Volterra is one of the finest and lesser known hilltop towns tucked away in the heart of Tuscany only a short distance from Florence 72 kms, Siena 50 kms,Pisa 64 kms,S.Gimignano 29 kms.
Idyllically set amidst an evocative landscape of soft rolling hills and lush woodland abruptly defined by barren ,deep clay walled chasms gullies and ravines, Volterra, 545 metres above sea level, dominates and divides the Cecina and Era valleys.
A haven of Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and Rennaissance art and architecture Volterra and its territory are a perfect choice for intensive study programmes or a peaceful relaxing holiday.
VISIT VOLTERRA AND ITS SURROUNDINGS
Volterra still retains its medieval character, charm and atmosphere. Its isolated position has impeded any progressive development. The defensive wall built in the 13th century was the result of an urban development that began in the year thousand and was completed at the beginning of the 14th century.
In the 5th century the city was reduced to a castrum which developed around the early church of Santa Maria(the cathedral) and the Pratus Episcopatus(Piazza dei Priori) and included the Piano di Castello, Porta all’Arco, via Roma, via Buonparenti, via dei Sarti and via di Sotto.
Borgo di Santa Maria, the present via Ricciarelli and the Borgo dell’Abate (via Sarti) were beyon the castrum or castellum.
The boundaries of the Prato were delimited by powerful groups of towers; the crux viarum of Buonparenti, Sant’Agnolo and Baldinotti.
During the 13th century, the domus comunis (Palazzo dei Priori) was erected , the main square was defined and the height of the towers restrained.
Behind the Palazzo dei Priori arose the religious square, the Piazza S.Giovanni which included the cathedral, the baptistry, la casa dell’Opera, the hospital of Santa Maria and the cemetery (the present via Turazza).
The medieval structure has remained almost unchanged throughout the centuries and is still circumscribed by the four main medieval peripheral districts of Borgo di S.Alessandro, looking over the Cecina valley; S, Lazzaro towards Florence and Siena; S.Stefano and S.Giusto. The latter, the farthest from the city, is near the Balze, dominated by the majestic church dedicated to the patron of the city , San Giusto.
At the end of the 19th century the psychiatric hospital was built in the S.Lazzero area. Once an extensive complex it has recently been transformed into a hospital.
In the same area of S.Lazzero there is also the old railway station opened in 1912 that connected the city to Saline.
Piazza dei Priori
The land, on which the centre of civic life evolved, was once named the Bishop’s Prato for it was the bishop who originally presided over and ruled the city.The newly founded commune gradually took over the bishop’s rule and the towers and the first dwellings were erected on the Prato. An elm tree was planted in the main square, around which, the consuls and elders gathered to discuss and contitute laws.
Palazzo dei Priori
The palace was designed by Maestro Riccardo in 1239 as the inscription near the main entrance attests.
The three-storey façade adorned with trilobed ,double arched windows and the Della Robbia glazed terracotta coats of arms of the Florentine magistrates (15th-16th centuries) also bears the canna volterrana, the medieval standard measurement of the commune, engraved between the banner and torch holders.
The two Marzocco lions ,a symbol of Florence were added in 1472 when the palazzo became the seat of the Captain of Justice.
The pentagonal shaped tower is not completely original for the top half was rebuilt after the last earthquake in 1846 by the architect Mazzei who also embellished other buildings in the main square.
The entrance decorated with coats of arms leads to the stairway and a fresco of the Crucifixiion with saints by Pier Francesco Fiorentino who also painted the Crucifixion in the mayor’s antechamber. The Virgin with child has been attributed to Raffaellino del Garbo.
The magnificent Council Hall with a cross vaulted ceiling exhibits the fresco of The Annunciation and four saints, Cosmas ,Damian, Giusto and Ottaviano, painted by Jacopo di Cione and Nicolò di Pietro Gerini.While the fresco was being transferred onto canvas , the sinopia now displayed in the antechamber , were discovered.
