Volterra (Etruscan name: Velathri, Roman: Volaterrae), located in the northern part of Tuscany, Italy, was an important Etruscan settlement between the 7th and 2nd century BCE. After its destruction by the Romans in the 1st century BCE it became a modest town with the prosperity of its ruling elite into the early imperial period attested by the prodigious number of finely carved alabaster funerary urns in its many rock-cut tombs.
Settlement on the high sandstone plateau of Volterra began from at least the 10th century BCE. Iron Age peoples of the Villanovan culture, a precursor to the Etruscans, no doubt selected the site for its ease of defence. The site prospered due to the fertile agricultural lands in its territory across the Cecina valley and its rich mineral deposits. Although finds are not as impressive as the coastal Villanovan sites, evidence of a wider trade is found in such foreign imports as Sardinian bronze goods.
A Thriving Etruscan City
From the mid-8th century BCE, when the Villanovan had matured into the Etruscan culture proper, Volterra became one of the major towns in Etruria, probably controlling a large surrounding area given the distance between it and neighbouring centres. Faesulae (Fiesole) was just one satellite centre founded by Volterra. Funeral inscriptions reveal that many women from aristocratic families of Volterra married men from outlying villages such as Barberino, Castiglioncello, and Monteriggioni, thus consolidating the town's control over the region.
Volterra was noted for its production of bronze figurines & alabaster funerary urns with their intricate carved relief scenes & a portrait sculpture of the deceased.
It is likely that Volterra was one of the Etruscan cities that formed colonies in the Po Valley to the north. Volterra was also one of the 12 to 15 members of the Etruscan League. Other members of this loose association included Cerveteri, Chiusi, Populonia, Tarquinia, Veii, and Vulci. Very little is known of this league except that its members had common religious ties and that leaders met annually at the Fanum Voltumnae sanctuary near Orvieto (exact location as yet unknown).
Volterra was noted for its production of bronze figurines, often used as votive offerings at temple sites and in tombs, which are extremely tall and slim human figures curiously reminiscent of modern art sculpture, perhaps a relic of much earlier figures cut from sheet bronze. Other locally made products include large and highly decorative alabaster funerary urns; red-figure pottery wares, including the distinctive column-kraters with two 'portrait' heads painted on the upper portion; and the unique Etruscan black pottery known as bucchero. Located as it was at the head of several river routes leading to coastal areas, Volterra was able to export these goods to other Etruscan cities and to inland sites in the Umbria region which were more isolated from the trade activities of the wider Mediterranean. Another local product, this time not for export, is the large stone grave markers produced from the 6th century BCE onwards. These stelae, standing well over 1.5 metres in some cases, were carved from the local nenfro stone and represented in relief prominent deceased members of the community in their guise as either warriors or priests.
The Challenge of Rome
Evidence of the town's prosperity and geographical spread, but at the same time also a concern for defence, takes the form of an enlarged circuit wall built in the 4th and 3rd century BCE. These fortifications totalled 7.28 km in length and were punctuated by arched gates, including the Porta all'Arco with its three sculpted heads decoration. The heads were probably representations of gods but are now badly weather-worn. A rebuilding of several temples at the site, the minting of cast-bronze coins inscribed Velathri, and the large number of rock-cut tombs with their fine alabaster funerary urns with relief carvings further attest to Volterra's continued success which now covered around 116 hectares.
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However, from the 3rd century BCE, the town was faced with the threat of the territorially ambitious Romans. The Etruscans lost a battle with Rome in 298 BCE, and Volterra's status thereafter is unclear beyond that it contributed, as did many other Etruscan cities, to the campaigns of Scipio Africanus against Carthage during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE). According to the Roman writer Livy, it gave grain and timber for shipbuilding. Volterra then made the fatal error of backing the losing side in Rome's civil war, and as a consequence, the victor Sulla sacked the city in 80 BCE after a two-year siege. The Roman general then resettled many of his veterans in Volterran territory; the Romans were here to stay.
In the long-term, life under Roman rule was made more bearable due to the favourable influence the local Caecinae family enjoyed with various Roman rulers, including Julius Caesar and Octavian. Several members of the Caecinae clan served as consuls, and this perhaps explains the towns elevated status as a colonia Augusta. One prominent member of the family, Aulus Caecina, who, besides being an important writer and good pal of Cicero, is recorded as having raced his four-horse chariots at Rome's Circus Maximus.
Another indicator of Volterra's growing stature was the construction of a theatre in the 1st century CE and then a Roman baths complex. Volterra's alabaster funerary urns become even more extravagant in this period and portray the deceased in often very life-like and uncompromising portrait sculpture on the lid. The sides of these large square or rectangular boxes carry impressive relief scenes from mythology. One 1st-century CE rock-carved tomb, the Inghirami Tomb, contained 53 such urns. Another claim to fame in the early imperial years was that Pope Linus (d. 76 CE), second bishop of Rome, came from the town.
