Volterra is a gem of Etruscan, Roman, medieval and Renaissance art perched on a hill from where it governs the Cecina Valley. A simple stroll through the streets of the historical centre can reveal the city’s artistic heritage.
Today, it has a distinctly medieval look but its Etruscan stamp is still very much in evidence in a city whose name derives from the Etruscan Velathri, later adapted to the Latin Volaterrae. Traces from that period are found not only in the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum, but also in the Acropolis and Necropolis of the archaeological areas of Vallebuona and Parco Enrico Fiumi.
The Acropolis features structures that overlap the Etruscan, Roman and medieval ages. The Necropolis is chiefly interesting from a structural point of view: instead of developing upwards, graves are dug into the sandy soil, which explains why they are commonly known as Buche Etrusche (Etruscan Holes). The urban zone still holds traces of the Etruscan period in the form of the Porta all’Arco, set in the 5th-century B.C. wall, and in the Porta Diana, outside of the medieval belt.
Roman archaeology can be seen in the remains of the 1st-century B.C. Theatre, where a Festival of theatre, music and poetry is held every summer. Set in the Vallebuona area, it still retains part of the seating, the floor with three large exedras and the remains of the covered portico, while part of the stage front has been rebuilt in contemporary style.
The medieval hamlet developed around the nucleus of the Piazza dei Priori, where the unmistakable Palazzo dei Priori rises, with its façade featuring three rows of mullioned windows and crests of the Florentine magistrates.
Some of the most outstanding features in the magnificent setting of the square are the Palazzo Pretorio with the Torre del Porcellino, former office of the Mayor, the Palazzo Vescovile, the Palazzo Incontri, seat of the local Cassa di Risparmio and the Palazzo del Monte Pio, the result of a grouping of 13th-century towers and structures. Other examples of medieval civil architecture are the tower-houses Buonparenti, Baldinotti and the group called Toscano.
The religious buildings are concentrated in the Piazza San Giovanni: the Baptistry, the Ospedale di Santa Maria hospital and the Romanesque Cathedral with its elegant 15th-century bell tower.
On the second and third Sundays of August the medieval atmosphere is revived in full with the Medieval Week – A.D. 1398, which sees the historical centre come alive with characters, and on the first Sunday of September, when flag wavers take to the streets for the Astiludio tournament.
The town’s museum network is very busy, and not just because of the previously mentioned Guarnacci Museum, with 38 rooms linked to form an educational route and the world’s most extensive collection of Etruscan urns. Other sites of great interest are the Pinacoteca Civica art gallery, with prized canvasses including the Descent from the Cross by Rosso Fiorentino and the Annunciation by Luca Signorelli, and the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art, with works from the Cathedral and other churches of the diocese.
Although closed to visitors, the Medicean Fortress is not to be missed. Today it is used as a judicial prison renowned for its theatre company of actors-convicts: the Compagnia della Fortezza, performing during the Volterra Teatro festival.
Even outside of the walls Volterra holds a host of surprises: a visit to the fountain at the Porta Docciola, the Church of San Giusto with its sundial, and the Camaldolese Abbey, abandoned due to the advancing “Balze” (cliffs) but with cloisters and a refectory still intact.
The beauty of Volterra has brought it to be chosen as a setting for various literary and cinema works. Among the literary references are Forse che si forse che no by Gabriele D’Annunzio and numerous novels by Carlo Cassola, including La ragazza di Bube. Cinema works include Sandra by Luchino Visconti, winner of the Golden Lion at Venice in 1965, and Cammina Cammina, a reworking of the history of the Magi made in 1983 by Ermanno Olmi.
Volterra has gained worldwide exposure of late thanks to the Twilight saga, written by the American author Stephenie Meyer, which was then portrayed on the big screen in 2009. Part of the second novel of the saga, New Moon, was actually set in the Tuscan city.