Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Volterra is another of the many interesting Tuscan hill towns. After spending one afternoon walking the streets, I do want to return one day and spend more time. While we saw much of what it has to offer and purchased some lovely alabaster jewelry for Linda, there is much that we did not see in this small town.

Town hall
Coats of arms of past mayors, a common practice in Italy
Volterra is best known for its Etruscan remains (not the Twilight vampire series). The Etruscan empire included most of what is today Tuscany from just north of Rome to the Apennine mountains and the sea. Flourishing in Italy during the time of Greek greatness, its culture included much of what would become Roman culture and the foundations of Western ideals. Ultimately, the Etruscans would be conquered by Rome beginning in 509 BE. Etruscan history lives on in Volterra with the only remaining Etruscan city gate in all of the region and an archaeological park with ongoing excavations on the hill overlooking the town. We only had a quick glimpse of the park in the twilight before we had to leave for home in Orvieto, one of the reasons I would like to return and spend more time in the town.

The Etruscan Gate
After 2500 years, not  much is left to show what this was
Monument to the saviors of the gate
 The gate was saved from a German effort to blow it up as they were being chased north by the Allies during World War II. Local citizens filled the arch with stones from the street and convinced the German commander that there was no need to blow it up. It’s difficult to understand the strategic importance of this gate. It is at the top of a hill that the Allies most certainly would have skirted as they chased the Nazi armies north out of Italy. Once the Germans left, the townspeople removed the stones from the arch and repaved the street. A plaque commemorates their actions.
Remains of the Acropolis
The high-security prison
The archaeological park remains because the Florentines destroyed the buildings and used the area as a way to protect themselves from the townspeople when they took over the town in 1472. The fort that they built to protect their army is today a maximum security prison housing 150 special prisoners. Many would be from Sicily as the authorities like to separate the criminals from their family ties. The Florentine work has left Volterra with a beautiful park atop its highest hill and a marvelous archaeological site where we continue to learn about the Etruscans.

Another of the interesting sights in Volterra is the Roman theater. Forgotten until the 1950s, this theater was rediscovered by an amateur historian who proceeded to excavate it with the help of mental patients at the local hospital. According to the guide book, this work proved to be therapeutic although there is no mention of how many were actually cured by the work. At any rate, the results of their work are interesting as we can now see the outlines of the theater while walking around the edge of the town along its remaining wall. One portion of the backdrop has been rebuilt so visitors can see the different levels of the stage, one for mortals, the second for heroes, and the third for the gods. In the third century AD, the locals began tearing down the theater and using the stones for bath behind the theater. I guess they found more entertainment in the warm water than on the stage.

Note the small door and the few inches of space between the buildings

We had rented one of those audio tour guides which helped quite a bit with learning about the town. The most interesting discovery it shared were the tower houses of Buonparenti and Buonaguidi. They had filled in the space between the two towers with a house once they had quit fighting each other. One narrow dooway was all that led up to the living spaces above the shops on the street. Behind the door was a ladder they pulled up at night for extra security. This arrangement meant that one man could easily defend both homes from any attackers.

Wooden sculpture of the Deposition

We also visited the Duomo built in the 12th century and the baptistery facing the entrance to the cathedral in Pisan style. One interesting feature is the sculpted relief of the last supper with Judas under the table being attacked by a dragon. Another shows the scene when God asked Abraham to prove his love by sacrificing his son Isaac. Mary is shown with daggers symbolizing the pain she felt as Jesus was crucified. 

Walls braced with arches, another common feature in these old towns.
A sculpture on a wall of a random building
Volterra is also justly famous for its alabaster. The nearby quarries provide the raw material for the many artists who work with the stone. The museum, which we will visit on another trip, has examples that go back to Etruscan times. Several different shops sell the wares and it is possible to visit workrooms where the artists are creating their finery. Alabaster’s transluscent character makes it a very special stone. Carved thinly it makes for stunning and lovely light fixtures. If we still had a house we might have bought one or two, but the condo is just too small for such finery.

No comments:

Post a Comment