Roberto Di Giancamillo was browsing through his newspaper at breakfast last week when he came across an item that left him stunned: After 34 years encased in controversy and glass in America, this town's most infamous export, the Euphronios krater, was coming home.
The local artisan and shopkeeper said he "became emotional" Friday at the news that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had agreed to give back the 2,500-year-old wine-mixing bowl because of evidence it had been looted from Etruscan tombs that lie under the rolling hills around this town 30 miles northwest of Rome.
"He could not even talk," said Elisabetta Rossi, who ended up reading the article aloud to her tongue-tied boyfriend.
The Met's announcement Thursday came as the museum and Italian officials worked to finalize an agreement that many predict could be the model for how the J. Paul Getty Museum and other institutions can return purportedly looted Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.
In exchange for long-term loans of similar artworks from Italy, the Met has agreed to transfer the title for the krater, famous for its scene of Hermes directing Sleep and Death, and 19 other suspect items to the Italian government.
The Met's move came after The Times reported that Italian authorities had new evidence that the krater, painted by the Greek master Euphronios, had been dug up illicitly and smuggled from here. The information surfaced as part of the criminal trial in Rome of two dealers and the Getty's former antiquities curator, Marion True.
But as word spread here about the krater's homecoming, the reaction among most Cerveterians was a bit more complicated, befitting the town's dubious distinction as the source of looted antiquities.
People expressed civic pride, happiness, even some vindication that the krater would one day be repatriated to Italy. Yet the feelings came with the acknowledgment that the krater's return throws an uncomfortable light on Cerveteri's waning dependence on the illicit trade.
The hills of Cerveteri cover thousands of tombs laid out by the Etruscans — a civilization that dominated central Italy before the rise of Rome — like orderly subterranean cities. The entrances to some of these necropolises beckon from behind trees and in the folds of the earth.
For decades, tombaroli have supplemented their day jobs by plundering the tombs in nighttime raids with shovels, picks and homemade steel rods. They have sold off jewelry, vases and urns, sometimes even dumping out charred bones and ashes left from ancient funeral rites.
Among the tomb-raiders was 64-year-old Giuseppe Masala. The news of the Euphronios krater got him talking about the night 40 years ago when he was initiated into the trade. His buddies asked him to stand watch as they poked the ground, feeling for walls or chambers.
"At a certain age, when you heard someone had found a vase, you wanted to go and see what it was like," he said.
Masala went out on his own. Soon he was selling to middlemen or carting his wares to weekend markets in Rome and Tuscany where he hawked them from a stand.
He came under pressure as well, especially after the Met's purchase of the Euphronios in 1972 created international headlines. As one of Cerveteri's better known "abusive archeologists," he was identified by the Italian paramilitary police as one of the men who found the krater in a nearby complex of tombs.
Masala said Carabinieri officers met him in a local bar and pressured him to confess. He refused, saying he wasn't involved. Discussing the krater last week made him visibly nervous that the police might be making inquiries again. Police pressure convinced him three years ago, he said, to put away his excavating tools.
These days, Masala makes a living crafting and painting replicas of ancient art.
But even if it meant working for the government, Masala said he'd love to go back to his old job. "I still have a few tombs that we identified," he said, smiling. "It's no longer a matter of money anymore. It's a matter of passion."
Mayor Antonio Brazzini said he hopes the krater's repatriation "closes the door" on a profession that has declined but refuses to go away. The ranks of the tombaroli have thinned from an estimated 60 working at any given time, but there still remain a number that can't resist the pull of the nearby tombs.
"It's in the air you breathe in town," said Brazzini, a doctor at the public clinic whose roster of patients includes one of the town's best-known diggers.
Di Giancamillo, the merchant, added that the world had the tombaroli to thank for some of its best antiquities.
"I don't think there will be any more Euphronios kraters that come out," he said. "Now you see [the tombaroli], they're all old. But there have been some very good workers, some very good archeologists."
Meanwhile, Di Giancamillo says the krater's journey back to Italy is nothing but good news for him. A lifelong Euphronios kraterphile, he's traveled every couple of years to New York to view the piece.
And Di Giancamillo figures that business will pick up at his shop, where he sells replicas of antiquities. His showpiece is an imitation of the Euphronios, which costs about $7,700.
The name of his shop: Metropolitan Museum.