Fanum Voltumnae

Fanum Voltumnae

The Fanum Voltumnae, or shrine of Voltumna, was the chief sanctuary of the Etruscans: "fanum" means a sacred place, a much broader notion than a single temple. [Cf. "temenos".] Numerous sources refer to a league of the “Twelve Peoples” ("lucumonies") of Etruria, formed for religious purposes but evidently having some political functions. The Etruscan league of twelve city-states met annually at the Fanum, located in a place chosen as omphalos (sacred navel), the geographical and spiritual centre of the whole Etruscan nation. Each spring political and religious leaders from the cities would meet to discuss military campaigns and civic affairs and pray to their common gods. Chief amongst these was Voltumna (or Veltha), god of the underworld.

Roman historian Titus Livius mentioned the Fanum Voltumnae five times in his works [Livy, "Ab Urbe condita," IV, 23, 25, 61; V, 17, VI, 2. The events are referred, respectively to the years 434, 433, 405, 397 and 389 BCE.] and indicated "Volsinii" as the place where the shrine was located. Modern historians have been looking for the Fanum from at least the fifteenth century but the precise location of the shrine is still unknown, though it may have been in an area near modern Orvieto, believed by many to be the ancient Volsinii. Livy describes the meetings that took place at the Fanum between Etruscan leaders. Livy refers in particular to a meeting in which two groups applied to assist the city of Veii in a war it was waging. The council's answer was no, because Veio had declared war without first notifying it. Livy also says that Roman merchants who travelled to a huge fair attached to the meeting acted as spies, reporting back on Etruscan affairs to authorities in the city-state of Rome. He was alone in mentioning the god Voltumna, whereas Marcus Terentius Varro indicated a god-prince of Etruria. That the Fanum was somewhere in Central Italy in the area between Orvieto and Viterbo is probable enough, but as Titus Livius has given no clue to its locality, and as no inscriptions have thrown light on the subject, it can be but pure conjecture to assign to it this or that particular site.



A mostly credited hypothesis places the shrine in Orvieto. In the late nineteenth-century archaeologists uncovered parts of the walls and found large quantities of earthenware, and in 1930s the archeologist Geralberto Buccolini set forth the hypothesis, based on these finds, that the Fanum was situated at the foot of Orvieto's tuff [ [ Francesco Scanagatta, "Orvieto: emerge dagli scavi il Fanum Voltumnae"] 22 August 2007.] In particular, the Temple of Belvedere was discovered and identified as the Temple of Nortia. In September 2006, Simonetta Stopponi [] , professor of Italic Archaeology and Etruscology at Macerata University (Italy), after extensive digs (begun in 2000 and financed by the Monte dei Paschi di Siena Bank, with ministerial permission [] ) at a site near the hill town of Orvieto (esplanade Arcone, former Campo della Fiera, podere Giardino della Regina) announced that the site at the feet of the Umbrian town probably was the location of the Fanum Voltumnae. "It has all the characteristics of a very important shrine, and of that shrine in particular" she said. Listing some of those characteristics, she mentioned "the scale of the construction, its intricate structure and layout, the presence of wells and fountains and the central temple building". Structures of various periods have been identified, distributed over a very large area (a retaining wall in polygonal masonry, a paved street, etc.), and many fragments of architectural terracottas have been recovered (among which are some similar to those in Berlin), datable from Late Archaic period to Hellenistic times. Also supporting the claim that this is the Fanum Voltumnae is the fact that the area was used continuously for religious purposes right from the 6th century BC up to the 15th century. Roman temples were built on it in later centuries and the last church was erected there in the 12th century.


Some modern scholars have hypothesized the ubication of Fanum Voltumnae at Bagnoregio (probably on the hill of Civita di Bagnoregio), past possession of Orvieto and Etruscan walled town.


Before the discoveries of the Orvieto area, the archaeological site of Guado Cinto, a necropolis including the "Tomb of the Queen" near Tuscania, was one of the most credited location of Fanum Voltumnae.


A hypothesis, presented by Mario Signorelli, an Italian music teacher who identified in the 1950s the sacred wood of the Etruscans in the peripheral area of Viterbo named "Riello". This area was central to the sacred wood, protected by four guardian towns which prevented it from being disclosed to the profane. The four towns were: Ferente (i.e. Ferento [] ), Axia (i.e. Castel d'Asso), Vrcle (Orcla, the centre of today's Norchia), Luserna (i.e. Musarna). The works of Signorelli followed the writings of the fifteenth-century forger Annio da Viterbo, who devoted his life to collecting legends and traditions ascribed to the Etruscans, and to inventing documents to support his histories.

Viterbo's heraldic badges are surrounded by the letters FAVL (read as FAUL), which appear like a ciphered globe. It is unclear what they refer to, but some claim that they are the initials of the guardian towns and some others that they are in reference to the initial syllables of Fanum Voltumnae. The latter was affirmed in the nineteenth century by Francesco Orioli, who also surmised that the Viterbo Cathedral was built on the site of the Fanum, in the Roman settlement Castrum Herculis. Viterbo, inasmuch as it contains a church named Santa Maria in Volturna, may be considered as having some claims to the Fanum.


