If you have time to see only one hill town while you’re in Tuscany, Volterra gets my vote. What? Not San Gimignano? Well, San Gimignano is nice for those who love huge crowds of foreign tourists surging through cramped streets…These days, until the furor dies down, the most beautiful thing about San Gimignano is the view from a distance (pictured down), when you drive around a bend in the road and see those famous towers looming incongruously over the rolling hills.
Volterra is a charming town situated in the province of Pisa, not far from Firenze, Siena and the coast as well. It’s well known for its Etruscan origins and for the many remains belonging to this era. In the past years it was also mentioned in one of Stephenie Meyer’s book: Twilight – New Moon as a town full of Volturi vampires. Therefore you can find many vampire/blood related souvenirs there.
Velathri, the Etruscan name of the town, was one of the twelve main towns that belonged to the Etruscan confederation; at the end of the 4th century BC, the 7300 meters long fortification walls were built up to protect not only the urban center, but also the surrounding fountains, cultivated fields and pastures from foreign invasions. After the Frankish and Lombard dominions, Volterra passed under Roman control and changed its name into Volaterrae (where the modern name comes from); later, it fell under Florentine supremacy until the town passed under the Grand Duchy of Tuscany before finally becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860.
Today, Volterra is particularly renowned for its peculiar urban layout that reminds us of its Etruscan origins: people can still visit part of the majestic protective walls built during the 5th to 4th centuries BC – including the well-preserved Porta dell’Arco and Porta Diana, two gates for entering the city – as well as the Acropolis that houses several buildings and the foundations of two ancient temples. There are many Roman remains to visit as well, like the Roman Theater, dating back to the end of the first century AC, built in a natural amphiteatheater shape area.
- The heart of the medieval town is Piazza dei Priori with the wonderful Palazzo dei Priori. Its façade has ancient emblems of marble and glazed earthenware. In the same square you will also find Palazzo Pretorio, whose tower is very ancient and is considered one of the first towers of the town. It’s traditionally known as the Tower of the Little Pig because at the top there is a small pig in stone placed on a shelf.
- The Duomo or Cathedral is a Romanesque building of the XII century and it was constructed on the site of a previous church. It has a Romanesque façade and an entrance that was added in the 13th century. The interior was modified in the late 16th century in the Renaissance style and it has a richly decorated ceiling and several chapels with frescoes or wood panels, as well as a 12th century marble pulpit.
- The Baptistery of the Cathedral stands opposite to it in the same square. It’s a 13th century structure and has an octagonal base. The façade is adorned with stripes of white and green marble, which are very common in Tuscany. The interior is simple, but it houses an exceptional piece of art: the octagonal marble baptismal font, sculptured by Sansovino in 1502.
- The Roman Amphitheatre, constructed in the 1st century BCE (it’s opened in winter only on weekends; the rest of the year it’s open daily). Behind the theatre there are the remains of Roman baths, dating back to the 4th century AD and there are also remains of a Roman forum. During the Middle Ages these sites were part of a rubbish dump and were buried. Excavations began in 1951.
- The Pinacoteca (Art Gallery) in Palazzo Minucci-Solaini is a gallery containing works by Tuscan artists from the 14th to 17th centuries, including the Deposition by Rosso Fiorentino.
- The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was enlarged in the 13th century after an earthquake. It houses a ciborium, a notable wood Deposition from 1228, a masterwork of Romanesque sculpture, and the Sacrament Chapel. Also noteworthy is the Addolorata Chapel, with a terracotta group attributed to Andrea della Robbia and a fresco of Riding Magi. In the nearby chapel, dedicated to the Very Holy Name of Jesus, is a table with Christ’s monogram, allegedly painted by Bernardino of Siena. The rectangular bell tower is from 1493.
- The Medicean Fortress, known as Maschio, is now a prison housing a restaurant.
- The Guarnacci Etruscan Museum hosts thousands of funeral urns dating back to the Hellenistic and Archaic periods. One of the main attractions are the bronze statuette “Shadow of the Night”; the cinerary urn called “Urna degli sposi”; and the sculpted effigy of an Etruscan couple in terra cotta.
- There are six gates in the Etruscan walls in the centre, dating from the 13th to 16th centuries, including the well-preserved Porta dell’Arco and Porta Diana gates. Porta dell’Arco is the only remaining part of the ancient city walls from the 5th century. It was incorporated in the city walls, built in the 13th century, when the Ghibellines succeeded the Guelphs. From the outside, the gate is decorated with the three human heads. Porta San Francesco still has traces of the original frescoes. From Porta San Felice there are views of the countryside beyond the town. Porta Fiorentina was originally called Porta San Agnolo, after the nearby church; it was built in an architectural style typical of Volterra, though some modifications were carried out in the 16th century.During the siege of the town in 1530, the tower above the gate, which served as an armoury, was completely destroyed. The gate leads to the direction of Florence, and therefore, the locals call it Porta Fiorentina.
- The Albaster museum in Volterra is located within the suggestive medieval Tower Minucci, next to the Pinacoteca Comunale. The museum itinerary, through a selection of works, tools and materials, the history of working alabaster from the Etruscans up until our time. This includes an exposition of how the stone is found and worked (technical materials), its style characteristics (the decorative forms used), and the economic and social aspects (the market for alabaster, its spread, the life and work of an alabaster artisan in his workshop).
By now you’ll be ready to sit down and relax over a nice Tuscan meal. Walk back up the hill and you’ll have your choice of several places, ranging from the very simple to the elegant. One delicious local specialty you might like to try is salami or pasta made with wild boar (cinghiale), an animal portrayed in marble on the upper façade of Palazzo dei Priori. You can see it from either of the two nice restaurants in Piazza dei Priori. Be sure to save some time to sit and relax in Volterra because, like all great hill towns, the most memorable treasure it has to offer is the feeling of history that lingers all around you.
Stroll down the historical center, step back in time, taste its typical products and visit the handicraft workshops, where you’ll find many ideas for souvenirs from Tuscany, especially alabaster hand-made objects, which Volterra is famous worldwide for and mainly enjoy the timeless atmosphere of this amazing town.
sources: discovertuscany, visittuscany