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Southern part of Volterra

Portal in the walls of Volterra

A street in Volterra

Rocca Nuova, Volterra

Welcome to Volterra
from Jesse's Journeys in Italy

Population:  11,267 (2001)
Official website:
Wikipedia: Volterra

At 585 meters above sea level, the walled city of Volterra is one of the highest Tuscan hill towns, commanding spectacular views of the countryside, dotted with towns and villages and colorfully divided into fields, olive orchards, vineyards and forests.  The Tyrrhenian Sea sits blue and wide just over 32 kilometers to the west.

VisitsItaly recommends the
Comune of Volterra's

Virtual guide of Volterra
History, Architecture, Monuments

The city has been settled for millennia, some say long before it was inhabited by the Etruscans sometime between the 10th and 7th centuries BC.  The Etruscans knew the city as Valathri, and for them it was one of twelve principle city-states known together as the Dodecaoplis.  The original site of Volterra was likely on the largest, flatest section of the hill, known at the Piano di Castello.

The Etruscans began building a massive circle of walls in the 6th century BC and mostly completed them in the 4th century BC.  They were comprised of enormous boulders and cut rock had a circuit of about 7.3 kilometers, many stretches of which remain today.  The city was (and is) accessible through a number of portals, or gates, including the Porta dell'Arca and the Porta di Diana, both of which exist today.

Unlike many walled cities whose buildings occupied all the space inside the walls, inside the walls of Volterra there was room for small farming, gardens and other larger open spaces.  At its peak, the population within the walls reached about 25,000 inhabitants.  There are only about 5,000 people in the city today, although there are another 6,000 or so within the comune which extends down the hill into the valley areas.

During and after Etruscan times, the wealth of the city depended on a number of activities including the mining, processing and export of alabaster, silver, copper, iron and salt.  Trading put the city in touch with the "known world", including all the more  advanced civilizations of Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt and Greece, and Volterra's culture was enriched from the contact.  All these activities continued to a greater or lesser extent during the Roman period and well past the middle ages into the modern age.

On the Italian peninsula the power of Rome increased at the expense of Etruria.  The Romans began incursions into Etruria as far back as 298 BC, forcing the Etruscans into the Italic Confederation.  Ultimately, of course, Rome dominated, and by 90 BC under Julius Caesar, Volterra had become a Roman municipium, whose people enjoyed full Roman citizenship.

During Roman times, however, Volterra became economically marginalized, attributable mostly to the fact that it was well-off the main Rome-to-Pisa highway, the via Aurelia.  It also found itself on the wrong side of various internecine conflicts within the Empire, and suffered from sacking and a variety of sanctions imposed by the winning side. It enjoyed a brief resurgence during the time of Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD), and it is then that the Roman Theatre and the Roman Baths and adjacent cisterns were built.

Christianity reached Volterra in the 2nd century AD, developing slowly for the next 300 years, but by the 5th century, Volterra became a Diocesan city ruling over a vast territory.  The first church was built in the 5th century on the site where the Duomo - or cathedral - now stands.  The original church and the cathedral are both dedicated to St. Mary, mother of Jesus.

After the fall of Rome, which involved Volterra in many battles with the incoming barbarians, Volterra's history is long and complicated.  After the barbarian wars abated, things did not grow quieter; there were tough, bloody and seemingly unending conflicts between the very wealthy Bishops of Volterra and the local nobility and between the Bishops and the nobles in many of the towns and cities within the Diocese. 

There were also protracted and difficult conflicts between the Bishops and the Holy See of Rome, as well as between the local nobility and the Holy See.  There were also periods when the wealthy merchants and guilders achieved power and joined the fray.  Ultimately, Volterra was absorbed into the Duchy of Florence, where it remained until the Duchy was absorbed into the modern state of Italy in 1860.

During the early to late middle ages, and the period known as the Renaissance, however, many important new buildings took shape in Volterra.  New walls and fortifications were added, and a couple of fortresses were constructed.  Also, the Duomo, and a number of lesser  churches, whose styles range from Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance were constructed.  A good number of Palazzi, including the Palazzo del Priori,  Palazzo Podesta and Palazzo Comunale and a number of "tower houses" were also built.

Indeed, when one visits "old" Volterra today, it is the work done during this period of time that produces the characteristic medieval environment of the old city.

The present day government of the Comune of Volterra has done an extraordinarily good "Virtual guide of Volterra" which provides more details about the city's history and enables viewers to explore Volterra's  monuments, churches and other attractions.  There was little point of duplicating their effort here.

We highly recommend a visit to Volterra, and suggest you spend at least one full day, or longer if you can - preferably during the off-season.  Tuscany boasts many wonderful hill top towns and cities - Volterra ranks among the most evocative.

by Vian Andrews, December 31st, 2005

Region of Tuscany

Alt. 535 m.
(1785 ft)


Siena - 50 km
Pisa - 64 km
Florence - 83 km
Montepulciano - 114 km
Lucca - 118 km
Cortona - 123 km
Arezzo - 141 km
Perugia - 157 km
Orvieto - 175 km
Rome - 284 km


Places to stay in Volterra


Street scene, Volterra