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Versione Italiana

Volterra, splendour and mystery
by Eleonora Tiliacos

Versione Inglese

In every corner Volterra reveals an atavistic aptitude for nobility, a close-knit medieval structure and the mysterious charm of its Etruscan heritage.

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Pisa  EVENTI & NOVITA'San Miniato, The hill civilisation
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Volterra, ancient in every detail and surrounded by thirteenth-century walls, seems suspended between the Val di Cecina and the Val d’Era, dominating a large stretch of the Colline Metallifere - a link between the provinces of Pisa and Siena, yet at the same time entrenched in complete solitude. A position that is all the more surprising if we consider the town’s past and its leading role in both Etruscan and medieval times.
On the surrounding hills, made mostly of sand and clay, erosion has traced ravines and what are known as biancane, snow-white dome-shaped outcrops of sodium sulphate - a fascinating but tortured landscape that only softens into wheat-covered fields and extensive woods further on. The ochre-coloured abyss known as Le Balze, which swallowed up necropolis and suburbs in the past, begins right next to the walls. Seen from the west, the town seems perched on the hill in miraculous equilibrium instead of being solidly rooted on it - and this is a mystery too, almost as much as the pages of Etruscan history of which we know nothing.
Glorious Velathri, originally one of the twelve Etruscan lucumonies, whose trading influence extended over a large part of the Upper Tyrrhenian Sea, is still visible everywhere in the town’s close-knit medieval form - it lives on in the Piano di Castello acropolis and in the remains of the walls dating back to the 4th century, in the three stone heads adorning Porta all’Arco and the pyramid-shaped tower of Porta Diana.
Above all in the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum, whose forty rooms hold finds from Velathri along with those from prehistoric and Roman times. The world’s richest collection of Etruscan urns is to be found here, around 600 specimens in tufa, terracotta and alabaster (the “stone of light” that still features largely in the thriving local handicrafts industry) whose reliefs present a series of mysteriously fascinating faces of divinities and heroes. The thousands of works on display include masterpieces such as the Avile Tire stele, the Lorenzini Head, the Urn of the Husband and Wife and the bronze votive statuette renamed by D’Annunzio “Evening Shadow”, a long, slender adolescent figure, almost a child, surprisingly modern in its stylisation, a sculpture that could belong to many epochs and is, in fact, one of the best-loved symbols of Volterra. Just as the Guarnacci Museum is the historical memory of the “ancient town”, the story of its art starting from the Middle Ages is told in the Municipal Art Gallery in Palazzo Minucci Solaini. Among the pictures by Ghirlandaio, Daniele da Volterra and Luca Signorelli there is also a splendid Deposition by Rosso Fiorentino, recently restored. Another painting by Rosso Fiorentino (the Villamagna altar-piece) can be found at Palazzo Vescovile, in the Diocesan Museum of Religious Art, where precious reliquaries are displayed side-by-side with works by Tino di Camaino, Mino da Fiesole and Giambologna. Besides the museum, the town’s indelible images are revealed in its streets and piazzas - in the walls, interrupted by nine gates that seem to open onto time rather than onto a physical space; the upward thrust of the Buonparent tower-house and the portal of San Michele Archangelo; the massive bulk of the Medici Fortress; the wonderful Gothic frescoes in the church of San Francesco and the ruins of the Roman Theatre on the Vallebona slope. At the apex of any real or imaginary route we find Piazza dei Priori, whose grey pietra panchina stone shapes one of the most consistent settings created by the city-republic civilisation in Italy. In addition to the superb Palazzo dei Priori, of course, the dominating presence here is Palazzo Pretorio with the Porcellino tower, so called because of the little stone boar that adorns the front. The Baptistery and the Duomo, Pisan Romanesque gems that face each other in Piazza San Giovanni, act as counterpoint to these noble secular buildings. On crossing their thresholds one is greeted by a baptismal font by Andrea Sansovino and a wooden Deposition that is one of the most beautiful examples of Tuscan thirteenth-century sculpture. Two monumental piazzas at the heart of Volterra reveal its atavistic tradition of nobility, while everywhere the solidity of stone combines with the subtle allure of mystery as if time and space had joined forces to create a Chinese puzzle - not only in the alleys of the old town but also in the sumptuous halls of Palazzo Incontri-Viti, where Visconti shot some of the scenes of his film Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa (Of a Thousand Delights, 1965). The special alchemy of this town and of its ancient spirit transcends solid reality just as light filters through alabaster.

Eleonora Tiliacos

 

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