The fortune of the Tuscan city of Volterra has always, in some way, been tied to its rich natural resources. Bear with me as I propose my theory on the matter (you won’t read this in any books, so let me know if you think I’m wrong).

One of the twelve city-states of Etruria, the Etruscan Velathri was chosen both for its natural position with a view dominating the surrounding countryside, and for mineral deposits – especially copper and silver – that contributed significantly to its economy. Alabaster, the modern city’s primary artisan trade, was also plentiful (handy for funerary urns and the like).

These features appealed to the Romans, who of course invaded the Etruscan city, changed its name to Volterrae, and left behind the symbols of a major city like a theatre. In the Middle Ages, the extraction of salt, in particular, proved essential income for the city that remained important through the Renaissance. The local stone, panchino di Volterra, full of fossils from marine sediments, was easy to extract and model in order to construct a city founded on mineral-based commerce.

Cut to the present day, when I visited a contemporary winery called MonteRosola just ten minutes short of the city of Volterra. Here, too, minerals play an important role, making for a rich though challenging clay-based soil. Volterra doesn’t have its own DOC wine zone, living perhaps in the shadows of its more famous neighbours Chianti, inland, and Bolgheri on the coast. Fields are dedicated to agriculture, as you can tell with a glance at the beautifully cultivated rolling hills, and grapes still tend to be grown at a personal level. Important international winemaking projects here aren’t really a thing… until now.

Leaving aside the question of “minerality” in wine, a taste or quality that is rather disputed and I’ll leave that to the experts, I do feel like minerals and other local materials were guiding me as I explored Volterra over a weekend. What follows is a moderately quirky list of things to do in Volterra if you’re interested in art, wine and well, minerals.

MonteRosola winery near Volterra

The courtyard of MonteRosola looking onto its vines

But first, wine. An invitation to visit the newly opened winery of MonteRosola was the prompt for our weekend trip in an area that I’ve rarely had a chance to explore. Winemaker and agronomer Michele Senesi personally led our tour. I already knew that the newly built cellar opened only in late 2019 under new ownership, that of Bengt and Ewa Thomaeus from Sweden, who purchased the property in 2013. But Michele explained how winemaking began here in 1999, when he and his team were hired by the previous owners. Happy to be kept on by the visionary new owners, Michele has led the expansion along with consultant winemaker Alberto Antonini, considered one of the world’s top five wine consultants by multiple sources, who has been on board at MonteRosola for the past decade.

Taking a closer look at the vines

We stepped into the vineyards nearest the cellar to take a look at the soil and talk about some experiments they’re doing in organic vine management with the help of the local university. It’s common to use green cover with a mix of plants that help the vines in various ways – oxygenation, nitrogenation, for water retention and to keep insects off the leaves. Usually, however, the area immediately underneath the vines is cleaned. Michele’s team is experimenting with subterranean clover planted exactly there; it grows during winter, keeping soil warm, and dies off in the summer, conveniently not competing with the vines but assisting in keeping it hydrated. On this windy hilltop, constantly buffeted by a sea breeze, anything to keep soil in place is good, though its naturally high percentage of clay also reduces evaporation. Typical of the Volterra area, the soil is mostly sedimentary sandstone, and stones found on the property are rich with marine fossils and minerals like quartz. I didn’t dare have a lick, but bet that if you were to taste a stone from this vineyard it’d be slightly salty.

The contemporary wine cellar

Given the opportunity to build a wine cellar from scratch, Volterra-based architect Paolo Prati was called upon to create something that draws inspiration from the estate’s humble beginnings as a lookout tower, similar to other squared-off towers on the hills opposite. Of course, it’s made from the local stone, panchino di Volterra. What you see above ground is just part of the state-of-the art cantina that develops underground, protected by a cushion of cool air that provides natural air-conditioning inside. Of note are the gravity-fed, tulip-shaped cement tanks used for red wines, and smaller egg-shaped versions for the whites.

I could write much more, but still have to tell you about the wines, and then about what we saw in Volterra! We moved on to a wine tasting, which can be done alone or with a light lunch; we were treated to the second, with platters of local cheese and meats, and a taste of the estate’s extra-virgin olive oil.

I’m not a wine expert, but I tasted the three white wines and four of the six reds in production and found them to be solidly representative of their grapes, no small feat for young vines. Most of the wines are single varietals: the refreshing Vermentino and the aromatic Viognier are comfortingly Tuscan; the Primo Passo blend (Grechetto, Manzoni and Viognier) is perhaps the most original of the three whites. Of the reds, I particularly enjoyed Corpo Notte (70% Sangiovese tempered by the silky tannins of 30% Cabernet Sauvignon), and the top of the line Per Terras 2018 100% Cabernet Franc that we tasted in pre-release, elegant and age-worthy. But don’t just take my word for it, see my friend Filippo Bartolotta’s video tasting notes of the white Primo Passo and the red Crescendo, two of the four he tasted that he liked best.

