Greetings! To begin, updates: On the IWR, I've just posted my Brunello notes for the 2004 vintage presented in February at Benvenuto Brunello. On Italian food I've instead added a list of favorite red sauced pasta recipes, and have also put up lists of the Chianti Classico D'Annata and Riserva that impressed me the most.
Returning to Cosa Bolle, we continue with the Tusco-Medieval Exploration I did a number of years ago for Firenze.Net, the people who didn't pay me.
From Certaldo to Volterra.
From Certaldo, the easiest way to reach Volterra is via Gambassi Terme. The road is quite pretty, and the drive will take about a half hour. Shortly after the intersection for Pontedera (you want to go towards Volterra) the road will begin to climb, and to the right you will see a yellow sign indicating the Badia Camaldolese and the Chiesa di San Salvatore; follow it, bearing right at the fork, and you will shortly reach the ruins of the Badia, which must have once been as glorious as the view.
The monastery was founded by the Benedictines in 1030 and then passed to the Camaldolesi, who had Baroltomeo Ammannati, one of the major late Renaissance Florentine architechts, add an elegant façade to the church in the late 1500s (he also did the cloisters for them). Alas, the complex was severely damaged in the earthquake and landslides of 1846 and subsequently abandoned. Since the ruins are dangerous they're walled up, but you can walk around and look at the apse, which is Romanesque, and there's a great feeling of peace. The view is also beautiful; among other things you can see the gullies eroded into the clayey soil, which are called calanchi, and are quite characteristic of this section of Tuscany.
Return to the road and continue up the hill; as you reach the modern section of Volterra you will also see several low stone walls made with huge blocks. These are the Etruscan walls, and their presence out here in the modern section of town says a lot about Volterra's history. The area is known as the Colline Metallifere, or Metalliferous Hills, and has long been a source of a variety of minerals, including salt, lead, silver, alum, and copper; the Etruscans selected one of the most easily defensible hills and built the town of Velathri on it. Velathri grew rapidly, becoming the capital of one of the twelve Lucumonie of the Etruscan Nation, and by the IV Century BC its influence extended over much of the nearby Tyrrhenian coast, including Populonia, the island of Elba with its iron mines, and even Corsica. The population reached 25,000, and the authorities built the city walls we see today.
Because it was relatively isolated, Velathri remained independent of the encroaching Romans for longer than many of the other Etruscan cities. But it did eventually succumb, and supplied the some of the grain consumed by the Roman armies in the Punic Wars. Like the rest of the Etruscan Nation, the inhabitants of Velathri gained Roman citizenship in 90 BC. However, unlike some of their brethren they proved better at working with the Romans, and managed to maintain some degree of prosperity.
Returning to the itinerary, when you reach a yellow sign that says Teatro Romano turn left, onto Viale Ferrucci, and park in the lot (historic Volterra is mostly closed to cars and small enough to get around easily on foot).
As you will note, the theater next to the lot is right up against the medieval walls; though it pains one now to think that Volterra's medieval inhabitants took care of their garbage by pitching it over the walls, their using the area as a dump also filled in the theater and kept later residents from mining it for building materials -- a common fate of older structures, including Rome's Colosseum.
Excavation began in 1950 and revealed a number of levels, the earliest dating to the IV century BC, and the most recent dating to the late Imperial period, when the use of the theater seems to have declined, but the baths behind it (towards Viale Ferrucci) were opened. The theater is open 11-7 from March 15 to November 15 from 11-7, except when it rains. Entrance free.
Once you have finished exploring the theater (if you arrive early you may want to come back later), walk around to the Porta Fiorentina, one of the medieval gates. It is well within the Etruscan perimeter, and this requires explanation: Volterra was badly mauled in the struggles that took place in the IX-X centuries between Berengario I, King of Italy, and Adalberto, Marquis of Tuscany. And it never recovered. In the late 1100s the population was about 12,000, half what it had been under the Etruscans, and the town council realized it could no longer defend the old perimeter. So they began a new, smaller ring of walls in 1200. Construction proceeded slowly until 1240, and was finished in a rush between 1260 and 1266 when 40 stonemasons were hired to get the job done.
Returning to the Porta Fiorentina, it was originally higher than it is now: there was a tower above the gate from which Captain Ferrucci's artillery forced the enemy to flee during a siege; the tower subsequently blew up when someone got careless around the powder supply. Rather than rebuild it, the Florentine military architects, who considered this to be the most vulnerable point Volterra's defenses, added a massive gun emplacement to the left, with an opening that would have allowed the defenders to rake the area before the gate with cannon fire. Enter the gate and turn right onto Via Lungo Le Mura del Mandorlo to enjoy the view of the theater from above; the street leads back into the medieval part of town, and after passing an elegant 13th century casa torre, a merchant's home that would have had his shop on the ground floor, his dwelling area above it, and his storage facilities up high where his goods were safe, you will reach a square with the Rossi Alabaster Studio.
