Volterra: Home to Three Civilizations and the World’s First Witch
Volterra, an archaeological gem in the province of Pisa, in Italy, is often eclipsed by more famous historical sites. This beautiful village, however, dates to the Etruscan period and also contains many fascinating Roman ruins and medieval buildings. It is also known to fans of a certain trilogy as the safest town in the World from vampire attacks.
Volterra, an Etruscan City and Medieval Town
Volterra was first occupied in the 8 th century BC and was originally a fortified settlement on the hill. The first known inhabitants of the settlement were the Etruscans and it became an important urban center, one of the main cities in the Etruscan League then known as Velathri.
The Romans conquered the area in the 3 rd century BC and the town, which they called Volaterrae, eventually became a municipium and gradually became Romanized, although initially inhabitants of such municipalities were considered Roman citizens without voting rights. The town continued to be prosperous under the Romans due to the influence the local Caecinae family held with various Roman rulers , including Caesar and Octavian. Several members of the Caecinae clan served as consuls, which explains the town’s elevated status to a colonia Augusta, the highest status given to a Roman city.
View of ancient roman theatre in Volterra, Italy ( imagedb.com / Adobe Stock)
With the fall of the Roman Empire, it was ruled successively by the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, and the Franks.
When the Frankish Empire collapsed, Volterra became independent. The citizens of the town were able to maintain their independence from their more powerful neighbors for many years. It was, however, finally conquered by Florence in the 16 th century and came under the control of the famous and supremely affluent Medici family , who earned their wealth through commerce and banking.
During the 17 th century, the town went into a period of decline. Ironically this period of decline may have helped to preserve the many important buildings and its hinterland.
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Palazzo Dei Priori of Volterra, Italy ( stevanzz / Adobe Stock)
Myths of the Rock
Like all historic areas, Volterra is associated with many myths and legends such as magic and witchcraft, which may relate back to its Etruscan heritage. The first ever witch, Aradia, lived here, sent by the goddess Diana to teach sorcery to humans. The large boulder leading into town is also associated with witches who would gather at the Rock of Mandringa in the Middle Ages. Some still swear that on Saturday nights they can hear chilling screams, inexplicable whispers, and the sickening scent of sulphur.
Numerous archaeological digs have taken place from the 19 th century, and in the 20 th century Volterra became a popular tourist destination.
The Three Civilizations Of Volterra
What is remarkable about this hillside town is that it contains the remains of not one, but three civilizations. Among the Etruscan remains are the walls of the town dating to the 4 th century BC, although these have been modified down the years. The Porta all'Arco, a gateway located in the walls, was partially remodeled by the Romans in the 1st century BC. The vaulted arch is carved out of huge rectangular stone blocks with three mysterious weathered heads watching passers-by. They are thought to represent Etruscan or Roman gods.
Porta all'Arco, the ancient Etruscan gateway in Volterra ( milosk50 / Adobe Stock)
Many Etruscan burials have been found in the area and it is possible to see some of these in the vicinity. The Guarnacci Etruscan Museum is justly famous for its 600 Etruscan funerary urns and other important artifacts from the culture.
Although the Romans extensively rebuilt the town, much of their town now lies under the medieval settlement. The most important remains from this period is the theatre which is similar to Greek examples with a series of tiers of seats that surround the central stage area. It is built into a hill and was incorporated into the town’s walls in the Middle Ages.
Among the many important medieval sites in the town is the Palazzo dei Priori, an authentic medieval square faced with buildings from the same period and the town hall located on the square dates to the 13 th century. A market is still held in the palazzo on Saturday mornings.
The 13 th century Volterra Cathedral was expanded after an earthquake. This Romanesque building contains many important religious frescos dating from the Renaissance. Volterra Baptistery of San Giovanni was beautifully designed in an octagonal shape and contains a Baroque style baptistry.
Statue of the baptismal font, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Volterra ( giadophoto / Adobe Stock)
The Medici Fortress was built on the highest point overlooking the town. Despite the name, it predates the Medici rule and consist of two fortresses joined together by walls. The portion that was built by Lorenzo de' Medici , also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, in 1474, is a fine example of a Renaissance stately home. It was once adorned by frescoes which were then badly damaged in a 17 th century fire.
Visiting Beautiful Volterra in Italy
The village is in the beautiful Tuscany area, equidistant to Pisa and Florence and public transport to Volterra is available. Many of the sights are free to the public although a ticket can be bought which allows access to all the sites, apart from the fortress which is now a prison. Many festivals and fairs are held in the village and its cuisine is famous.
Top image: Volterra Sunset Source: greenbriar52
By Ed Whelan
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