Etruscan Volterra – Italy Travel

For several miles before reaching Volterra, our attention was fixt by the extraordinary aspect of the country through which we were passing. The road gradually ascended, and we found ourselves among deep ravines and steep, high, broken banks, principally of clay, barren, and in most places wholly bare of herbage, a scene of complete desolation, were it not for a cottage here and there perched upon the heights, a few sheep attended by a boy and a dog grazing on the brink of one of the precipices, or a solitary patch of bright green wheat in some spot where the rains had not yet carried away the vegetable mold.

In the midst of this desolate tract, which is, however, here and there interspersed with fertile spots, rises the mountain on which Volterra is situated, where the inhabitants breathe a pure and keen atmosphere, almost perpetually cool, and only die of pleurisies and apoplexies; while below, on the banks of the Cecina, which in full sight winds its way to the sea, they die of fevers. One of the ravines of which I have spoken—the “balza,” they call it at Volterra-has plowed a deep chasm on the north side of this mountain, and is every year rapidly approaching the city on its summit. I stood on its edge and looked down a bank of soft, red earth five hundred feet in height. A few rods in front of me I saw where a road had crossed the spot in which the gulf now yawned; the tracks of the last year’s carriages were seen reaching to the edge on both sides. The ruins of a convent were close at hand, the inmates of which, two or three years since, had been removed by the Government to the town for safety.

The antiquities of Volterra consist of an Etruscan burial-ground, in which the tombs still remain, pieces of the old and incredibly massive Etruscan wall, including a far larger circuit than the present city, two Etruscan gates of immemorial antiquity, older, doubtless, than any thing at Rome, built of enormous stones, one of them serving even yet as an entrance to the town, and a multitude of cinerary vessels, mostly of alabaster, sculptured with numerous figures in “alto relievo.” These figures are sometimes allegorical representations, and sometimes embody the fables of the Greek mythology. Among them are many in the most perfect style of Grecian art, the subjects of which are taken from the poems of Homer; groups representing the besiegers of Troy and its defenders, or Ulysses with his companions and his ships. I gazed with exceeding delight on these works of forgotten artists, who had the verses of Homer by heart—works just drawn from the tombs where they had been buried for thousands of years, and looking as if fresh from the chisel.