Castiglion Fiorentino’s time-team heroes

Amateur archaeologists rewind the timeline of their hometown

Richard Zahra
July 16, 2015

Danilo Grifoni (left) and Mario Menci (right)

 

Inspired by the lucky discovery of an ancient golden earring, amateur archaeologists Mario Menci and Danilo Grifoni pushed back the officially recognised origins of their hometown, Castiglion Fiorentino, by more than a millennium, back to the age of the Etruscans.

The golden earring that spurred the search for Castiglion Fiorentino’s Etruscan past.

 

Castiglion Fiorentino is a little hilltop town in the province of Arezzo, the first fortified town north of Cortona. Perched at 345 metres above sea level, it overlooks the verdant Val di Chiana and Val di Chio valleys. Up to 30 years ago, historians and archaeologists believed that the town had medieval origins. This notion seemed to be reinforced by the town’s rich Medieval heritage—numerous medieval churches, a fine collection of medieval works of art housed in the Pinacoteca Comunale, which includes paintings by great masters like della Gatta and Vasari, lavish reliquaries and an imposing 13th-century painted crucifix. The pinnacle of the town’s medieval heritage is the Cassero area, the town’s highest point, where the remains of the castle walls and one surviving tower rise to dominate the surrounding lowlands.

 

Menci and Grifoni are prominent members of the Gruppo Archeologico Valdichiana (GAV), a voluntary organisation of local enthusiasts that was founded in 1983. Menci is a retired engineer hailing from an old family of Castiglion Fiorentino. Grifoni, the current president of GAV, is a retired architect. The two friends decided to combine their knowledge and skills in order to help preserve and showcase Castiglion Fiorentino’s rich heritage.

 

Both Menci and Grifoni had long been convinced that their hometown had once been an Etruscan city—an assertion for which there was no archaeological proof. Their conviction was based on the observation that Castiglion Fiorentino lay along a route that united important Etruscan cities, a route that later became the Roman Via Cassia. The determination of Menci, Grifoni and their friends of the GAV was inflamed when they unearthed a splendid golden earring in a field just outside town. The earring was undoubtedly of Etruscan workmanship.

 

Grifoni explained how excitement gripped Menci: ‘Acting on a hunch, Mario ran in the dead of night to check the medieval city walls on the western side of the city. He discovered some large interlocking stones at the base of the walls, undoubtedly Etruscan, as well as the remains of an Etruscan gateway.’

 

Menci and Grifoni, who, at the time, were both town councillors, convinced the local council and the Tuscany’s department of archaeological heritage to fund excavations in the Cassero area. Work started in 1989 and the digs confirmed Menci and Grifoni’s assertions. The foundations of an Etruscan settlement were unearthed right at the medieval heart of Castiglion Fiorentino, and these included the remains of three temples dating from the sixth, fourth and second centuries BCE. Today, these excavated Etruscan remains have been made accessible to visitors, and one can witness the Etruscans’ grasp of technology through ingenious artefacts such as the small terracotta skylight that could be opened conveniently from the ground by a rope mechanism.

Part of the reconstructed Etruscan temple roof decorated with stylised terracotta lions and polychromatic designs.

 

The museum that flanks the Etruscan digs displays a rich, well-explained collection of Etruscan items. The masterpiece is the sublimely reassembled terracotta temple roof, complete with lion heads and a mischievous Gorgon, who has been defiantly sticking out its tongue for more than two millennia. The roof is decorated with delicate red and green stylised patterns. The museum also houses pieces of an aqueduct—a brilliant example of Etruscan engineering that was discovered after the main dig, which used to siphon water from the nearby hills down to the valley and up to the town.

 

The foundations of the Etruscan settlement unearthed in the Cassero area of Castiglion Fiorentino, now part of the archaeological museum complex. 

 

Castiglion Fiorentino seems to be a mystery magnet. Between the Etruscan era and the Middle Ages, there is a large gap in archaeological finds. The most common explanation is that the settlement lay abandoned during Roman times, only to be rebuilt during the early medieval period. Such mysteries are the bread and butter of Mario Menci and Danilo Grifoni, who, together with their enthusiastic friends of the GAV, are determined to unravel the mysteries that shroud their hometown’s past.

 

Castiglion Fiorentino and the hills beyond seen from across the Val di Chio.

 

Richard Zahra is a freelance travel writer whose features have been published in magazines across the globe. His deep-rooted affection for Tuscany has spurred him to write about the region’s history, cuisine and noble wines. Richard has family ties in Italy and is also a fluent Italian speaker. Visit http://richardzahra.weebly.com/ for more information or contact him at richardzahra2006@yahoo.com.

 

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