Volterra, Province of Pisa, Tuscany

Very few places in the world can offer such a span of civilizations: the Etruscan and Roman period, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance. Volterra and its surroundings are rich in attractions, both for its beautiful nature and the really impressive historical and artistic heritage, a special atmosphere which can be felt just by walking through the streets. The profile of Volterra, perched on a hilly spur at 541 meters a.s.l., dominates the surrounding area bounded by the massif of Montevaso, by cordons of Cornocchio and Metalliferous Hills, at the confluence of the Val di Cecina and Era Valley.


  • Altitude: 531 mt a.s.l
  • Population: about 11,000 inhabitants
  • Zip/postal code: 56048
  • Dialing Area Code: +39 0587
  • Patron Saint: St. Giusto and San Clemente, celebrated on 5 June
  • Frazioni & Localities: Saline di Volterra, Mazzolla, Villamagna.
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Provinces of Tuscany

History - Antiquity

The first human settlements, documented by abundant lithic artifacts, go back to the Neolithic period. In the 7th century BC the Etruscans joined various settlements founding the town of Velathri, which during the 4th century was surrounded by a seven kilometers long wall that enclosed land for grazing and cultivation so as to provide food in case of sieges. Velathri became one of the twelve "lucumonie" (small states, each governed by a leader called the Lucumone) that formed the Etruscan nation, and the most important strategic base in the lower Arno valley.

In 283 BC the battle of Lake Vadimone marked the final defeat of Etruria against Rome and about 260 BC Volterra joined the Italian confederation. In 90 BC the town obtained Roman citizenship and was included in the Sabatina tribe. During the Civil war bvetween Marius and Sulla, Volterra followed the fortunes of Marius and was sieged for two years (82-80) but had to surrender. Under Augustus Volterra was one of the municipalities in the Septima Regio and in the 3rd century AD was a bishopric seat.

History - the Middle Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire it was occupied by the Heruli and the Goths; later it housed a garrison of the Byzantines and later, under the Lombards, became the seat of a gastald. In the ninth century an economic revival appeared, as shown by the four markets granted by Carolingian emperors. Starting from the 12th century Volterra became a free city, with a rich trade based on salt production and the extracttion of sulfur, vitriol and alum in the areas of Larderello, Sasso and Libbiano.

At the time the struggle between the bishopry, especially the three bishops of the powerful Pannocchieschi family, was long and bitter and culminated with the supremacy of the municipality. New walls were built to replaced the Etruscans defences; in the early 13th century the Tower of the Porcellino was erected, which later became the seat of the Podesta. The Palazzo dei Priori, begun in 1208 by Maestro Riccardo, was completed in 1257 under Podestà Bonaccorso Adimari, and meanwhile also the Cathedral and the Baptistery, the other major urban complex, underwent major works.

In the early 14th century Ottaviano Belforti became "Signore" of the town but in 1361 one of the Belforti was beheaded in the public square for selling the town to Pisa. The Florentines, who had come as friends to help get rid of the tyranny, established their supremacy and from then on controlled Volterra, which became for Florence an outpost against Siena. Serious riots of the people of Volterra against the hegemonic policy of Florence caused the Allumiere war, which ended with the sack of Volterra in 1472 by the Duke of Montefeltro. After that Volterra was included in the Florentine state and was subjected to harsh treatment which caused the emigration of many wealthy families and between 1472 and 1475 a fortress was built by Lorenzo the Magnificent to control the town and establish a stronghold against Siena.

History - Modern Times

During the Renaissance the palaces of the noble families - Pilastri, Ricciarelli, Minucci, Gherardi - were transformed according to the models of Florentine architecture, with the likely presence of Michelozzo and Antonio San Gallo the Elder. In 1530, in a last desperate hope of recovering the lost liberty, Volterra rebelled against the Florentines, but was recaptured and again sacked by Francesco Ferrucci. During the mid-16th century the art of working alabaster was restarted.

In the following centuries progress was made in the alabaster trade, road connections were improved, bridges and a new road were built to the salt flats in 1833. In the second half of the 19th century, after the unification of Italy, the economy was based mainly on agricukture and the extraction of copper, alum, salt and alabaster that were worked in workshops in Volterra and then exported. After World War II a remarkable emigration broght about the decline of many industries and today one of the main sources of income is tourism.

What to see

  • The city's museums: the Etruscan Museum, the Civic Art Gallery, the Museum of Sacred Art, the Alabaster EcoMuseum.
  • The medieval historical center with the Piazza dei Priori, the heart of town life, with the Palazzo dei Priori, built by Mastro Riccardo in 1239; the facade includes three rows of mullioned windows. The building is surmounted by a pentagonal tower, renovated after the 1846 earthquake. Inside are preserved a "Crucifixion and Saints", a fresco by Pier Francesco Fiorentino, and a "Virgin and Child" attributed to Raffaellino del Garbo. In the same Piazza are the Palazzo Pretorio and the Torre del Porcellino (Tower of the small Pig), once the seat of the Podestà and Captains of the People. On the tower, unanimously considered one of the oldest in the city, on a shelf is a representation of a small pig.
  • The Medici fortress, built on the highest part of the mountain, consists of two buildings, the Rocca Antica and the Rocca Nuova, joined together by a double wall, crowned by a gallery supported by small arches - the so-called "Cammino di Ronda". The Rocca Antica includes parts of several ancient fortifications, and a semi-elliptical shaped tower, popularly known as the "Femmina", attributed to the Duke of Athens. The Rocca Nuova was raised by Lorenzo de Medici on the spot of the Bishops' Palace destroyed by the Florentines in 1472. It consists of a large square, with round bastions at the corners: the center stands the imposing "Torre del Mastio". The fortress was built for military reasons, and is still used as a prison.
  • The cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was rebuilt around 1120 on a pre-existing church. The impressive facade is divided horizontally by frames of braids and flowers and vertically is into three compartments by pilasters. The interior, while retaining the structure and plant Rof a Latin cross with three naves, underwent renovations over the centuries which gave it a late-Renaissance appearance.

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