As one of the medieval hill towns in Tuscany, Volterra sees fewer tourists than others, despite its many attractions. So you can expect to share the winding stone streets with the locals and explore the ancient sites without crowds. Before the third century BC, when it became a Roman municipium, Volterra was a member of the Etruscan League of Twelve Cities, and it was already known for its alabaster, which was worked by craftsmen and traded on the peninsula. The historic center is still marked by medieval tower houses from the 12th and 13th centuries – look north of the cathedral for Casa-torre Buonparenti, Torre Martinoli, Casa Nannetti e Miranceli and Torre Buonaguidi. In Via Ricciarelli you can find more at numbers 24 and 34-36; note the small windows for children below the main windows.
1 Guarnacci Etruscan Museum (Etruskisch museum)
From at least the fourth century BC, Volterra was an important Etruscan settlement, considerably larger than it is today, and the whole area is dotted with archaeological excavations. A remarkable collection of these artifacts is displayed in this excellent museum, along with an equally outstanding collection of art from prehistoric and Roman times.
The Etruscan section of the museum provides an excellent insight into the life and culture of these people about whom so little is known. It contains more than 600 tuff, alabaster or terracotta cinerary urns, mostly dating from the fourth to the first century BC. Of particular interest are two urns with reliefs depicting the siege of Thebes, depicting a vaulted gate like Volterra’s etruscan arch. Other items include a mixing vessel from Attica, funstel settings, jewelery and coins. Owned by the city since 1761, this is one of Europe’s oldest public museums.
Address: Via Don Minzoni 15, I-56048 Volterra
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Volterra
2 Arco Etrusco (Etruscan Arch)
Follow Via Porta all’Arco from the center of Volterra to find the Arco Etrusco, a gate in the city’s ancient walls circuit. Although the arch itself was rebuilt in Roman times and the stonework on either side of the gate is medieval, the dressed stones on the edge of the gate and the three weathered heads on the arch date from the fourth or third century BC. A similar gate is depicted in a 1st century BC Etruscan work in the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum. A commemorative coin tells that during World War II, the inhabitants of Volterra prevented the gate from being blown up by German troops.
Etruscan walls, now picturesquely overgrown with ivy, holm oaks and stunted cypresses, are still evident around Volterra, where they have a very irregular contour much larger than that of the medieval town. In some places the walls rise as high as 11 meters. There is a particularly fine stretch through the little one Church of Santa Chiara. Another part is beyond the Porta San Francesco, which you can reach by following Via Ricciarelli past the church of San Lino.
3 Duomo (Cathedral) and Baptistery
Behind the Palace of the People is the Duomo Santa Maria Assunta, consecrated in 1120 and enlarged in Pisan style in 1254. The campanile, which, together with the dome of the baptistery, gives focal points on Volterra’s distinctive skyline, was rebuilt and stabilized in 1493 after its collapse. The church interior was renovated in the 16th century, so it is predominantly Renaissance in style. Inside the entrance wall is the beautiful eight panel reredos of the Romanesque altar and in the first chapel in the right transept is the reliquary of Saint Ottaviano by Raffaele Cioli. The impressive pulpit was constructed in the 17th century from fragments of various origins, including twelfth-century reliefs of Old and New Testament scenes. In the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrowsin the left aisle a colored terracotta group of the Holy Family has a background fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting the arrival of the three Magi and opposite is a polychrome terracotta group of the Adoration of the Magi.
The free-standing octagonal baptistery dates from the 13th century and has been much modified since then, but still has a Romanesque doorway with a figurative decoration. The interior is simple but has an excellent 1502 font by Andrea Sansovino with relief carvings. In the cloister adjacent to the duomo, the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art displays the treasury and liturgical objects, including a glazed terracotta bust of St. Linus by Andrea della Robbia, a 15th-century silver reliquary of Saint Ottaviano by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, a wooden tabernacle decorated with miniatures of the Umbrian school, and a 16th- century gilt bronze crucifix by Giambologna.
Address: Via Roma 13, Volterra
4 Teatro Romano (Romeins theater)
North of the city walls and accessible via Porta San Francesco is the large archaeological area of Vallebuona, where excavations since 1951 have revealed a Roman theater from the first century AD. You will see 19 rows of seats built into the natural slope, as well as the orchestra pit, in marble. Part of the stage – the Pulpitum and two structures and marble columns of the Frons Scenae – remain standing. There are also remains of thermal baths that were added later.
Address: Viale Ferrucci, Volterra
5 Palazzo dei Priori
In the Priory Square, the central square of the medieval city, the Palazzo dei Priori is now the town hall. It is the oldest in Tuscany, built between 1208 and 1254. The coats of arms on the austere facade show that it was successively the official residence of the mayor (chief magistrate) and later of the Florentine priori in commissioners. At either end of the facade are columns with the heraldic lion of Florence. The council chamber on the ground floor is decorated with frescoes, most of them in the ‘historical’ style of the 19th century. Opposite the Palazzo dei Priori is the 13th century Praetorian Palace, which until 1511 was the seat of the Capitano del Pópolo, a local official who acted on behalf of the people to balance the power of noble families. It contained a number of previous buildings and is dominated by the battlement Tower of the Podesta. On top of the tower is a figure popularly known as Porcellino – Piglet.
6 Archaeological Park
In 1926, excavations began to uncover the remains of an ancient acropolis with the foundations of two second-century BC temples. You will also discover here a cistern, remains of a sanitary system and two temple-like buildings, one from the 2nd century BC and the other from the 3rd century AD, with a podium and a colonnade. The archaeological site is particularly interesting for its stratification of Etruscan, Roman and medieval buildings.
Address: Viale Ferrucci, Volterra
7 Alabaster Ecomuseum
Alabaster has been important to Volterra since the eighth century BC, a story told in this museum/studio. Exhibits show how the stone was (and was) quarried, how it was worked, and how traveling artisans spread the craft to other places and made Volterra a wealthy city. The museum includes a long-established family alabaster workshop and displays of the craft through the ages, including Etruscan pieces and exquisitely delicate works from the 18th century when the industry was at its peak. As you travel through Volterra you will see many alabaster workshops, especially on Via Porta all’Arco on the way to the Etruscan arch.
Address: Palazzo Minucci Solaini, Via dei Sarti, Volterra
8 Palazzo Viti
This palace was – and still is – the residence of the Viti family, descendants of Giuseppe Viti, an important figure in Volterra’s early 19th century history. He was a leader of the unique practice known locally as ‘the Alabaster Travelers’ movement that brought the city its prosperity. The palace’s 12 public rooms are filled with priceless collections of alabaster art, as well as furniture and art from Italy, Europe and Asia dating back as far as the 15th century. Highlights include stone and wood marquetry furnishings, alabaster floors, and Chinese ivories brought back by members of the Viti family from their travels around the world selling alabaster. A painting in the dining room shows Giuseppe Viti crossing the Andes with alabaster bowls.
In the ballroom are two alabaster candlesticks made in the Viti workshops for Maximilian of Habsburg, Emperor of Mexico, and unfinished at the time of his death. The dining room has a superb collection of 18th and 19th century Chinese miniatures, and the bed curtains and tapestries in the King’s Room date back to 1861, when King Victor Emmanuel II resided here. He was not the only royal visitor and the palace was used as a film location by director Luchino Visconti.
Address: Via dei Sarti 41, Volterra
Official site: https://www.palazzoviti.it/palazzo/