top-line: Resist imperialism. die in style; get buried in yet greater style. Disappear.
the tomb of Etruscan king lars porsena does not exist, though imaginations of it do. that is to say, the final resting place of lars porsena is not known; though many have written about what it looked like, or might have looked like. to say that they have done this without a shred of evidence is an understatement.
others have drawn it. for example, this 1646 attempt by George Badger,* in his Pyramidographia: or A description of the pyramids in Ægypt. Naturally, he was aware—as i’m aware—that this isn’t from Egypt.
a room—a square box—on which four gaunt pyramids stand; one at each corner. at the centre stands another pyramid—a fifth—scratching at the gauzy impasto of the umbrian sky.
speaking technically, about pyramids—something i rarely, if ever, do—then it is also accurate to say that the pyramids are separated by these two platforms, which—presuming the pyramids don’t penetrate them—mean there are more like fourteen pyramids. which is exactly why the below reconstruction—by Quartremere de Quincy in 1826—exists. drawing attention to the subterranean labyrinth-tomb itself, rather than the pyramidal cubes that sit above it, on top of it.
it is also extremely—and i cannot stress this enough—fucking impractical as a piece of architecture.
i digress. porsena resisted roman expansion toward the end of the 6th century BCE. the etruscans—coy, loving on labyrinthine + murky symbolism, fought back against the bland functionalism of romanesque violence. this is a simplification. death is not, however—of course—a simplification. it is, as Blanchot urges, a thing of complexity. the cadaver explodes into unknowingness and continuous eating-at and revision. such is porsena and his tomb. in fact they are the same thing; tomb and porsena-cadaver.
so what is it that people think they know they know they know about the tomb of lars porsena, considering that nobody—of his time—recorded it in any tangible, meaningful way?
Roman writer Marcus Varro (116 - 27 BCE) wrote that:
Porsena was buried below the city of Clusium in the place where he had built a square monument of dressed stones. Each side was three hundred feet in length and fifty in height, and beneath the base there was an inextricable labyrinth, into which, if any-body entered without a clue of thread, he could never discover his way out. Above this square building there stand five pyramids, one at each corner and one in the centre, seventy-five feet [c. 22 meters] broad at the base and one hundred and fifty feet [c. 44 meters] high. These pyramids so taper in shape that upon the top of all of them together there is supported a brazen globe, and upon that again a petasus from which bells are suspended by chains. These make a tinkling sound when blown about by the wind, as was done in bygone times at Dodona. Upon this globe there are four more pyramids, each a hundred feet [c. 30 meters] in height, and above them is a platform on which are five more pyramids.
Marcus mate, sure. Good to see that whatever piece of cow skin or spit rag Varro chose to write his observations on adhered to the most stringent forms of fact checking.
Pliny, writing yet later, email chained Varro’s description by copying it almost exactly:
Above the square stand five pyramids, four at the corners and one in the center, each seventy-five feet across at the base and a hundred and fifty feet tall, and tapered in such a way that at their peak a bronze circle and a petasus were placed over the whole set. […] Over and above this circle four individual pyramids stand, each a hundred feet tall, above which are five pyramids on one floor.
This is called lazy journalism, so we can discount it.
Fergusson’s later, fanciful reconstruction from 1849 (below) is, without doubt, the ugliest. But then he admits in his book that ancient tombs—or imaginations of them— are defined by their “ugliness and impracticability.” he admits that pliny is wrong. he admits that varro is also, most likely, wrong. and so he too is wrong. everybody is wrong.
the reality—perhaps—is more tawdry, and unexciting. It is claimed (on a website i read somewhere and can no longer find) that the final resting place of porsena is in fact a Roman sewer. being buried in a roman sewer is a good joke if, in subsequent years, everyone assumes you were buried in a scandalously OTT baroque castle. the reality is going to be disappointing. it always is. etruscan tombs at the end of the 6th century BCE existed among a landscape of actual labyrinths (roughly, and tightly, cut into hillsides), as well as the reality of actual etruscan tombs. those of Cerveteri and Tarquinia—dating from the 9th to the 1st century BCE—are monumental, cut into rock, and topped with large burial tumuli. they are necropoli, often clustered together like dead streets. and in this way they are like houses.
it seems pretty fair to say that the tomb of porsena would have been a hole, dug into the dry earth. that it would have been capped with a big tumulus (because he was a king).
but now i’m just guessing.
poor porsena has been subject to a necro-imaginary lasting centuries beyond his own life. it is a far bigger flex to die and have people speculate about it than to die in a tomb for which everyone knows the address. porsena, it goes without saying, is flirting with all of you; even from the grave. his hidden-ness within the folds of the post-roman universe is a transgressive rejection of the roman ‘known.’ unmapped; uncharted; porsena and his ghost-tomb echo back and forward between the gnarled lemon trees and olive branches and volcanic stone of milano and amalfi and tuscany and rome. they needle and wet the earth beneath the gross and melancholic monuments built during the boy’s-club regime of mussolini + its dull fascist posturing. porsena’s tomb escapes the real. and in this way he is blanchot’s cadaver, the original, the total, the apotheosis of an architecture that is formed in the void left by its failure to be ‘real.’
and i, honestly, despise the monarchy. i’m not giving him a free pass here. please don’t think that, for a moment. but it is a very cool tomb. an actually sick tomb to have.
were it to exist.
preferred demolition method: bit late for that, isn’t it?