A bit of history
(text by V.Piasta)

Volterra
the city of the Etruscans, the city of alabaster

Two images linked together, in the present as well as in the past, two images which invite the visitor to follow the traces of their history.

The social and economic growth of the town has always been conditioned by its peculiar geographical position: lying on a hill which is 535 metres high, Volterra was cut off from the main roads in ancient times as well as it is in recent times.

The fertile soil of this area was already inhabited in very ancient ages, there are evidences of human settlements dating back to the Aeneolithic age.

The first unit of this settlement was born, most probably, on the biggest part of the bill, the Acropolis.

In the surroundings of the town finds dating back to the period of time between the 10th and the 7th century B.C., were brought to light.

They are evidences of the existence of an ancient civilization during which, besides bronze tools and arms, iron tools were also used: it is the so called Villanova Civilization, whose name originated from the first excavations carried out in Villanova, near Bologna. Numerous evidences of this culture, found in the necropolis, that is in the areas intended for the tombs of the dead, are preserved in Guarnacci Museum.

As settlements established, commerce developed not only in the area, but with foreign peoples and countries, too, and relations with other civilizations which left evidences as well, were set up.

The finds brought to light here and datable from about the 7th century B.C. onwards, just belong to a culture which can be defined Etruscan.

We do not know yet where the Etruscans came from, Herodotus' thesis, after which the Tusci - Tyrrhenians arrived from Asia, has not many supporters, being founded on too poor evidences.

On the other hand, supposing the Etruscans to be descendants from the same inhabitants of Villanova, it is difficult to justify the remarkable difference which there is between the two cultures.

A third theory, moreover, speaks about immigration from the Alps.

Most probably the truth is a synthesis of all this. The coming of foreign peoples, introducing new elements into an already existing civilization, causes deep changes and adds new customs to the old ones.

Also the problem of the origin of the Etruscan language is not solved yet, in spite of the continuos progress on that subject; though the alphabet derives from the Greek one, there is not a documentation for the remainder, such as to allow a good knowledge of said language.

We know for certain that the Etruscans (or «Tyrrenoi» as the Greeks called them) spread from the south of Tuscany towards the north as far as the Arno (later, as far as the Po valley), and on the opposite side as far as the Tiber.

Starting from Veio, their commercial network spread much farther than the bank of the Tiber (Litus Tuscus) as far as Campania, even before Rome acquired a politico-economical importance.

To the north there was Velathri, Volterra of today, an important centre in the «Dodecapoli» (twelve towns) of the «Lucumoniae».

Its wealth chiefly arose from the digging out of minerals and consequently from the trade of copper and salt, which trade, as finds of the 6th century B.C. prove (such as the stele by Avile Tite), allowed to establish economic and cultural contacts with more advanced ancient civilizations, such as Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt and especially Greece. From the 7th century to the 4th century B.C., Etruria develops both economically and geographically.

The city-state Velathri spreads to the west as far as Elba, rich in iron mines, to the north as far as the Arno, while to the south its territory borders on the territory of the «the city of the Etruscans, the city of alabaster» of Vetulonia and Russellae and to the east on Fiesole (Faesulae), Arezzo (Arettium) and Chiusi (Clusium).

From about the 6th century B.C. onwards, the imposing walls began to be built. At first tbey arrived at the so called «Piano di Castello», then, little by little, they included new strips of territory.

From the 5th to the 4th century B.C. the majestic circle of walls, about 7.3 km long, was finished.

Within its interior, in a surface of 116 hectares (1,160,000 square-metres) which included urban centres, temples, fields, orchards, gardens and fountains, 25,000 inhabitants, more or less, found protection.

Of this huge work you can still admire the «Porta all'Arco», the «Porta di Diana» and some more remains of walls scattered along the whole perimeter.

At the beginning the economic growth of the Etruscans took place in a pacific way, all considered, but the consequent spread of the territory was the cause of military conflicts.

After the 4th century the decline of Etruria, both as an economic and a territorial power, begins. Velathri loses Populonia and with it an important access to the sea: later this function is performed by Vada, a locality to the north of the mouth of the Cecina.

While in the cultural field the Hellenistic influence increases, the expansionist force of Rome is getting pressing, aiming at the rich mines in Volterra, too.

According to Titus Livy's testimonies, in 298 B.C. the Romans invade the territory of Volterra, causing serious destruction.

The Etruscans, proverbially known in the ancient times as people very fond of comforts and ease, who counted among their principles peace and regionalism, cannot certainly make valid resistance

to the Roman legions, well-disciplined and urged by obvious expansionist purposes.

In the decisive battle on lake Vadimone, also Velathri loses its independence in the end and becomes a part of the Italic Confederation under the name of Volaterrae.

Rome does not impose particularly hard conditions on the city, but uses it in the battles against the Cauls.

Volterra becomes a loyal ally of Rome, to such a point that during the Second Punic War it supplies Scipio consul with cereals and naval equipment.