Volterra: Historical City and Cultural Landscape
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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.
History of Volterra
Origins of the name Volterra
A very ancient city of Etruscan origin, Volterra was originally known by the name of Velathri, a term used quite widely across the Etruscan region. According to linguists Velathri derives from the ancient 'Velzna', a term also related to other place names such as Feltre, the old Volsinii (Orvieto), and Bologna (in the Etruscan language 'Felsina' or 'Felsnal').
The name, according to the most authoritative Italian scholars, while indicating a place, would originally have been an ancient name of a noble family then later becoming a place name. As for the meaning of the term, it seems that the Etruscan names containing the root 'Vel' usually indicated a height, a hill. By extension, the same root as "Vel" was found in the names of families of "high" status. The Romans translated the name as Volaterrae
History of ancient Volterra
Volterra was a powerful and wealthy city under the Etruscans. It was equipped with a wall more than 7 kilometres long and had a population that exceeded 20,000 inhabitants. So much wealth is explained by the fact that Volterra was built on hills rich in metalliferous veins, and also owned several salt-works - which generated a large volume of business and substantial gains for the population.
The wealth of Volterra attracted the attention of the Romans, who attacked the territory of Volterra, and, after the Battle of Lake Vadimone in 283 BC Velathri joined the Italian confederation under the name of Volaterrae.
In the first century BC it gained Roman citizenship, of which it was later deprived by Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) during the civil wars. Under the emperor Augustus important monuments were built, such as the Theatre and the Cistern.
Volterra after the Romans
With the fall of the Roman Empire, Volterra was subject to barbarian invasions and the battles between the bishops and his vassals, but he maintained a long dominion over the city.
In the mid-13th the power of bishops was disputed and the city changed into a Municipality, seeing a struggle for control among the great feudal families (the Panocchieschi, Ubertini and Belforti).
Florence, allied to the Belforti, strengthened its influence over the city and, in 1427, the Dominant City (Florence) gradually extending its power over Volterra, which entered into the sphere of the Medici influence in the 15th century and whose symbol is the donjon, built for Lorenzo il Magnifico (1449-1492) to emphasize the submission of Volterra to Florence.
The Florentine rule, however, was followed by a bitter conflict that ended with the defeat and plundering of the city. Throughout the 16th century, Volterra followed the fortunes of Florence.
The city then entered a part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, but its economy, because of epidemics and wars, suffers a serious crisis, which continues until the 19th century when a renewed salt industry once again helped Volterra to flourish.
The Three Civilizations Of Volterra
What is remarkable about this hillside town is that it contains the remains of not one, but three civilizations. Among the Etruscan remains are the walls of the town dating to the 4 th century BC, although these have been modified down the years. The Porta all'Arco, a gateway located in the walls, was partially remodeled by the Romans in the 1st century BC. The vaulted arch is carved out of huge rectangular stone blocks with three mysterious weathered heads watching passers-by. They are thought to represent Etruscan or Roman gods.
Porta all'Arco, the ancient Etruscan gateway in Volterra ( milosk50 / Adobe Stock)
Many Etruscan burials have been found in the area and it is possible to see some of these in the vicinity. The Guarnacci Etruscan Museum is justly famous for its 600 Etruscan funerary urns and other important artifacts from the culture.
Although the Romans extensively rebuilt the town, much of their town now lies under the medieval settlement. The most important remains from this period is the theatre which is similar to Greek examples with a series of tiers of seats that surround the central stage area. It is built into a hill and was incorporated into the town’s walls in the Middle Ages.
Among the many important medieval sites in the town is the Palazzo dei Priori, an authentic medieval square faced with buildings from the same period and the town hall located on the square dates to the 13 th century. A market is still held in the palazzo on Saturday mornings.
The 13 th century Volterra Cathedral was expanded after an earthquake. This Romanesque building contains many important religious frescos dating from the Renaissance. Volterra Baptistery of San Giovanni was beautifully designed in an octagonal shape and contains a Baroque style baptistry.
Statue of the baptismal font, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Volterra ( giadophoto / Adobe Stock)
The Medici Fortress was built on the highest point overlooking the town. Despite the name, it predates the Medici rule and consist of two fortresses joined together by walls. The portion that was built by Lorenzo de' Medici , also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, in 1474, is a fine example of a Renaissance stately home. It was once adorned by frescoes which were then badly damaged in a 17 th century fire.