On the right wall, The Marriage Feast at Cana, a large canvas painted by Donato Mascagni in the 16th century.
In the antechamber, the Sala della Giunta , wood panel of Persius Flaccus by Cosimo Daddi, a fresco tranferred to canvas of S,Girolomo , two small canvas paintings by Giandomenico Ferretti (18th century) depicting The Adoration of the Magi , Birth of the Virgin by Ignazio Hugford and a canvas of Giobe by Donato Mascagni .
Palazzo Pretorio and the tower of little pig
This palace made up of several buidings and modified in the 19th century was origianally
the seat of the podestà and the captain of the people. The tower considered to be one of the first towers built in Volterra is traditionally known as the Tower of the Little Pig for at the top of the tower there is a stone animal poised on a shelf.
This palace originally built as a grain store became the bishop’s residence after 1472 when the Palazzo dei Vescovi was destroyed by the Florentines to make way for the fortress.
The great arches have been attributed to Antonio da San Gallo the Elder.
Palazzo del Monte Pio
The palace was embellished this century to blend in with the medieval style of the Piazza but
is in fact 13th century. The original construction can still be seen at the rear of the building in the vicolo Mazzoni.
The Medieval wall
The Medieval wall was built in the 13th century.When the Ghibellines succeeded the Guelfs
it was obvious that the Etruscan wall, recently repaired and reinforced in 1254, was far too extensive to guarantee defensive protection. In the Autumn of 1260 forty stone masons were hired to build a smaller circuit which was completed to much expense within a few years.
The HOUSE-TOWER and the Renaissance PALACE
The Buonparenti House Towers
One of the most evocative corners of Volterra, the two towers, Buonaguidi and Buonparenti are connected by a brick archway as were the families in marriage. The towers dominate and strategically command the crossroads , the crux viarum and delimit the main square .
The Toscano House-Tower
This is a group of towers in Piazza San Michele constructed in 1250 by Giovanni Toscano,
treasurer to the King of Sardinia, who had a noble dwelling designed for him by Giroldo from Lugano around the tower in S.Agnolo, as the inscription engraved above the entrance attests. The building was purchased by the Rapucci family, the Cafferecci and then Guarnacci who added the 16th century palazzo which descends the Via di Sotto .
The Baldinotti House Tower
The palazzo in Via Turazza is adorned with a series of arches surmounted by stone cones which served as hinges for the shop doors which opened out onto the street.
The palazzo was built for Admiral Jacopo Inghirami in the 17th century by the architect Gherardo Silvani. Large ledged windows flank the grand ashlar framed entrance surmounted by a bronze bust, of the great admiral who won the battle at Bona attributed to Tacca.
The palazzo was built for Monsignor Mario Maffei, Bishop of Cavallion, whose funeral monument by G.Angelo Montorsoli is collocated in the Cathedral. The building was completed in 1527 as the inscription on the façade attests. A splendid example of Renaissance architecture , the palace was purchased by Mario Guarnacci in the 18th century to house the first Etruscan museum and library.
Vasari has suggested that the palace was adorned with frescoes painted by Daniele Ricciarelli.
The ashlar framed gothic arched windows are the main features of this elegant 16th century palazzo which once belonged to the Desideri family.
Palazzo Lisci, (today Marchi)
Once the medieval hospital of Santa Maria ,the façade presents two phases of construction. The lower part in stone with two filled in arches and a marble inscription bearing the name of the hospital, dates back to the 13th century while the upper half is 18th century. mattoni.
Palazzo Incontri (today Viti)
The warm tones of the sandstone and the large ashlar framed windows enhance this elegant Renaissance façade attributed to Ammannati.In 1819 a theatre ,designed by the architect Luigi Campani, was built in the interior courtyard. The theatre was named after the latin poet Aulus Persius Flaccus from Volterra whose figure is portrayed on the stage curtain by the 19th century artist Nicolò Contestabile.
