I had an idea early on that I wanted to include someone trying to decipher an ancient language; code breaking, essentially. I researched and discovered that Etruscan was one of these undeciphered languages. Etruscan. Tuscany. My ancestors. Very exciting stuff. They left behind tombs with spectacular frescos that predate the Roman Empire. A little more research led me to Larissa Bonfante, a Professor of Classics at New York University (convenient), who had written with Giuliano Bonfante, her father (perfect), a book called The Etruscan Language. I imagined stacks of books, parchments, furrowed brows, note taking, paper crumpled up in frustration and thrown in the general of a wastebasket. I imagined shooting in those tombs in Tuscany. I knew this would be a logistical nightmare, but still. Shooting in Tuscany!
In the fall of 2006 Professor Larissa Bonfante agreed to participate. My first interviews were audio only. She then graciously invited me and cinematographer Rob Featherstone into her introductory Classics class for undergrads. There was interesting stuff going on, and her students were very bright, engaged, and photogenic.
But there was a big problem. There really isn’t much Etruscan to decipher. The Etruscans had literature and theater, in fact, they were a highly literate society, but the Romans assimilated them; Etruscan culture slowly died out and the language gave way to Latin. Mostly, the Romans weren’t interested Etruscan things, though the Emperor Claudius was. The most significant surviving Etruscan text was written on linen and preserved by accident, used as a mummy wrapping.
Still, I was determined.
I started putting together one of the first samples back in the spring of 2007, having by that time conducted my first interviews with Soleri, Tarter, and Milarch. I had Bonfante in there, but it just wasn’t working, the connections were nebulous, at best. I didn’t dismiss the Etruscan angle outright, but I put it aside. I found out about Robert Darden and pursued him, decided on four subjects, and so…
It was difficult for me to tell Professor Bonfante that I wasn’t going to be using her in the film. She was, as she had been all along, extremely gracious.
Here’s some footage we shot in the classroom. I love the little vase they’re passing around, and I love the discussion taking place. If you look closely at the wide shots, you’ll see in the mirror Rob operating the camera. I’m holding the boom, obscured. I like this, too.
Enormous thanks to Larissa Bonfante and her students for letting us into their world.