Winding roads and a new landscape at every turn, a sense of wonder and anticipation heightens the senses as one reaches the ‘flying city’: Volterra. The name is apt, for at night the city lights, seen from the air, make it look like a massive ship sailing on a sea, a dark sea of hills below. There is only one way in and one way out for a vehicle entering the city. It is enclosed within a wall with stone arches as gates, the roads are narrow and the history glows in this timeless place.
Volterra is somewhat like a womb of history. It has nurtured the original Etruscan settlement as far back as the 8th century BC, when it was called Velathri or Felathri. Under Roman rule, it became a municipium, and later it was occupied by the Florentines, the Medici family and then ruled by the Duchy of Tuscany. Evidence of all is to be found within the walls of Volterra. There are numerous museums, galleries and ancient ruins. At the Teatro Romano, there are ancient Roman baths on a deep slope with an arena and columns that were said to be discovered when a boy kicked a football over the slope and stubbed his toe on what turned out to be the top of one of the columns. It is an incredible excavation in its dimensions, leaving one with a sense of awe at the view of life in Roman times. The Archaeological Park E. Fiumi, an Etruscan site, is still being explored and the Etruscan urns, pots and interesting artefacts lining the walls of the museum remind us of this ancient heritage.
[Photo: The Roman Theater, 1st century BC]
Ancient art and alabaster
Volterra has also been the heart of an industry, the mining of alabaster, since at least the 7th century BC. Its hardness is rated at 2 and 3 on the Mohs scale, alabaster being hydrated calcium sulphate. Alabaster has been used both practically by the Etruscans for their cinerary urns and artistically for alabaster ornaments, lamps, vases, bowls and podiums which are still being made. Today, there are masters of the art of carving and decorating alabaster living and working in Volterra and one can visit their workshops. It is an integral part of Volterra’s history.
Art is prolific here. Painters and creators of art and jewellery reflect the Etruscan designs, the wonderful scenery and religion. This is the town where Rosso Fiorentino’s painting The Deposition of Christ lives, the highlight of an exhibition, "Rosso Vivo", devoted to the Mannerist painter from Florence, currently under way in Volterra. The idea for the exhibition has been conceived by Alberto Bartalini, and it includes works from leading 20th-century artists, on display at each of the prominent venues in Volterra: the Pinacoteca, the Battistero Di San Giovanni, the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci, the Ecomuseo dell’Alabastro, the Palazzo dei Priori, and the Teatro Romano. It is not all beautiful, parts are dark and shocking, a reflection of the events and provocative thoughts surrounding Christ’s death and its darker aspects. It is greatly different from the gushing Palazzo Viti, with its 12 rooms filled with Italian, European and Oriental art. The red geraniums against the stone walls of the bubbling streets and the fantastic views from the heights of the city contrast with the underlying, at times sombre, nature of the past.
[Photo: Palazzo dei Priori, Volterra]
A natural spring, the views through archways and from terraces fill the senses with a flood of wonder and all the time one is feeling the deep secrets of this fascinating city. The bells still ring from La Cattedrale di Volterra and bats appear at night when the feeling of the unknown creeps in. An ideal setting for filming the Twilight series, where Volterra is home to the Volturi, powerful, ancient vampires. There are tours by moonlight and a visit to the Museo Della Tortura for those who like to venture into such a world.
Right at the top of the city looms a massive fort, Fortezza Medicea, and though one immediately would like to see inside, it is not possible, as it is now used as a state prison which just adds to the bizarre personality of Volterra. No wonder then that religion is also prominent in the city. The patron saint of Volterra is Saint Linus, who was the first pope after Peter the Apostle, and the old convent, which has been there for 400 years, is named San Lino. It has been converted into a beautiful hotel and the view from the terrace right next to the bell tower is magic.
[Photo: Etruscan gate, 4th century BC]
Today’s Volterra has wonderful shopping: alabaster, olive wood, paintings and leather spill out from shop entrances into the ancient streets which are lined with fascinating doorways and shuttered windows, and an aroma that can only be found in Italy. Food and local wines are prepared for the traveller to take away. Restaurants both formal and informal call from the main streets, but they can also be found tucked away in extraordinary places, by following the delicious waft of herbs and spices. The menus are diverse, but in all you will be offered Tuscan cuisine a must-try is wild boar cooked with olives and served with black fava beans. Because of its relative closeness to Pisa, fresh fish is also part of the local cuisine and there is a pescheria offering many fishy delicacies to take back to your apartment and cook. However, with the variety on offer at the restaurants, it is an easy choice to let the Volterrans do it their style!
The city can captivate the tourist for days and if, at any time, one feels the need to escape the walls, then a few miles drive to San Gimignano, Siena or Cecina on the coast provides more historical delight, more beautiful views, vineyards and horizons with silhouetted cypress trees, so typical of Tuscan landscapes.
