The Etruscan city of Tarkna (Tarquinii in Latin) was situated about ten kilometres inland from coastal Gravisca, its main port and a powerful emporium of the Mediterranean Sea. The Etruscan inhabitants developed and prospered in an ideal geographical location which dominated the underlying valley of the Marta River, an effluent of Lake Bolsena.
Tarchna, Corneto, Tarquinia
For centuries, this waterway, in addition to being navigable from the sea to the city, guaranteed contact with those living inland and greatly contributed to establishing Tarkna as a flourishing economic centre and a prominent political power. “Pian di Civita” is the name given to the plateau on which the renowned Etruscan city stood and for centuries played a dominant role in the political events unfolding in the Mediterranean. The plateau is separated from the coast by the long, parallel Monterozzi Hill, home to several historical necropolises. The earliest archaeological remains of human settlements in this area can be traced back to the late Bronze Age (12th century B.C.) However, beginning in the 8th century B.C., with increased contact with the Ancient Greek world and the onset of new technology and innovative cultural models, the process of urbantion was accentuated, elevating Tarquinia to the point of being considered “great and flourishing” by Dionigi Alicarnaso and “the richest of Etruria” by Cicerone. During the 6th century B.C. and into the first decade of the 5th century, Tarquinia reached its climax in terms of urbantion. This corresponds to a marked territorial expansion wherein Tarquinia dominated the lands as far as Lake Bolsena. This decade represents the apex of the Etruscan city whereby Tarquinia splendoured in all its glory – both politically and economically – the evidence of which can be verified in the development of the Necropolis. Between the 5th and the beginning of the 4th century B.C. great imposing walls, running about 8km in length, began to be constructed, enclosing an area of about 135 hectares in order to defend the city against the Celts in their descent from the North and from Rome as they began their expansion southward. The growing hostility between Tarquinia, who presided over the league of Etruscan cities, and Rome erupted in fighting between 358 and 351 B.C. ending with a 40-year truce. In 308 B.C. the skirmishes began anew and another 40-year truce was declared. During the first half of the 3rd century B.C. Tarquinia was finally defeated by Rome, who then occupied its coastlines. The two cities maintained good relations and in fact, Livy wrote how, in 205 B.C., Tarquinia furnished the linen cloth to make the sails for Scipio’s ships which were used in the African expedition during the Second Punic War. In 181 B.C. at the site of the ancient Etruscan port of Gravisca, Rome founded a maritime colony. After 90 B.C. the former Etruscans acquired the right to become Roman citizens and Tarquinia became a Roman municipality governed by a college of four magistrates. During the latter years of the Roman Empire, decline became relentless and at the height of the Middle Ages, the plateau of the city was slowly abandoned. In the 8th century A.D. the seat of the Church was transferred near Corneto and the Civita was then completely forsaken.
The actual city of Tarquinia, from the time it was founded until the end of the last century was known as Corneto. From 1872 it was referred to as Corneto-Tarquinia and from 1922 as simply “Tarquinia”. The origins of the name seem to stem from the abundant presence of a native plant known as corniolo or cornel tree (Corgnitum). References to the city of Corneto were cited in a text dating from the 8th century A.D. found in the Abbey of Farfa. Other ancient traditions suggest that the name derives from the mythical King Corito who was its founder and a forefather of Aeneas. Even today, the precise origins of the city have not yet been determined. It is clear, however, that the urban development of Corneto was not the consequence of a drastic or traumatic abandonment of the ancient city of Tarquinia. On the contrary, historical sources cite that at least until the 4th century A.D., the two urban centres co-existed. Even though Tarquinia was considered more important, being the seat of the Diocese until the 4th century, it progressively gave way to the rise of Corneto. The first settlement developed along Castle Ridge (6th-7th century), which was probably built on the ruins of a pre-existing Roman site. It was here that a fortified palace was constructed around a pre-existing tower and in 1080 the countess, Matilda of Canossa passed judgement there, wielding pontific power. This site is where the present day Church of Saint Mary lies and it appears to have substituted a pre-existing Santa Maria ad rupes which was probably a palatine chapel. Shortly after the initial establishment of the castle, a small suburb began to grow quickly, expanding to such an extent that the inhabitants felt the necessity to construct a fortified wall surrounding the castle settlement for protection (9th-10th century). Remains of the wall can still be seen at various points along the former perimeter, which excluded the eastern part of the present day borgo (Castro Novo) and was further developed between the 13th and 14th centuries. The original wall extended from Castle Ridge, continued towards what is now Piazza Cavour, turned into Via Vittorio Emanuele II, headed towards the road known as Alberata Dante Alighieri and reached the steep slope of Belvedere, the scenic viewpoint. Corneto became a “Civitas” in the 11th century (as cited in an official document of Pope Sergio IV) but had previously already gravitated towards the realm considered Patrimony of Saint Peter’s since the end of 787. The rise of Corneto to becoming a political and economic power manifested itself in the 12th century as documented in stipulated trade agreements with Pisa, Genova and Venice; this was due to the city’s ideal location near the sea and the Marta and Mignone Rivers, which were navigable and along which were situated many important ports and harbours. By the middle of the 12th century Corneto was a free municipality and for this reason became a viable rival of Tuscania and Viterbo which were limited by their inland locations. In the 13th century the city consolidated its juridical status binding itself ever more closely to Rome. In fact, Rome was considered their greatest purchaser of grains and cereals, for which Corneto was known as the horreum urbis (the Granary of Rome). Significant changes began to occur between the 14th and 15th centuries when the city became involved in the struggles between Rome and the Papacy. In 1328 M. Vitelleschi came into power with the intention of creating an independent dominion. However his efforts were thwarted due to a popular revolt after only two years. Between the 15th and 16th centuries, the population began to dwindle consistently. This coincided with the consolidation of power obtained by the Vitelleschi family and with the continuous meddling of the Church which resulted in the siege and looting of the city in 1355. The papal troops responsible for the destruction were led by E. Albornoz and G. Orsini. In 1435 Pope Eugenio IV, once again elevated Corneto to becoming the seat of the diocese or bishopric, christening the borgo – Saints Maria and Margherita. The presiding Bishop B. Vitelleschi then completely restructured the church in order to create a family chapel. In 1439, after the Tower of Matilda had been restored, a gateway or large door, fortified by a bayonet construction technique, was built. This addition, however, excluded the castle from the urban area and resulted in a rapid decline of the borgo. Between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, Corneto suffered the onslaught of two grave pestilences which reduced the population by one third. This marked the beginning of a long period of decadence that also took its toll on the architectural patrimony of the city. In the 18th century there were some attempts made to rebuild the Cornetan economy. Among these was a notable contribution made by Pope Clemente XII to elaborate the port from 1738-48 and thereafter, Pope Pio VII was able to install systems for extracting salt from the sea. At the end of the 18th century and again at the beginning of the 19th, the city was twice occupied by French troops – first by the revolutionists and then by Napoleon’s forces. In 1815 Corneto returned under the reign of the Church as a Papal State and remained so until 1870 when it was annexed by the Reign of Italy. The history of Corneto then became intricately linked with the development of Italy as a country.