If anyone in Rome understood the perils and profits Medici faced, it was Robert Hecht, a scion of the Hecht’s department store family. Hecht had studied the classics—the art, literature, and language of the ancient Mediterranean world—at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, served in the navy during World War II, and then bounced around Europe, first as an interpreter for war crimes investigators, and then briefly attending the University of Zurich. Hecht landed at the American Academy in Rome, lasting there as a fellow until 1949. Afterward he spent a year or so on Ischia, an island off Naples, studying the first Greek settlement in Italy. Most of all, the Baltimore native—a hard-drinking, antiquities-dealing gambler with a legendary temper—quickly figured out how to use his education to make money. With Rome as a base, he began gathering artifacts from across the Mediterranean and selling them to museums and collectors in Europe and the United States.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, Hecht had been practically alone at the top of the antiquities market, supplying hundreds of vases and coins to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, dozens of treasures to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including a solid gold Greek cup, and a pot by Euphronios and pieces of an Etruscan chariot to museums in Germany and Denmark. His fluent Italian, French, and German—not to mention a smattering of Modern Greek he’d picked up in his classical studies—allowed him to cut deals with merchants and collectors across Europe. Hecht and his American wife, Elizabeth, and their two daughters lived in an apartment on Rome’s Aventine Hill. Hecht enjoyed the expat life, playing tennis in Spain during the summer, skiing in the Alps in the winter, and partaking of abundant, inexpensive wine year-round. But he also enjoyed making money, and he knew that Italy’s soil would be a source of valuable antiquities for years to come.
Medici was just twenty-eight years old when he first met Hecht in the spring of 1967. Hecht was forty-seven and had a lot to teach the young dealer.
Hecht was traveling outside Italy when his wife called him to say that an antiquities middleman he knew had phoned to offer a good kylix wine cup that had just surfaced. His message also said that Hecht should be prepared to pay up. Hecht made a hasty return to Rome and arranged to meet the dealer on a street near the Capitoline Hill’s Campidoglio, the hilltop plaza designed by Michelangelo, where city hall overlooks the ruins of the Roman Forum. Keenly aware that they shouldn’t be seen together, the middleman quickly sketched a pencil drawing of each side of the vase. The decoration of the kylix’s tondo—or round painting that covered the cup’s outer surface—was a forest of olive branches. An inscription indicated it was probably by the painter Skythes, who was, along with Euphronios, a pioneer of the red-figure style. Hecht was impressed, just from this pencil drawing, and authorized his buyer to pay up to 2.5 million lire, the equivalent of about $4,200, or more than $26,000 today in inflation-adjusted dollars.
But when Hecht’s contact tried to negotiate the purchase with the suppliers, another middleman stepped in and ruined the deal: Giacomo Medici, who bought the vase before Hecht could and sold it to one of his most loyal clients. When Hecht sent Medici a message that he would top whatever price Medici had gotten, Medici wasted no time betraying his regular customer. He concocted a story about the cops being after the cup, and he offered a refund. With the kylix back in his possession, Medici arranged his first meeting with Hecht.
It was past dark when Hecht’s middleman drove Medici to the rendezvous point in front of the hulking, stone Supreme Court building on the Lungotevere, the busy artery that runs along the Tiber River. They parked their car alongside Hecht’s, and Medici presented the cup. Hecht closed the deal with a flourish, asking Medici if he’d be happy with 2.2 million lire—700,000 lire more than Medici had paid for it.
Medici, showing little discretion, jumped for joy. “Si!” Medici had no idea how badly he’d been suckered.
Soon after, Hecht sold the cup to a chemist in Basel for 60,000 Swiss francs—the equivalent of 8.5 million lire. Hecht had tripled his money, earning $9,500. At the same time, the wily American opened Medici’s eyes to an important principle of the trade: selling a single, high-quality object can bring much higher profit than pushing an endless string of minor antiquities—and with much lower risk because a single sale is less likely to be discovered by the police than a series of sales.
About two months after the deal with Hecht, Medici’s trial for handling looted artifacts for his father finally ended. On July 6, 1967, the Rome court convicted him of receiving looted antiquities. A judge sentenced Giacomo to three months in jail and his father to four, but suspended their prison time because they had no previous convictions. Giacomo Medici had suffered an ordeal and earned a criminal record for pots that were little more than trinkets. If he were going to take such legal risks in the future, he would have to make it worth his while and deal in the good stuff instead—like Hecht did.
Hecht wasn’t just selling pots as a commodity. He was selling vases as masterpieces to collectors who could become obsessed. Their need to possess meant they would always eventually pay whatever Hecht asked. Seeing the light, “Giacomo Medici quickly turned into a faithful supplier,” Hecht later wrote in a journal entry that would come back to haunt him.