Volterra is ancient, yet Volterra nurtures a newer, lighter culture, its past not forgotten nor overlooked, but its future secured by its acknowledgement and preservation of the past. We can wander through and wonder at this incredibly fascinating city which tantalizes us with its secrets and treasures, many of which have yet to be uncovered.
It’s not every day that you discover an ancient Roman amphitheater. Actually, it’s not even every century that you make a discovery of this kind. Not even in Italy. Volterra’s newly discovered amphitheater is starting to send shock waves through the archaeological community as the magnitude of this discovery is further revealed with the continuing excavation.
Although the amphitheater was first identified in the summer of 2015, just a few weeks ago a few surprising discoveries, including the existence of a 15-foot walkway with a perfectly intact vaulted ceiling leading to the main entrance, suddenly brought the excavation back into the national spotlight. This is a serendipitous discovery for Volterra, a city in the running to be named Italy’s Culture Capital for 2022.
Measuring 82 by 64 meters (270 x 210 ft) and most probably constructed in the early 1 st century BCE, Volterra’s amphitheater is not the biggest ever discovered (that would be Rome’s Flavian amphitheater, better known as The Colosseum), nor is it the oldest (the amphitheater in Pompeii from 70 BCE can claim that title), nor is it the grandest of amphitheaters (Pozzuoli, Arles, Nimes, Pula, Verona and Rome’s Colosseum are the top contenders).
In Tuscany Volterra’s amphitheater is the best preserved of all, and the only amphitheaters similar in size or larger would have been in Lucca, Florence and Arezzo. But what makes Volterra’s amphitheater utterly unique is the fact that no one in the past millennium knew of its existence and that means that the latest theoretical and scientific developments in the field of archaeology can be put to the test without contamination or interference from previous excavations. Of the 230-odd Roman amphitheaters known in the world today, almost none of them were “discovered”, simply because their remains were never lost, but were transformed by human interaction for most of their existence.
I spoke recently with Giorgio Pocobelli, a researcher with the Italian National Research Council (CNR) and one of Italy’s leading experts in ancient topography who is one of the key members of the team leading the dig. Pocobelli’s adrenaline was palpable as he told me how exciting it is to have “an amphitheater discovered in modern times excavated with modern technology and methodology”. It is mind boggling to contemplate the possibilities of what could be learned here.
For nearly a thousand years the amphitheater lay forgotten under a field below the town cemetery, just within the ancient Etruscan walls that also served as the city’s boundary in Roman times. There is evidence of early Medieval plowing in the upper strata of the excavation. It seems that is the last time it witnessed any human activity. From the initial survey in 2015 led by Elena Sorge, head archeaologist for the project, it was evident that the amphitheater was quite intact, but since the dig resumed in July 2020 it has become clear that the structure is actually in an extraordinary state of conservation.
THE EMOTION OF DISCOVERY
It is as if the amphitheater had been in a cocoon, lying dormant, waiting for someone to break the surface to let it emerge. It is fitting then that it was discovered by a woman whose last name, Sorge, means to arise and spring forth. It was in 2015, while preparing drainage ditches near the ancient Etruscan gate of Porta Diana, that an excavator hit a mound of rocks just below the soil.Work stopped, and Sorge was called in. This was not the first time she received a call of this kind – in the area around Volterra if you dig underground you know you will most likely find something – the only question is if it is Medieval, Roman, Etruscan, or even from the Bronze Age.
It was clear to Sorge that they had found a Roman wall, and after just a few days she realized that the wall extended well into the adjacent field, forming what seemed to be an oval.
“The first thing I did was to look for someone who would tell me I was just dreaming, that it wasn’t true. Two colleagues specialized in Roman archaeology came, and they looked and they looked and finally came to me saying “Elena, brace yourself… you really have found an amphitheater!” I didn’t sleep a wink that night, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, by the emotions, and this huge sense of responsibility.”
But this is far from the only aspect that makes Volterra’s amphitheater important. Researchers are learning things not only about how amphitheaters were built, but also about Volterra’s role in ancient Rome.
“It is like opening a chocolate egg with a surprise inside every single day. It is truly a unique feeling that’s just more than anything you could imagine. You think you’ve discovered the best, and then there’s always more. It is pure joy to be there, mixed with a huge sense of responsibility, and the fear that we might not be able to continue, that we might not find enough financing… but I remain hopeful.”Elena Sorge, the archaeologist who made the initial discovery and continues to lead the project
After all it isn’t a vase or a tomb that’s been discovered, but an amphitheater.