Owing to the extension of «Via Aurelia» along the coast up to Pisa, Volterra is still more cut off from the main arteries of commerce. The city is true to Rome during the social war too and as a token of gratitude, in 90 B.C. Julius Caesar grants it the rights of Roman Citizenship.

The «Lucomone» is replaced by a body of four persons (quatorvirato) who exercise administrative and legislative powers.

Volterra is present even if with weak power, in the representation of the 45 provinces in Rome.

During the civil war between Marius and Sulla (88 B.C.) Volterra sides, together with Fiesole, Arezzo and Populonia, with the democratic party against Sulla.

Sulla wins the war and his troops besiege Volterra, succeeding after two years' siege, in breaking its resistance.

The city is sacked and Caesar inflicts a further punishment on it, taking its right of citizenship away; only a heart-felt intercession of Cicero succeeds in not baving the sanctions demanded by Sulla utterly enforced.

In spite of its serious defeat, Volterra maintains most of its territory though it is compelled to cede the colony of Saena Julia (Siena).

Under the Emperor Augustus (in office from 31 B.C. to 14 A.D.) its importance does not decrease, nay, it is just in this period that imposing works, such as the «Theatre» and the «Cistern» are built.

The new Christian religion reaches Volterra very soon. In the works of Persius Flaccus, a satirical poet from Volterra (34-62 A.D.), there is already a feeling of dissatisfaction for the moral decay of the Roman state, and it is just an inhabitant of Volterra, Linus, who in 66 A.D. becomes the first successor to Peter at the head of the young Christian church.

He will die ten years later, in 76. The names of Etruscan origin of the two martyrs Attinia and Ceciniana (both beatified as the same Linus) prove that at the end of the third century after Christ something of Etruscan civilization still survives, in spite of the overwhelming influence of the Roman civilization.

In the 5th century Volterra becomes a diocese, with a rather vast territory.

The first church is built in the place where today rises the Cathedral.

At the beginning of the 6th century S. Giusto (St. Justus) becomes the Bishop of Volterra; to him and to S. Clemente (St. Clement) and S. Ottaviano (St. Octavian) the legend ascribes the miracle to have saved the city besieged by Vandals, giving them some bread from the wall.

The more and more frequent raids of the barbarians cause serious devastation on Volterra territory and in the following centuries no significant impulse comes from the city.

An administrative system led by Counts and Marquises, installed by the King or by the Emperor, develops; their task is to administer and impose justice and collect tributes, getting, in return, vast landed properties and privileges.

So the feudal nobility originates and the will of the new aristocrats to enlarge the sphere of their power and slacken the ties with the sovereign increases more and more, but it is this very wish which marks the beginning of their decline.

The central power, in search of new allies, applies to the bishops, at last, and through the concession of privileges, sees that they are in a position to counterbalance the power of the former governors, now in open rebellion.

So in the 9th and 10th centuries two powers in antagonism to each other develop: the cities where the bishops are in power and the surrounding territory still under the feudal nobility.

In Volterra too there is the change of power, from the counts to the bishop, with a gradual process which finishes in the 12th century; Bishop Ruggero, towards the end of this century, owns silver mines and other important sources of income which enable him to make war upon some nobles from San Gimignano, guilty of insubordination.

The new lords strengthen their temporal power. In the 12th and 13th centuries tower-houses are built in Volterra.

They are real civic fortresses aiming at offering protection lo the noble families, engaged in fierce fights for power. Shelter from outside enemies, for the about 6,000 inhabitants of the city, is offered, instead, by the new walls built towards the middle of the 13th century and still today perfectly preserved.

New social powers already appear: rich families from Volterra, among which ambitious middle-class families, oppose the bishops' power and in order lo defend their own interests better, they unite: the Commune is born.

Consuls are elected, even without the bishops' blessing, judges are chosen, an independent administrative body is established.

Towards the first half of the 12th century the conflicts with the bishops, who in the long run had gained great power and accumulated great riches, become more frequent.

Galgano Pannocchieschi, the governor in charge on behalf of the Emperor Barbarossa, is a victim of a conspiracy; he is murdered (after the legend) on the threshold of the cathedral by the enraged throng.

With the coming of Bishop Ugo dei Saladini (later on beatified) there is a period of relative social peace; when be died (1184) the office comes back in the hands of the Pannocchieschi family and the position of his successor Ildebrando is anything but solid.

In 1193 the Commune elects the first Podestà (lord mayor) and in 1208, just behind the Cathedral, the building of the first town-hall in Tuscany is begun.

After Bishop Ildebrando's death (1212), the office is undertaken by his nephew Pagano, whose poor diplomatic ability makes the conflict with the Commune still fiercer.

In 1219 he miraculously escaped an attempt. In the meanwhile the city completes its emancipation: a town militia is established, the inhabitants organize themselves in political parties and guilds. With Pagano's death (1239) the Pannocchieschi era closes, but not even his successor Ranieri degli Ubertini succeeds in restoring the bishop-counts' old power.