Annio of Viterbo, in his 17 volumes of "Antiquities" (published in 1498) attributed the foundation of the Etruscan Fanum to the ancient population known as Falisci (allies of the Etruscans, along with Capenati, at the time of the wars between Rome and Veii, 406-396 BC). The town Montefiascone was named after them ("Mons Faliscorum", that is, Mountain of the Falisci). The British explorer George Dennis, though without any documentary evidence, supported Montefiascone as the sacred site where the states of the Etruscan league met periodically to discuss military and political affairs and choose a "lucumo" (the equivalent of "Pontifex Maximus").


In 1976 and 1977, Danish excavations were carried out at "Monte Becco", in the area of Valentano (Ridgway, 1979-1980). Traces of the Etruscan presence, including walls, bronze tools, and roof tiles were found during the study mission. One of the tiles was found to be incised with all the characters of the Etruscan alphabet. This site has been also indicated as one of the possible locations of the Fanum.

an Lorenzo Nuovo

A more recent hypothesis (Pelosi and Fortunati, 1998) suggests that the federal shrine of the Etruscans was located to the northern coast of Lake Bolsena, in a place known as "Civita di Grotte di Castro", a plain area close to the church of San Giovanni in Val di Lago (currently in the commune of San Lorenzo Nuovo). This hypothesis (also supported by Luigi Catena, "Corriere di Viterbo", September 6, 2006 [] ) comes out of studies about the so-called "Rescritto di Spello" (Coarelli, 2001), issued by emperor Constantine I in a date between 333 and 337 AD to authorize the Umbrians' annual celebration, independently on the Etruscans. It is said in the document that the annual Etruscan feast ("concilium principum Etruriae") was celebrated in "Volsinios", including games and combats of gladiators, and election of the federal "sacerdos". The document dates 4th century AD, thus the geographical indication in it can only refer to "Volsinii Novi", i.e. Bolsena, and not to Velzna (Latinized to "Volsinii Veteres", currently Orvieto), the town the Romans had conquered and destroyed more than five centuries earlier (in the words of the medieval Byzantine writer Zonara, "Epitome storica", 8, 7, 4-8). New light is being brought into this area by British and Danish studies (Francesco Barbano, "Il Messaggero", October 11, 2007 [] ).

Island Bisentina

Within Lake Bolsena, the Island Bisentina is also regarded as a sacred isle of the Etruscans, possible site for the Fanum and gate to the underground world of Agharti. Italian television program [ Voyager] (October 1st, 2003) supported this hypothesis, suggesting for the Etruscans a parallelism to the Incas populations, who had also chosen one of Lake Titicaca's islands as their omphalos.


In "Geografia sacra", Giovanni Feo (professor at [ Department of Paleography and Medieval Studies] , University of Bologna, Italy) presents his studies conducted over the Fiora River valley, in the comune of Pitigliano ("Corriere di Viterbo", April 2, 2007 [] ). A set of megalithic relics with astronomic functions was found out here, along with engraved rocky structures for cultural use. Such discoveries testify of the existence of a sacred area, originally developed by a pre-etruscan civilization settled down near to Lake Bolsena and later elected by the Etruscans as their religious centre.Giovanni Feo also pointed out the borders of this sacred area, which delimited the Fanum, divided into four parts centered around the intersection point between the earth and heaven gods.


In the comune of Farnese, deep in the [ "Selva del Lamone"] , location [
] is assumed to get its name from the sacred temple dedicated to Voltumna. The Voltone is surrounded by numerous archaeological sites, such as Sovana, Castro, Vulci, and Tarquinia which testify the culture of the Etruscans.


*Coarelli Filippo, "Il rescritto di Spello e il santuario ‘etnico’ degli umbri, Umbria Cristiana. Dalla Diffusione del culto al culto dei santi (secc. iv-x)," "Atti del xv Congresso internazionale di studi sull’alto medioevo," Spoleto 23-28 ottobre 2000, Spoleto, 2001, 737-747.
*Feo Giovanni, "Geografia sacra", Stampa Alternativa, 2006.
*Ligota Christopher R., "Annius of Viterbo and Historical Method," "Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes", 50, 1987, 44-56.
*Pelosi Tonino, Fortunati Fabio, "Ipotesi sul "Fanum Voltumnae"… l’ultimo, grande mistero degli Etruschi," Bolsena, 1998.
*Ridgway David, "Archaeology in Sardinia and Etruria, 1974-1979." "Archaeological Reports" 26 1979 - 1980, 54-70.
*Signorelli Mario, "Le vie segrete degli Etruschi," Milano, SugarCo Editore, 1973.
*Signorelli Mario, "Nel mondo allucinante degli Etruschi", SugarCo Editore, 1977.
*Signorelli Mario, "Sui sentieri dei Lucumoni Etruschi", Viterbo, Quatrini, 1966.


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