Friday, April 26, 2013

Some Cool Archaeological Site or Something: Long-Awaited Surprises at Sutri

It took me nearly 8 years, but I finally got to Sutri. I first drove through this enigmatic Etruscan town in 2005, en route to Rome from an archaeological dig near Ravenna. My friend and I had opted to take the back roads, both for the scenery and in order to avoid the autostrada, which I wasn’t feeling brave enough to tackle. (Note: I conquered that fear on my next trip to Italy.) We gaped in awe when we saw Sutri’s rock-cut tombs just a few yards from the Cassia, or provincial road, but alas, we had no time to stop.
Aren't those tombs enticing?

The second time I saw Sutri was also in a car, this time traveling north from Rome. We had live fish in the car for Paolo’s aquarium so again, no time to stop.

Then when my niece announced she was coming to visit and hinted that she’d like to “see some cool archaeological site or something,” I decided Sutri would be it.

Except the February day we set out to make the 2 hour drive from Allerona, past Orvieto and south past Viterbo to get to Sutri, the weather was not cooperating. I knew that Paolo, who toils as a muratore (stonemason) all week long, would have been perfectly happy staying home and watching an endless loop of soccer matches all day long. But I was determined we were going to see “some cool archaeological site or something,” damn it, and I insisted we hit the road.

A short time after we passed Orvieto on the Cassia, which more or less follows the ancient Roman road built by Cassius Longuius in 107 BCE, which followed an even more ancient Etruscan road, the snow started. The car shimmied along the road as the snow piled up in neighboring fields. “We should go home,” said Paolo. “Or go the archaeological museum in Orvieto.”
Niche tomb, with traces of plaster & paint

“We’re almost there!” I implored. “Plus I’ve waited 5 years to see Sutri.” (Math never being my strong suit, I only realized when I sat down to write that it had actually been 8 years.) He grumbled, predicted that we would be rained or snowed out, and kept driving.

It was nearly 1 pm when we arrived, hungry, at the town of Sutri. We ducked into a bar close to the archaeological site, and grabbed a few panini. “The park closes at 2 pm,” the bar owner admonished. “Hurry up or you won’t see the church.” Not another church, I thought. Italians and their churches. Geez.

As it turns out, this wasn’t just any old church.

The “modern”—and that’s a relative term in Italy—town of Sutri sits on a tufa, or volcanic stone bluff above the ruins of ancient Sutri, or Sutrium, as it was known to the Romans. Sutri was an Etruscan town associated with Veii, the first of the so-called Etruscan cities to fall to the Romans. Its history dates back until at least the 7th century BCE. After the Romans conquered Veii in 396 BCE, Sutri became Romanized, though it would still take a century or so of conflict before it was securely in the hands of the Romans. In the ensuing centuries, Sutri has been a retirement home for Roman legionnaires, a hangout for Charlemagne, a vacation home of stressed-out popes, and an important way-station along the Via Francigena, the pilgrims’ route from Canterbury to Rome.

The result today is an archaeological site that spans several centuries and cultures. Most notable, and the feature that caught my eye lo those many years ago, is the extensive Etruscan necropolis, or cemetery, carved into the tufa cliffside. The tombs are closed off by a not very imposing wooden fence. We asked the guide if we could look in any of them and her reply was, “Well, there’s a risk of trees and boulders falling off the cliff” (and landing on top of curious tourists) “but you can go in if you want.” So falling rocks be damned, in we went.
Roman amphitheater carved from solid rock

Though the individual tombs have been raided, gutted, enlarged and combined over the years, to use as animal stables or magazzinos (storage buildings), their mystery and appeal is still very much present. Some are slab tombs, where the deceased was laid directly on the stone bed, and others are niche tombs, where cinerary urns containing the ashes of the dead were placed into holes cut into the tombs walls. A few of the tombs still have plastered walls, and in some, slight traces of fresco are visible.

Adjacent to the necropolis is a Roman amphitheater thought to date from the 1st century CE and quite possibly built upon an earlier Etruscan form. But this isn’t an amphitheater built from the ground up—rather, it’s built from the ground down. The rock cut amphitheater is carved out of a single giant slab of tufa, sort of a giant punchbowl scooped out in a long, laborious process that was no doubt carried out by slaves.
More of the amphitheatre

But the real surprise of Sutri is that church the barkeep told us about as I rolled my jaded eyes. It can only be seen with a guide, who led us to the end of the necropolis and unlocked a door set into the rock face. Inside are some of the most stunning frescoes I’ve ever seen. 

The church of Santa Maria Del Parto is contained entirely inside the tufa bluff, where the moisture and constant cool temperatures have kept the vividly colored frescoes, which date to the 13th-15th centuries, stunningly intact. The church is built into a tomb structure, which in turn was built in what used to be a mithraeum dating at least to Etruscan times. A mithraeum was a place of worship to the bull god Mithras, and if Santa Maria del Parto was indeed a mithraeum, many a bull was sacrificed inside. The site of the altar to Mithras is now the altar of the church.

There's a church inside that
hunk of rock

It’s easy to toss around words like breathtaking, stunning and fascinating when one is writing about travel or archaeology. But truly, they all apply to Santa Maria del Parto. Even Paolo said to me quietly, as we gazed at the vibrant frescoes just a nose-length from us whispered to me, “This was worth the drive.”

Fortune smiled upon us that day in Sutri, and the skies cleared long enough for us to enjoy our visit without an umbrella. (One nice thing about living in and writing from Italy, you can write things like “fortune smiled upon us” without sounding like a pretentious asshole. At least, I think you can.) And I’m happy to say that Sutri was well worth the 8 year wait. But my recommendation is that if you’re ever on the Cassia headed to or from Rome, don’t just drive by—take the time to explore this extraordinarily “cool archaeological site.”

Scroll down for more photos!

Interior of church, looking towards mithraeum
photo by Suzie Dundas
Mural, ca 13-15th C
photo by Suzie Dundas

Mural detail, photo by Suzie Dundas

Even this cat got to Sutri before I did.
photo by Suzie Dundas
"Just park inside the tomb," the guide told us.
This happens all the time in Italy.


  1. I have to see this place when I come back to Italy. It looks so charming. Love your blog posts. Ciao :)

  2. Thanks Susie - Sutri is a real treasure. I didn't mention in my post is that there is no admission fee to the archaeological zone. I've paid much more money for a lot less enjoyable experiences (ahem, see my post on the Parco dei Mostri at Bolmarzo)...I hope you can get there soon! :)

    1. I really hope so too! Thank you for the tip ;)