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Author Biography: James Bentley is the author of the volumes on Tuscany, the Dordogne, Burgundy, England, and Brittany in The Most Beautiful Villages series. Alex Ramsay is a regular contributor to The World of Interiors, House & Garden, Country Living, Islands, and other publications.
West of Siena lies the strange and exciting town of Volterra, famous for its alabaster and a lesson in itself on Tuscan history. All the region's past is here: the Etruscans, the Romans, the Florentines and the glories of the Renaissance. Yet, in spite of its long and complex history, there is an air of impermanence about the place, mainly because of its site; it stands on a bizarre, crumbling ridge (the Balze) which in the past caused part of the original town to fall away. Substantial lengths of the Etruscan walls still remain, however, and one of the main gates, the Porta all'Arco, incorporates three Etruscan sculpted heads in its essentially Roman structure. More Roman remains, including those of an amphitheatre, lie to the north of the town walls. And of all the museums of the artifacts of Tuscany's past, the Museo Guarnacci must not be missed; its major collection, bequeathed by a local collector to the town in 1761, is of around 650 Etruscan funerary urns, many of them with sculpted lids of effigies of the dead and friezes of Etruscan life and mythology. The most celebrated exhibit is a terracotta tomb panel depicting a couple, supposedly husband and wife, stoically contemplating death.
In medieval times Volterra prospered, rivalling Florence in prestige and power, though it was overcome by the Florentines in 1361 and again in 1472 by Lorenzo the Magnificent. His legacy to the town is the Rocca Nuova, the fortress he added to the fourteenth-century structure, the Rocca Vecchio, which dominates the south-eastern corner of the town.
In the centre of Volterra the hub of life and activity is undoubtedly the exquisite medieval Piazza dei Priori. Here stands the magnificent biscuit-coloured Palazzo dei Priori begun in 1208 and the oldest civic building in Tuscany. Surmounted by a graceful crenellated tower, its façade is decorated with the terracotta and stone coats of arms of the Florentine notables who came to govern the town. Inside, especially in the Sala del Consiglio Comunale (the council chamber), are Florentine and Sienese paintings and frescoes, notably a fine Annunciation of 1383 by Jacopo di Cione. Another extraordinary medieval edifice is the thirteenth-century Palazzo Pretorio. Its tower is known as Il Torre Porcellino because of a curious figure of a piglet sculpted on it.
On the opposite side of the piazza access can be gained to the Duomo and to the Palazzo Vescovile, the former bishop's palace and home of the Museo d'Arte Sacra, one of the most remarkable institutions of Volterra. It contains a number of works of art, mainly drawn from local churches; notable among them are a gilded bronze crucifix, thought to be by Giambologna, and a fifteenth-century reliquary bust by Antonio del Pollaiuolo. The cathedral itself was consecrated in 1120, but much changed in the Pisan style in the mid thirteenth century, hence the marble decoration of the façade. The inside contains more treasures than can be enumerated here, but especially memorable is a fine tabernacle, sculpted by Mino da Fiesole; in a small chapel off the north aisle are two terracotta representations of the Adoration of the Magi and the Nativity by Luca and Andrea della Robbia, with frescoed backgrounds by Benozzo Gozzoli. An interesting older work is a gilded and painted wooden carving of the Deposition from the Cross by an anonymous Pisan sculptor. Much of the interior of the cathedral was remodelled in the later sixteenth century to designs by Leonardo Ricciarelli.
Completing the ensemble around the square of the Duomo is the octagonal baptistry, built in the late thirteenth century on the site of an ancient temple devoted to worship of the sun, and the fourteenth-century hospital of Santa Maria Maddalena. The former's greatest treasure is the old baptismal font by Andrea Sansovino.
In spite of its dramatic siting and its wealth of religious art and architecture, however, perhaps the essential flavour of Volterra is to be found in those streets where the finer palazzi of the town are located, in the Via Roma, for example, or the Via Ricciarelli, or the Via dei Sarti. Here, in the shadow of the imposing façades -- like those of the tower houses of the Buomparenti or the sixteenth-century Palazzo Viti, attributed to Bartolomeo Ammannati -- comes a sense of the fascinations and mysteries of this town, especially when the narrow streets and alleyways are enveloped in an early morning mist.