Joining the American dealer in the antiquities trade would be anything but safe. Even in an era of lax enforcement, Italian police and customs officials had their eyes on Hecht. As far back as 1961, Rome prosecutors had charged him with a series of offenses, including the undeclared import to Italy of a vase, ancient glass pieces, a Roman gold ring, and twenty-four collectible coins, and the illegal export of three statuettes from Italy to Switzerland.
The charges of smuggling to Switzerland (eventually dismissed in 1978, in part for lack of evidence) were particularly important, because they exposed how dealers moved the loot they’d bought from tomb robbers out of Italy and onto the international market. Switzerland, just over the border to the north, was the ideal first stop, because it lacked restrictions on selling antiquities. London and New York were the ultimate destinations, because that’s where the artifacts commanded the highest prices. There was almost no way to prove the loot had come from Italy because the Greek and Roman spheres of influence extended across what are now dozens of modern nations and their art can be buried in these territories and trade routes.
In some cases, proof of exact illicit origins did exist, even if it would take decades to surface. In 1968, Hecht made a small sale to Dietrich von Bothmer, the Met’s curator of Greek and Roman art. The sale, of a silver dollar-sized vase fragment, would later have big implications, not just for Hecht, but for Medici, the Met, and the newest major American repository for antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum.
As a sideline to his work at the Met, von Bothmer bought vase fragments for his own collection. Whereas museums wanted pots that were as intact as possible, the curator sought shards. They were puzzle pieces that might complete an unknown, broken vase at some later date, orphans that he cared for until they found their original homes. As he had learned from Sir John Beazley at Oxford, the fragments were also wonderful teaching tools for his students.
Von Bothmer bought this particular fragment from Hecht because of its pedigree. He could tell from its style and shape that it was probably from Euphronios’s workshop and formed part of a kylix wine chalice. The square-jawed curator was intimate with the details of every known pot either painted or potted by the master, and this orphaned fragment had no documented home. The cup to which it belonged had yet to surface (and it might not ever appear). He’d wait.
Von Bothmer scrawled a note on a bit of paper: “B.H. ’68.” He stuck the paper on the fragment and then filed the piece away in his office at the museum, along with the rest of the jetsam that jammed his bookshelves waiting to make sense.
For as long as humans have buried valuables in tombs, there have been tomb robbers. So it wasn’t long after the Etruscans buried their dead alongside masterpieces such as Euphronios’s Sarpedon krater and chalice that pillagers targeted the necropolises of Caere, the ancient city that would become modern Cerveteri. Later generations of Etruscans, followed by their conquerors, the Romans, stole from the burial grounds, mostly to obtain the precious metals buried there, leaving behind other materials. Under Roman rule the residents of Caere abandoned the ancient city and its mortuary monuments, which were left exposed to scavengers and the natural elements.
A thousand years later, the art of classical antiquity helped inspire the cultural reawakening of the Renaissance. The Italian painters and sculptors who brought Western art out of the Middle Ages drew upon the graceful human forms of Greek craftsmen and their Roman imitators. The flowering in Athens, of which Euphronios had been a part, gave birth in Tuscany—the land of the Etruscans—to the flowering of the Renaissance and its leaders, from Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo.
From the 1700s, treasure hunters again targeted the burial grounds. A century later, as modern archaeology began to develop as a discipline, the Cerveteri necropolis finally benefited from fully documented excavation. The results were a stunning sign of what can be learned about the past when an intact tomb is found, recorded, and its contents preserved as a single burial unit—each object in the context of the other.
On April 21, 1836, the archpriest of Cerveteri, Alessandro Regolini, and General Vincenzo Galassi uncovered a tomb that for two and a half millennia had evaded detection and pillage. Excavating under the authority of the pontifical government, the men found what’s known as a corridor tomb, for its arrangement along a single line, cut into the rock under a mound just behind Cerveteri’s old city. Inside they discovered two intact burials, one of a royal woman and another of a cremated man. They also found a third occupant, without his own burial chamber, on a bronze bed.
The burial goods the men cataloged included precious items made of gold and silver, decorated with miniature designs in a lost technique of metalworking, and everyday objects made of ivory, silver, and bronze, imported from elsewhere in the Mediterranean, including huge bronze urns and a set of silver jugs made in Phoenicia and Cyprus. The royal woman was wearing a gold breastplate embossed with a series of pictures, including a winged lion, a woman in a tunic, and grazing deer. Regolini and Galassi also found a chariot, ceramics, and, finally, sacred ornaments of various shapes and uses that gave evidence of the beliefs of the otherwise mysterious Etruscans.
