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A Persistent Nationality
by [?]

Standing to-day before the dim outline of Orcagna’s “Hell” in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, at Florence, and mentally comparing those mediaeval demons and monsters and torturers on the frescoed wall in front of me with the more antique Etruscan devils and tormentors pictured centuries earlier on the ancient tombs of Etrurian princes, the thought, which had often occurred to me before, how essentially similar were the Tuscan intellect and Tuscan art in all ages, forced itself upon me once more at a flash with an irresistible burst of internal conviction. The identity of old and new seemed to stand confessed. Etruria throughout has been one and the same; and it is almost impossible for any one to over-estimate the influence of the powerful, but gloomy, Etruscan character upon the whole tone, not only of popular Christianity, but of that modern civilisation which is its offspring and outcome.

I suppose it is hardly necessary, “in this age of enlightenment” (as people used to say in the last century), to insist any longer upon the obvious fact that conquest and absorption do not in any way mean extermination. Most people still vaguely fancy to themselves, to be sure, that, when Rome conquered and absorbed Etruria, the ancient Etruscan ceased at once to exist–was swallowed, as it were, and became forthwith, in some mysterious way, first a Roman, and then a modern Italian. And, in a certain sense, this is, no doubt, more or less true; but that sense is decidedly not the genealogical one. Manners change, but blood persists. The Tuscan people went on living and marrying under consul and emperor just as they had done under lar and lucumo; Latin and Gaul, Lombard and Goth, mingled with them in time, but did not efface them; and I do not doubt that the vast mass of the population of Tuscany at the present day is still of preponderatingly Etruscan blood, though qualified, of course (and perhaps improved), by many Italic, Celtic, and Teutonic elements.

Again, when we remember that Florence, Pisa, Siena, Perugia are all practically in Tuscany, and that Florence alone has really given to the world Dante and Boccaccio, Galileo and Savonarola, Cimabue and Giotto, Botticelli and Fra Angelico, Donatello and Ghiberti, Michael Angelo and Raffael, Leonardo da Vinci and Macchiavelli and Alfieri, and a host of other almost equally great names, it will be obvious to every one that the problem of the origin of this Tuscan nationality must be one that profoundly interests the whole world. Nay, more, we must remember, too, that Etruria had other and earlier claims than these; that it spread up to the very walls of Rome; that the Etruscan element in Rome itself was immensely strong; that the Roman religion owed, confessedly, much to Tuscan ideas; that Latin Christianity, the Christianity of all the Western world, took its shape in semi-Tuscan Rome; that the Roman Empire was largely modelled by the Etruscan Maecenas; that the Italian renaissance was largely influenced by the Florentine Medici; that Leo the Tenth was himself a member of that great house; and that the artists whom he summoned to the metropolis to erect St. Peter’s and to beautify the Vatican were, almost all of them, Florentines by birth, training, or domicile. I think, when we have run over mentally these and ten thousand other like facts, we will readily admit to ourselves the magnitude of the world’s debt to Tuscany–social, artistic, intellectual, religious–both in ancient, mediaeval, and modern times.

And what, now, was this strong Tuscan nationality, which persists so thoroughly through all external historical changes, and which has contributed so large and so marvellous a part to the world’s thought and the world’s culture? It is a curious consideration for those who talk so glibly, about the enormous natural superiority of the Aryan race, that the ancient Etruscans were the one people of the antique European world, who, by common consent, did not belong to the Aryan family. They were strangers in the land, or, rather, perhaps they were its oldest possessors. Their language, their physique, their creed, their art, all point to a wholly different origin from the Aryans. I am not going, in a brief essay like this, to settle dogmatically, off-hand, the vexed question of the origin and affinities of the Etruscan type; more nonsense, I suppose, has been talked and written upon that occult subject by learned men than even learned men have ever poured forth upon any other sublunary topic; but one thing at least, I take it, is absolutely certain amid the conflicting theories of ingenious theorists about the Etruscan race, and that one thing is that the Rasennae stand in Europe absolutely alone, the sole representatives of some ancient and elsewhere exterminated stock, surviving only in Tuscany itself, and in the Rhaetian Alps of the Canton Grisons.