Volterra Things to Do

  • Chiesa De San Gusto
    Chiesa De San Gusto
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  • Buildings in the Reear of the Church and Volterra
    Buildings in the Reear of the Church and...
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  • Porta all Arco    Outside Wall View
    Porta all Arco Outside Wall View
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Best Rated Things to Do in Volterra

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    Museo Etrusco Guarnacci: fascinating funeral urns

    by Bunsch Written Aug 11, 2010

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    A tiny sample of ceramics collection (not my pic)

    If you're even the slightest bit interested in Etruscans, you won't want to miss the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci, which was founded in 1761 to house the collection of a nobleman with an interest in antiquities. Located in a former private residence, the Palazzo Desideri-Tangassi, it has a stellar collection of burial urns and a number of other items of interest. The urns are sized to receive cremated human remains; the unique feature is that the stone cask is topped by a sculpture of the body entombed therein. There is considerable debate about whether the funerary urns were just mass-produced (a whole series of veiled ladies or thoughtful gentlemen), perhaps with a few identifying touches added. Certainly there is a similarity of style to the urns dating to a particular century (hand placement, decorative touches, etc.) but some of these sculptures have so much personality that I can't really believe they failed to capture the decedents.

    If you've seen more cinerary urns than you can take, just keep going -- there is also a moderately large collection of Etruscan jewelry, gems, and even armor. And don't miss Ombra della Sera, a sculpture which reminds many people of modern-day Brancusi.

    This was also the first museum where I saw an extensive collection of coins. Although many of them are of less hoary lineage, they dated from periods where I knew substantially more about the history (Biblical, Roman and otherwise) than I knew about the Etruscans, so I was entranced. Of course that's part of the charm of Volterra itself, as it captures millenia of historic architecture.

    The museum isn't large, so even a very interested observer can canvass the collection in less than two hours. A small gift shop can supply postcards, t-shirts, and scholarly books about the Etruscans.

    Opening hours: Open every day (excl. 1/1 and 25/12)
    Mar 16 - Nov 1: 9am-7pm
    Nov 2 - Mar 15: 8.30am-1.45pm

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    What to do with left-over art: Pinacoteca Civico

    by Bunsch Updated Aug 15, 2010

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    The courtyard at the Pinacoteca - note well
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    One might surmise that the "civic museum" would contain a lot of material about the city itself. Perhaps the fifteenth century structure which houses the museum, the Palazzo Minucci-Solaini, constitutes a testament to the city; it was certainly worthy of both time and admiration. But the collection it houses is almost exclusively religious art, chiefly paintings and wood carvings as well as some frescoes and polychrome, most of which was rescued from various local churches which are no longer operational. How fortunate that someone thought to move all these wonderful pieces from their former homes, so that visitors can enjoy them today!

    There are also medals (especially from the Medici era), ceramics, and coins. But it was the art which drew me. I didn't get to visit the Museum of Sacred Art but I can't imagine it had a better collection.

    Opening hours: open every day (excl. 1/1 and 12/25)
    Mar 16-Nov 1 9am-7pm
    Nov 2-Mar1 8.30am-1.45pm

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    An outstanding collection of alabaster: Ecomuseo

    by Bunsch Updated Aug 15, 2010

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    The flutist (not my pic)

    The Ecomuseo dell'Alabastro was an unexpected treat. You enter from the courtyard of the Palazzo Minucci-Solaini (home of the Pinacoteca Civico), and pay an additional fee of 3 euros. The space has been beautifully remodeled -- it was once part of the city wall -- so as to best display the art within. Now, prepare to be amazed. I'd seen some pretty fabulous alabaster in my perusals of several shops and artisans in Volterra, but this museum really took my breath away. It starts by giving you a short course on the substance itself, which can be divided into these four main categories:

    Scaglione: a translucent alabaster
    Pietra a marmo: a white, opaque alabaster that looks a bit like white marble
    Bardiglio: an alabaster characterized by the presence of dark veins, whose color varies based on the type of impurities present in the stone
    Agata or Agate: an alabaster whose color ranges between red and brown due to the presence of iron and magnesium oxides

    Mastered that? Now take a look at the reconstructed alabaaster workshop so you have an idea of how the mineral would be carved. Then you're ready to see what can be done by the experts. A number of the artisans in town have examples of their work on display, for example, Oasi's replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Personally, I loved the classical sculptures -- the pictured one is by alab'Arte.

    There is also a small gift shop with prints and books. An elevator provides access for the mobility-challenged to the museum's four levels.

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    Imagine yourself as a Roman

    by Bunsch Written Sep 6, 2010

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    A view of the Roman theater
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    Sue Stone's top-rated Volterra page gives a good description of the remains of the Roman theater, located just outside the Porta Fiorentina. I never saw anyone actually enter the site, but there are numerous places where you can get an excellent view of the ranks of seats, the remaining pillars of the theater (both of which were constructed in the 1st century), and even the elaborate baths (a later 4th century addition) which were a part of the complex. As you can see from the photo, it looks pretty glamorous in the twilight!

