The city of Volterra is certainly among the best-preserved medieval cities in Tuscany. Part of the province of Pisa, it is located near the provinces of Siena and Livorno. It is a town of just ten thousand inhabitants, characterized by winding cobblestone streets surrounded by Roman, Etruscan, and medieval structures.
Volterra is best known for its historic center and its centuries-old tradition in the mining and working of alabaster, a pretty, smooth rock that can be carved into statues or used to make decorations.
But the town has also been the focus of cinema in recent years. It is one of the settings for the Twilight saga, with author Stephenie Meyer making it the hometown of the Volturi vampire clan. More recently, scenes were filmed for the TV series “I Medici“, a TV series based on the history of the Florentine Medici family.
In this article…
Volterra, the History and its Origin
Located in the so-called region of Etruria, Volterra was one of the main city-states in ancient Tuscany and has a rich history filled with tradition and art. Its historic center has Etruscan origins, as evidenced by several monuments, and during that time, the city, known as Velathri during the Etruscan period, became a significant commercial center, reaching a population of 25,000 – an impressive number for the period.
Moreover, Volterra was one of the last cities to surrender to Roman power in approximately 260 BC, and during the Roman period, it became a prominent municipality. There was also born the second pope in Christian history, Pope Linus, and the poet Persius Flaccus.
In the 5th century CE, Volterra was established as an episcopal see. With the passage of time, the bishops gradually gained more influence and control over the city. However, in 1361, the city came under the influence of Florence. Despite this, the inhabitants of Volterra remained resistant to Medici rule, leading to several episodes of rebellion over the years.
In 1472, there was a particularly intense episode of rebellion in Volterra, sparked by economic reasons. This led to a violent reaction by the Florentines, following the killing of Paolo Inghirami. Inghirami was one of two Volterrans, along with three Florentines, who had been entrusted with managing some alum mines owned by the Municipality of Volterra and located in Castelnuovo Val di Cecina – one of the main economic reasons that fueled the rebellion that year. In response to the uprising, Lorenzo Il Magnifico’s soldiers sacked the city in the same year.
In 1530, another significant rebellion broke out in Volterra, which was linked to the war between Charles V and the Florentine Republic. This uprising was also brutally suppressed by the Florentines. Eventually, Volterra passed from Florentine rule to that of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, remaining under its control until Italian unification in 1860.
Volterra, Must-See Sights
The “Volterra Card“, which costs 15€ (Free for children up to 10 years old, 12.00€ for children from 10 to 18 years old), provides a unique chance to delve into the city’s rich past spanning over a thousand years, from the Etruscan civilization to the Middle Ages and Renaissance art. This special 72-hour pass grants you free access to Volterra’s most important museums, including the Picture Gallery, the Alabaster Ecomuseum, the Palazzo dei Priori, the Etruscan Acropolis, the Roman Cistern, the Roman Theater, and the Etruscan Museum.
Museo Etrusco Guarnacci
The Etruscan Museum in Volterra is home to an extensive collection of artifacts, making it one of the most remarkable collections of Etruscan objects in Italy. The locally discovered items comprise about 600 funerary urns, predominantly carved from alabaster and tufa. Notably, one of the highlights is the Urna degli Sposi (Urn of the Spouses), featuring a remarkably lifelike terracotta depiction of an elderly couple. The pieces are arranged according to subject and period, with the most exceptional specimens (dating from later eras) showcased on the second and third floors.
Established in 1761, the Guarnacci Museum is one of the most ancient public museums in Europe. Its origin dates back to when the distinguished abbot Mario Guarnacci (Volterra 1701-1785), after years of research and purchases, generously donated his significant archaeological heritage to the “public of the city of Volterra.” Along with the donation of his vast collection, Guarnacci also bestowed a library containing more than 50,000 volumes. His remarkable gift demonstrated incredible foresight, not only endowing the city with a crucial cultural asset but also preventing the risk of the sizable accumulated heritage being dispersed.
In addition to his role as an abbot, Guarnacci was also a historian and writer. One of his notable works was a history of Italy’s earliest inhabitants titled “Le Origini Italiche,” published in Lucca in 1767. This publication immediately sparked lively debates and polemical reactions within academic circles. Despite the controversy, Guarnacci’s work brought considerable attention to Volterra from some of the most prominent intellectuals of the era, including Giovanni Lami, Scipione Maffei, and Anton Francesco Gori.
