Where is Volterra?
Volterra is an historic city in Tuscany close to Pisa, Florence and Siena. Once an Etruscan stronghold it is a beautiful city and a worth-while tourist destination, with plenty to see and do. It has many Etruscan remains and tombs, a Roman theatre and beautiful medieval buildings, like the Cathedral and Baptistery. It is off the main tourist-trails and surrounded by beautiful hills covered in forests, an experience of real Tuscany.
What to see in Volterra
The Roman Theatre
This is well worth a visit, a Roman theatre set into the natural slope of the land and remarkably complete. When it was excavated in the 1950s the archaeologists found tufa seats carved with the names of the main families of the area, like the Caecinae, the Persii and the Laelii. The theatre was financed by the richest of these three families, the Caecinae, as testified by the dedication stone found in the theatre and now shown in the city's Museo Guarnacci.
In the late 18th century the canon of the city's Cathedral excavated a particularly impressive underground Etruscan tomb, containing 40 etruscan urns. His donation of these urns to the Comune formed the basis of the city's impressive collection of Etruscan artifacts. But it was Monsignor Guarnacci who really boosted the collection and its reputation. There are an incredible number of pieces in this museum, but there are 3 you mustn't miss:
L'ombra della sera Compared by many to the modern work of Giacometti, this is a tall thin bronze figure known as L'ombra della sera which means "The evening's shadow", a wonderfully evocative name for a statue that evokes our own lengthening shadows as the sun sets. It is a remarkable piece that really brings to life this ancient population.
Stele di Avile Tite A stone scuplture now over 2,000 years old, representing an Etruscan warrior. Around the border a carving declares: "I am [of] Avile Tites [...] Uchsie donated me". The carving has remarkable similarities to Greco-Oriental work, including earlier pieces from Mesopotamia, and raises further questions about the origins of the Etruscans, whom some argue were indigenous to Tuscany while others argue were a sea-faring people who settled here.
Urna degli Sposi A funerary urn for a married couple, now united in death as in life. It is the humanity that is striking, the expressions on their faces, the head gear and hair-styles - all of this brings the Etruscans alive for us in a very impressive way.
The museum itself is quite old-school - plenty of dusty cases with lots of labelled items in them. But some fabulous items in there when you look - I just wish they'd bring in a new curator, archive 80% of the collection and really tell the story of this remarkable population.
Cathedral of Volterra
The Cathedral was originally a different building. In 1472 the Florentines destroyed the original Cathedral which was next to the Bishop's Palace. This helps explain why the position of this Cathedral feels strange, and separate from the life of the city. The Church that is now the Cathedral was re-built in 1117 after an earthquake destroyed most of the city in the same year. The facade was apparently built using stone from the Roman theatre - this would often happen, where ancient buildings would be used as quarries of pre-cut stone - it's the reason so much of the Colosseum in Rome is missing, the whole building was a quarry for the Romans in the middle ages.
I have a weak spot for baptisteries and this one is beautiful. They were far more common from the 10th to the 13th centuries when the baptism was often undergone by immersion and by adults. The baptysmal font is a original Roman sarcophagus.
Palazzo dei Priori
This impressive building is the centerpiece of a beautiful city square. Building was started in 1208 and for centuries the Palace was at the centre of civic life. Originally the 24 elders of the city would actually live in the Palace, on the second floor above the town hall meeting rooms.
History of Volterra
The city started life as a bronze-age settlement and became an important Etruscan city, one of the "twelve cities" of the Etruscan league. It is set high on a ridge overlooking the valleys of the Era and Cecina rivers in an eminently defenisble position - the Etruscans added a circle of walls some of which are still standing today - you can visit the famous "Porta all'Arco". But the wealth and power of Volterra attracted the Romans and in the 3rd century BCE, after the battle of Lake Vadimone, the city became the Roman "Volaterrae".
After the fall of the Roman empire the city was under the control of the Bishops, together with a large surrounding territory - the castles of "La Torraccia" and the "Rocca di Sillano" in nearby Berignone were part of the Bishops' fortifications. By the 13th century the city changed to be a "Comune", governed by local families - but by the mid 15th century Florence, allied with one of the families, the Belforti, had conquered the city.
A sketch of the dark hills of Berignone from the walls of Volterra - Dan Wrightson, 2000
Getting to Volterra
Public Transport You can reach Volterra by train and bus from Pisa Airport: Take the PisaMover shuttle from the Airport to Pisa Centrale Train Station. From here take a train towards Florence (Firenze) and get off at Pontedera. From Pontedera a bus will take you to Volterra in just over an hour.
You can also take a train from Pisa Centrale to Saline di Volterra but there are far fewer running - only about 6 trains a week. Alternatively, take a train to Cecina and then a bus to Volterra.
By Car Volterra is reachable with the following driving times
|Pisa||Volterra||1hr 15 mins|
|Florence||Volterra||1hr 20 mins|
|Lucca||Volterra||1hr 30 mins|
|San Gimignano||Volterra||35 mins|
|Rome||Volterra||3hrs 30 mins|
Parking in Volterra The easiest place to park is the underground car park in: Viale dei Ponti, 56048 Volterra PI
There are other car parks in: Viale Franco Porretti, 56048 Volterra PI Borgata S. Stefano, 9, 56048 Volterra PI
Charging an electric car in Volterra There is an ENEL electric car charging station in: Piazza Caduti nei Lager Nazisti, 56048 Volterra PI, very close to the Roman Theatre.