    Unfortunately, we just missed the Roman Theater Festival, which was due to take place from July 1-17, 2010. If you're likely to be in Volterra around that time next year, be sure to check out the performance schedule -- and really imagine that you're a Roman.

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    Imagine becoming a convert: Baptistery

    by Bunsch Written Nov 15, 2010

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    Giovanni Vacca's font

    I was quite taken by the little explanatory pamphlets with which the various Volterran churches greeted visitors. Each says, "Welcome, pilgrim and tourist"and I had the notion that they really meant it -- and not just because we were willing to drop .50 in the collection box. The stand-alone octagonal baptistery must have been a standard design choice, as you can see similar structures in at least Parma and Ravenna (which even has an octagonal church dating to 548); the facade and portal of this particular Baptistery of San Giovanni were likely built in 1278 although records suggest a baptismal function on the site as early as 989. In the large central font -- the present version added in 1759, though an earlier version from 1502 remains in a side niche -- adults would have been immersed within view of the main altar. The large painting by Niccolo Cercignani (dated 1591) was moved to the Baptistery in 1764 after the Church of St. Marco, where it was originally installed, was destroyed. (The upper part of the painting was seriously damaged during World War II.)

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    See how the other half lives: Palazzo Viti

    by Bunsch Updated Aug 11, 2010

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    Ballroom, Palazzo Viti

    Whether or not you agree that the Palazzo Viti is "one of the finest private residential buildings in Italy," you'll surely agree that it is well worth a visit should you happen to be in Volterra. Twelve of the rooms are open to the public, and they are chock-a-block full of interesting things: furniture, porcelains, alabaster collections, and art from all over the world. I was particular struck by the Oriental collections. Nearly all of the rooms are covered with exquisite frescoes. Guides are provided for self-tours (in several languages). A particularly nice touch is that, as part of the entry tariff, "guests" are invited down to the wine cellar/bistro after the tour, to imbibe some of the local wines and appropriate hors d'oeuvres (ours happened to be olives and lovely little slices of bruschetta).

    The Palazzo is open from 10:00-13:00 and 14:30-18:30. However, when it is closed, you can make an appointment for a special tour by consulting the Consorzio Turistico Volterra, 0588 86099, or the Associazione Pro Volterra, 0588 86150.

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    Where shall we worship this Sunday?

    by Bunsch Updated Jul 30, 2010

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    The della Robbia
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    Regular readers of my homepage and tips know that I am an American Episcopalian (Anglican elsewhere in the world). I'm reasonably sure that the closest Episcopal church to Volterra is St. James' in Florence -- which is about two hours of hilly roads away. So I crossed the aisle, so to speak, and there was a plenitude of options on the Roman Catholic side.

    Volterra was the birthplace of St. Linus, the first pope after the Apostle Peter, and "conserves the memory and the heitage of its saints: Justus, Clement, Octavian and its martyrs Saints Attinia and Greciniana."

    La Chiesa de San Michele has a long history. There is reference to it in a 987 episcopal bull, but many of the art works contained within it date from 1259 through 1987 (when the church was restored and painted), though much of the work done during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has disappeared.

    Note particularly the frescoes; the first altar to the right of the entrance is dedicated to the Madonna of the Redemption, and contains a fresco of Mary nursing the infant Jesus, a work from the fifteenth century surrounded by a canvas painted sometime in the mid-seventeenth century by Guiseppe Arrighi, representing St. Luke, St. Anthony the Abbot, St. Giocanni di Matha and two redeemed slaves.

    Also, the presbytery, on the left of the entrance, contains a marble tabernacle with a beautiful glazed terra cotta Madonna with Child by Giovanni della Robbia.

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    Porta all'Arco & City Walls

    by sue_stone Written Oct 26, 2006

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    Porta all'Arco & City Walls
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    The Etruscan city of Volterra is contained within two sets of ancient walls. The Etruscan walls enclose the city and date back to the 4th century BC. The Medieval walls were built inside the original walls to help defend the city back in the 13th century.

    The most impressive of all the gates within the walls is the Porta all'Arco. This ancient Etruscan gate is in excellent condition considering it is a couple of thousand years old!

    It is located at the bottom of Via Porta all'Arco, and is the main gateway to ancient Volterra. Our hotel was located just down the hill from this gate, so it was the first thing we saw when we went to check out the town. If you walk up along the walls just next to the gate you will be in a prime position for watching the stunning Volterran sunsets.

    There are several other medieval gates around town, but none have the same grandness as the Porta all'Arco. I read that in 1944 when the German's were attacking, the locals filled up the gate with stones to help support it and disguise it from being a target. Clever locals!

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    Baptistry

    by sue_stone Written Oct 26, 2006

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    Baptistry
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    Located just across the piazza from the cathedral is the cute looking baptistry. The baptistry is an octagonal building, which dates back to the 13th century, though its dome was added in the 16th century.

