skrebensky’s exoticising (and self-projecting) sense of darkness in Africa, which precedes his move to India.
However, Neil added that in Movements in European History Lawrence wrote much more favourably about the Romans than he did in Sketches of Etruscan Places. For example ‘The Roman Empire is the most wonderful thing the world has ever known’, and at least in the earlier period to be a Roman citizen ‘was to be a proud free man, subject to no master, a fearless supporter of the laws of freedom.’ Augustus ‘had some of the beauty and noble gentleness of Christ’ and while he was unsurprisingly negative about some of the later emperors, during the Antonine period ‘One great and noble ruler followed another.’ Neil added that ‘I suspect the answer to my question about the contrast with Etruscan Places is that he wrote this before Mussolini came to power – in other words, the critique of the Romans is a backward projection from the Fascists’ appropriation of them.’ Therefore Lawrence treated the Romans, as well as the Etruscans, according to his political and spiritual purposes at given points in time.