Volterra. Velathri. Volaterrae.
The area has appealed to settlers since the Neolithic Age for its advantageous location on top of a hill and natural resources. The Etruscans founded the town of Velathri on this hill and fortified it in the 4th century BC. In the 3rd century BC, the Etruscans realized it was pointless to resist Roman invasion and surrendered. Thus, Velathri became Volaterrae. Centuries later, the Florentines invaded Volterra and ruled until the fall of the Florentine Republic in 1530. Volterra came under the control of the Medici and then of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
We visited this delightful hilltop medieval borgo during our European road trip. We drove from Montespertoli along the Via Volterrana Nord, slower than the highway but a lot more interesting. We parked the car outside the walls and entered the town through the Porta Fiorentina.
Palazzo dei Priori
This palazzo is a working town hall and was built in 1239. Like most Tuscan official buildings, the Palazzo dei Priori has glazed terracotta coats of arms of 15th and 16th century Florentine magistrates. There are various works of art throughout the building, like the fresco of the Crucifixion on a landing on the entrance stairway.
The top half of the bell tower had to be rebuilt after the 1846 earthquake, the rest is original. We climbed the extremely narrow metal staircase to the top and were rewarded with amazing views of red rooftops and green hills as far as they eye can see.
The Sala del Consiglio – Council Hall- on the second floor is medieval in origin but the decoration of its cross vaulted ceilings, frescos and canvas are from the Renaissance. There is an admission ticket to visit this room and photography is not allowed.
Duomo – Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
The Romanesque duomo, or cathedral, is a heavy, squat building, not much to look at. It was built in 1120 on the site of an earlier church, also dedicated to the Virgin Mary. At the beginning of the Cinquecento (16th century), the cathedral was enlarged and redecorated in the popular Renaissance style. The wonderful coffered ceiling is worth taking the time to admire. We sat on a pew to enjoy the church’s peace and quiet until a bunch of teenagers on a school outing shattered it. Take the rough with the smooth.
Outside the walls, or cinta medieval volterrana, lie the ruins of the Roman Theatre built in the 1st century BC by a local wealthy family. The best view is from the walls. We then came down for a more detailed exploration. I honestly don’t know if there are guided tours or paid admission. Since they were deserted, we just walked in. The signs are not very helpful; they don’t seem to coincide with what you’re looking at –unless you’re an archeologist. We were able to see the cavea (seating area), the semicircular orchestra and the scaenae fons (columns leading to the stage). The public baths behind the theatre date from the 4th century AD. The area was used as a rubbish tip in medieval times and all but disappeared.
In 1939, they started to build a football field without notifying the superintendent for archeological heritage and much damage was caused. A local archeologist started to excavate the site in 1950 after the hiatus caused by World War II. Money was tight so the workforce was made up of patients from the psychiatric hospital. It is not very PC these days but it was what they had then. It must very interesting to hear what the patients have been thought and said.