Taken together, the contents of the tomb exposed a range of information, from trade routes and religion to gender roles and local artistic abilities. If such a tomb were found today and excavated with modern methods and lab work, it would yield even more information, including data about animal and vegetable remains buried in the tomb, and the health of the human occupants.
This one Cerveteri tomb found in 1836 remains one of the best tools for continuing to learn about the Etruscans. Instead of breaking up the find and shipping the finest pieces to various collectors and museums, as tomb robbers do, the archpriest and the general sent the tomb’s contents to Rome, where today they form the nucleus of the Vatican Museums’ Etruscan collection.
But once word got out that there was gold to be found in the burial mounds of Cerveteri, the unauthorized pillaging began and the chances of further reconstructing Etruscan life became harder. This enthusiasm to find buried treasure did bring to light the work of an artist whose name probably hadn’t been uttered since many centuries before the birth of Jesus: Euphronios.
Unheard since antiquity, the name Euphronios made its modern debut in 1828 in the ancient town of Vulci, north of Cerveteri. In that year, oxen plowing the land of Napoleon’s younger brother, Lucien Bonaparte, Prince of Canino, uncovered an Etruscan tomb. The prince took charge of the dig and quickly amassed a collection of thousands of antiquities, including two cups that bore Euphronios’s name as potter.
Euphronios’s vocation as a painter, however, wasn’t discovered until 1830, when a dig elsewhere on the Vulci property turned up a kylix wine cup portraying Heracles accomplishing his tenth labor: slaying Geryon, a three-bodied monster whose cattle the Greek hero needed to steal. One side of the cup’s outer surface shows the bloody confrontation, while the other bears a herd of cows drawn in fine, detailed lines. After failing to get high enough bids for the cup at auction in Paris in 1837, Prince Canino offered it on the London market in 1838 as part of a lot of 117 vases, two Etruscan candelabra, and a mirror, known as his Reserve Etrusque. But Canino’s asking price for the haul was 4,000 pounds sterling—more than anyone was willing to pay.
Finally, in 1841, the year after the Bonaparte prince died, King Ludwig I of Bavaria bought the cup, along with fifty others, at a spectacular auction in Frankfurt. It was the last time a Euphronios would be offered at public auction until the 1990 Hunt sale at Sotheby’s in New York. The Bavarian king’s purchase, the only vase known at the time to be painted by Euphronios, ended up in Munich’s state antiquities museum.
Soon three other vases with Euphronios’s signature as painter surfaced—this time at Cerveteri—in a collection that the Marchese Campana built by excavating on his landholdings between 1840 and 1848. One pot was a nearly complete krater for mixing wine and water; another was just an assortment of several fragments of what had once been a krater. Each portrayed Heracles. The Louvre bought both in 1861, and they remain at the Paris museum. Campana’s third signed vase painted by Euphronios was a psykter for cooling wine; it showed a scene of a symposium drinking party, including a picture of a reclining nude woman with kylix wine cup in hand. The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg bought that vase in 1862, and it has remained there ever since.
The fifth vase signed by Euphronios as painter—and the last to appear for nearly a century—turned up at the Acropolis in Athens during an excavation in 1882. This wine cup was the rare find of a Euphronios that actually stayed in the city where it was made, rather than being exported to Cerveteri or Vulci where the other four had been brought and then buried by Etruscans. Only a few fragments remained of the cup found in Greece, but they included a trace of Euphronios’s name and pictures of Athena and other figures. Today it is in the Athens National Archaeological Museum.
Over the past century, Euphronios’s fame and the rarity of his works made his kraters and cups a valuable commodity, traded only in secrecy, and usually just for the consumption of the great European museums. Until the 1990 Hunt auction, the chase for Euphronios would be a game played by tomb robbers, smugglers, university professors, and, crucially, curators from museums in Berlin, Boston, Paris, Malibu, Munich, and, eventually, New York.
In Rome, Giacomo Medici had made enough money by 1968 that he finally opened his own gallery, Antiquaria Romana, at Via del Babuino 94, a block from Piazza di Spagna. Medici quickly started to mix with the art elite and found no official resistance to the business he was doing. Medici was on cordial terms with Superintendent Moretti, in part through Medici’s late client, the pharmaceutical executive Pesciotti. Moretti’s assistant, Giuseppe Proietti, a freshly graduated archaeologist from Rome’s top public university, La Sapienza, gave Medici research bulletins of stolen items that dealers and the police should be on the lookout for. With a gallery of his own, Medici traveled to Switzerland on business for the first time.