Palazzo Minucci-Solaini: the courtyard
The exquisite symmetry of the Renaissance façade and elegant harmony of the interior courtyard bequeaths this palace as one of the most splendid in Volterra. Attributed by local historians as the work of Antonio da San Gallo the Elder, the palazzo houses an extroadinary collection of local paintings and sculptures.
The cathedral dedicated to the Assumption Mary was reconstructed in about 1120 on the site of a preexisting church dedicated to the Holy Mary. The Romanesque façade is interposed by the geometric intarsia marble framework of the main entrance added in the 13th century and attributed by Vasari to Nicola Pisano.
The interior was completely modified from 1580 - 1584 when Bishop Serguidi enthusiastically adhered to the new reforms laid down by the Council of Trent.
Athough in late Rennaissance style, the cathedral still preserves the Romanesque latin cross and a nave flanked by two aisles.The columns dividing the nave from the aisles were decorated in stucco by Gianpaolo Rossetti and the capitals by Leonardo Ricciarelli.
The six altars framed by a sculptured frieze in Montecatini stone date to the beginning of the 16th century. The gilded coffered ceiling, richly and colourfully decorated, was designed by Francesco Capriani, carved by Jacopo Pavolini of Castelfiorentino and gilded by Fulvo della Tuccia.
The Holy Ghost in the centre is surrounded by the sculptured busts of saintsUgo, Giusto, Pope Linus, Clemente, Attinea and Greciniana and above the altar the Assumption Mary with saints Vittore and Ottaviano.
The coats of arms of the Medici family, the Serguidi and the Commune of Volterra surmount the triumphal arch and an inscription commemorates the execution of the ceiling thanks to the benevolent generosity of the Grand duke, the solicitude of the bishop and the consent of the citizens.
When the balustrade was dismantled,the pulpit was reconstructed and the romanesque windows were filled in and replaced by rectangular windows.
Further restoration work was carried out from 1842-43; the walls were painted in white and grey stripes the flooring was relaid in black and white marble, the stucco columns were painted to simulate red granite and at the Bishop’s expense, the presbytery was added by the architect Aristodemo Solaini.
After a fire, the transept was restored from 1842-43 in gothic style, tufa stonewalls and four steps on either side, to the regretful loss of the 16th century organ.
On the left of the entrance: Funeral monument of Franceso Gaetano Incontri , the archbishop of Florence; the bust was sculptured by Arisdemo Costoli (19th century) while the design and ornamentation was executed by Mariano Falcini. Below the monument, the eight marble intarsia panels, originally part of the 12th century balustrade were beautifully carved by Pisan and Florentine artisans.
The Bell Tower
The bell tower, seperated from the Cathedral by the chapel of the Virgin Mary, was rebuilt in 1493 after the collapse of the original tower as the inscription around the base attests. There is in fact a tower similar to the one in Volterra in the Santuary of Saints George and Christina in Bolsena that was commissioned by Cardinal Giovanni dei Medici and designed by Sansovino
In all probability Sasovino had been requested to design both the bell tower and the baptismal font which can still be admired in the baptistry bearing the date of 1502.
The 13th century Romanesque façade extends to the entablature and bears the coats of arms of the Farnese family . In the lunette above the main entrance there is a copy of the original marble statue of the Madonna and child by a 14th century sculptor now in the Museum of Sacred Art.
The interior was completely modified in the 19th century . In the presbytery there is a noteworthy marble tabarnacle by a 15th century Florentine artist containing a Madonna and child in glazed terracotta by Giovanni della Robbia and a wood panel of The Guardian Angel by the artist from pomarance ,Nicolò Cercignani. In the nave the Holy Family by Maratta and the Madonna of the Redemption a 15th century fresco transferred to canvas attributed to Cenni di Francesco.
In the oratory of Saint Christopher there is a fresco of the Madonna and child attributed to the artist from San Gimignano Vincenzo Tamagni.
