The most evocative way to enter Volterra is through Porta all’Arco, the main 4th-century-b.c. gateway to the Etruscan city. On the outside of the arch are mounted three basalt heads—worn by well over 2,000 years of wind and rain to featurelessness—said to represent the Etruscan gods Tinia (Jupiter), Uni (Juno), and Menrva (Minerva). Via die Priori leads steeply uphill to Volterra’s stony medieval heart, the Piazza dei Priori and the Gothic Palazzo dei Priori (1208–57), the model on which Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio and many other civic buildings in Tuscany were modeled. A skull and crossbones outside the main hall handily sums up the medieval view of righteousness: “REMEMBER DIVINE JUDGEMENT AND YOU WILL NOT SIN FOR ALL ETERNITY.” Two stone lions flanking the somber facade are symbols of the Florentines, who conquered Volterra in the early 14th century. The squat tower in the eastern corner is festooned with a little pig (porcellino), hence its name, Torre del Porcellino. The beast is actually a boar, a symbol of strength for medieval residents—not only because of its robust heft but also because boars were plentiful in the surrounding woods and the mainstay of their diet (pasta with ragù di cinghiale and grilled boar are still menu favorites). Enjoy the view of the square with a coffee or glass of wine and a panino at one of the tables in front of Bar Priori. Inside the modest-looking Duomo, behind the piazza, is a life-size wood grouping of figures of the “Deposition from the Cross,” carved around 1228 by anonymous Pisan masters and painted in bright colors. With their fluidity and emotional expressiveness the figures look vaguely contemporary. A walk north and down toward Porta Fiorentina takes you to a walkway atop the medieval ramparts for a look at another era in Volterra’s past, the Teatro Romano, rediscovered in the 1950s (the view from here suffices; no need to pay the admission fee to enter).
The Etruscans made good use of the easily mined local stone, a translucent calcium sulfate known as alabaster—witness the hundreds of alabaster sarcophagi in the Guarnacci museum. Alabaster became a major industry in Volterra again at the end of the 19th century, when the material was much in demand for lampshades, with the rise of electric lighting. Today local artisans work alabaster into a mind-boggling array of objects, from fine art pieces to some remarkable kitsch.
Plaques around town denote the workshops of some of the best traditional artisans, where you will find only hand-worked items. Via Porta all'Arco has several fine shops, including internationally known Paolo Sabatini, at no. 45 (www.paolosabatini.com; tel. 0588/87594), whose alabaster sculptural pieces often combine wood and stone. The large Rossi Alabastri (www.rossialabastri.com; tel. 0588/86133) shop at Piazzetta della Pescheria shows off some especially distinctive lighting pieces, as well as alabaster bowls, fruits, and all sorts of other easily portable items. At alab'Arte, Via Orti S. Agostino 28 (www.alabarte.com; tel. 0588/87-968), near the Guarnacci museum, Roberto Cini and Giorgio Finazzo create sculptural pieces of museum quality—in fact, they are often called upon to help restore sculpture in churches and museums around Italy.
You’ll find the work of many local artisans at the Società Cooperativa Artieri Alabastro, Piazza dei Priori 4/5 (tel. 0588/87590), a sales showroom for smaller workshops. To learn more about the town’s alabaster industry, visit the Ecomuseo dell’Alabastro, Piazzetta Minucci (tel. 0588/87580; admission 8€ or with 16€ Volterra Card; daily 9:30am–7:30pm in summer, 10:30am–4:30pm in winter).
Alabaster isn’t the only craft in town. Fabula Etrusca, Via Lungo le Mura del Mandorlo 10 (www.fabulaetrusca.it; tel. 0588/87401), sells intricate handmade jewelry based on original Etruscan designs. For prints created from hand-engraved zinc plates—another local specialty—visit L’Istrice, Via Porta all’Arco 23 (tel. 0588/85422).
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