Alabaster is a pale white, milky fine grained variety of gypsum that takes well to carving, and occurs as spheroids in some of the clays around Volterra. The Etruscans used it extensively, and many of the funerary urns in Volterra's Museo Guarnacci are alabaster. During the middle ages, however, alabaster carving dropped off, to resume in the Renaissance, when beautiful pieces were made for churches and as gifts. In 1791 Marcello Inghirami Fei set up an excellent school for local craftspeople, teaching sculpting and lathe work, and began selling the pieces. Unfortunately the political climate wasn't ripe and the venture foundered. However, he did set the stage, and in the first half of the 1800s many Volterran artisans became itinerant merchants; one was so successful he was nominated an Emir in Nepal. Alabaster has enjoyed alternating fortunes since then, but there has always been enough interest to keep artisans in business, and there are a number of small shops where it is worked throughout the city. There are also showrooms, many of which sell pieces that are turned out industrially.
Franto Norscia, who turns one of the lathes in the Alabastri Rossi shop, began working as an assistant when he was 12 and gradually learned the trade, initially by shaping pieces while the artisans where taking breaks, and later, when they realized he had talent, at the machines. He works with the quick assurance born of long experience, and it's quite fun to watch. Walk through the studio (there are interesting photos and equipment in the other rooms), then turn left at the end of the street, past a house with a portico, and right onto Via Buonparenti; when you get to the intersection with Via Ricciarelli glance up to admire the arch that joins the buildings on the opposing sides of the street. Then turn left into Piazza dei Priori, one of Tuscany's prettiest squares.
The site of the market place during the centuries that Volterra was governed by her bishops, it was selected to be the seat of government following the townspeople's decision to govern themselves in 1193. Construction of the town hall, Tuscany's oldest, was begun in 1208 by Riccardo da Como; the building now has the coats of arms of the various podestà who ruled over the city, some outside and some within the entrance, where there are also plaques commemorating several Royal visits a century ago (in 1903 the King was so pleased by his reception that he gave the city 10,000 lire, a respectable sum at the time). The building with the arches on the same side of the square is the Palazzo Vescovile, or Bishop's palace, which was originally designed to be the public granary with market space on the ground floor; the bishops took position in 1472 but only began living in it in 1618. Facing the palaces is the palazzo Pretorio, seat of the Capitano del Popolo (the police force), born out of the fusion of several mediaeval buildings. The crenellated building the Palazzo Pretorio is connected to via an arch is Monte Pio, which served as a granary until 1600, and then hosted the pawn shop.
If you turn back towards the town hall, you will note a black-and-white striped wall separating it from the Bishop's palace. This is a section of the Duomo, which was consecrated in 1120, and expanded in 1257, by Nicola Pisano; go through the door and you'll find yourself in the left transept. The interior is more modern than one would expect from looking at the wall, which brings to mind the Romanesque, and indeed the interior was renovated in 1580 by Francesco Capriani, at the request of Bishop Guido Serguidi; Mr. Capriani added an elegant carved wood ceiling and had Leonardo Ricciarelli redo the columns, some of which (towards the front of the church) are now alarmingly out of plumb.
Though the pulpit looks original, it was reassembled in the 1600s using 12th century sculptures; the columns rest on two lions, an ox, and a bull with a monstrous face. The panels depict a delightful Last Supper with Judas kneeling on the floor in front of the table, being nibbled by a serpent, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and an Annunciation/Visitation. The scenes with the Virgin are especially appropriate because Volterra is consecrated to her, as you might guess from the Glorification of the Madonna, who receives Volterra above the first altar in the right aisle, done by Pieter De Witte in 1578. Continuing up the right aisle you'll see the Birth of the Virgin and the recently restored Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple. The transept has, among other things, a very nice, brightly colored Romanesque sculpture of the Deposition dating to 1228. The third altar on the left transept has an Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, while the second chapel has an Annunciation attributed to Fra Bartolomeo, which brings to mind some of the Annunciations in the Uffizi. The left transept also has the Cappella dell'Addolorata, which has a terracotta representations of the Crèche and the Epiphany, both attributed to Andrea Della Robbia, and an Arrival of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli.
