Riding the wave

THE LIVER OF PIACENZA and Martianus CAPELLA

Haruspex with liver Haruspex with liver, on the lid of an urn of alabaster, second century B.C. (Guarnacci Museum, Volterra )

An archaeological finding from the Etruscans , halfway between mythology and a map, is the liver of Piacenza, that, with its inscriptions, can be considered as a kind of compass, a map to guide the haruspex in watching the surface of the organ in search of divine signs.

The "Liver of Piacenza" has been found by chance in 1877, during the plowing of a field of Settima Gossolengo near Piacenza, and is kept in the Museum of the town. It is in bronze, with a size of cm. It is generally considered by scientists to be a sheep liver model, dating from the late second or early first century B.C.

Liver of Piacenza The liver from Gossolengo
Terracotta model of liver The clay model

Two other reproductions of the organ exist in Italy: one is a model in clay, from the IV-III century B.C., found at Falerii, now in the Museum of Villa Giulia, Rome and the other one is on the urn in the figure above.


Upper face of the liver

The upper surface of the object, a flat surface, is almost entirely occupied by inscriptions in Etruscan language, comprised in 38 boxes of different shapes.
For modern scientists, these inscriptions were the starting point to reach an understanding and interpretation, open to further development, of the Etruscan spiritual structure. The combination of the names of gods written in the various boxes, and the partition of the sky with its divine inhabitants according to Martianus Capella (Roman writer of the fifth century AD, author of an encyclopedic work in nine books) have made it possible to reconstruct an approximate location of the cosmic system according to the doctrine of the Etruscans.

The "sacred" space, oriented and divided, could be the sky or a confined area - the enclosure of a sanctuary, a town, an acropolis - or even a much smaller area, such as the liver of an animal used for divination, provided that the conditions of guidance and partition according to the celestial model may be followed.
They imagined that the sky was divided according to the cardinal axes in four parts, each one being subdivided into four sectors, giving rise to sixteen areas, in which were the homes of the heavenly, earthly and hell gods.
In the liver of Piacenza, this pattern is reflected by the sixteen sections of the outer edge and by the internal boxes corresponding to them, although in a way that is not fully understood.

Between the celestial gods of the sixteen areas cited by Martianus Capella, and the names engraved on the liver there are evident matches, though not a full one to one correspondence, likely due to changes with respect to the sources introduced by the late Roman writer.
The great major gods, substantially benevolent, inhabited the eastern sectors of the sky, especially the north-east sector; the gods of earth and nature were placed around noon; the infernal and fate gods, fearful and inexorable, occupied the regions at sunset, particularly the north-west sector, considered the most inauspicious.

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