Exploring Abruzzo’s Antiquities

A great part of Abruzzo’s charm is that it’s pottered along quietly and unremarkably since its first traces of human habitation in the Neolithic era some 6000 years ago.

In the intervening period, there hasn’t been a Medici family – as there was in Florence – to drag Abruzzo to prominence and riches. No Doge overseeing a vast merchant fleet which would enable it to rule global commerce as there was in Venice. No great centre of Christianity as there was in Rome. No financial or industrial complexes as there were in Milan and Turin. No great natural wonder like Vesuvius brooding over the landscape as there was in Naples. No battlefields like Hastings, Saratoga, Waterloo, or Stalingrad that have shaped world history.

But tucked away in Chieti, because trumpeting its presence would somehow go against the regional grain, Abruzzo has quietly assembled a record of its past which is so astonishingly good, and so accessible and well-presented that it really does deserve to be far more widely-known than it currently is.

The National Archeological Museum of Abruzzo is housed in the Villa Frigerj – an imposing and splendid neo-classical structure commissioned by Baron Ferrante Frigerj in the early part of the 19th century, which has been the Museum’s home since 1959.

It’s set in a small park not far from the Piazza Trento e Trieste, which itself sits at the head of of Chieti’s main drag, the Corso Marrucino. Seek and you’ll find.

And what’s so good about the Museum ? Despite its grandiose title, it’s comparatively small. A comfortable couple of hours or so will allow you to see everything at your own pace.

Exhibits are extremely well-presented in the Villa Frigerj’s delightful interior; clearly labelled and explained in both Italian and English; and housed in a series of rooms, which gives the Museum a far more intimate and personal feel than the vast echoing galleries of larger displays.

The Capestrano Warrior

The star exhibit, given a room to itself just inside the front entrance is the iconic Capestrano Warrior.

The Capestrano Warrior

The Capestrano Warrior. Standing some seven feet tall, this magnificent and atmospherically-presented statue, thought to be of a local chieftain, was carved around 2600 years ago.

 

Featured on everything from wine labels to tea towels, the Warrior is the most famous symbol of Abruzzo’s past.

Dated back to around 600BC, this extraordinarily imposing, 2-metre statue was unearthed, intact and virtually unscathed, by a farm labourer doing a spot of ploughing outside the town of Capestrano near L’Aquila in 1934.

It’s superbly presented here. Atmospherically-lit and with no bars or barriers to prevent close inspection. The statue does of course have security, but it’s so subtle that it’ll only be when you stretch out a hand to touch; or lean-in a little too closely, that you’ll break infra-red beams triggering an alarm. Which’ll bring an attendant scurrying in to admonish you. Flash photography has the same result…

Detail of the Capestrano Warrior

Detail of the Capestrano Warrior, showing his sword and ‘disc’ armour protecting his chest.

 

The statue is popularly held to be that of a heavily-armed chieftain. You can read a lot more about its discovery and the interpretation of its armour and weaponry – and the inscriptions on the plinth on which the statue stands – in this extremely well-written account.

It’s by Joe Basile, who’s Assistant Professor of Art History at the Maryland College of Art in the USA, and although this is an academic paper, it’s very readable and provides a fascinating insight into who the Capestrano Warrior might have been and the wider significance of his discovery.

Elsewhere, the Museum covers Abruzzo’s Roman and pre-Roman past, when a tribe called the Samnites – together with various local subdivisions – were predominant before being absorbed by the Roman Empire in around the 4th century BC. Many of the exhibits come from lavishly-appointed Samnite tombs and with excavations all over the region very much still ongoing, more treasures are being regularly discovered.

Most notable of these is this beautifully-preserved bronze eagle which will have been carried – rather like a regimental flag – on marches and into battle at the head of a Roman Legion.

Bronze Roman eagle

Wonderfully preserved and beautifully-made bronze Roman eagle, discovered only in 2014 at the excavations of Amiternum, near L’Aquila.

 

This was unearthed earlier in 2014 close to the Roman theatre in Amiternum, near L’Aquila, which I featured in my recent blog about Abruzzo’s Roman past.

The National Archeological Museum of Abruzzo in Chieti is open daily from Tuesday to Sunday from 0900-2000. Entry price in 2014 was €4.

And one little tip: Bearing in mind the Museum doesn’t close at lunchtime, the best time to visit is – at lunchtime ! You’ll find that between 1300-1500, you’ll have the place pretty much to yourselves. At other times, it can get busy – especially with school visits during term-time.

Whatever Happened To The Samnites ?

In common with many peoples throughout history conquered by invaders, the Samnites didn’t take too kindly to Roman occupation and for some four hundred years they were a constant irritant. A thorn in Rome’s imperial side. In 82BC, Rome’s patience finally ran out. Initially, the tribe and its allies were comprehensively beaten in battle. Some of the Samnite people were then forcibly resettled in other parts of the Roman Empire. But most, chillingly, were ethnically cleansed.

In the wake of this, the Samnites literally disappear from history.

Some of the Museum’s Treasures…

Samnite death bed

A death-bed found in a Samnite tomb excavation.These beds were specially-made for burials from the bones of cattle and horses, which were also specially-bred for this purpose. Intricately carved in the finest detail, the beds would have been the final resting place of Samnite nobility.

Detail from a Samnite death-bed

A wonderful example of the superb carvings found on Samnite death-beds. Note the tiny images around the face

 

Detail from the pillow area of the Samnite death-bed

Another detail of the Samnite death-bed. This is from the part of the bed where the head of a Samnite noble would have rested.

 

Pottery and glass beads from a Samnite tomb

Beautifully-decorated pottery and glass beads – thought to be part of a necklace – from a Samnite tomb

 

A Roman coin with the head of Mercury

A coin from the Roman era, featuring the head of the god Mercury.

 

The head of Hercules

The head of the hero Hercules, whose huge, imposing statue is in the Museum

 

Samnite figurine

A tiny bronze Samnite figurine some 4 inches tall.

 

An Etruscan bowl

Detail on an Etruscan bowl. The Etruscans lived in what is modern-day Tuscany and between 400-700BC were the predominant power in the Italian peninsular immediately before the Romans. The black background – and rich decorations – on this bowl are a typical feature on Etruscan pottery.

 

 

 

 


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