This is an excerpt of the book “Siena, Volterra, San Gimignano

Volterra – Photo © majamarko
Volterra – Photo © majamarko

Volterra still retains its medieval character, charm and atmosphere. Its isolated position has impeded any progressive development. The defensive wall built in the 13th century was the result of an urban development that began in the year thousand and was completed at the beginning of the 14th century.

In the 5th century the city was reduced to a castrum which developed around the early church of Santa Maria(the cathedral) and the Pratus Episcopatus(Piazza dei Priori) and included the Piano di Castello, Porta all’Arco, via Roma, via Buonparenti, via dei Sarti and via di Sotto.

Borgo di Santa Maria, the present via Ricciarelli and the Borgo dell’Abate (via Sarti) were beyond the castrum or castellum.

The boundaries of the Prato were delimited by powerful groups of towers; the crux viarum of Buonparenti, Sant’Agnolo and Baldinotti.

During the 13th century, the domus comunis (Palazzo dei Priori) was erected , the main square was defined and the height of the towers restrained.

Behind the Palazzo dei Priori arose the religious square, the Piazza S.Giovanni which included the cathedral, the baptistery, la casa dell’Opera, the hospital of Santa Maria and the cemetery (the present via Turazza).

The medieval structure has remained almost unchanged throughout the centuries and is still circumscribed by the four main medieval peripheral districts of Borgo di S. Alessandro, looking over the Cecina valley; S, Lazzaro towards Florence and Siena; S. Stefano and S. Giusto. The latter, the farthest from the city, is near the Balze, dominated by the majestic church dedicated to the patron of the city , San Giusto.

At the end of the 19th century the psychiatric hospital was built in the S.Lazzero area. Once an extensive complex it has recently been transformed into a hospital.

In the same area of S. Lazzaro there is also the old railway station opened in 1912 that connected the city to Saline.

Palazzo dei Priori Volterra
Palazzo dei Priori Photo © renzotok

Piazza dei Priori

The land, on which the center of civic life evolved, was once named the Bishop’s Prato for it was the bishop who originally presided over and ruled the city. The newly founded commune gradually took over the bishop’s rule and the towers and the first dwellings were erected on the Prato. An elm tree was planted in the main square, around which, the consuls and elders gathered to discuss and constitute laws.

Palazzo dei Priori

The palace was designed by Maestro Riccardo in 1239 as the inscription near the main entrance attests.

The three-storey facade adorned with trilobed ,double arched windows and the Della Robbia glazed terracotta coats of arms of the Florentine magistrates (15th-16th centuries) also bears the canna volterrana, the medieval standard measurement of the commune, engraved between the banner and torch holders.

The two Marzocco lions ,a symbol of Florence were added in 1472 when the palazzo became the seat of the Captain of Justice.

The pentagonal shaped tower is not completely original for the top half was rebuilt after the last earthquake in 1846 by the architect Mazzei who also embellished other buildings in the main square.

The entrance decorated with coats of arms leads to the stairway and a fresco of the Crucifixiion with saints by Pier Francesco Fiorentino who also painted the Crucifixion in the mayor’s antechamber. The Virgin with child has been attributed to Raffaellino del Garbo.

The magnificent Council Hall with a cross vaulted ceiling exhibits the fresco of The Annunciation and four saints, Cosmas ,Damian, Giusto and Ottaviano, painted by Jacopo di Cione and Nicolo’ di Pietro Gerini.While the fresco was being transferred onto canvas , the sinopia now displayed in the antechamber , were discovered.

On the right wall, The Marriage Feast at Cana, a large canvas painted by Donato Mascagni in the 16th century.

In the antechamber, the Sala della Giunta , wood panel of Persius Flaccus by Cosimo Daddi, a fresco tranferred to canvas of S,Girolomo , two small canvas paintings by Giandomenico Ferretti (18th century) depicting The Adoration of the Magi , Birth of the Virgin by Ignazio Hugford and a canvas of Giobe by Donato Mascagni .

Palazzo Pretorio and the tower of little pig

This palace made up of several buidings and modified in the 19th century was originally the seat of the podesta’ and the captain of the people. The tower considered to be one of the first towers built in Volterra is traditionally known as the Tower of the Little Pig for at the top of the tower there is a stone animal poised on a shelf.

Palazzo Vescovile

This palace originally built as a grain store became the bishop’s residence after 1472 when the Palazzo dei Vescovi was destroyed by the Florentines to make way for the fortress.

The great arches have been attributed to Antonio da San Gallo the Elder.

Palazzo Incontri

Now the Cassa di Risparmio di Volterra (the local bank), the palace is both Medieval and Rennaissance as recent restoration work has revealed.

After the Council of Trent the palace was a seminary until the end of the 18th century.

Palazzo del Monte Pio

The palace was embellished this century to blend in with the medieval style of the Piazza but is in fact 13th century. The original construction can still be seen at the rear of the building in the vicolo Mazzoni.

Porta Marcoli

The Medieval Wall and the Gates

The Medieval wall was built in the 13th century. When the Ghibellines succeeded the Guelfs it was obvious that the Etruscan wall, recently repaired and reinforced in 1254, was far too extensive to guarantee defensive protection.