However, at some point in the late 1960s, the national Carabinieri paramilitary police decided to get even more serious about art crime. On May 3, 1969, they formed an art and cultural heritage unit, and they were out to show results. The timing of Medici’s debut as an international dealer couldn’t have been worse.
As Medici took his first steps into the high-stakes international market, he found he needed more protection in the form of more and better documentation that could lend a sheen of clean provenance to objects with illicit origins. Fortunately for Medici, Oxford—which Professor Beazley had made a center of vase studies—had recently gotten into the trade. Around 1970, the university’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art began supplementing its meager budget by charging private clients to date ceramic pots and statues through thermoluminescence, or TL, a procedure Oxford had pioneered. TL could measure how much radiation a clay object had absorbed since the day its creator originally fired it in a kiln—a procedure that resets its radiation content to zero. Based on the amount of naturally occurring radiation that it had absorbed since, the Oxford archaeologists could estimate the date of manufacture.
The Oxford scientists, running the business out of the lab’s redbrick Victorian row house, collected powdery samples that had been drilled out of the bases of the artworks. For the right price, they would even make house calls to clients in Switzerland. Crucially, they would issue a stamped certificate bearing the Oxford University name and attesting to the artifact’s age. An undocumented, looted antiquity could now have a pedigree of sorts, having passed through the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
For Medici and the other merchants, the Oxford certificate became obligatory for any vase that lacked information about its origins. Medici’s buyers could be free to assume, incorrectly, that Oxford would only test objects with legitimate origins. Over the years, Medici ran about a hundred such tests at Oxford, paying the university some $400,000.
No amount of documentation, however, could stop the transformation that was sweeping the antiquities industry. The era of digging and dealing that had made Giacomo Medici an antiquarian officially ended in 1970, just as he was about to make it big.
In Paris, what should have been an otherwise obscure session of a UN cultural panel convened on October 12, 1970. Delegates to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s general conference spent a month hammering out ways to answer a question that was becoming increasingly important to countries from South America to Asia to Europe: how to block the smuggling of cultural property.
For the first time, an international body put in writing what source countries such as Italy had been trying in vain to tell the rest of the world: wealthy collectors and museums should stop acquiring antiquities that had been ripped from their archaeological contexts.
UNESCO declared that cultural property “constitutes one of the basic elements of civilization and national culture, and that its true value can be appreciated only in relation to the fullest possible information regarding its origin.” And it decreed that nations should halt the illicit export or import of cultural property removed from source countries. The convention only applied to nations that agreed to become signatories, and UNESCO couldn’t bring prosecutions. But as an ethical matter, the 1970 UNESCO convention became the new moral standard.
It was ratified in Paris on November 17, 1970, and that date became the dividing line: dealers and collectors who bought or sold artifacts unearthed after that day knew they were doing something they shouldn’t. But they also knew that anything that had been in circulation before that date was kosher on the international market, even if local laws had been broken in acquiring it.
For Giacomo Medici, Robert Hecht, and Dietrich von Bothmer, everything changed that day in Paris when UNESCO signed the agreement and shut the door on illicit antiquities. The only wiggle room in the pact was that, technically, the convention wouldn’t go into force until April 24, 1972.
Medici would soon learn that he needed as much wiggle room as he could get. Just before Christmas 1971, a band of his diggers north of Rome discovered a tomb complex unlike any ever seen.
For the tomb robbers in late 1971, the clink, clink, clink of their long, steel probes was the sound they’d been waiting for. After systematically combing the countryside north of Rome for potential ancient riches, they had found the stone roofs of buried Etruscan tombs.
All signs had pointed to this remote corner of Cerveteri as good hunting grounds. This particular spot—known both as Greppe Sant’Angelo for a nearby shrine bearing the image of an angel, and Sant’Antonio, after a nearby rural chapel by that name—sat smack on the central path that had cut through the center of the ancient city. Another draw was that Greppe Sant’Angelo was haunted.
The evening shadows in Cerveteri always fall first in Sant’Angelo, which sits on the steep slope of a long, craggy cliff that faces southeast, away from the sunset. For generations, these shadows had given rise to local legend. According to tradition, no inhabitant of Cerveteri will venture into Sant’Angelo after dusk, for fear of the ghost spirit known as the Shadow or the Demon of Greppe Sant’Angelo. The Shadow, who only appears after sundown, has just one job: to guard the ancient Etruscan tombs there, scaring away trespassers with his horrendous apparitions.
The long-dead occupants of the tombs needed the Shadow’s services because, according to legend, incredible treasures lay beneath the ground of Sant’Angelo.