AMPHITHEATERS: ICONS OF ANCIENT ROME
The amphiteatrum, the “theater all around” was a Roman invention. While throughout the Republic Romans enjoyed adaptations of tragedies and comedies and the occasional satire in their Greek-inspired theaters, the entertainment in these semi-circular structures was primarily geared to the elite. By the 1 st c. BCE time had come for a Roman place of entertainment, and it would have to be bigger – and better – and appeal to the masses. To make something bigger they essentially put two theaters together to create an oval, the shape of all Roman amphitheaters. To make something “better” they did away with most theatrical performances and introduced spectacles that would enthrall the masses: blood and guts entertainment.
“Bread and Circuses”, wrote the Roman poet Juvenal, is what the people anxiously await. And usually it’s what they got. From chariot races and athletic competitions at the circuses, to gladiatorial and animal fights at the amphitheaters, both emperors and the elite frequently sponsored spectacles in Rome and in the provinces. The average Roman came to expect this entertainment, and it was also a wise investment for those wanting to gain popular favor.
The shows put on in the amphitheaters were particularly suited as vehicles for propaganda: on game days, they usually started with the venationes with wild and often exotic animals slaughtered by trained hunters, followed by the gladiatorial contests, and often concluding with the public execution of criminals in a long list of atrocious fashions including cremation, crucifixion and being torn apart by wild animals.
With the games often featuring men and beasts from the farthest corners of the known universe, spectators were invited to contemplate just how enormous the Empire had become. By unleashing the wrath of Rome with creatively horrific executions of traitors and criminals to the cheers of Roman hooligans, it was also clear what would befall anyone who dared rebel against Rome. This was a key aspect of the Roman recipe for stability.
Nothing is more Roman than an amphitheater.
“The amphitheater really represents the legacy of Rome better than any other kind of monument. It’s pure Rome. It’s a Roman invention, and an expression of Roman culture.”Elena Sorge, head archaeologist at the Volterra dig
The cavea of the Volterra Amphitheater
THE AMPHITHEATER IN VOLTERRA
Volterra’s amphitheater could seat about 10,000 spectators. They sat on three tiers of stone bleacher seats facing the arena. Much like in stadiums today, the sections were a reflection of social status: the ima cavea is the lowest, where patricians and senators would sit the media cavea is the middle section, where the middle strata of society could sitand the summa cavea, which was the nose-bleed section for the plebs.
The dig has uncovered about a quarter-section of the cavea, and has recently revealed the top of the podium wall that separated the cavea from the arena beneath. The team has recently found a narrow service corridor running the inner perimeter of the seating area used by those with the unenviable job of having to clean out the arena after the fights. They’ve already descended about 21 feet from modern ground level, but there is still much to be done until they reach the arena floor.
The amphitheater was built with panchina, a local stone that was also used to construct the city’s Roman theater, the Teatro Romano di Vallebuona, and ancient walls. Panchina is a very robust sandstone that has the peculiar characteristic of being easy to cut, but hardens on contact with the air, which is ideal for posterity. Though the structure may have been covered with marble, little evidence of this remains. In the centuries following the fall of Rome marble was usually the first material to be “reused and recycled”. The entrance to Volterra’s 12 th c. cathedral was built with marble always assumed to have been taken from the Roman Theater, though it is possible that the source may have been elsewhere, including even this amphitheater.
It is difficult to guess much about the amphitheater that still lies underground, since each meter of the dig has brought forth surprises. Sorge explains: “In many cases, you can see that amphitheaters were built in series, like with a cookie cutter. Once you’ve seen a sector – let’s say you excavate a quarter of an amphitheater – then you just have to multiply that to get the rest. Here, on the other hand, no two meters are the same. Even the techniques used are extremely diverse, all throughout the structure. And this is something that is simply extraordinary from a scientific perspective.”
Evidence seems to date the structure in the early Empire, suggesting the amphitheater was built around the same time as the city’s theater. For a city to have both of these important public venues in use in the same period tells us that Volterra was certainly a vibrant city at the time.
In early September the archaeologists were carefully removing stones and dirt from an upper-level corridor that had collapsed in centuries past when a small fissure appeared in the ground. On their hands and knees they gently enlarged the fissure in the sandy soil with their trowels. The top stones of an arch appeared. A flashlight was pointed into the opening and silence reigned as goosebumps covered their skin. Beyond this thin layer of soil lay a long and perfectly-preserved grandiose walkway, free from debris. It looked like a ambulacrum that could have been abandoned just a few years prior, if it weren’t for the stalactites hanging from its vaulted ceiling. The euphoria of the moment lingered over days as they enlarged the hole so Pocobelli and Sorge could harness up and descended into these spaces that no one had touched, seen – or even breathed in – for over a thousand years.
“When I entered the first time I tried to speak but I couldn’t find the air… in this place closed to the world, I was the first person breathing its air. Now it is different, you can breathe more easily, but that also means we have altered its microclimate.”
