If you’re new to this blog you’ll have been spared all my ranting about the terrible spring of 2013, so you may find it hard to understand why I was so excited when I woke up one Sunday morning and saw rays of sun coming through my window. I didn’t want to waste a minute of this bel tempo, so even though it meant missing the sumptuous breakfast buffet served at the agriturismo I was staying at (it was only 6:30), I set out right away.
Besides – although I really don’t like going anywhere without at least a couple of cappuccinos – I was eager to get a head start on all the locals who would soon be clogging up the roads. Sunday is a big day for outings with family and friends. It’s not just tourists who like all those touristy sites. The Italians are crazy about them too – as long as there is a good place for the midday meal, the Italian equivalent of our Sunday dinner. And if there is a festival of some sort going on, all the better.
From Radda-in-Chianti it’s an easy drive to three wonderful hilltop towns – Colle Val d’Elsa, San Gimignano and Volterra. Volterra was the furthest west – just over an hour’s drive – so I was going there first.
As you get closer to Volterra, the gentle hills covered with vines and olive trees we usually associate with Tuscany give way to enormous, flattish mounds called le Balze. Many describe the effect as a ‘lunar landscape’. To add to the strangeness, here and there, improbable-looking bulges protrude from these mounds.
I’d been along SS68 on my way to Volterra a couple of times before. It is agony to drive. Even more than coping with all the drivers who seem to be practicing for some racing event – especially around the curves – it’s all the spectacular vistas with nowhere to pull over to take photos. I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised when I got back home from my latest trip and saw that I had taken a photo from the exact same spot several years before.
But what was truly a surprise – and something you’d have to have a lot worse memory than mine to forget – was the big red ‘O’ at the pull-over.
Of course I had absolutely no idea what a big, red circle was doing here, but it was impossible not to check it out. In the Rose Garden in Florence there is a sculpture of a ship within an empty frame (see post – “Flourishing, Flowering Florence”), but it has a label – Le Départ – which helps non-Fine Arts types like me understand what is going on. But here there were no helpful hints. I took a few photos – often I see things later that I wasn’t aware of at the time – especially in a wide, open space like this where there are so many elements vying for our attention.
I found out later that l’Anello (ring) is part of an exhibition called Luoghi d’Esperienza, ‘Places of Experience’. Apparently there are several of these places scattered around the area. The intent of Mauro Staccioli, the Italian sculptor who created them, was to provide a frame that forces us to slow down and look at, not just see the surrounding countryside. In my post-trip Internet meanderings I came across a fascinating post on the history of the exhibition: http://www.turismo.intoscana.it/allthingstuscany/tuscanyarts/staccioli-volterra.
It was originally intended to be taken down after 2010, but obviously at least one sculpture was still in place in May 2013 – despite having generated a storm of controversy. To give you an idea I’ve translated part of what one Italian writer thought about it all.
She starts off with “What a horror” followed by 7 exclamation points!!!!!!! Then she goes on to write: “Art whose only purpose is to make fun of Volterrans and foreigners” (more exclamation points). Why do we always give importance and space to art that screams either through its bad taste or its horrid content? (…) How can we create a dialogue with a place without destroying, in other words, deforming its essence? (…) Is someone like Staccioli capable of doing it? Who gave him permission? (…) Is it possible to avoid being superficial like foreigners (ouch!) and Romans for whom EVERYTHING that is experience or life goes?
Happily ignorant at the time of all the fuss, I continued on my way to Volterra. Given my early start I decided to try my luck at the parking lot at the top of the hill right next to Piazza Martiri della Libertà. I wasn’t go to stay long and at €1.40 an hour, I figured it was well worth avoiding the long climb up from one of the free parking lots around the base of the city.
Many tourists never make it to Volterra – too far off the Rome-Florence-Venice axis. Some make it as far west as San Gimignano. But, as the locals will not hesitate to tell you, for the extra 20 km it takes to get from San Gimignano to Volterra you’ll be visiting a much more interesting town with over 3,000 years worth of things to look at.
For starters there is the Etruscan Porta all’Arco, circa 4th century BC. Maybe even earlier. In any event it’s so old nobody seems to know for sure what the three heads on the arch represent – Zeus and the Argonaut twins? Castor and Pollux? Minerva and a couple of other Roman goddesses? Or perhaps they are in memory of labourers who lost their lives during construction of the arch. Or a reference to the custom of affixing the heads of vanquished enemies to the town gates as a deterrent to future assailants.
If the Romans are more your thing, there’s the Roman Theatre outside the town walls.
And then there’s Volterra’s rock – alabaster. It’s been mined from the quarries surrounding the town since the time of the Etruscans. They carved the translucent rock into cinerary urns. Many are on display in the Museo Guarnacci.
Who knows what the Etruscans, who used the alabaster for elegant funerary urns, would think of some of the modern day creations? The fruit for example. I can’t resist. They are so life-like. Every visit I add to my collection. So far I have a bunch of grapes, a fig, a pear, a couple of lemons and an orange.
If Palazzo dei Priori looks somewhat familiar to you – good eye! The Florentines used it as a model for their city hall, Palazzo Vecchio. Unfortunately, for the hapless citizens of Volterra, the Florentines weren’t content with just plagiarizing the design of their city hall. They wanted in on the lucrative alabaster market. Actually, in typical Florentine style, they wanted to control it, so they sent down a series of Governors whose main job, apart from collecting ever more onerous taxes, was to keep production as low as possible, thereby artificially keeping prices – and profits, which they would keep – high. Sound familiar? In any event, after about a hundred years of this, the Volterrans rebelled. They were of course no match for Lorenzo dei Medici’s ambitions and were brutally suppressed.
Mercifully, as I found out a few minutes later, the only violence around Palazzo dei Priori this Sunday would be a highly organized, and presumably bloodless competition involving one of the weapons from that era.
As I made my way to Piazza dei Priori the town was still sleeping. Just a few anziani – there’s a word that makes ‘elderly’ seem a little less harsh – and a few restaurant staff tidying things up. It was eerily quiet. The narrow, cobblestone alleys were still cast in deep shade, making it easier to imagine what it would have been like here during the Middle Ages.
To avoid posters being plastered all over the place, many towns have a special area allocated to public announcements, news, even death notices, which, despite strong regional differences, are surprisingly uniform in appearance. Italy was officially declared a unified country in 1871, but you don’t have to spend much time here to realize that it is a work in progress. Maybe death is the ultimate unifier.
One of the posters in particular caught my eye – 110th Balestro del Girifalco. Domenica 26 maggio. Uh oh. A festival. Today. Call me a curmudgeon, but festivals mean traffic jams and jostling crowds and restaurants fully booked by locals in the know. The atmospheric quiet would not last much longer. As I got nearer to the piazza the sound of preparations already underway got louder and louder.
And the vultures? Fans of the ‘Twilight’ series by Stephanie Meyers will know the answer to that. Volterra was the ancient residence of the Volturi. Saint Marcus’ Day is still celebrated in honour of Marcus, the Volturo who supposedly rid the city of all its vampires with his home-made brew of garlic and other vampire repellents.
Fans and locals were very upset when they learned that ‘New Moon’ would be filmed, not in Volterra, but in another medieval hilltop town, Montepulciano, about an hour’s drive to the south east. Relations between the two towns deteriorated even further when the citizens of Volterra found out that one of the reasons given for the change in filming location was that Montepulciano was considered ‘more beautiful’.
Next stop – another of these history-drenched medieval towns – San Gimignano.