Anyone experienced at clandestine digs could tell from Sant’Angelo’s rough terrain that the anomalous curves in the ground and patterns in the undergrowth were signs that something man-made sat beneath the surface. Like pro golfers reading a putting green, experienced tombaroli could see the hidden hills and troughs. On a night in November 1971, the tomb robbers explored a patch of land that had promise. It lay near the edge of the clifflike greppe ridge, and it had a strange, curved mound poking ever so slightly from the soil.
An Italian tomb robber’s tool kit includes two key pieces: a shovel and a spillo (a spike), a yard or two long with a handle on one end. The team at Greppe Sant’Angelo paced back and forth around the overgrown turf, jamming their spillos into the soil. Again and again the spikes drove through the soil, failing to hit any underground chambers. Over the years, mud and gravel had run off from the town and fields just above the spot where the men were exploring. Century after century, sludge had come down the ridge during rainfalls and filled in the ravine that, according to legend, contained lost tombs. Crucially to the tombaroli, the soil had obscured the true location of the face of the ridge, which was where they knew they might find tomb openings.
A man known as Peppe the Calabrese—actually Giuseppe Montaspro, a thirty-seven-year-old originally from the southern region of Calabria—led what started out as a core group of three excavators and two assistants who would mostly serve as lookouts. It was a tight-knit crew, some related to each other by marriage. They all lived in the neighborhood just a few blocks away from Greppe Sant’Angelo, on the edge of the Etruscan wilderness. As they poked the ground again and again, finding nothing but soil beneath, they occasionally came up with the much-awaited, satisfying sensation vibrating up the steel shaft: the clink of something hard lying deep under their feet.
Clink, the spillo went, and they took note of the spot, walking a couple of paces, with their backs to the center of Cerveteri, toward what they believed was the ancient edge of the ridge. Clink, the pole went again, and again they stepped forward, repeating the procedure until they found a spot with just soil. Slowly, as they kept track of which spots clinked and which spots mushed, Peppe and his team made a mental map of the underground terrain. When they could reliably trace the stone line that marked the face of the buried ridge, they started to dig.
It was one thing for Peppe and his two other excavators, forty-year-old Adriano Presciutti and forty-one-year-old Giuseppe Padroni, to wander around poking the ground, but this adventure took on a whole new level of risk once they started removing soil. Although the land where they dug seemed like undeveloped wilderness, it wasn’t completely off the radar. In fact, they were trespassing on private property. They assumed correctly that there was little chance that the land’s owner, an old and prosperous Roman, would stumble upon them. But what they hadn’t counted on was that the owner’s caretaker, forty-six-year-old Cerveteri native Giovanni Temperi, might come by looking for intruders.
Making his rounds, Temperi reached the tombaroli just as they were beginning their work. But instead of this becoming a disaster, it turned out that Temperi was a man who could be reasoned with. Instead of ratting on the robbers, he joined the digging. In exchange they would pay him a cut from whatever they found and sold.
Theirs was a huge undertaking. Having identified a spot on the face of the ridge, they dug straight down. At first the hole looked like any pit, surrounded on all sides by soil. Then, a couple yards below the surface, the stone they had clinked from above emerged on one side. To their delight, it wasn’t a naturally occurring ridge, but a stack of cinder-block-like bricks quarried thousands of years before from yellowish, porous rock. As they had suspected, based on formations in other parts of Cerveteri, the Etruscans had built tombs atop the ridge—and Peppe and his men had found the beginnings of a tomb’s outer wall. Locating an entrance would take even more digging.
To help with the heavy labor, they enlisted three more men, including a thirty-two-year-old farmer named Francesco Bartocci and an out-of-work farmhand, Armando Cenere. The stocky, thirty-six-year-old Cenere, who’d dropped out of school in first grade to support his widowed mother, had been part of other bands of Cerveteri tomb robbers before. Cenere knew he could expect a share of the haul if he did his job and kept his mouth shut. For the most part they worked at night, but with the caretaker onboard, they also dug in broad daylight.
They dug deeper and deeper, following the stone wall downward more than fifteen feet, a level at which they reckoned they might find a tomb door. Based on their earlier soundings with their steel spikes, the tombaroli took their search westward along the wall. Instead of digging down, they dug sideways, creating a tunnel along the rock, supporting it from the inside with wood planks. Over the years, the tomb walls had only partly held up under the weight of the runoff above them. Some had caved in, and as the diggers made their way, foot by foot, they encountered a scattered assortment of tomb debris. This is when the men made their first sellable discovery: a five-hundred-pound stone lion.
