A Lost Civilization: How to Trace the Ancient Etruscan History in Volterra4 min read

A place like Volterra is the epitome of Tuscany’s beauty. The historic town is located on top of a hill, surrounded by those iconic green hills. You won’t be able to mistake its medieval architecture once you arrive, but that’s only the top of the iceberg. Volterra breathes history. It’s a place built from layers and layers of history. The ruins of the Roman theatre, for example, won’t escape you either. But we can dig even deeper, back to a mysterious civilization that emerged in the Iron Age and disappeared when they rivaled the Greeks and became subordinated by the growing Roman empire. Nowadays, the Etruscans are largely forgotten, overshadowed by those that came after. But the traces of ancient Etruscan history in Volterra, one of the twelve former city-states in the Etruscan League, can still give us a glimpse into this lost civilization. Here’s where to find them.

Volterra is a historic, Etruscan town in Tuscany
Historic street in Volterra, Tuscany (Etruscan Museum on the left)

Etruscan History in Volterra: Who Were these Mysterious People?

Nobody knows for sure where the first Etruscans came from. Recent research shows they may have come from present-day Turkey. Regardless of their exact origins, the traces they left in the Tuscan cities like Volterra (Velathri) can tell us a lot about their culture. What we do know is that they were a comparatively peaceful and hardworking people, living by the belief that “war kills commerce.” This may have been one of the reasons why they were absorbed into Roman culture, rather than completely eradicated.

The Etruscans were great entrepreneurs, but also excellent sculptors. Many of the sculptures that survived are sarcophagi: sculptures of the deceased. In the Museo Etrusco, you can see the long-gone faces of the people that lived in Volterra so many centuries ago.

Face to Face in the Etruscan Museum (Museo Etrusco Guarnacci)

What might be the best starting point to discover the Etruscan history in Volterra is to visit the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci. Although we still struggle with fully understanding the texts they left behind, the Etruscans were also excellent sculptors. Many of those sculptures that withstood the test of time were sarcophagi: sculptures of the deceased. And the Etruscans had a figurative style that depicted the person quite accurately, we can assume. As you walk by the many sculptures, created to honour loved ones, you can see the faces that laughed, cried and lived in Tuscany so many centuries ago. It’s a fascinating, slightly unreal experience.

Etruscan Museum in Volterra: ancient sarcophagi of the deceased

The Evening Shadow

Although these sculptures are sometimes eerily realistic, the true ‘showpiece’ in the museum is the infamous “Evening Shadow”. This peculiar piece is an exceptional Etruscan bronze statue from the third century BC. The statue has an extremely stretched body and a kind of unique, surreal style that was almost non-existent at the time.

Only a few other pieces in a similar style have ever been found, and nothing quite like it was created for centuries. The artist will remain unknown, most probably forever. It shows us how little we still understand about the Etruscans and their rich artistic culture.

Etruscan Acropolis in Volterra
Romana Cisterna in Volterra

The Etruscan-Roman Acropolis of Volterra

Right beside the medieval fortress (currently a high-security prison), you will find the remains of the Etruscan-Roman Acropolis. Now, only about 10,000 people reside in Volterra. However, at its Etruscan peak, the city housed 25,000 citizens. The Acropolis would have been the most important and most sacred place in the region. If you spend some time walking around, you will still be able to distinguish the stone bases of two Etruscan temples.

The Romans later adopted the Acropolis as their own, built newer structures on top of the original ones and added the Cisterna Romana. This cistern (water cellar) collected the rainwater in Volterra and was part of an early plumbing system. You can descend into the cistern to see this ancient reservoir for yourself (as long as it hasn’t been raining too much).

Alabaster studio in Volterra

The Ancient Art of Alabaster Sculpting

The local alabaster stone in Tuscany, almost transparant white in colour, has been used for thousands of years. Usually for sacred objects and religious artworks. The ancient Etruscans primarily sourced the stone to create religious objects, like funeral urns. The sculpting craft continued to survive after the Etruscans were absorbed into Roman culture. However, it was almost completely forgotten in the Middle Ages.

Alabaster sculptors in Volterra

A layer of white dust covered the whole studio and it almost felt like stepping into an otherworldly space. The workshops from Etruscan times must have looked similar, in their own way.

Luckily, ‘almost’ is the key word. Today, alabaster sculpting survives as an artisan craft. Giorgio Finazzo and Roberto Chiti are specialised master sculptors in Volterra, still working in their Alab’arte atelier. It was an honour to visit their studio and watch them transform slabs of stone into timeless masterpieces. I suggest you do the same (visiting, I mean) when you get the chance. A layer of white dust covered the whole studio and it almost felt like stepping into an otherworldly space. The workshops from Etruscan times must have looked similar, in their own way. Don’t you think?

View of Volterra, a historic town in Tuscany with ancient Etruscan and Roman history
The Etruscan Gate in Volterra with its three eroded heads

The Etruscan Gate: Porta all’Arco

Finally, the Porta all’Arco, also simply known as the Etruscan Gate, forms another piece in the ancient puzzle. The gate was one of the most important gateways to the city in ancient times. Today it persists as one of the most famous architectural monuments in Volterra. Some parts of the arch even date back to the fourth century BC. Although you’ll only need a few minutes to admire the gate, it would be a shame if you didn’t see it. The three eroded heads on this side of the gate might represent three Etruscan gods: Uni (Juno), Tinia (Jupiter), and Menrva (Minerva).

Explore More Historical Stories About Italy

Volterra is only one of many historic towns and cities in Tuscany and beyond. Curious about more stories about Italy that will temporarily take you back in time? Consider reading these articles next:

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