Before the threat of an assault from Florence, which actually reached its climax in 1254 in an attack to Volterra, the bishop and the Commune try to achieve an internal unit and in 1258, a year after the end of the building of «Palazzo dei Priori», Ranieri is elected Podestà and Captain of the People (militia commander).

He combines in himself two offices, the separation of which had been codified only five years before in the new constitution, on the Florentine model.

In 1319, when Bishop Ranieri Belforti is in office, the Commune statutes become still more «popular».

The Patricians, the Ghibellines (with an evident consideration for the Guelph Florence), the soldiers and all clergy are excluded from the management of temporal power.

In 1321 Ranuccio Allegretti succeeds Ranieri. He was harshly thwarted by the Belforti family, aiming at the domination of the city, as well.

In 1340 he is expelled by the people stirred up by Ottaviano Belforti and his houses are destroyed or expropriated.

The confiscated buildings, among which the tower-house in front of «Palazzo dei Priori», are bought by auction by the Belforti family.

Ottaviano is appointed «Confaloniere della Giustizia»

Little by little other offices are conferred on him, so the Belforti family can consolidate their power. But Bocchino, Ottaviano's son and successor makes himself hated by the people, owing to his tyrannical behaviour. And when he tries to sell the city to Pisa through secret negotiations, the people rebel against him. He is caught near «Porta all'Arco» and beheaded. His property is expropriated and the Belforti family's privileges annulled.

Florence, an ally of the Belforti family, increases its influence on the city, installing its citizens in the offices of captain of the people and lord of castles.

In 1427 Florence extends to Volterra the catastral law, interfering heavily in its autonomy.

The negotiators of the Priori are kept prisoners in Florence and released only some months later.

After coming back to Volterra, their leader Giusto Landini, appealing to the affront he had suffered, persuaded the inhabitants to expel the captain of the people and to take possession of the fortress.

The troops of Florence try to occupy the city but they do not succeed in it; on November 7th, 1429, Landini is drawn into the town-hall with a pretext and killed by other «Priori» who had betrayed more for the wish to have economic interests in common with the Medici family than for the fear of a military attack from Florence.

About forty years later, at the end of the famous «guerra dell'allume» (alum war), Florence subjects the city definitively.

The intrigues of this event begin in 1470, when an inhabitant of Siena finds out a rich alum mine on Volterra territory, near Castel del Sasso.

The Commune grants him the rights to exploit it, but as soon as it is found that also «Pecorino» Inghirami and Benedetto Frescobaldi from Volterra are members of the mining corporation, the other members, who are economically involved in the matter, people rebel.

They try to incite the people spreading rumours telling that the contract was drawn up fraudulently and those who believe they were treated unfairly in the business take possession of the mine with the help of the troops.

Then Inghirami and Frescobaldi seek the arbitration of Lorenzo il Magnifico, but he has a personal interest in the result of the conflict himself: on one hand there is involved the exploitation of the mine on behalf of the Florentines, on the other, it is not a novelty that Florence aims at a definitive and formally lawful subjection.

So when Inghirami is murdered by the enraged throng, Lorenzo dei Medici takes action: on the 18th June, 1472 his troops, led by the Duca di Montefeltro, conquer the city, after a short battle.

Only a long time later Volterra will be able to recover from the destruction and the sacks accomplished by the soldiers.

The buildings which are on «Piano di Castello» are razed to the ground and on their ruins there is built an imposing fortress dominated by the «Maschio», a big round tower.

The Florentine Captain settles down in «Palazzo dei Priori».

However, in the following years, Volterra becomes a loyal ally of Florence and in 1513 it gets back the Palace.

But once more the city will take the consequence of its dependence from Florence. When in 1521 the Emperor Charles V, after the treaty with Clemente VII, attacks Florence, Volterra rebels against the occupying power and yields to the Emperor.

Florence holds out against the attack and sends Captain Ferrucci to conquer Volterra again; in June, 1530, at the cost of serious losses, he succeeds in restoring the dominion of Florence over the city.

With the birth of «Granducato di Toscana» (Grand Duchy of Tuscany), Volterra finds itself involved in this new political reality. But the city economy, worn out by the wars, the outer exploitation and the plague epidemics of 1348 and 1630, finds difficulty in recovering.

Until about 1800 the population is on an average of five-seven thousand units.

Only in the 19th century there is a certain recovery, exactly when the production of salt is industrialized and the alabaster handicraft strengthens.

Towards 1930 the population reaches the level of the period of the Commune again, when (at the beginning of the 14th century) ten-twelve thousand people lived only in the city.

(1) Lucumonia (pl. Lucumoniae) = an important centre among the cities under the jurisdiction of an Etruscan magistrate. return

(2) Lucomone = Etruscan Magistrate. return

(3) Confaloniere della Giustizia = a magistrate of a medioeval commune. return

(4) Priori = title of representatives of the most important guilds; they were entitled to be part of government. return


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