Elena Sorge, archaeologist for Pisa & Livorno provinces at the State Superintendence for Archeology
Imagine yourself in a harness, hardhat on your head, flashlight in hand. You sit on a hill of dirt under a 2,000 year old arch, and carefully slide down the hill into a hallway, with the perfectly-cut stones of its vaulted ceiling towering over your head. You take a deep breath, as if to breathe in the wonder of it all… but you discover the air is heavy. You take a moment to calibrate your breathing and move on. At the end of the hallway you have to lie down on your belly to slide through a small opening between the floor and an archway, realizing the walkway must have led down to a lower level. Beyond the arch you find yourself in a room where the vaulted ceiling is dotted with stalactites, so close you could touch them. But as you look down and see three arches with just the tops visible, you realize the room has been filled with dirt the arches would have been high above the heads of spectators as they entered the room from the main entrance corridor (the vomitorium), or from the passageway facing it, descending the stairs to the arena, or climbed the stairs back through the room where you entered to reach the upper rows of seats.
It isn’t hard to imagine tunic-clad Romans clamoring down the walkways in their laced-up sandals, anxious to find their seats for the day’s shows.
As one of Sorge’s colleagues remarked “This is the Disneyland of archaeology – this is pure entertainment! You just keep finding staircase after staircase from one level to the other, it feels like your in a work by Escher.”
The existence of this amphitheater means that the Roman chapter of Volterra’s history needs to be rewritten. Historians have always painted a picture of Roman Volterra as a small provincial town, in certain decline from its glory days in Etruscan times. But this doesn’t fit with the picture of Volterra that is emerging. Amphitheaters were not built in the boondocks. As Sorge told me, “you only find amphitheaters in the important urban centers”.
For a city to have an amphitheater built around the same time as a theater, as well as a large underground cistern and several public baths, tells of a considerable investment in public works, suggesting not only a growing population, but also a powerful economic center with people worth impressing with what “Rome does for you”.
Today most think of Volterra as a sleepy Tuscan hill-town, and yet, as Pocobelli says, “clearly the idea we have of Volterra today is not the same as that of people in ancient times.” So we tend to underestimate the importance of Volterra in centuries past. In fact, for most of its history, Volterra was indeed an important center of trade and commerce thanks to its proximity to the sea and ports (just a 5-hour walk) and wealth of resources (minerals in the hills to the southwest, salt deposits in the valley, alabaster all around and fertile land for grain, wine and oil production). It’s therefore no surprise that the Bishop of Volterra, who owned or had right to taxation on most of the land, was usually one of the wealthiest individuals in Tuscany throughout the Middle Ages.
THE NEXT STEP
Amphitheaters weren’t built in a day, nor can they be excavated in one. But if adequate financing is secured, the dig can be completed in just a few years. And the faster they excavate, the fewer the risks.
Sorge explains: “though it may sound absurd, I believe that the more we dig, the easier it will be to find financing. In this sense the discovery of these passageways may make things easier, but at the same time it makes things more complex, because all of a sudden we need financing, and we need to find it fast. Why? Because by opening this first corridor we have changed a microclimate… it is all very delicate,” and what for a thousand years lay protected and stabilized by the soil that surrounded it is now exposed and at risk for flooding and, heaven forbid, collapse.
The next steps of the excavation will need to be done with extreme caution to avoid any damage to the passageways, and will require extensive and continuous scientific surveys.
And then there’s the risk of a slope collapsing on the dig itself: on the southern side of the dig, where the recent discoveries have been made, a wall of bedrock and vegetation towers over the site. Add to the equation a torrential rain storm and it makes the perfect recipe for a landslide.
Sorge has called in a company from the Alps specialized in securing rock walls, but the tens of thousands of euro that will be needed weren’t in the initial budget.
“This is an undertaking that relies on a team. And the team we’ve put together right now is truly exceptional: we’ve got the most important research organizations involved, like the CNR [National Research Council], universities, a big cooperative that is excavating with us… it is truly a team of the highest caliber”. But if financing isn’t found to ensure the dig will continue in the spring, they might have to disband and everyone go their own way. According to Sorge, putting together a team like this again would be next to impossible. “We’re moving forward with all the courage we’ve got,” says Sorge, “every day there is a new challenge”.
What will it take to move forward? Unfortunately Covid has put a damper on the plans that were in the works for collaborations with archaeologists and their students from foreign universities, though Sorge says the door is always open to these possibilities.
The hope is that if people can’t come to help with the dig, that they can still give to help the dig continue.
Sorge strongly believes the monument should be accessible and open to the public as soon as possible, even before the excavation and restoration are complete. To accomplish this, and create an interactive visitor’s center, several million euro must still be found.