In the Autumn of 1260 forty stone masons were hired to build a smaller circuit which was completed to much expense within a few years.

The Gates

Porta a Selci

The gate which leads to Siena, with a simple pointed arch was built in the 16th century to replace the earlier gate, known as the Sun Gate, destroyed when the fortress was erected in the 15th century.

Porta Marcoli

Probably built in the 14th century, the gate served as access to the Olivetan monestery at S. Andrea ( today a seminary) and a convenient entrance for the farmers coming into town from the surrounding countryside.

Porta di Docciola

Built in the 13th century, the gate served as a link between the city and the fertile valley below. The gate, with an exterior round arch and inner pointed arch, still preserves the features of 13th century Volterran architecture.

Porta S. Lorentino
Porta S. Lorentino – Photo © Chiara Gandolfi

Porta Fiorentina

Originally called S.Agnolo after the nearby church dedicated to the Archangel, presents the same architectural structure typical of Volterra although modifications carried out in the 16th century are still evident.

During a siege ,the tower above the gate used as an armory, was destroyed in 1530. This gate leads to Florence through the Era valley, Castagno, Gambassi and Castelfiorentino.

Porta San Francesco

This gate is also known as the Gate of Santo Stefano or the Pisan Gate as it leads to Pisa through the Era valley. It is the only gate that still preserves traces of the original frescoes painted in the vaults and an engraving of the Pisan canna, a unit of length, slightly longer than that of Volterra engraved on the facade of the Palazzo dei Priori.

Porta San Felice

The gate with a single arch sustained on both sides by the medieval walls is very different from all the other gates of the city. The gate flanks a tiny chapel with a bell tower and offers a magnificent panoramic view of the soft rolling hills as far as the sea.

The Fonts

Fonte di Docciola

At the Docciola Gate, the font was built in 1254 by Maestro Stefano, as the inscription ,between the pointed arches, attests. At the bottom of a steep hill this evocative architectural splendor is a little hidden today. During the Middle Ages the water served the mills and the wool industry in the Era valley.


San Felice

Similar to Docciola, this font designed by Chelino Ducci Tancredi was built in 1319 by the inhabitants of Borgo Santo Stefano as the inscription between the two arches attests. In the vicinity there are the remains of the Etruscan wall and an arch which local historians have named the Porta Romana, and probably served as the entrance to the Roman Baths (Terme Guarnacciane).

The House-Towers and the Renaissance Palaces

The Buonparenti House Towers

One of the most evocative corners of Volterra, the two towers, Buonaguidi and Buonparenti are connected by a brick archway as were the families in marriage. The towers dominate and strategically command the crossroads, the crux viarum and delimit the main square.

The Toscano House-Tower

This is a group of towers in Piazza San Michele constructed in 1250 by Giovanni Toscano, treasurer to the King of Sardinia, who had a noble dwelling designed for him by Giroldo from Lugano around the tower in S.Agnolo, as the inscription engraved above the entrance attests. The building was purchased by the Rapucci family, the Cafferecci and then Guarnacci who added the 16th century palazzo which descends the Via di Sotto.

Case Torri Buonparenti

The Baldinotti House Tower

The palazzo in Via Turazza is adorned with a series of arches surmounted by stone cones which served as hinges for the shop doors which opened out onto the street.

Palazzo Inghirami

The palazzo was built for Admiral Jacopo Inghirami in the 17th century by the architect Gherardo Silvani. Large ledged windows flank the grand ashlar framed entrance surmounted by a bronze bust, of the great admiral who won the battle at Bona attributed to Tacca.

Palazzo Maffei

The palazzo was built for Monsignor Mario Maffei, Bishop of Cavallion, whose funeral monument by G.Angelo Montorsoli is collocated in the Cathedral. The building was completed in 1527 as the inscription on the facade attests. A splendid example of Renaissance architecture , the palace was purchased by Mario Guarnacci in the 18th century to house the first Etruscan museum and library.
Vasari has suggested that the palace was adorned with frescoes painted by Daniele Ricciarelli.

Palazzo Beltrami

The ashlar framed gothic arched windows are the main features of this elegant 16th century palazzo which once belonged to the Desideri family.

Palazzo Lisci, (today Marchi)

Once the medieval hospital of Santa Maria ,the facade presents two phases of construction. The lower part in stone with two filled in arches and a marble inscription bearing the name of the hospital, dates back to the 13th century while the upper half is 18th century. mattoni.

Palazzo Minucci-Solaini: the courtyard

Palazzo Incontri (today Viti)

The warm tones of the sandstone and the large ashlar framed windows enhance this elegant Renaissance facade attributed to Ammannati. In 1819 a theatre ,designed by the architect Luigi Campani, was built in the interior courtyard. The theatre was named after the Latin poet Aulus Persius Flaccus from Volterra whose figure is portrayed on the stage curtain by the 19th century artist Nicolo’ Contestabile.

Palazzo Minucci (today Solaini)

The exquisite symmetry of the Renaissance facade and elegant harmony of the interior courtyard bequeaths this palace as one of the most splendid in Volterra. Attributed by local historians as the work of Antonio da San Gallo the Elder, the palazzo houses an extraordinary collection of local paintings and sculptures.

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