Exit the Duomo from the front; the pleasingly clean Romanesque façade does contrast with the richness of the later décor within. Facing the Duomo is the baptistery, a high octagonal building that's surprisingly bare within, with an odd pseudo-earthen floor. The holy water font is an Etruscan urn, while the earlier baptismal font to the right was done by Andrea Sansovino in 1502, and has representations of faith, baptism, justice and charity. The more recent baptismal font in the center of the building instead dates to 1759.
Exit the square towards the porticos and turn right onto Via Roma, where you will come to the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art. It has a number of carved panels from the Cathedral ceiling, architectural marbles from the Presbytery, a Roman sarcophagus that became Bishop Goffredo's coffin in 1037, an elegant 16th century alabaster ciborium, a number of reliquaries, vestments, and illuminated manuscripts. It also has a beautiful 13th century Crucifixion, and Rosso Fiorentino's Madonna Enthroned with John the Baptist and Saint Bartholomew, a strikingly modern looking, oddly disquieting masterpiece in which they all look like they've seen a horror. Rosso was devout, and the angst of the protagonists is likely related Martin Luther's activities -- Rosso did the painting in 1521, the year of Luther's excommunication, and by then it was no doubt evident that the Church had been sundered. The museum ticket also includes admission to the Pinacoteca and the Archaeology Museum. Hours: March 15-Nov 2 9:30-1, 3-6:30; winter 9-1.
For being a small, relatively out-of-the-way city Volterra has a surprising number of major artworks. Continue along Via Roma, then Via Buonparenti to reach the Pinacoteca, which is in Palazzo Minucci-Solaini (to the left, through a small door after the main door). There's a pretty courtyard downstairs, and then a nice collection that starts out with 12th century sculptures, one of which is a recycled ancient piece with a Christian inscription on the back.
There are also a number of nice 13th and 14th century paintings, including several by Taddeo di Bartolo (note the scenes from the life of the Virgin in the predella of his Virgin Enthroned with Saints), and it's quite interesting to note that some of the stylized figures on gold fields were painted at a time when Masaccio, the great innovator whose realistic poses, lifelike backgrounds, and accurate perspective drew universal admiration in Florence, was long dead. Innovation took time to spread. By the late 1400s it had definitely arrived, however. There's a delightful Christ enthroned by Domenico Ghirlandaio that has elegant motifs drawn from the Flemish masters, and there are two stunning paintings by Luca Signorelli, an Annunciation and a Madonna with Child and Saints, both dated 1491. The Signorelli hall also has the Deposition from the Cross that Rosso Fiorentino painted in 1521, and even if one knew nothing of the times one would still realize something was changing: Signorelli's works are studies of luxury, with delicate gossamer veils, elegant flowers, fine marbles and gold. In short the Virgin lived like a Princess, and Gabriel's wings had peacock feathers. No finery at all in Rosso; stark lines, plain background, simple, dramatic volumes, anguished poses: the Reformation was beginning and Rosso was turning away from the luxury of the earlier times.
The third floor of the museum is also interesting, with, in particular, Daniele da Volterra's Justice, a pretty blonde with sword held high, under the Medici coat of arms. Obviously a political commission, but pleasing, from a painter who later did extensive work in the Vatican. Hours: March 15-Nov 2 9-7; winter 9-2.
Il might well be time for lunch by now. Il Sacco Fiorentino, in Piazza XX Settembre, is pleasant, with interesting, non-traditional cuisine and a nice wine list (closed Fridays). It's also within the city walls, and is on the way to our next stop: the Archaeology museum. Continue down Via dei Sarti, and take Via di Sotto to Piazza XX Settembre; the restaurant is on the square, while the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci is a little further ahead on the left. It's interesting, and well laid out, with the a section in the ground floor dedicated to kinds of tombs (there were several), and an impressive collection of funerary urns, which are divided by type. Some are polychrome terracotta urns, but most are sculpted alabaster, with depictions of the people on the covers, and a variety of motifs on the fronts, which include people riding off on horseback, fanciful animals, warriors, and a couple driving off together in a horse-drawn cart.
The stairs to the upper floors begin with a larger-than-life statue of Abbot Mario Guarnacci (1701-1785), who gave his personal collection of antiquities to the city in 1761. The collection was moved to its present location in 1877, and the pieces set into the staircase, with painted labels, give an idea of what museums were like at the time. The second floor gives an even better idea: case upon case, each crammed full. A modern curator would likely select the finest example of each type of piece, which gives one impression; here we instead have dozens of each kind of cup and pitcher, and come away with an appreciation of the artisans' ability to turn out series of pieces, but are also somewhat numbed. The second floor also has one of the finest funerary sculptures in Italy, a sarcophagus with very lifelike portrait sculptures of a husband and wife in who look to be in their 50s or 60s.
