History Files



Italy Rediscovers Greek Heritage

by David Willey, BBC News, 21 June 2005



A world-class archaeological exhibition opened this week in Calabria, in the toe of Italy.

Its subject is Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece - the name given to parts of Southern Italy colonised by the Ancient Greeks 2,500 years ago.

The migrations of modern Europe are nothing new.

But for the Ancient Greeks, Southern Italy was their America.

Long before the Roman Empire flourished, they sailed west in search of new lands.

They settled around the hospitable coastline of Calabria and Sicily, dominating local tribes, building huge temples to their gods and founding Greek-speaking colonies.

However, their cities and culture were later destroyed by the Romans. Only very recently have archaeologists been able to reconstruct their history.

It is a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces still missing.

Ancient treasures

Salvatore Settis of the University of Pisa, one of Italy's leading archaeologists, has brought together in Catanzaro, Calabria's regional capital, more than 800 pieces of sculpture in marble and terracotta from Magna Graecia.

They were originally dug up or recovered from the sea all around the coasts of Southern Italy, but are now scattered in museums and private collections around Europe.

There are also gold and silver coins, ancient maps, books, inscriptions and Greek vases, as well as portrait busts and votive offerings to Greek gods whose shrines once dotted the Italian landscape.

Some of Europe's finest Greek temples are still to be seen at Paestum, south of Naples.

The area around them has delivered up some stunning archaeological discoveries, including wall paintings, elaborate bronze containers for honey, wine and oil, and inscriptions which provide important clues about this now almost vanished world.

Two large sheets of bronze, known as the Tablets of Heraclea, dug up in 1732 and now in the Naples museum, are also on show in Catanzaro.

They bear ancient inscriptions on one side in Greek and, on the other, a text dating from several hundred years later in Latin.

They provided some of the first documentary evidence about the lives of the Greek-speaking ancient inhabitants of this part of the Mediterranean.

Regeneration hopes

Mr Settis told me that as a native of Calabria, he had first become fascinated by an unexpected legacy of Magna Graecia - the large number of ancient Greek words that have survived more than 2,000 years in his local dialect.

"It was English aristocrats who first became infatuated with the Greek sculptures dug up in Southern Italy in the late eighteenth century.

Map of Magna Graecia
Magna Graecia
  • Greek settlers arrived in eighth century BC
  • Founded colonies among small coastal settlements
  • Built an important centre of Greek civilisation
  • Cities began to decline after fifth Century

"Your consul in Naples, Sir William Hamilton, was one of the first serious collectors of Greek art from Italy," Mr Settis said.

"Italian archaeologists and collectors began to get interested during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The memory of this long-forgotten world is now being resurrected."

Catanzaro, situated right down in the toe of Italy, is a rather dull and ugly provincial capital built on two sides of a deep gorge, and does not normally figure on Italian art city tours.

However, the local authorities are hoping that foreign visitors who come to visit the new exhibition may also be interested in seeing the recently uncovered remains nearby of the city of Scolacium.

That was the city the Romans built when they conquered Magna Graecia, and founded their colonies on the ruins of former Greek settlements.

The house of a former big landowner has been converted into a small museum with some fine pieces of Roman sculpture on show, dug up during recent excavations.



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