Landscape and Land Art

Mauro Staccioli’s Primi Passi has been moved to the property of MonteRosola

With much wine and cheese in our tummies, it was time to see the Volterran landscape beyond the winery. One of the symbols of Volterra is a large red O-shaped sculpture on the main road just before town, with which you have likely posed if you’ve visited this area since 2005. But did you know that this is just one of more than a dozen sculptures by Mauro Staccioli installed in 2009? I’ve been quite obsessed with these for years, and have sought out many of them following a map in the exhibition catalogue that I bring in the car every time I’m in the area.

Some of them have been moved from their original site, so imagine my pleasure and surprise at discovering that one of these has been moved onto the property of MonteRosola! My photos with this sculpture encapsulate the two days spent here: art, wine, landscape, and swiftly changing weather. I think we experienced at least three seasons during this strangely cold mid-May weekend.

Two works on the property of Lischeto

Staccioli placed his sculptures in significant locations. Primi Passi, now at MonteRosola, used to be at Piancorboli and framed his natal home, where he took his first steps (the name of the piece). Not far from there is the Fattoria di Lischeto, which makes exceptional pecorino cheese, and is home to numerous works of art, but most importantly Staccioli’s Portale, and the monumental bronze Equanimity by Dutch artist Emilie CummingsEnneking.

Land art has the benefit of focusing our attention on the landscape that it enhances, and here, to be honest, the views easily rival the more famous Crete Senesi. It’s hard not to stop at every curve, and in fact I came home with 399 photographs to select and edit.

Museums in Volterra

In the past I’ve always been rushed through Volterra: some of you may know that I was a university art history professor before working in communications, and I used to accompany students to Volterra, where works in two of the museums were on the curriculum. Don’t be fooled by its town-like appearance, Volterra is a city with a lot to offer, and three important museums demonstrate the city’s historic wealth and current good management. A combined ticket gives access to most of the city’s museums and archaeological sites for only €13; from May 1 to September 30, 2021, this is reduced to €7 and the ticket lasts 7 days. A steal!

Rosso Fiorentino’s Deposition in the Pinacoteca makes this town an art desination

The Pinacoteca

One of the rooms in the PInacoteca featuring Renaissance art

The Pinacoteca di Volterra, or Art Gallery, preserves works from institutions that aren’t able to conserve and display them, the most important of which is Rosso Fiorentino’s Deposition, though there are a number of interesting altarpieces by some of the main exponents of both Sienese and Florentine schools.

I could have sworn that there used to be a bench in front of the Deposition, which would be useful because you could spend a long time trying to figure out this extremely odd work of art. I’ve written about Rosso Fiorentino before on this blog, when this altarpiece was lent to Palazzo Strozzi for an exhibition in tandem with paintings by Pontormo. While Pontormo’s eccentricity is elegant and basically defines the period we call Mannerism, Rosso’s feels rough and verging on the truly insane. This feeling isn’t helped at all by the fact that this painting and the other we’ll see here in Volterra were deliberately left unfinished. A top layer would surely have better defined the skeletal elongated hands and the haunted faces: I’ve always said I could spot a Rosso by the runny mascara.

The Etruscan Museum

The Urna degli Sposi at the Guarnacci Museum in Volterra | Photo Wikipedia (modified)

The Guarnacci Etruscan Museum is one of the world’s best collections of Etruscan objects. It’s closed for a few months, but they hope to reopen for the Summer 2021 tourist season.

Browse through the funerary urns on the ground floor if you wish, but otherwise head for the museum’s two highlights. The Urna degli Sposi is a late Etruscan work in terracotta, the lid of a funerary urn. This remarkable image of a man and a woman shows them given equal consideration (something you’d never see in Roman art), in incredibly realistic detail.

The Ombra della sera, on the other hand, is in a totally different style: an elongated bronze statuette of a boy, probably an ex-voto figure for fertility from the third century BCE. Extremely modern in conception, it looks like it might have inspired the elongated figures of Alberto Giacometti.

The Diocesan Museum

The Diocesan Museum housed in a church

In the summer of 2017, the Diocesan of Volterra opened a new museum in the church of Sant’Agostino (which has remained consecrated). It has been closed for part of the time since, first due to organizational issues, then for Covid restrictions. There is hope that it will reopen very soon, so do plan to visit this space in summer 2021! I begged my way in for a preview, and am very glad I did.

The new Diocesan Museum of Volterra is as all museums should be. To start with, an absolutely stunning setting. The elegant nave and side aisles of the church, which was restored in the 18th century, both preserve the church’s original paintings and have been enhanced by a dark red support to indicate those works that were added in this context. Soft music plays in the church, inviting contemplation and admiration.

Rosso Fiorentino, Villamagna Altarpiece

Attracted by this display, one looks closer and realizes that this church holds a selection of devotional works that would easily support a major museum in other parts of the world. Amongst these gems is a charming Madonna Enthroned by Neri di Bicci, from the church of Santi Giusto and Clemente in Volterra, that fits so well into the Florentine tradition by looking to the important past of Giotto, to the International Gothic style of Lorenzo Monaco and to Filippo Lippi perhaps for the rotund baby.

