Volterra, a Tuscan town just a stone’s throw from Dievole’s location in the Chianti area, has a rich history. It was a desirable location when the Etruscans settled there; the Romans also inhabited it; it had a rich Middle Ages and Renaissance too. Each period has left behind at least one good reason to visit. A paradise for history buffs, it makes a pleasant day trip, with plenty to see as well as restaurants and wine bars for food and relaxation.
The town of Volterra is surrounded by walls, some of which are Etruscan in origin. The Etruscans settled here due to the rich mineral ore in the land, and they called the city Velathri or Felathri. Their extensive production of visual material – mainly related to funerary practices – is housed at the Guarnacci Museum. Don’t be put off by the old-fashioned layout of the downstairs of this museum, but head upstairs to concentrate on its two most important works. There is an exquisite cinerary urn that belonged to an important couple, so it’s called the “Urna degli Sposi“. Both the man and the woman are represented very realistically, reclining at a banquet with unprecedented gender equality. If you get up close you can see the amazing details rendered by the sculptor. In the same room is a very different, very modern looking sculpture called “Ombra della sera”, an elongated bronze statuette of a boy, probably an ex-voto figure for fertility from the third century BCE. These two works show just part of the range that Etruscan artists were capable of producing. Explore some of the museum’s other rooms, holding tiny bronze sculptures of animals, coins and much more.
For the Romans, the town was named Volaterrae. Romans often adopted Etruscan towns for themselves, and left evidence of their domination. The major Roman element here is an ampitheatre from the 1st century BCE, located along the city walls, just outside the “Porta Fiorentina”. It is very well preserved, with two distinct rows of seating in a semi-circle that could accommodate up to 2000 citizens! The partially reconstructed scaenae frons, the architectural structure behind the stage, was once over 15 meters high. You can imagine that this city must have been very important if it had a cultural apparatus of this magnitude.
The town’s narrow streets and its major buildings for administration and worship are purely medieval, making this yet another medieval hill town in Tuscany, similar to many others, but equally enjoyable. It has a traditional square on which is located both the Romanesque Duomo and the 13th-century Palazzo dei Priori. The city hall’s stern façade of which is punctuated by glazed terracotta plates bearing the arms of the families who had held the position of prior, ruler of the city when it was under Florentine domination in the 15th century.
The Painting Museum (Pinacoteca) is where you should head if you’re looking for evidence of what decorated the city during the Renaissance. While the main structures were essentially intact, in this period patrons commissioned painting and sometimes sculpture. The main reason to visit this museum is for a quite famous and large altarpiece by the Mannerist artist Rosso Fiorentino representing the Deposition (when Christ was removed from the Cross). Painted by a young artist in 1521, it’s very different from the idealized beauty you may have seen in other Renaissance paintings. Rosso was a peculiar artist, and this is a unique work. Its harsh colours and angular shapes communicate the strong emotional unease that the people in the painting must have been feeling, although it also tells us something about the artist himself.