And it has a large collection of bronzes, including the enigmatic Ombra della Sera, an extremely elongate naked boy who is now one of Volterra's symbols. On the top floor there are sections devoted to the various trades, more urns, and a very nice view over the city; in nice weather one can walk down the steps to the museum's garden and explore it as well. March 15-Nov 2 9-7; winter 9-2.
Continue up Via Don Minzoni to the Porta a Selci, flanked by the imposing bulk of the fortress, which was begun in 1342 by Gualtieri di Brenne, Duke of Athens and Governor of Florence, and expanded considerably by Lorenzo il Magnifico in the mid 1470s; Lorenzo's intent was not just to protect, but also to dominate, for Volterra had recently rebelled against Florentine rule. Porta a Selci is the gate the Allied troops entered Volterra through in 1944, and outside there are war memorials to commemorate the city's dead from all the wars; the list from World War One, with many last names appearing repeatedly, is especially grim. Return into town and turn left, onto Via Di Castello. You'll pass the gate of the fortress but can't go in; structures that are difficult to get into can also be difficult to get out of, and now the Fortezza is one of Italy's maximum security prisons. The walk along it is however quite pretty nice; at the end of the Fortezza you will come to a path that leads up the hill into the archaeological park, which is extremely pleasant.
Many of Volterra's oldest structures are alas under the fortress, but you can view a number of excavated ruins at the top of the hill overlooking Palazzo dei Priori.
When you finish looking at the ruins, exit the park and follow Via del Castello back towards Piazza dei Priori, but turn left at Via Porta dell'Arco and go down the hill. The Porta dell'Arco is an Etruscan gate that was preserved intact by the medieval masons who built the new walls, and the contrast is impressive, both in terms of technique -- The Etruscans wall consists of carefully fitted dry masonry, whereas the medieval wall has mortar -- and in terms of scale: the Etruscan wall was much thicker and heavier. The stone balls that stick out form the keystone and the bases of the arch were once heads, likely of divinities.
Parallel the wall for a ways, and turn up Via Turazza, which leads to the Duomo, and turn left to follow Via Franceschini down the hill. You will eventually come to a point with a tiny oratorio dedicated to Saint Christopher, with a rather primitive Madonna painted in the 1400s by Mariotto d'Andrea; it's now greatly revered. The building across the street in Piazzetta San Cristoforo has interesting brickwork, and one wonders why a scallop was taken out of a corner. Continuing down Via Ricciarelli you will reach San Lino, a church named after the second Pope, who is said to have been Volterran. It's a simple 16th century church. So is San Francesco, another couple of hundred yards down the hill to the right. However, San Francesco also has the Cappella Della Croce di Giorno, a chapel erected by the Compagnia Della Croce, an Order devoted to the Cross. The frescos, based on those by Angelo Gaddi in Florence's Santa Croce, tell the story: Seth receives a branch of the tree of Sin and plants it on Abraham;s tomb; the Queen of Sheba foretells the wood's miraculous destiny; the wood is made into a Cross; Saint Helen recognizes the true Cross because of the miracles it produces; Helen moves the Cross, Cosroe King of Persia steals the Cross; he has himself worshiped as a vision of God and the Emperor Eraclio; Emperor Eraclio returns the Cross to Jerusalem. There are also frescos of the Slaughter of the Innocents, and a Crèche, the Flight into Egypt, and the presentation at the Temple.
Via San Lino finishes with the Porta San Francesco, Volterra's most imposing gate, and somewhat beyond it there are remains of the Etruscan walls; to reach them bear left after Santo Stefano.
In terms of places to stay, Volterra has quite a few. Your best bet will be to check the listings in the tourist office's website, http://www.volterratur.it and select what fits your needs. The tourist office also offers a hand phone type guide system if you'd like to take a self-guided tour without lugging a book along. The handsets are available in their offices in Piazza dei Priori.
Finally, as another restaurant option Gambero Rosso's guide speaks well of Badò, in Borgo San Lazzaro 9 (beyond the Porta a Selci, only at lunch, closed Wednesdays), as does Panorama's Ristoranti d'Italia.
This has gone on much longer than I expected, and next time we'll take a break from travel. But we do have time for a proverb, and this time's is Tuscan: La gatta frettolosa fece i gattini ciechi - the hurried cat made blind kittens.
Until next time,
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle@cosabolle.com
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