The lion was plain, made out of rough, local stone, and it wasn’t a masterpiece. It was a sign, however, that they were on the right track. It could also be a sign to anyone who stumbled on their clandestine dig site—whether competitors or law enforcement—that there might be something of interest there. They had to get the lion out. Bartocci helped the men remove the piece, which was about three feet tall, and loaded it onto his truck and drove it to a plot of land his family owned farther southwest of Greppe Sant’Angelo. They sold the statue within days—so quickly that it was already circulating in the global antiquities market before the men made an even greater discovery—one that for some of them would be the highlight of their lives.
November turned to December as they continued digging. The nights got longer and colder, and Bartocci the farmer donned a wool military overcoat that barely warded off the chill as he stood at his lookout post on the top of the greppe. Initially, their plan seemed to be working. First came the lion, and then the door to a tomb, but they found nothing of any worth inside. If someone with rich grave goods had been buried there, another tomb robber from another time—maybe Etruscan or Roman—had gotten there first. So they kept digging their tunnel, always wary of possible cave-ins. At regular intervals they drove narrow air shafts from the surface into the tunnel to provide some oxygen.
They found another tomb door, and then another—with more near-worthless statues, some pottery shards, and some fragmented tombstones with inscriptions of the names of the dead. It was no treasure, but it was getting better and better. The bits of ancient pottery meant the stakes were now higher, and the team would need extra protection against the police and, perhaps even worse, rival gangs of looters. Convinced he’d found a spot worth protecting, Peppe asked Cenere the farmhand to join Bartocci on guard duty. As the two men stood above in the darkness, Peppe’s men dug to what was their fourth or fifth tomb opening. From their tunnel they arrived at a doorway standing six feet high and three feet wide. Clearing away a bit of rubble, they entered the somewhat collapsed but mostly intact remains of an Etruscan burial chamber.
For the first time in some two thousand years, light poked through to illuminate the ancient treasures inside. The men hauled out statues of a winged sphinx and a panther. They fished out all manner of painted ceramic vessels—covered in dirt but mostly intact. There were museum-quality pelikes, used in antiquity for transporting liquids such as olive oil, and psykters, vessels that had been used for cooling wine at drinking parties. They even hauled out kylixes—the chalices out of which the participants in those drinking parties would imbibe.
All of those would add up to a nice little income. But sitting on the floor of the tomb’s main corridor was a vase that might make them rich.
It was a krater pot for mixing wine, signed by Euphronios as its painter. And it was broken into dozens of fragments as if someone had carelessly dropped it on his way through the hallway a couple thousand years before, and not bothered to sweep up the shards.
Even though it was shattered, Peppe and his men knew they had a masterpiece that would make the whole venture worthwhile. The fact that nobody in antiquity had bothered to clean up the fragments worked to their advantage, too, because at first glance it looked like every single bit of the krater was there. Not wanting to mix up the krater with fragments from other, lesser vases, the men piled the pieces into plastic shopping bags. They dragged the bags out of the tomb into the tunnel and passed them up the entry shaft to the men keeping watch. Bartocci, standing in his military overcoat on top of the ridge, peered inside one of two white shopping bags that he saw the diggers pass up, filled with fragments. By the illumination of his flashlight he saw the glow of a reddish warrior holding a sword.
The men passed around another fragment. About the size of a man’s hand, the ocher-and-black hunk of pottery was unusual enough—with its fine lines and detailed anatomy—that Peppe’s men had their farmhand guard, Cenere, take a look. Once he saw it, the image was burned in his memory. As he would later tell the police, Armando Cenere saw, depicted in orange against a dark background, “a man who was bleeding.”
Sarpedon was neither Trojan nor Greek, but a prince of Lycia, a kingdom to the south of Troy that sent its warriors to help defend the cosmopolitan Trojans from the Greek onslaught. Although he had the fortune of being a son of the most powerful god on Mount Olympus, this child of Zeus had a mortal mother, making him as vulnerable on the battlefield as any other man.
The confrontation that sealed Sarpedon’s fate began when the Trojans launched a surprise attack on the Greek ships beached on the shore. They swarmed toward Achilles; his closest friend, Patroclus; and their Greek troops. Patroclus was the first to throw his shiny spear at the advancing troops, and he led the army on a counterattack, wearing Achilles’ armor.
Achilles did his part not by taking up weapons—but by taking up a chalice. Achilles stepped into his tent, where he opened a trunk filled with rugs and cloaks and pulled out a wine cup. Achilles’ chalice was made of silver. In the courtyard of his camp, Achilles poured the wine into the cup, and staring up at the heavens, prayed to Zeus. Achilles asked Zeus to grant his closest comrade, Patroclus, success in repelling the onslaught that threatened to push the Greeks into the sea. He also prayed that Patroclus would return unharmed.
