The Italian Underground. And Overground.

Chiusi, a hill town in southern Tuscany, is about a half hour south of Montepulciano, not far from the A1 highway.

Chiusi, a hill town in southern Tuscany, a half hour south of Montepulciano, not far from the A1 highway.

To understand Italy, you have to get under its skin. Eighty to 100 feet should do the trick.

Beneath the cathedral in the hill town of Chiusi is a network of tunnels known as the Labyrinth of Porsenna. Here, before Christ and before the Romans, the Etruscans hollowed out an advanced public system that made naturally filtered water available to just about every home in town. About 500 B.C. or so, the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna was said to have been buried in the caves; hence the name. Chiusi fell to Roman general Cornelius Sulla in 89 B.C.; he destroyed Porsenna’s tomb and left nothing standing above ground.

But the tunnels remained under the rebuilt town, and they tell a story. Well, our guide, a trim, white-haired man with a skeletal face who rolled his own cigarettes, told us the story in perfect English. A nearby aquifer leached water through a natural conglomerate of stone, sand and soil deep in the ground. The Etruscans, seeing this in certain places, figured they could tunnel strategically and build wells and cisterns where the clean water collected (or could be directed).

It worked. Now, more than 2,300 years later, the coolness of the caves carries memories through a ghostly stillness. The narrow metal gangway disappears under your feet, and you expect to find an ancient worker around the hewn-out corner, mortaring a stone torch holder back into place. The silence makes room for time to reach forward to you.

But whatever we felt, all we really saw was a confused bat fluttering near the ceiling of an old cistern. The mortar in that vessel has not leaked, in either direction, since it was made. We all left wondering why someone had not analyzed a sample and made the once-and-for-all waterproof sealant for the ages. And then, with vague thoughts

of industrial espionage, information suppression and sunlit modernity, we climbed back to the surface.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photographs by Adam Barr and Joseph Barr

Our guide really isn't this stern. He was waiting for us all to quiet down so he could begin.

Our guide really isn’t this stern. He was waiting for us all to quiet down so he could begin.

Inside the great cistern, under the cathedral in Chiusi

Inside the great cistern, under the cathedral in Chiusi

Dumb as a stratum of rocks? The conglomerate of pebbles, sand, and soil on the tunnel ceiling cleaned the drinking water of the village for centuries.

Dumb as a stratum of rocks? The conglomerate of pebbles, sand, and soil on the tunnel ceiling cleaned the drinking water of the village for centuries.

Inside Chiusi's cathedral...

Inside Chiusi’s cathedral…

...and life outside.

…and life outside.

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