Rosso Fiorentino’s Villamagna Altarpiece, installed in the chapel to the right of the high altar of the church-museum, dates to 1521, the same year as the Deposition we just saw, an even 500 years ago, and the previous notes on his style apply here too.

Other works of note are by Daniele da Volterra (if you don’t see him here, where else?), the Della Robbiaesque bust of Saint Linus (Benedetto Buglioni, 1513) and an interesting processional panel displayed on a pole in its original frame (I am fascinated by functional art).

The Roman Theatre and Amphitheatre

The Roman Theatre

A very large Roman theatre from the Imperial period was discovered in Volterra in the 1950s and is fully excavated, proving to be one of the best preserved exemplars in Italy. To be honest, we didn’t bother going in because you can get an excellent view of the site from above, perhaps better than from below! Handy tip, there’s a large parking lot with steep stairs that provide this view and practical access to the city.

Perhaps even more exciting in the Roman category is something you can’t visit just yet. In 2015, they discovered a full-on amphitheatre in Volterra, quite by chance as one does in Italy, and it’s very well preserved. The presence of this structure speaks of Roman Volterrae as being more important than was previously believed. Its excavation will help re-write the city’s history. For an excellent interview with the archeologists leading the dig, read this article on the blog “Real Tuscan Life”.

Kalpa Art Living

While not a museum but actually a gallery, I can’t not include this lovely art gallery in an amazing restored palazzo on what might be Volterra’s prettiest street, via Porta all’Arco. Brainchild of Polish artist Olga Niescier, whom I interviewed on this blog back in 2016 when she ran the gallery at Borgo Pignano, Kalpa Art Living gallery displays a range of works that explore nature and materials in a contemporary manner in line with Niescier’s own large paintings. I particularly love the very tactile sculptures, including the innovative use of alabaster, which as you may know is strongly represented in Volterra’s artisan shops with amazing skill, but often in traditional forms. Kalpa is more than just a gallery space: their core business is actually art consultancy for private homes, hotels and businesses, offering access to a roster of international artists chosen with exceptional taste.

Volterra’s minerals

If you thought we were done with the minerals theme, you’re wrong! My husband, an engineer in the energy field, tends to choose the most obscure things to see in any area. This is how we’ve been to geothermic power plants in Iceland and Hawaii, and had the one in Larderello, a stone’s throw from Volterra, been open at this time, we might have ended up there. But rather, he chose a visit to the salt deposits of Volterra. Industrial sites are always good photo ops, and this working salt factory with a long history did not disappoint.

Salt, cigarettes and quinine – a seemingly random combination – were state-run monopolies in Italy; salt from post WWII until 1975. The three were produced at the Saline di Volterra, an industrial town 20 minutes downhill from Volterra where you can now visit the modern private company that took over the bankrupt state-run factory.

The visit is in Italian, and involves an 18-minute-long video about the production process of what is the world’s purest salt – 99.9% in fact. The video is more interesting than you’d think, and explains how they extract an underlying layer of salt that is deposited in this area by blasting water into it, and then removing the water from the crystals, essentially (but it’s rather more complicated than that). You’re then guided through the production facility, where the highlight is the salt deposit. Pure salt is regularly poured through openings in the ceiling, to be removed by trucks for industrial use. The guide humours guests who pose for silly photos, as we did.

Locatelli, the company that runs the factory, has opened it up to weekend guided visits (find up-to-date booking info on the official tourism website), art and theatre events, and runs a store at the end where you can buy one of the most inexpensive souvenirs ever: salt.

We didn’t have time to visit the other mines around Volterra, which are documented in Medieval and Renaissance times. Caporciano mine near Montecatini for example is mentioned in documents from 1469 when a Florentine goldsmith was involved, and the Grand Dutchy of Tuscany took particular interest in the lignite mines at Monteverdi Marritimo for its samples of chalcedony and quartz which one might well find underfoot hiking in the nature reserve of Monterufoli-Caselli.

Coming full circle like a sculpture by Staccioli, am I right to say that the minerals that enrich the earth around Volterra made all this possible?

Where to stay in the Volterra area

Borgo Pignano's swimming pool carved out of a quarry

A few years ago I stayed at Borgo Pignano, a luxury resort on the hillside just opposite Monterosola with the most fantastic swimming pool dug out of a quarry of local stone. At the time I was impressed with the way they grew their own grain and dried their own herbs. Over the years it’s evolved to include a spa, and they’ve recently started making a house wine. This is one to watch.

On the way to the Saline di Volterra, where the view spreads out before your eyes, we spotted Tuscany Forever, a borgo with luxury apartments spread out in villas with décor of the type I love: modern, not “too Tuscan”, spacious and with plenty of light. While I haven’t been there personally yet, it looks like a place I would happily stay.

Sign up here to receive future blog posts in your inbox