The protagonist of Ingrid D. Rowland's tale of forgery in 17th-century Tuscany is a privileged and erudite young man, Curzio Inghirami (1614-55), who concocted, concealed, "discovered" and consistently defended a series of Latin texts laced with Etruscan. They were preserved in capsules of mud and hair mysteriously christened "scarith" (singular and plural) and had supposedly been written by one Prospero of Fiesole, an Etruscan student priest, while he was guarding the remote citadel of Scornello on the Inghirami estate south of Volterra.
The texts reveal parallels between Etruscan religious beliefs and Catholic (but not Calvinist) doctrine; they demonstrate foreknowledge of the birth of a Great King ("after whom the years shall be numbered"); and they display an unexpected degree of Etruscan expertise in astronomy that could be tested by Galileo's newly invented telescope. There is much more besides, and Prospero also tells us when he is writing and why most of his texts are in Latin: "the Etruscan language has almost disappeared", and he is recording his culture because it is being extinguished by the Romans - specifically, in his part of Etruria, by the army that Cicero had unleashed against Catiline, his unsuccessful and aggrieved rival in the consular election of 64BC.
Although Prospero's view of late Etruscan history from the inside was understandably attractive to educated Tuscans, local debate soon raised the question of authenticity. In Volterra, Pisa and Florence, Inghirami defended his forgeries with wit, exemplary manners and conspicuous learning so successfully that an influential uncle (with an agenda of his own) was able to secure permission for him to publish the collected scarith texts as Ethruscarum Antiquitatum Fragmenta (Florence, 1636). This brought Inghirami's material to the attention of scholars in Barberini Rome, who (as Galileo, another Tuscan, had recently found) were distinctly less courtly than the gentlemen of Tuscany. As Inghirami's critics in Rome grew in number and stature, his allies at home continued to include the highest ranks of the Grand Duke's court in Florence: after all, inter-state rivalry transcended mere scholarly considerations.
A decisive blow came in 1640 with 200 pages of Animadversiones by Leone Allacci, a learned Greek based in the Vatican library: he likened Inghirami's Fragmenta to "a new Augean stable" (that is, dung), and gave good reasons for the comparison. After this, interest in the scarith and their contents waned rapidly in the outside world. Patriotic Tuscan antiquarians persisted in accepting the authenticity of the texts published in Inghirami's Fragmenta for many years (and their confidence may even have been shared by the thieves who stole the scarith from the Inghirami villa as recently as 1985). Meanwhile, Inghirami himself was happily liberated from the study and practice of law that his family had intended for him. He continued his preferred activities as a historian of Volterra for the rest of his life; his researches were based on an impressive range of forged documents from Roman and later times.
With consummate skill and learning, Rowland has used this sometimes hilarious but always engrossing story to anatomise a fascinating period in Italian cultural politics.
Her lucid and accessible narrative also shows how the animated discussion of the contents of Inghirami's scarith helped to stimulate the genuine investigation of Etruscan civilisation that is still in progress today.
For anyone with Etruscan or 17th-century Tuscan interests, reading this elegant book should have the beneficial effect of drinking a glass of the best Chianti.
And it is good to learn from a footnote that we have the rest of the bottle to look forward to: Rowland's forthcoming History of Etruscan Studies 1450-1750 .
David Ridgway is associate fellow, Institute of Classical Studies, University of London.
The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery
Author - Ingrid D. Rowland
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 230
Price - £16.00
ISBN - 0 226 73036 0