    The façade above the door is decorated in lovely green and white marble. Inside, in the centre of the baptistry, is the baptismal font which dates back to 1760. Of greater historical interest though is the small, octagonal baptismal font in the corner, which depicts the baptising of Christ, and this was sculptured in 1502.

    We found the baptistry a peaceful place for reflection and enjoyed checking out the two fonts.

    Free admission

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    Market Day in Volterra

    by Bunsch Written Aug 15, 2010

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    Shoppers on Market Day

    It turned out that -- at least during the summer -- Saturday was Market Day in Volterra. A large stretch of SR68, more or less abutting the Roman Theater, is blocked off. This includes two large parking areas. The market itself seems to be equally divided between various kinds of household goods, clothing, toys, and so forth, and foodstuffs (including both meats and seafood) and flowers. Most of the vendors put up large tent-like structures, open to the street, or have trucks with drop-down side panels.

    It will probably make me sound like a western elitist, but I found the non-food items fairly prosaic. Much of the clothing on display was of poor quality but not particularly inexpensive, although the corkscrew we purchased (for ten euros!) was perfectly serviceable. I had a hard time imagining that people purchased their underwear in front of the madding crowds, but then I saw some young girls simply strapping themselves into brassieres over their clothing, apparently satisfied with the approximate fit.

    One thing completely astonished me: the market had disappeared, completely, by 1:30 in the afternoon. There wasn't a stray scrap of leftover produce nor a residual tent or truck. And our little car, which had been left securely between two others on what seemed to be a legal spot, now sported a ticket in its solitary splendor!

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    Duomo (Cathedral)

    by sue_stone Written Oct 26, 2006

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    Duomo
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    Volterra's cathedral was built in the 12th & 13th centuries, and it is located just back from Piazza dei Priori. It has a Romanesque façade, with a large rose window above the door. Highlights include the 15 century tabernacle, which rises about the high altar, and the beautiful gold gilded ceiling.

    The cathedral's interior was completely modified in the 16th century, and further restoration work was carried out in the mid-19th century, when the walls were painted in stripes and the floor was re-laid in black & white marble.

    We enjoyed a wander inside the cathedral before checking out the nearby baptistry.

    Free admission

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    Visit the Porta all'Arco

    by Bunsch Written Sep 10, 2010

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    They actually look like snakes to me...

    Nearly every guide and website on Volterra features a photograph of this famous Etruscan gate, built in the 4th century BC. The three heads, or what's left of them, are of Zeus and his sons (although on one site, they were named as Juno, and Minerva, which sure don't sound like sons to me!), and they were added about three hundred years later.

    Don't miss the little plaque which recounts the story that on June 30, 1944, Volterrans rallied to convince the retreating Germans not to blow up this ancient gateway -- by completely filling it with the large stones paving the road which leads from it into the central part of the walled city. It must have been quite an effort because, as the photo shows, this is one BIG gate.

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    Piazza dei Priori

    by sue_stone Written Oct 26, 2006

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    Piazza dei Priori, can you see the little pig?
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    Volterra's main square is Piazza dei Priori, and it is ringed by impressive medieval mansions. It is a neat and tidy looking square, with the obligatory cafés available to relax at and enjoy some people watching with your coffee.

    The most important building in the square is the Palazzo dei Priori - the town hall. Dating back to the 13th century, it is the oldest seat of local government, or Palazzo Comunale, in Tuscany. It has elegant arched windows, and many coats of arms both inside and out.

    The other main building on the square is the Palazzo Pretorio, also dating back to the 13th century. This palace is made up of several different buildings, but of most interest is the Torre del Porcellino (Tower of the little Pig) jutting out from the top. This was one of the first towers to be built in Volterra and it is so named because of the small pig that sits on a small shelf that stick out from the tower.

    Also of interest is the Palazzo Incontri, which now houses the local bank, and the Palazzo Vescovile, which used to be the Bishops residence.

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    Roman theatre

    by sue_stone Updated Oct 26, 2006

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    Roman theatre
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    Located on the city's northern edge is an unusual sight - a Roman Theatre. Construction began back in the 1st Century BC - pretty old hey! This considered, the remains are pretty well intact, and are some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Italy.

    The site was only re-discovered in the 1950's - previously it was being used as a rubbish dump.

    You can still see some of the original marble columns, the rows of seats and the tunnels that were used to access the stage and seats. Behind the theatre are the Roman Baths, also well preserved.

    The entrance is down on Viale Francesco Ferrucci, but for a great view over the area, head to Via Lungo Le Muro del Mandorlo (just off the bottom end of Via Guarnacci).

    Free admission

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    Parco Archeologico

    by sue_stone Written Oct 26, 2006

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    Parco Archeologico
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    Parco Archeologico is Volterra's public park, sitting at the southern part of town. It is called an archaeological park as it is home to some ancient remains, such as some Etruscan tombs and a Roman-era reservoir.

    The main attraction of the park however, is that it is a leafy place to relax for a while. It is great for picnicking families and there are some swings etc for the kids. There is also a café and public toilets.

    A great place to take a break from Volterra's museums, and to get a closer look at the Fortress next door.

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