Zeus would grant only half the prayer. He had other concerns: his son Sarpedon was fast approaching the center of the battle, riding his chariot drawn by a team of three warhorses.
Amid the clanging of swords and stench of battle, Patroclus rallied the Greeks. “Slaughter Trojans!” he cried as he split skulls and severed limbs. The Trojans turned and ran from the beach, if they could. Others found themselves trapped in the Greeks’ defensive trench, where Patroclus and his men butchered them. Patroclus, circling his chariot behind the Trojan line, blocked the retreat, piling up corpses. Sarpedon, son of Zeus, might have understood the Trojans running from the fight, but he wouldn’t tolerate his own Lycian troops fleeing.
“Lycians, where is your pride? Where are you running?” Sarpedon admonished his men. Then, eyeing Patroclus, he added, “I’ll take him on myself.”
Sarpedon jumped from his chariot, weapons drawn. As soon as Patroclus saw what was happening, he, too, leapt down. Like two vultures with claws and beaks ablaze, the warriors screamed toward each other with their battle cries. Zeus, watching from the heavens and knowing the future, was distraught. “My cruel fate,” he said to his wife, the goddess Hera. “My Sarpedon, the man I love the most, my own son—doomed to die at the hands of Patroclus.”
But there was something Zeus could do. As the king of the gods, it was within his power to alter fate and save Sarpedon. Yet at what cost? “My heart is torn in two as I try to weigh all this. Shall I pluck him up now, while he’s still alive and set him down in the rich green land of Lycia, far from the war at Troy and all its tears?” Zeus asked his wife, who, importantly, was not the mother of his son Sarpedon.
Hera protested. “What are you saying? A man, a mere mortal, his doom sealed long ago? You’d set him free from the many pains of death?” she asked Zeus. “Do as you please,” she said, and then slyly reminded him that he couldn’t afford to offend his fellow gods. “If you send Sarpedon home alive, I warn you, then some other god will want to sweep down on the battlefield and rescue his son from the fighting, too,” she said. “As precious as he is to you, and your heart grieves for him, leave Sarpedon to die there in the brutal attack.
“But once his soul and final breath have left him, send the god Death to carry him home, and send the soothing god Sleep to help accompany him home to Lycia. There his countrymen will bury prince Sarpedon with full royal rites,” Hera said, sealing her argument—and Sarpedon’s fate.
Zeus agreed, but not without first making a grand gesture. He showered tears of blood onto the land, drenching the plains of Troy. As the rain of blood poured down in praise of the son who was about to die far from his homeland, Sarpedon and Patroclus closed in on each other. To reach his target, Patroclus had to take out the men running defense for Sarpedon. First he speared the aide on Sarpedon’s side, piercing his guts and making his limbs go limp. Sarpedon attacked back, hurling a lance at Patroclus. But he missed, instead hitting one of the stallions from Patroclus’s chariot, stabbing the horse’s right shoulder and sending it down screaming in the dust. Sarpedon tried again, throwing his spear at Patroclus. The shaft whizzed over the Greek’s left shoulder, never even touching Patroclus.
Patroclus pounced, hurling his spear. The bronze spearhead pierced Sarpedon’s midriff, right at the heart. As Homer recounted, the Lycian prince toppled like an oak, or a tall pine that’s been cut down by woodsmen for making ships. Sarpedon, like a bull mauled by a lion, raged in the dust, screaming for his men to defend his body and make sure the Greeks wouldn’t strip his corpse of its armor in what would be the final indignity. “Fight for me!” he yelled. “You’ll hang your head in shame every day of your life if the Greeks strip my armor. Spur our men to battle!”
Those were to be Sarpedon’s last words. As the son of Zeus choked on his last breath, Patroclus stepped over to Sarpedon, planted a heel on his chest, grabbed the spear embedded in the fallen hero, and gave it a yank. As Patroclus pulled his weapon from the wound, Sarpedon’s innards came with it.
With Sarpedon dead, the fight for his body and its armor began, claiming even more lives. A band of Lycian shieldsmen surrounded the corpse while others, joined by Trojan allies, went on the offensive against the Greeks, who lusted for more of Sarpedon’s blood and pride. “If only we could grab his body, mutilate him, shame him, tear his gear off his back,” one of the Greek soldiers declared. Both sides battled around and on top of the body. Zeus, who’d done nothing to stop his son’s death, turned day into night to make the fight for the body both blind and bloody.