The Italian government has included the amphitheater in its “Art Bonus” project, making all donations 65% tax-deductible. The Bank of Volterra, one of the main contributors thus far, has created an ad hoc committee to facilitate donations to the amphitheater dig that could be tax-deductible even in foreign-donors’ home countries. Hope still springs eternal.
Fabrizio Burchianti explaining the latest discoveries to visitors
Since the initial discovery the dig has continued in fits and starts as the weather permits and as financing is found.
Over the past month the site has been abuzz with excitement, as one discovery leads to the next. Restoration experts, rock consolidation companies, journalists, art historians, official visits from politicians on the campaign trail, government ministers, not to mention a frenzy of curious onlookers have all been flocking to the site.
Through it all Sorge and her team of workers and archaeologists from a cooperative keep digging. The excitement at the dig is universal on an average day Sorge has to give a 5-minute warning and literally kick the workers off the site so she can close the gates because no one wants to leave. As Pocobelli says “that’s archaeology at its best, when you are driven by curiosity, the desire to find more and the joy of discovery.”
And so we wait in awe for this butterfly to unfold its wings.
If you are interested in following the latest developments with the dig, you can follow the Facebook page dedicated to the dig entitled “L’Anfiteatro Che Non C’era” that is updated regularly by Elena Sorge and her team.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Help us get the word out about this exciting discovery on social media in any way you can!
And for generous souls and history lovers interested in finding out more about how they can help the dig continue, financially or otherwise, you can contact Elena Sorge directly at [email protected] or you can contact the author of this article, Annie Adair, at [email protected]
You can also donate directly to the project through the Italian government’s Art Bonus program by sending a bank transfer to this bank account: IBAN IT77G0100003245348029258416 – or – you can send donations via PayPal to the account of the philanthropy offices of the Bank of Volterra at [email protected]
To follow how the financing is being used, expected future expenditures and the like, visit this site.
Many thanks to Enrico “Nerogotico” Sabatini for sharing with me his photographs – and his excitement about the dig!
The team also documented the interiors of several historic buildings in Volterra, including the stone town hall, which built in the 12 th Century A.D.
Over the centuries, Volterra has expanded and been rebuilt, and the city that stands today is a layered composite of archaeological and architectural elements.This Etruscan gateway is one of earliest stone arches in history. It was built in the 5 th Century B.C, and today it is surrounded by a Medieval stone wall built in the 12th Century A.D.
Autodesk leads project to digitally preserve ancient city of Volterra by 3D modeling buildings and artefacts
The project is sponsored by the non-profit Volterra-Detroit Foundation in collaboration with the City of Volterra and is supported by Autodesk, Case Technologies
Autodesk, Case Technologies, and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation led a two-week project to 3D scan key historical and archaeological sites in the ancient city of Volterra in Italy. An international team of architects, engineers, historians and students used innovative technologies including drones, photogrammetry, and laser scanning reality capture techniques, together with Autodesk ReCap 360 software, to digitally record the city’s buildings, roads and artefacts.
Why Volterra? The city itself was built over 3,000 years ago and contains historic sites dating back to the fourth century BC. As well as being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it also is home to the world’s oldest standing Etruscan arch. The city also contains one of the best examples of a Roman Theatre, excavated just 50 years ago, and continues to reveal new archaeological treasures such as a Roman Amphitheatre discovered just last year.
“Thanks to the experience and dedication of a diverse group of professionals, and a close partnership with the City of Volterra, it was possible to digitally capture the city and its rich history,” said Tristan Randall, strategic project executive at Autodesk. “Not only will the scans and models captured during this project help architects and urban planners with future restoration but it also protects and preserves the artistic and cultural heritage of Volterra for future generations through interactive and virtual experiences.”
Of the 7,000 citizens within the medieval walls of Volterra, perhaps the most supportive of this project is Marco Buselli, Mayor of Volterra, who commented, “This project gives us an exceptional opportunity to photograph, map and reproduce every corner of our historical and cultural heritage that has unique and unrepeatable characteristics. We now have a virtual history book of Volterra that captures three thousand years’ worth of overlapped history from this harmonious city.”
Dr. Wladek Fuchs, president of the Volterra-Detroit Foundation, established the Volterra International Residential College where the workshop team was based during the project. “I’ve been researching the ancient architectural history of Volterra for over twenty years and this project is preserving the cultural heritage of the city for many more years to come. By digitally capturing these historic portions of the city, the history of Volterra can now be brought to life for historians, students and academics around the world. It has been my dream for years to see projects of this caliber happen at the Volterra International Residential College and my hope is that in partnership with the city of Volterra we will be able to continue telling the world about the ancient history of Volterra for future generation,” said Dr. Fuchs. Among the project team at the Volterra Residential College were representatives from Case Technologies, Civil and Environmental Consultants, CanFly Drones, The Beck Group and Paul F. Aubin Consulting Services.
