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Volterra: Historical City and Cultural Landscape

Date of Submission: 01/06/2006
Criteria: (iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities
State, Province or Region:

Region: Tuscany - Province: Pisa

Ref.: 5006

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Perched on harsh tableland at 552 meters above sea level, above the valleys of the Era and Cecina rivers, the first inhabited part of the ancient Volterra (where populations had undoubtedly started settling at least since the Aeneolithic Age) was created in the Piano di Castello area, which corresponds to the city's acropolis, at a very advanced stage of the Iron Age (end of the 8th century B.C.). It was probably due to the aggregation of at least two separate villages of the Villanovan age that had been developing on different areas of the tableland and probably account for the contemporary Villanovan necropolises of Ripaie and Guerruccia.

Anyway, the aggregation process of the settlements existing on the Volterra hilltop was completed by the Etruscans, who founded Velathri - one of the twelve lucumoniae, which was provided in the 6th century B.C. with powerful walls of which some monumental remains are still extant such as the Porta dell'Arco [Arch Gate].

The city fell into the Romans' sphere of influence in the 3rd century B.C., when it was named Volaterrae, and the beautiful theatre with its cavea resting on the slope of the hill bears testimony to this stage.

After becoming seat of a bishopric with its own diocese in the 5th century, Volterra was the capital city of a gastaldatus under the Lombards; however, it was only in the 12th-13th century, when it developed as a free Commune, that a significant re-organisation process of the urban structure took place and conferred the almost final configuration on the city. It was then that the new walls were built, replacing the Etruscan ones, much too wide, of which however a part was re-used on the southern side; on the northern side of the city the new walls included the buildings that had sprouted close to the castle. At the same time, the Palazzo del Popolo [People's Palace], subsequently renamed Palazzo dei Priori, was built up, and the central square - called the Prato [Lawn] - took shape. On the nearby square, the large building yards of the Cathedral - whose façade is attributed by Vasari to Nicola Pisano - and the Baptistry were opened. The re-organisation of the public buildings in the city went hand in hand with the renovation of private dwellings in accordance with two models, i.e. the towerhouse and the fortified palace.

In the second half of the 14th century Volterra fell in Florentine hands and, by a decision of Lawrence the Magnificent, it was provided (between 1470 and 1475) with a Fortress - one of the most formidable military buildings of the Renaissance, which was subsequently connected with the pre-existing fortifications to give rise to the imposing complex that still looms large above the urban centre and the surrounding landscape. After the Renaissance period, during which some of the oldest towerhouses were also revamped and re-modelled after the Florentine pattern, which had been spreading thanks to the presence in the city of major architects such as Michelozzo and Antonio da Sangallo, there was no other significant urban expansion in Volterra.

Nowadays, the city still appears to be almost wholly embraced by its medieval walls and has an almost intact centre focused on the Piazza dei Priori. The surrounding landscape has also retained its features over the centuries, with large farms including major architectural gems such as the "Badia Camaldolese" - a medieval building that was subsequently re-structured and transformed following designs and sketches by Ammannati - and the Spedaletto farm, which was a medieval Spedale, i.e. hospital, transformed following the indications provided by Lawrence the Magnificent. The persistence of this territorial organisation has allowed retaining almost in full the landscape and environmental features of the area, as resulting from its peculiar geological and morphological features. The most striking elements of this landscape are the biancane, i.e. small, round-shaped clay domes stripped bare of all vegetation, the calanchi, i.e. small, very steep valleys located adjacent to one another and separated by thin ridges, and the imposing balzi, i.e. impressive chasms caused by the impact of rainfall erosion on the sand and clay deposits of the tableland on which the city has been built.

The area called Colline Metallifere is characterised by the existence of ores due to the intrusion of metalliferous fluids among sedimentary layers. A peculiar feature of this "region" actually consists in the long-standing tradition of mineral mining and processing, which is a constituent element of the whole area and dates back to the Etruscan age - as shown by the world-famous bronzetti, i.e. small bronze statues. These activities, concerning tin, copper, galena, silver lead, and iron ores, have been a standing feature of the local economy - in particular during the Roman and medieval ages.

Volterra is also known as the place where alabaster is mined and processed; alabaster looks like marble and was already known to the Etruscans, who used it for their sarcophagi and burial urns. The largest collection of these findings is preserved in the Guarnacci Museum at Volterra, however similar remains can be found in archaeological museums all over the world. After the decline experienced during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, alabaster handicraft started flourishing again in the 17th century and was markedly developed in the following century - thanks to skilled artisans reproducing classical works, who made this material famous all over the world via their high-quality production.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Volterra fulfils the authenticity condition as for both the original medieval texture of the city and the architectural design, shape and materials (‘panchina' stone) of the main monumental and residential elements.

The integrity of the whole historical centre and the individual monuments as well as of the surrounding landscape is guaranteed by the protective measures in force, which are based both on the national legislation safeguarding cultural heritage and landscape (Legislative Decree 22 January 2004, n° 42 "Cultural Heritage and Landscape Code"), regional laws (landscape planning), municipal regulations and management mechanisms aimed at ensuring its conservation.

Comparison with other similar properties

Compared with other important centres of Etruscan origin that experienced significant historical and town-planning developments in subsequent centuries, such as those that can be found in Central Italy, in particular in Tuscany and Northern Latium, the city of Volterra is remarkable because it has preserved the spatial organisation, structure, materials, and shapes typical of the Communal age almost in full, in a rich chronological stratification.

The testimony borne to an ancient, prestigious history of urban settlement, art and manufacturing is compounded by the peculiar mining activities concerning metals and rare stones such as alabaster, within an outstanding natural context with peculiar morphological features.