A Greek managed to grab Sarpedon’s corpse, but instead of making off with it, he met the fury of Hector, supreme commander of the Trojans and a son of Troy’s king. It was now Hector’s turn to inflict pain on the Greeks. Hector lifted a rock and smashed it into the head of the Greek, splitting his skull within his helmet. The Greek fell face-first onto Sarpedon’s body. As the slaughter continued, nobody could make out the Lycian prince’s lifeless form, which got buried deeper and deeper in a pile of blood, weapons, and dirt. Looking down from the heavens, Zeus mused on the ways to get revenge on his son’s killer, Patroclus. Should he have someone finish him off now, over his son’s corpse, or let him fight on?
Zeus decided to let Patroclus continue the fight. Hector, the Trojan leader, sounded the retreat back toward the city walls. As Hector took to his chariot and spun around back toward Troy, he left Sarpedon’s body defenseless. The Greeks descended, ripping the shiny, bronze armor from his corpse.
Zeus had had enough. Before the dismemberment could start, he ordered the god Apollo to clear the weapons off Sarpedon and to carry him off the battlefield. Apollo took Sarpedon away from the flying arrows and spears to the safety of a river where he washed his body, anointed it with fragrant oil, and wrapped it in robes worthy of the gods. Then, following Zeus’s orders, Apollo sent Sarpedon off to his homeland, carried as swift as the wind by the twin brothers Sleep and Death. In his demise, Sarpedon, son of the greatest god, became the Christ figure of Homer’s Iliad, lifted by Sleep and Death in a scene reminiscent of both the removal from the cross and the resurrection.
The twins set down the corpse in the green fields of Lycia, where Sarpedon could finally find peace.
Christmas came early to the tombaroli of Cerveteri in 1971. In all, it took eight days to clear the tomb of the goods that could be sold—and to destroy any of the surrounding archaeological evidence, which had been untouched for millennia yet was ruined in a couple months. The structure of the tomb went unrecorded along with the placement of the grave goods in it. Peppe and his men discarded any unsellable material they might have found, whether remains of food offerings, shreds of ancient textiles, or human bones. Any such ancient evidence could have provided clues to who had been buried at this site, and it may even have helped make the mysterious Etruscans a little less mysterious.
What the tombaroli had found was far more than just a single tomb. It was an entire, previously unknown necropolis that in some places took the form of an apartment building for the dead. The complex boasted the first rock-cut Etruscan tombs ever found; all other known tombs of that era had been constructed from stacking blocks of stone, rather than chiseling into the earth. It also contained the earliest known vaulted arch in Etruria. And the riches inside were unparalleled. Just based on what survived the sacking and made it to public collections, art histories needed to be rewritten.
As the tomb robbers searched for more loot, the destruction went beyond negligence of the historic record and descended to outright vandalism. Having dug more than fifteen feet below the modern surface of Greppe Sant’Angelo, the tombaroli found another door, made out of a local, soft speckled stone called pep-perino and carved in relief with a geometric decoration of circles and boxes. Behind the door, the men reasoned, might sit another chamber with even more valuable artifacts. So they hacked away at the ancient carving. When they managed to break through, they found only a stone wall behind it. They had smashed a decorative false door for nothing.
Underground, the men kept digging as New Year’s approached. Aboveground, in the meantime, they had money to make. They knew the krater depicting the “man who was bleeding” was their biggest prize. The men had driven the plastic bags containing the krater’s pieces to the home of the caretaker, Giovanni Temperi, on Via Toscana, at the edge of Cerveteri. There, in the cellar of the two-story house, the gang recomposed the pieces they had picked up from the floor of the tomb. As the puzzle came together, it appeared that hardly a sliver of clay was missing. They didn’t glue the fragments into position, but placed the bits close enough together to tell they had a nearly complete masterpiece.
They didn’t want too many people to see what they had or know where they had stored it. However, it didn’t seem like much of a problem to allow a twenty-two-year-old blind woman named Pina into the cellar to lay her hands on the fragments. They knew from the inscriptions that the vase had been in the hands of Euphronios himself, and Pina, a sort of hanger-on to the tomb-robbing gang, wanted her hands to pass over the glazed terra-cotta, too. The blond blind woman won access to the hoard because her sister was married to one of the three tombaroli leaders, Presciutti, and she was the sister of the lookout Francesco Bartocci. Weeks before, she had already had the chance to touch the rough surface of the stone lion that had been stored at the Bartocci property. Holding the thick shards of the Sarpedon krater between her fingers was an entirely more moving experience, yielding the sensation of a smooth surface that was dotted and crisscrossed by the raised relief lines that Euphronios had applied.
As much as Pina and her friends admired the find, however, the tomb robbers were in this for the money. They needed to move the merchandise out of Cerveteri as quickly as possible. If they were to cash in on their Euphronios krater, they would have to do it now. It was time to call Giacomo Medici.