“Volterra is the most northerly of the great Etruscan cities of the west. It lies back some thirty miles from the sea, on a towering great bluff of rock that gets all the winds and sees all the world, looking out down the valley of the Cecina to the sea, south over vale and high land to the tips of Elba, north to the imminent mountains of Carrara, inward over the wide hills of the Pre-Apenines, to the heart of Tuscany”. Of course I didn’t write that, D.H. Lawrence did. in his book, Etruscan Places. He was particularly taken with Volterra even though he visited it on a bleak, rainy day. We, on the other hand, came on a beautiful late Spring day in June when the terraces of the many restaurants and cafes were full of people and the swallows were swooping above the roofs of the medieval town. At about forty-five minutes from Bolgheri, Volterra is half way to Florence on the old road, the Volterrana which, winding uphill and downhill between fields and vines, takes you through one of the most entrancing landscapes in Tuscany. Volterra is famous for its alabaster, the softest stone there is after chalk and consequently easy to carve into delicate shapes and translucent surfaces; even the windows behind the altar of the Cathedral are in alabaster. Alabaster was used already in Etruscan times to make the ash chests preserved today in the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum, about which Lawrence enthuses at length. preferring them to what he described as the “boiled down” effect of Renaissance
sculpture in Florence and Rome. The Etruscans cremated their dead and then preserved the ashes in small sarcophagi surmounted by a “lid” with an effigy representing the man or woman to which they belonged. Sometimes, as in the case of the amazing sarcophagus of “Gli Sposi”, (the married couple), on the first floor of the museum, husband and wife were depicted together, a revolutionary concept in those days as Etruscan women were already emancipated in the four centuries BC when these ash chests were made. There are six hundred ash chests housed in this eighteenth century museum, one of the first public museums in Italy, which has undergone a very attractive modern make over and is worth visiting for the Giacometti like “Ombra della Sera” (Shadow of the Evening) alone, one of the many artefacts and utensils the Etruscans placed in their tombs together with the ash chests to accompany them into the next world. This might explain why many of the bas reliefs on the ash chests depict the dead man shaking his wife’s hand before climbing into a horse drawn carriage laden with everything he will require for the journey.
There are still artisans in Volterra working alabaster in its four different shades – white, veined, grey and amber – and every other store in the town sells infinite variations on the theme. In their workshop close to one of the old gates to the walled town, Roberto Chiti and Giorgio Finazzo in via Orti S.Agostino can be seen at the wheel and work table in their dusty white overalls. Their work is sold in their store, Alab Arte, while they also work on commission for famous artists such as Anish Kapoor. Gloria Giannelli in via di Sotto can be seen at her work table turning the alabaster into bowls and cups in lace like stone, while Pupo or Grandoli Aulo two doors down is a sculptor coming from a historic family of alabaster artisans. Giorgio Pecchioni in via A. Cinci specializes in musical instruments made out of alabaster, but there must be ten or more artisans still working in Volterra and a complete list is available at the very efficient and helpful tourist bureau in the main square. Volterra can also boast a perfect gem of a small pinacoteca or picture gallery with an impressive collection of paintings from the early to the late Renaissance including the “Descent from the Cross” by Rosso Fiorentino which is worth a visit to Volterra in itself. This has to be one of the most powerful paintings I have ever seen with the stark contrast between the glacial immobility of the Madonna’s grief and the frenetic activity of the workmen on their ladders lowering Christ’s body from the cross. Volterra also has its dark side and the medieval streets and squares have been the set of episodes from the Twilight Saga. It is said that some of the oldest references to vampires have been linked to Volterra and the old word for vampire is “voltura”, while within the town walls is one of Italy’s maximum security jails. Over the centuries some of the inmates have been alabaster artisans and D.H. Lawrence recalls that two of them managed to escape by carving old bread into effigies of their faces and leaving them on the pillow while they skinned out of the window on their sheets. Today the inmates hold “Cene Galeote”, Gaolbird Dinners, prepared by themselves where everybody is welcome (see their website: http://www.cenegaleotte.it) as well as putting on a play for the public every summer in the prison yard. The Tourist Bureau is, at the time of writing, not yet sure of the exact date. There are as many restaurants and cafes in Volterra as there are alabaster boutiques and most of them seem geared to the tourist trade but we lunched on delicious ice cream at the family-run Chic & Shock in the via Matteotti.
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