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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.


Volterra (anc. Volaterrae), a town and episcopal see of Tuscany, Italy, in the province of Pisa, from which it is 51 m. by rail SE, and 35 by road WNW from Siena. Pop. (1901) 5522 (town); 14,207 (commune). It stands on a commanding olive-clad eminence 1785 ft. above sea-level, with a magnificent view over mountains and sea (the latter some 20 m. distant), and is surrounded by the massive remains of its ancient walls of large, roughly rectangular blocks of stone, some 4 m. in circuit, enclosing an area which must have been larger than was actually needed for habitation. Tombs of the pre-Etruscan or Villanova period have been found within its circuit, but only at the north-west extremity near S. Giusto. Here the clay of which the hill is formed is gradually giving way, causing landslips and the collapse of buildings, notably of the abbey church of S. Salvatore (1030). The medieval town occupies only the southern portion of this area. The most important relic of its Etruscan period is the Porta dell' Arco, an archway of dark greystone, about 20 ft. high, the corbels of which are adorned with almost obliterated heads, probably representing the guardian deities of the city. There are remains of baths and a cistern of Roman date. Volterra preserves its medieval character, having suffered little modification since the 16th century. The town contains many picturesque medieval towers and houses. The Palazzo dei Priori (1208‑54), now the municipal palace, is especially fine, and the piazza in which it stands most picturesque. The museum contains a very valuable collection of Etruscan antiquities, especially cinerary urns from the ancient tombs N and E of the town. The urns themselves are of alabaster, with the figure of the deceased on the lid, and reliefs from Greek myths on the front. They belong to the 3rd-2nd centuries B.C. A tomb outside the town of the 6th century B.C., discovered in 1898, consisted of a round under­ground chamber, roofed with gradually projecting slabs of stone. The roof was supported in the centre by a massive square pillar (E. Petersen in Römische Mitteilungen, 1898, 409; cf. id. ibid., 1904, 244 for a similar one near Florence). There are also in the museum Romanesque sculptures from the old church of S. Giusto, &c. The cathedral, consecrated in 1120 (?), but enlarged and adorned by Niccolo Pisano (?) in 1254, has a fine pulpit of that period, and on the high altar are sculptures by Mino da Fiesole; it contains several good pictures — the best is an "Annunciation" by Luca Signorelli. The sacristy has fine carvings. The baptistery belongs to the 13th century; the font is by Andrea Sansovino, and the ciborium by Mino da Fiesole. Both these buildings are in black and white marble. S. Francesco has frescoes of 1410, and S. Girolamo terra-cottas and pictures. The citadel, now a house of correction, consists of two portions, the Rocca Vecchia, built in 1343 by Walter de Brienne, duke of Athens, and the Rocca Nuova, built by the Florentines (1472). The inhabitants are chiefly employed in the manufacture of vases and other ornaments from alabaster, of good quality, found in the vicinity. There are also in the neighbourhood rock-salt works and mines, as well as boracic acid works. This acid is exhaled in volcanic gas, which is passed through water tanks. The acid is deposited in the water and afterwards evaporated. It is sent to England, and used largely in the manufacture of pottery glaze.

Volaterrae (Etruscan Velathri) was one of the most powerful of the twelve confederate cities of Etruria. During the war between Marius and Sulla it withstood the latter's troops for two years in 82‑80 B.C. As a result of its resistance Sulla carried a law for the confiscation of the land of those inhabitants of Volaterrae who had had the privileges of Roman citizen­ship. This, however, does not seem to have been carried out until Caesar as dictator divided some of the territory of Volaterrae among his veterans. Among its noble families the chief was that of the Caecinae, who took their name from the river which runs close to Volaterrae and still retains the name Cecina. Cicero defended one of its members in an extant speech. It is included by Pliny​a among the municipal towns of Etruria. In the 12th and 13th centuries it enjoyed free institutions; in 1361 it fell under the power of Florence. It rebelled, but was retaken and pillaged in 1472. Persius the satirist and the painter Daniele da Volterra were both natives of the town. Several works of the latter are preserved there.

See C. Ricci, Volterra (Bergamo, 1905); E. Bormann in Corp. Inscr. Latin. xi. (Berlin, 1888), p324; G. Dennis, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria (London, 1883), II.136.

[T. As.]

Thayer's Note:

a III.50. He also mentions the city in other contexts in several other places.


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