The coats of arms of the city is the only decoration on this simple stone facade.
The interior, modified throughout the centuries, has a single nave and a wooden beamed ceiling . The high altar is surmounted by an ostentatious 18th century marble tabernacle containing the wood panel of the Madonna and child by a 15th century Tuscan artist. The presbytery displays four funeral monuments dedicated to illustrous members of the Guidi family including that of Monsignore Jacopo Guidi 1588 and Admiral Camillo di Jacopo Guidi 1719. The paintings exhibited above the altars are The Conception by G.B. Naldini 1585, the Nativity by Balducci, the Crucifixion by Cosimo Daddi 1602.
The church also houses the funeral monuments of Mario Bardini by G.Silvani 1616, Monsignor Mario Guarnacci which he designed and had made before his death and a group of four glazed terracotta figures by the Volterran sculptor Zaccaria Zacchi.
This beautifully located imposing church was designed in 1627 by the Florentine architect Giovanni Coccapani and consecrated in 1775 on request of the noble Volterran Lodovico Incontri to replace the church engulfed by the landslip at Le Balze.
Its simple interior of a single nave displays the canvas painting of The Visitation of Elizabeth by Cosimo Daddi, San Francesco Severio in India painted by Giandomenico Ferretti in1743, a small wood panel , the central part of a polyptych depicting Elia sleeping painted by the Volterran artist Baldassare Franceschini .
Before the entrance to the oratory there is an interesting sundial designed by the Volterran Giovanni Inghirami in 1801. Each day of the year at midday, a ray of sunlight shines through a gnomonic hole and falls on the marble meridian line marked out on the floor of the church.
The Abbey of San Giusto
The Camaldolite abbey and church were built in 1030 in the vicinity of the small church of San Giusto al Botro which conserved the relics of Saints Giusto and Clemente, engulfed by the landslip in the 17th century. A cultural and artistic centre, the abbey hosted the works of Giotto, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, De Witte, Franceschini, Mascagni and a rich collection of manuscripts and incunabula.
Although the abbey has been abandoned for many years , the elegant 16th century cloister unfoundedly attributed to Bartolomeo Ammannati and the refrectory magnificently adorned with
16th century frescoes relating the life of San Giusto by Mascagni can still be admired. A Romanesque apse and the Medieval bell tower are all that remains of the church reduced to a ruin in 1895.
The Roman Theatre
The construction of the theatre began at the beginning of the 1st century B.C. when the wealthy Caecina family rendered homage to the reconciliation with Imperialism by dedicating the monument to Augustus.
Just below the medieval wall there is a large terrace with three arched niches and two stairways which served as the entrance to the annular shaped criptoporticus over which the highest part of the cavea spread.
The cavea served as a seating area for the audience. Nineteen rows of the central and lower cavea are still visible. The itenera scalaria ,the steps leading to the seats are in Montecatini stone, the same used to sculpture the heads adorning the Etruscan gate.
At the foot of the cavea lies the semicircular orchestra originally veneered in marble.
The two corridors paradoi led onto the stage where the actors performed. The scaenae frons was elaborately adorned with two tiers of Carrara marble columns with Corinthian capitals.
Three doors opened onto the stage from the wings which served as a changing area(the one on the left is still visible) . The curtain was rolled up from below in an ingenious telescopic manner and was contained in the narrow canal just in front of the wooden stage.
Behind the theatre are the Roman Baths built in the 4th century A.D.when the theatre had probably been abandoned.
The vestibule, the cold frigidarium and hot baths tepidarium and calidarium are still visible. In the far right hand corner is the laconicum or sudatorium, a circular room which served as a sauna.
Hot air was passed from the furnace ipocaustum into the raised terracotta flooring remnents of which are still visible in the sauna.
During the Medieval period the area was used as a rubbish tip hence the Roman theatre and
baths were completely buried until excavations began in 1951 by the Volterran archeologist Enrico Fiumi .