Museo Diocesano d’Arte Sacra Volterra
The collection of sacred art displayed in the Chiesa di San Agostino offers a unique and gratifying museum experience, as it is located in a functioning church that provides an appropriate setting for the works. The pieces are sourced from various churches in the diocese of Volterra and feature three remarkable Madonnas Enthroned with Child: two 15th-century renditions by Neri di Bicci and Taddeo di Bartoli, and a 16th-century example created by Rosso Fiorentino. A must-see work is the exquisitely crafted 14th-century wooden Madonna of the Annunciation.
The Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art of Volterra was established on December 20, 1932, as the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, on the precise orders of the Holy See. The purpose of the museum was to protect the rich historical and artistic heritage of the Church. The credit for the collection and arrangement of objects in the museum’s rooms within the ancient rectory of the Cathedral, now the Bishop’s Palace, goes to the learned prelate Monsignor Maurizio Cavallini.
During the war events of 1944, the Museum suffered significant damage, particularly to the section of sacred vestments, many of which were destroyed. However, the Superintendency completely rearranged and reopened the museum to the public on June 4, 1956.
The Museum faced another setback in 1984, with a sacrilegious theft on Christmas night leading to a further closure. However, this incident provided an opportunity for significant plant upgrading work. The Museum reopened for the second time on December 19, 1992, until its relocation to the current site inside the Church of St. Augustine in 2017.
Ecomuseo dell’Alabastro and Pinacoteca Comunale
As said before, Volterra is well-known for its centuries-old tradition in the mining and working of alabaster. This museum provides an interesting journey through the world of alabaster, from its production and crafting to commercialization. The exhibition features contemporary creations alongside stunning examples of alabaster works from Etruscan times onwards. Visitors can also witness a recreated artisan’s workshop. The museum ticket includes entry to the Pinacoteca Comunale in the same building, offering visitors a chance to enjoy a wide range of art forms.
Teatro Romano (Roman Theatre)
The Roman Theatre in Volterra is an impressive archaeological site commissioned in the 1st century BCE, which could hold up to 2000 spectators. It features a well-preserved cavea, orchestra pit, and stage. Despite being used as the town dump, the theater was rediscovered and excavated in the 1950s. The theater’s stage wall features a standard Roman design with three levels for actors, one for mortals, one for heroes, and the top one for gods. The scant remains of the Volterra baths can be seen behind the theater, and the vantage point also offers a view of Volterra’s Etruscan wall. The theater is visible for free from Via Lungo Le Mura del Mandorlo or can be visited with the Volterra Card.
The Salt Mine in the Saline di Volterra
In the heart of Tuscany lies a small hamlet called Saline di Volterra, which has prospered for centuries around a single product: salt. This small community of just over a thousand inhabitants has survived since the times of the Etruscans and Romans, and it is now known for producing the purest salt in Italy, even up to 99% pure. Today, salt is produced through a highly technological modern industrial process, which derives directly from the oldest salt processing techniques such as recrystallization.
Saline di Volterra owes its history to the discovery of the salt mine by the Etruscans. As a result, the settlement became a village. With the arrival of the Romans and their endless loads of mules that carried the precious cargo to every corner of the empire along the Via Francigena, the village became an industrial hub, where everyone had a home and a job at the mine. The history of Saline di Volterra was consolidated for centuries around the principle of salt mining.
The Grand Dukes of Tuscany in the second half of the 16th century decided to improve the production and the living conditions of the workers by building the first “industrial” plant in 1789. This was followed by the passage to the State Monopolies, which managed the salt mine until 1973. During this period, the arrival of the railway that connected Salina di Volterra to Cecina was a significant advantage.
After the privatization of the salt mine, a magical moment in its history occurred in the 1960s with the construction of the pavilion by architect Pierluigi Nervi. The pavilion is 22 meters high and 100 meters long, with a wooden floor because any other material would be eaten away by the salt. The salt falls inside the warehouse, and depending on the moment, it can form a cascade of up to 15 meters of pure, dazzlingly white salt.
Today, Saline di Volterra invites visitors to explore its history and culture through the Salt Museum and Emporium and a guided tour of the mine on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The people of Salina di Volterra have understood the value of their history and culture and have made an effort to share it with others. The extraordinary opening of the Salina di Volterra plant is part of one of the 150 events of the Festa della Toscana, held on the last day of November. This event celebrates the fact that on 30 November 1786, by the decision of the then Grand Duke Leopold, Tuscany was the first state in the world to abolish torture and the death penalty.
Cover Photo: Laura Lugaresi / Unsplash