Volterra is a small Tuscan city, located in the province of Pisa, at 556 m elevation, and on the sandstone spur that separates the Era and Cecina river valleys.
The sandy terrain is incised by calanchi, areas of rapid erosion. The Balze (cliffs) to one side of Volterra are a spectacular example of calanchi.
Isolated, and yet strategically situated, this city with ancient roots has always managed to maintain its unique qualities-the different traditions of Tuscany are found here.
Principal economic resources are the artistic working of alabaster, which has ancient origins, gold craftsmanship, and tourism. Cereals and other crops are grown in the countryside. There are also chemical and mechanical factories scattered about, the mining of a very pure rock salt, based in Saline di Volterra, has also an important and long history.
Volterra was a city by the 8th c. B.C., then its name was Volaterrae (or Velathri in Etruscan). It was one of most important and flourishing of the twelve Etruscan capital cities, dominating a territory that included Luni and maybe Populonia. By 281-280 B.C., it had allied with Rome and during the Punic Wars, it provided supplies to Scipione. During the Roman Civil Wars, the Etruscans supported Marius. When he lost, Silla had his revenge by expropriating Volterran land to give to the Roman war veterans. Later, the Longobards and the Franks also held sway. The local bishops held some power, yet in Medieval times the Ghibellins took control. The city supported the Vicar Manfredi, balancing the power of the Florentine Guelphs. Volterra was conquered by Florence, during the reign of Lorenzo the Magnificent. In 1472 A.D., Volterra was sacked, and lost its autonomous status. Then Volterra allied itself with the Imperial forces, laid siege to a Florentine outpost (rocca) which was under command of Francesco Ferrucci. When the Florentine Republic fell, Volterra came under the Medici rule, receiving from them administrative privileges and exemptions. From that time on, Volterra was integrated into Tuscany.
The erosion of the Balze has destroyed much of the archaic necropolis. The city residences were enclosed by a wall, constructed mainly during the 5th c. B.C., with additions in the 4th c. B.C., and with a perimeter of 7 km is surely one of the most impressive Etruscan fortifications. Two of the most important sites along this wall, still visible, are the Porta dell'Arco, a massive vaulted gate decorated with three heavily weathered figureheads (which may date to the 2nd c. B.C.), and the Porta Diana or Portone, which is not arched. The funerary urns are of great artistic value. The more important urns were carved by important artists, from tuft or alabaster, with likeness of the deceased, and also mythical scenes. A cultural and artistic development is evident in these reliefs. Many of these urns are on view in the Guarnacci Museum.
Roman remains, in Volterra, are also significant. A forum, a temple built upon ancient foundations, thermal baths, and theatre from the Augustine Age, can all be viewed in the area called Vallebuona (just outside the medieval city walls). An important cistern, named Piscina, is built with three naves, its the entrance is through the Parco Fiumi. The Guarnacci Museum also contains sections with prehistoric and Roman art.
Volterra art and architecture are entwined in its Medieval constructions. During this time, a new and smaller wall was built (3200 m), partially coinciding with a southern section of the Etruscan wall. Many private houses with towers, and public buildings, were constructed. The most impressive structures include the Duomo, built in the 13th c. and modified in the 16th c., which has an important wood-polychrome Deposition; and the Baptistery, octagonal in shape and designed by Giroldo da Como in 1284 (the baptismal font by A. Sansovino is noteworthy). The Medieval city center, the beautiful Piazza dei Priori, remains the center of modern Volterra. The Palazzo dei Priori faces the Piazza, built from 1208 to 1254, it is the first municipal hall built in Tuscany. Other medieval Palazzi, which give the Piazza its imposing character are: the 13th c. Palazzo Pretorio containing the Torre del Podest, also called Torre del Porcellino (small pig); the Palazzo Vescovile which was used as a public granary and beginning in 1618 became the Bishop's residence; and the Palazzo Incontri which now is the headquarters of the Volterra Bank. Other places worth visiting are the pisa-romanesque S. Michele Arcangelo church, the churches of S. Francesco and S. Lino, the S. Girolamo church and cloister, which contain pictures and sculptures from the Florentine school; the imposing 13th c. Medici Fortress (now a penitentiary); and the 15th c. (Biondi, Contugi, ...) and 16th c. Minacci, and Viti Palazzi.
Volterra: Virtual Guide: environment, history, the city, museums, events, itineraries.