The Francois Tomb is an Etruscan tomb located at Vulci (Velch to the Etruscans), a town located 12 km from the western coast of central Italy, by the banks of the Fiora River. Flourishing as a trading port between the 6th and 4th century BCE, Vulci's elite built many impressive tombs, and the most celebrated is the 4th-century BCE Francois Tomb. Vibrant wall paintings on the interior walls depict scenes from mythology, a battle between Vulci and an alliance of other Etruscan cities and the Romans in a tantalising glimpse of the still obscure relations between these two cultures, and, finally, the tomb's occupant himself.
The Francois Tomb was discovered in 1857 CE by Alessandro Francois who had been charged by Prince Torlonia, owner of vast swathes of Tuscany, to excavate the area around Vulci in search of valuable antiquities. Assisted by the historian A. Noel des Vergers, Francois would justify his reputation for lucky finds once again. He had already discovered near Chiusi the magnificent Attic black-figure vase named after him in the previous decade, and now Francois brought to light one of the most brilliantly painted and significant of all Etruscan tombs. The tomb was located in a cliff face of volcanic rock above the river Fiora, its entrance blocked by loose rubble. Dating to the mid-4th century BCE, the tomb consisted of a long passageway which led to a central atrium chamber with smaller chambers leading off it. The passageway alone took over two weeks of digging to traverse. Des Vergers describes the moment when they finally reached the tomb itself:
Everything was in the same state as on the day when the entrance was walled up. Ancient Etruria appeared before us as it was in the days of its glory. The warriors lying in full armour on their biers seemed to be resting from the battles they had fought against the Romans and Gauls. For a few minutes their shapes, clothes, stuffs, colours were visible. Then everything vanished as the outside air penetrated into the crypt, threatening to extinguish our flickering torches. It was an evocation of the past that was briefer than a dream and then faded away, as if to punish us for our reckless curiosity. (Keller, 141)
The wall paintings of the Francois Tomb were removed by Torlonia and added to his private collection, but they are now preserved in the Villa Albani in Rome. The atrium had two main scenes, both of which are bloody massacres: an episode from Theban myth and another from Homer's Iliad. The former shows Eteocles (King of Thebes and son of Oedipus) and his brother Polyneikes, both nude, just at the moment of killing each other with their swords and blood consequently spurting everywhere.
The scene from the Iliad shows the sacrifice of Trojan prisoners during the funeral of Achilles' favourite sidekick Patroclus. The Greeks are portrayed naked and killing their victims with swords. Also depicted are the figures of Charun, the gatekeeper to the underworld carrying his usual hammer (used to dislodge the heavy crossbar of the gate), and a winged Vanth , one of the Etruscan female divinities who acted as the messengers of death.
An Etruscan Battle
Mixed with these mythological scenes another wall seems to be a representation of an actual battle between the Etruscans of Vulci and rivals from the other Etruscan towns of Volsinii and Sovana. To add another layer of complexity, several of the ten figures are named along with their town using the Etruscan alphabet. While some figures have Etruscan names, others have Roman ones, in reference perhaps to the 6th-century BCE conflict between the Etruscans and Romans which saw various dynastic power struggles where several of Rome's early kings were of Etruscan origin. This period of history remains obscure, and the tomb offers invaluable information, if not full answers, as to the early relations between the two cultures.
The named individuals in the battle include three heroes of Vulci: Macstrna, who may be Rome's legendary second Etruscan king Servius Tullius by another name, and Caile and Avle Vipinas (two brothers) who probably were actual historical figures with tradition stating that they had settled in Rome on the Caelian Hill. Macstrna is in the act of freeing Caile Vipinas whose hands are tied, while Avle Vipinas and three others, presumably also from Vulci, attack with swords a coalition group from Volsinii, Sovana, and Rome. A Roman is identified as Cnaeus Tarquinius (Cneve Tarchunies Rumach), and he is cowering beneath the sword of Marce Camitlnas about to be killed. Some historians regard this Roman figure as Tarquinius Priscus, the legendary king of Rome (r. 616-579 BCE) or a younger relation. If it is the king, then the painting provides an alternative to the Roman tradition that Priscus was assassinated by his sons. The Francois Tomb would suggest that he actually lost his throne in battle with the Etruscans. This depiction of the conflict between the early Etruscan and Roman kings, created 200 years after the events, may have been due to an increasing threat of further hostilities between the two cultures at the time of the tomb's construction.
Vel Saties & the Bird
Another painting in the tomb, originally located by the doorway of the atrium, shows a man named in an inscription as Vel Saties, perhaps the occupant of the tomb. The figure, possibly a magistrate or auspicium (reader of omens), wears a dark blue embroidered cloak which has several nude male figures who are dancing while carrying shields. The man also wears a laurel crown and is accompanied by a dwarf who is named as Arnza. The dwarf is kneeling while holding a woodpecker or swallow attached to a string. The bird is about to be released, and Vel Saties looks on, perhaps, as in one interpretation, he is about to read the flight of the bird and divine its significance as an omen, a practice common in the Etruscan religion. Alternative interpretations suggest the bird is no more than a child's pet, and a third that Vel Saties gazes at the bird about to be released in a metaphor for his own imminent passage into the next life.