Volterra is one of the most beautiful and least touristy of the great Tuscan hill towns.
Far from heavily-trafficked roads and industrial areas, Volterra is surrounded by rolling patchwork hills with fields of grain and woodlands. Volterra in spring is a kaleidoscope of colors – red poppies, yellow rape-seed blooms, and fragrant purple fava-bean flowers dot the brilliant green fields. In summer, as the spring rains slow their trickle, the green fields turn to gold as wheat is harvested and sunflowers raise, and then bow, their proud heads. Autumn is glorious, with new-growth sprouting in the fields, like worn velvet over the dark clay earth, and the trees brighten the hills and ravines with their changing leaves. Winter is like a once-beautiful old woman: the earth and trees bare their nakedness with confidence, occasionally comforted by a blanket of snow, or the deep hues of a late-afternoon sunset.
Situated in the middle of the triangle formed by the cities of Pisa, Siena and Florence, it is the perfect base for a Tuscan vacation.
On clear days you can easily see the sea, with the islands of Capraia and Corsica on the horizon. From Volterra you can easily make day-trips to the beach, to the wineries and hamlets of Chianti or lesser-known areas.
But after a few hours in Volterra, many decide to simply stay put…
Great day-trips from Volterra
sometimes the best places are not in your guidebook (yet)!
driving times – by car – presuming average traffic
|Florence||1 hr 15 min||
Map of Tuscany
|Lucca||1 hr 30 min|
|San Gimignano||30 min|
|Populonia & Baratti||1 hr 15 min|
|Colle Val d'Elsa||30 min|
A brief history of Volterra
the city boasts some 3,500 years of history. Summaries thus prove difficult.
Initially settled by the proto-Etruscan Villanovians, by the 4th c. B.C. it had become one of the most populous and powerful of the 12 Etruscan city-states. Segments of the original Etruscan wall and the Porta all’Arco, an arched Etruscan city gate, can still be seen, as well as several Etruscan tombs and the contents of the vast necropoli now on display in the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum.
By 260 B.C. the city had accepted Roman rule and thrived, though in the early 1st c. B.C. when Volterra supported the losing side in the civil war between Marius and Sulla, Sulla made Volterra pay for its treachery, resulting in a period of crisis for the city. To defend their holdings, many patrician Volterrans who had been living in Rome returned to the city. Numerous public buildings were constructed at the end of the 1st c. B.C., including the Roman Theater of Vallebuona, which certainly put the city in the graces of the Emperor (Octavian) Augustus to whom it was dedicated.
Other buildings constructed in the Roman era and still visible today are the Baths of San Felice, the Baths of Vallebuona, and the magnificent mosaics from Roman villas, now used as flooring in the Etruscan Museum.
The city experienced a period of rebirth from the 12th century onward as it gained independence and flourished as an independent city state. In 1209 they began construction of the Palazzo dei Priori, dedicated to town governance then as now, and considered the first town-hall building in Central Italy.
For centuries the Diocese of Volterra had wielded great power and influence, and was forced to accept the presence of its newly-created rival, divvying up control of the vast mineral resources of the Colline Metallifere (alum, iron ore, zinc, copper etc). The abundance of these resources and the political stability that reigned in Volterra made it one of the dominant Tuscan cities.
The harmonious Piazza San Giovanni, with the early 12th c. Cathedral, late 13th c. Baptistry, and Renaissance Hospital, pays testimony to this period.
In the 13th century, Volterra decided to rebuild a tighter ring of city walls around the city to better defend against certain attack, resulting in a drastic increase in population density. Numerous house-towers were erected and the city-scape was transformed, giving Volterra the intimate (if slightly illogical) Medieval configuration that is still evident today.
Early modern period
Is fate always determined by natural resources? For Volterra it certainly proved to be the case. The vast alum deposits controlled by Volterra were an extremely coveted resource, as alum was necessary for the dyeing process of textiles, that in turn were the source of wealth for Tuscany’s blossoming merchant class.
After trying to trick Volterra into selling him the alum mines for a cut-rate price (and failing), in 1472 Lorenzo de’ Medici enlisted the notorious general Federico da Montefeltro and sacked the city. Florentine rule was established, and independence thus lost. In the following years the Florentines built their colossal Fortress on the top plateau of the city to depend against the locals, and also as a symbol of their dominance over Volterra.
With its total submission to Florence, Volterra was forced to pass a period of relative obscurity.
A positive consequence of Volterra’s decline in power and prominence is the fact that the city did not engage in systematic urban renewal over the past centuries, and thus the city still retains a strong medieval character, and aspects from each period of its long and rich history.
Today Volterra is a city of 12,000 inhabitants with a vibrant city-life and rich cultural offerings. It remains a hub for a vast rural area, with its inhabitants employed in the large local hospital, service industries, schools, agriculture, alabaster-carving, many artist and artisan ventures… and tourism.