The project consisted of three phases digitally recreating historical and archaeological artefacts, creating Building Information Models of historic buildings and architectural features, and creating 3D interactive models of ancient historical sites.
Image courtesy of Autodesk and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation.
Phase one: Creating a digital 3D model of historical and archaeological sites
The project team used 3DR drones equipped with cameras using 3DR’s Site Scan software and Faro laser scanners to scan the significant historical structures inside the city walls, including the ruins of the Roman theatre. The data captured was then processed in point clouds and 3D models using the photogrammetry and laser scanning technology in Autodesk ReCap 360. These models were then combined with geographic information system (GIS) visuals such as land surface, roads, and rivers using Autodesk technology, to create a complete 3D digital model of the city.
Image courtesy of Silviu Stoian and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation.
Phase two: Use of Building Information Model (BIM)
The project team then created detailed 3D models of historic buildings and architectural features by capturing the buildings using laser scanning technology. The team then transferred the point clouds into Autodesk Revit to build a detailed Building Information Model (BIM), which can be used in partnership with the City of Volterra and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation for maintenance and future restoration projects.
Image courtesy of Paul F. Aubin and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation.
Phase three: Creating 3D models of artworks and sculptures
Ancient artwork and sculptures contained in Volterra’s premiere museums, as well as architectural features from around the city, were captured with high-resolution digital cameras and turned into 3D models and point clouds using Autodesk ReCap 360 and Autodesk ReMake. The 3D models of the artefacts will be used in virtual exhibitions, for research and conservation purposes, and can also be 3D printed to make replicates should the need arise.
The Volterra-Detroit Foundation workshop team consisted of Tristan Randall, Autodesk,Inc., Mark Dietrick and Touf Hassoun of Case Technologies, Inc., Rob Sinclair, Rick Celender and Matt Bainbridge of Civil and Environmental Consultants, Paul Aubin of Paul F. Aubin Consulting Services, Silviu Stoian of The Beck Group and Marc Dubrule of CanFly Drones. Without their countless hours spent scanning the city of Volterra over two weeks, this project would not have been possible.
Archaeology in 3D
In 2016, Fuchs and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation, an educational group he's president of, started working with the U.S. software company Autodesk and other sponsors to document the archaeological sites of the town using the latest reality-capture technologies, including geographical mapping systems, portable laser scanners and aerial drones. [24 Amazing Archaeological Discoveries]
Over two weeks, an international team of experts from the fields of architecture, engineering, construction and surveying made detailed 3D records of about a dozen archaeological sites and architectural features in Volterra, ranging from a unique Etruscan temple from the third century B.C. to the turreted medieval town hall, which was built between A.D. 1208 and 1257.
The 3D datasets are too large and too detailed to be easily combined into a single model of the ancient town, but they are being used to compile a digital archaeological map of the city that will be available to researchers through Volterra's city authorities and the archeological authorities for the Tuscany region based in Florence, Fuchs said.
A key breakthrough from the collaboration has been the development of a new understanding of the techniques used to design and build Volterra's semicircular Roman-era theater, which was first excavated in the 1950s and is now considered an architectural ancient wonder.
"People have been wondering about how these theaters were designed," Autodesk's executive on the project, Tristan Randall, told Live Science: "How was it possible that they could make these complex structures, using just Roman numerals and Euclidian geometry?"
"Essentially, what Wladek [Fuchs] has done now has been to build a very detailed methodology [of the ancient design process] that would have been impossible without this detailed reality-capture data to analyze," Randall said.
The detailed 3D records would let authorities monitor Volterra&rsquos archaeological sites for changes over time, and help in the planning of future excavations, he said.
Volterra, Italy – History and Handbags High in the Tuscany, Volterra, Italy (B)
I was lucky enough to spend a week working in Tuscany. I know, sorry, stressful but someone had to do it, I’m such a martyr for my cause eh? On an afternoon off I was driven to this joy of a ancient mountain town, Volterra.
I’d seen it from a distance across the valley from the work location. High in the clouds first thing in the morning, safely nestling above the expanse of green valleys and hillsides later in the day.
I’m glad I wasn’t driving the roads are winding with huge drops to certain death on one side, although as a passenger I’m not sure which took my breath away most, the vertiginous drops or the STUNNING panoramic views beauty of nature all around! So if you do drive you may miss out on the numerous opportunities to look past the trees and extreme drops to the famous Tuscan views.
Painters, artists and writers have been drawn to this part of the world across the years. It is a calm, light, green, panoramic countryside and it’s very easy to understand why so many found it inspirational. . (follow the instructions below for accessing the rest of this article).