Volterra, Italy, a charming mediaeval Tuscan hilltop town

Volterra is a charming Tuscan hill town that was “discovered” by a popular author of travel guides a few years back and more recently became the setting for a series of vampire movies. Despite the consequent upsurge in tourism, Volterra is still a “must visit” for anyone interested in Tuscan life, art and history. Volterra is the quintessential Tuscan hilltop town, with massive walls and dominating the Cecina Valley with wonderful panoramic views in every direction. Its mediaeval streets are of great charm and in August every year, Volterra hosts one of the best mediaeval costume festivals in Tuscany.

Volterra Tuscany
View of the Baptistry and town of Volterra, Tuscany
Volterra coats of arms
Volterra coats of arms – the flavour of Mediaeval life

Volterra was, of course, one of the more important of the Etruscan Dodecapoli League, and there are readily-identifiable Etruscan elements in the walls and gates, especially the Porta all’Arco which dates from the 4th century BC. The Guarnacci Etruscan Museum in Volterra is one of the most important Etruscan museums in Italy.

The Romans followed the Etruscans and their massive theatre (the Teatro di Vallebona) dates from the Augustan period. The Roman Baths and an enormous rectangular water cistern are also among the Roman remains in Volterra. (Roman ruins on the grand scale are quite rare in Tuscany, in comparison with, for example, Umbria – see Roman sites in Umbria).

Volterra adopted Christianity early and was already the centre of a vaste diocese at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD. Throughout the Dark Age and the barbarian invasions, Volterra was ruled by its Bishop, and it emerged in the early mediaeval period as an important city. Indeed, its town plan, much of its architecture and its atmosphere are mediaeval to the present day. There are numerous mediaeval tower houses throughout Volterra.

Fortezza Medicea at Volterra
Fortezza Medicea at Volterra

The Piazza dei Priori is one of the finest town squares in all of Italy, surrounded by tower houses and austere palazzi, including the massive Palazzo dei Priori (now the town hall) with its 15 C and 16 C glazed shields.

The Romanesque duomo (cathedral) dates from 1120 and was remodelled in Pisan style in the 13 C. The octagonal Baptistery stands in front of it. The Medicean Fortress of Volterra is one of the largest mediaeval strongholds in Italy and was used as a prison in Renaissance times. There are several Renaissance palazzi to be seen including Palazzo Minucci-Solaini, attributed to Sangallo.

Church of San Giusto in Volterra
Church of San Giusto at Volterra

The Church of San Giusto (Chiesa dei Santi Giusto e Clemente also known as San Giusto Nuovo) was built in 1627 by the Florentine architect Coccapani and is located on a hill just outside Volterra. Each day of the year, exactly at midday, a ray of sunlight shines through a hole and falls on the marble meridian line marked out on the floor of the church.

Last but not least, Volterra is the home of a considerable alabaster industry and alabaster objects are readily available to buy.

Worth an extended visit. More about Volterra.

More about Festivals and events in Volterra.