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Lake of Idols

Over two thousand six hundred years ago, the Etruscans started to throw their offerings into a lake, over 1000 metres a.s.l. on Monte Falterona, near to what are now unanimously considered the sources of the Arno river.

The small lake, which was dried in 1838 to carry out archeological diggings, revealed votive offerings which, as far as we know, are justly considered the richest find ever to be discovered. The most representative of the Etruscan offerings were the (over 600) bronze human sculptures, of which the origins of only about twenty pieces have been identified.

Photo: G.A.C.

The importance of these manufactured articles, from the historic and artistic points of view and on account of the figures portrayed, is also shown by the fact that these bronze figures can nowadays be found in major international Museums: the British Museum, the Louvre and the Walters Art Gallery of Baltimore.

Photo: G.A.C.
The Lake of Idols is about 1380 metres above sea level on the southern slope of Monte Falterona (1654 metres) near to the sources of the Arno, approximately 600 metres more to the noth-west (1358 metres).
In May 1838, a young shepherdess casually discovered a bronze statuette. In Stia, a company was formed by a group of local amateurs, who started a dig (1838-‘39).

A few days later, due to the formidable amount of excavated material, it was decided to dry the lake. A total of over 600 statuettes were found: whole human figures, torsoes, heads; all kinds of limbs and human organs (hands, arms, legs, feet, breasts and eyes) and animal figures (oxen, goats, sheep and horses); a "large basin"; thick chains; fibulae; a fragment of a bronze candelabrum; a coin with the effigy of Janus and other imperial coins; about 2000 arrow tips; pieces of rods, knives and swords in iron; various fragments of very rough ceramic and light terra-cotta and, perhaps, some whole vases.

These finds, initially kept at the home of Alessandro Beni, a well-known local scholar, were sold en bloc after the partners asked the Director of the Royal Galleries in Florence whether he was interested in purchasing them to no avail. Sold separately or in groups, in 1844 some pieces belonged to the Roman art-dealer Francesco Capranesi; others were ceded to the British Museum in 1847 and to the Louvre and one, lastly, to the Walters Art Gallery of Baltimore. The mystery shrouding this major discovery to date is once again of topical interest following on the news that part of the objects found are kept at the Hermitage of St. Petersburg.

From 1839 to date, the area was the destination of clandestine diggers. In 1971, five statuettes were found by chance. In 1972 a discovery test was conducted. Six statuettes were found together with a votive leg and a tiny kidney-shaped object, both in bronze.

Thanks to the Casentino Archeological Group, the bronze figures belonging to private collections were then found.

As to the widely debated origin of the lake, a hypothesis was recently formulated by a team of researchers and scholars of the Engineering Faculty of Florence University. Research, analyses and hydrogeological studies revealed that the lake originated from an underground spring capable of keeping up a constant flow of water. From research conducted, it turns out that the rocks in which the lake formed consist of layers of sandstone belonging to a "pseudo-doline". It therefore turns out that the Monte Falterona system is completely geologically unstable. Lake of Idols, instead, has remained an oasis of stability for centuries and, probably, this peculiarity was perceived in ancient times.

In fact, this out-of-the-way, unapproachable place of worship must have played a leading role in ancient times, as can be seen from the quantity and quality of objects discovered there, dating from the late VI century B.C. to Hellenism. The fact that the lake water was probably used for its healing qualities can be seen from the existence among the ex voto of human limbs and organs, animal figures symbolizing offerings in kind and figurines portrayed while praying or making donations to the gods. It is interesting to note that some are local, medium-quality products while others are top-quality.

The movement of merchandise, craftsmen and clients/followers is evident. This is highlighted by the existence in the votive offering of Hercle of Greek manufacture. It can be hypothsized that this offering was mainly associated with "soldiers" both on account of the statuette of Hercle (god connected to heroism and also to war) and that of the Warrior, not to mention the huge quantity of arrows. The Falterona offering appears to be the "chief place of pilgrimage", visited by followers from all over Etruria and the passageway between the Tuscan and Emilian Appenines.