A pig shall come forth

John Bossy

  • The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery by Ingrid Rowland
    Chicago, 230 pp, £16.00, January 2005, ISBN 0 226 73036 0

What on earth, you ask, is a scarith? Well, it is a sort of mud-piecrust package, which may be tubular in shape, containing in various layers documents of immense antiquity. What language is the word from? Apparently from ancient Etruscan, or Hetruscan, if stories about the grandeur of the Tuscan kingdom up to the time of Lars Porsena of Clusium are to be believed. Since the Etruscan tongue has proved more resistant to decipherers than that of Minoan Crete, we have rather to take ‘scarith’ and its referent on trust; one thing we know about it is that its plural, which Ingrid Rowland has used in her title since she has a few of them to write about, is the same as its singular. She does not say if that is a general characteristic of the language, which if true might give Chomsky a problem. It seems likely that the unearthing of more Etruscan writings, and of a Rosetta Stone to translate them, will leave ‘scarith’, singular and plural, a hapax legomenon.

Scornello is plain enough, at least to those initiated in Tuscan topography: the Blairs might have spent a holiday there, though it sounds a bit Spartan for them. It is a hill a couple of miles south of the city of Volterra, which has plenty of Etruscan mementoes to show, including impressive walls, and has spent two millennia or so resenting the Roman conquest. On it, there is a large but simple house, descended from a castle built for a follower of the invading Saxon emperor Otto I in the ninth century. His line, under the Italianised name Inghirami, was still there in the 17th century, and is possibly there yet. Rowland has taken a nice photo of the house, and of other local sights; what she hasn’t done is give us a decent map of the area.

The villa at Scornello, being somewhat in the outback, was not the most popular of the seats of the Inghirami, and when we come on board their story, in the year 1634, the principal inhabitants were a youth of 19 called Curzio and a girl of 13 called Lucrezia. They were left much on their own, without a Henry-James-type governess, and since Curzio was a smart and well-read youth wanting to raise his profile in the family by getting publicly noticed, they were looking (or Curzio was) for some headline-hitting coup. One hot afternoon they took a boring walk down to the local river, and came back with the first of the scarith, pulled out from under some surface scrub. Inside the package appeared to be the last will and testament, in Latin, of a first-century BC Volterran called Prospero; he described himself as ‘guardian of the citadel’ and had buried the scarith as a Roman legion, pursuing the abettors of Catiline’s conspiracy, was about to bulldoze the fortification he commanded, put him to the sword, and set the place on fire.

Prospero’s text, signed and datable, consisted mostly of a prophecy about a dog, a wolf, a lamb and a pig: ‘A pig shall come forth from the horde of pigs, and shall devour the work of the dog.’ This would happen in the year 1624 from the birth of the King of the Jews, whose coming was predicted and after whom the years would be counted. Later, a dig in the area turned up a new scarith with a text in Latin and Etruscan, as could be verified by authentic if undecipherable Etruscan inscriptions surviving in Volterra; the Latin ones contained an autobiographical fragment from Prospero which explained why he had adopted the not yet invented Christian system of dating. He was, after all, a prophet. More digging produced more scarith and more of Prospero’s memoirs; it also produced a little tin goddess in a skirt, and what seemed to be a lamp. By 1636, when the number of scarith discovered had reached 109, the corpus was published by Inghirami in a grand folio volume perhaps paid for by the sovereign of Volterra, Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany.

Scarith continued to be fished up from the site, but Rowland loses interest in them. Her topic is now the scholarly argument in Tuscany, Rome and elsewhere about the authenticity of the discoveries and, rather more, the political interests drawn up on both sides. The scholarly debate, as readers may have anticipated, was settled in about five minutes; those who knew anything about Etruscan writings knew that they were written on linen cloth, not on the paper to which Prospero’s remains had been consigned, and particularly not on paper which bore the watermark of the state paper factory of the Grand Duchy. The more advanced of them knew that Etruscans wrote from right to left, which Curzio Inghirami did not.

So there is not much suspense about the story of the scarith: Inghirami put them there, which must have meant a great deal of work unless he got Lucrezia or the servants to do it; he also invented the word, which has a better chance of lodging in the dictionaries than the contents of the mud-pies. I am not one who holds that what matters is not whether the Turin Shroud is authentic, but the nuances of the frame of mind of those who promote it: let us have facts and non-facts. But there is a modest kilométrage in figuring out what the young Inghirami thought he was up to, and why the authenticity of his documents received some support. As anybody will suppose, and little Lucrezia could have told us, Curzio was having a joke: Rowland goes on rather about how his joke was a particularly Tuscan effort called a beffa, but I guess that the April fool is a pretty universal pleasure, and if we stick to Italy we shall find it vigorously cultivated by Giordano Bruno, who was a Neapolitan.

She also advances the not really compatible theory that Inghirami was pursuing a Kulturkampf between Tuscany and Rome. That Etruria had the more ancient culture, and that the Romans were murdering thugs, were lessons of the scarith that were not irrelevant to the state of affairs in 1634. Rowland reports, boringly, a phone conversation with a friend in which they instantly agree that the real issue in the argument about the scarith, such as it was, was the fate of Galileo, whose condemnation in Rome for maintaining the heliocentric system of the universe had occurred in 1633. It is just about plausible that with the prophecy contained in the first scarith Inghirami had fired a shot at the pope under whose auspices Galileo had been condemned, the renegade Florentine littérateur Maffeo Barberini, now Pope Urban VIII. It is more reasonable to imagine that the grand-ducal establishment of Tuscany was persuaded to support Inghirami’s discoveries as a way of backing up the claims of Tuscany to be the centre of learning in the peninsula, which had been undermined by the condemnation of Galileo for a conclusion in natural philosophy in which, it was understood, the pope himself believed.

This is the point at which Rowland leaves us. It catches the eye, but not for quite long enough. We all want to know about Galileo and his foolish condemnation, but the mud-pies do not have much to offer. One thing I should like to know is why a pair of patriotic Etruscan parents should call their nice daughter Lucrezia. I should also, since we are on the subject, suggest that Rowland spend a little more time migrating from her bread-and-butter intellectual and cultural topics to bone up on the traditional subjects of 17th-century European history. For somebody writing about 17th-century Rome, her notion of the Jesuits is bizarre: ‘wandering, stateless religious devotees’ my foot. Her assurance that the Society murdered a dissident member – ‘many an inconvenient Jesuit in those troubled times’ was similarly disposed of, apparently – is quite as much of a canard as any of Inghirami’s turn-ups. Her reference, if that is what it is, is to an article in a symposium published in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands by one of the dedicatees of the book, also the other party in the phone call about Galileo. I have not yet received my copy, so know nothing about the fate of the said dissident, one Melchior Inchofer; but if there is any truth in the grandiose claim I’ll eat my hat.