Volterra – A Tuscan Town

It is far from the beaten track and difficult of access. Starting from Leghorn, the traveller has to traverse two branch lines and to change at two country junctions. It will take him three hours and more to do the fifty miles of railway that lie between the Tuscan port and Volterra Station. And Volterra Station is by no means Volterra city. The town itself is perched high upon a hill that no railway can ever hope to scale, and it needs a two hours’ climb up a zigzag road in a shaky diligence ere the traveller finds himself in ” lordly Volaterrae.” The diligence has set him down close by the Albergo Nazionale, the only hostelry of the city, which, be it said once for all, is the very pattern and model of an old-fashioned Tuscan inn, clean, comfortable, cheap, with a plain kitchen and a good, sound wine. So old-fashioned is it that they have neither waiter nor chambermaid. The inn is run entirely by the family, all of them smiling, genial, eager to serve. They speak no language save the purest Tuscan, but they have quick wits and a knack of divining the unlettered stranger’s needs.

The wise traveller will not hurry away from Volterra. There is heaps to see. Four thou-sand years ago, six or seven hundred years before Troy was besieged, Volterra, queen of the Etruscan cities, was in the zenith of her glory, and vestiges of that glory still remain. In her Etruscan days the population of the city, which is now but 5500, must have been quite 100,000, and the huge Cyclopean walls which surrounded the ancient city were of a circumference of about 8000 yards. Portions of these walls, 40 feet high and 12 feet thick, still survive. The southerly side of the town forms a line with the site of the ancient walls, and it thus happens that one of the original Etruscan gates, which is still standing, the famous Porta all’ Arco, forms also one of the entrances to the modern city. The gate is 25 feet high and 121 feet deep; its arch is formed of nineteen huge blocks of stone, all without a vestige of cement or mortar. Outside the Porta San Francesco, a mile or more from the town, are further remains of Etruscan walls showing the vast extent of the ancient city. Outside the Porta Fiorentina, to the north, is an Etruscan gate called the Porta di Diana, standing in solitary glory, which shows better than any other example the true character of Cyclopean masonry. Beyond the Porta di Diana is the Etruscan Necropolis (ask for i Marmini if you want to find it), and outside the Porta a Selci, beyond the Convent of San Girolamo, another Etruscan place of burial, with the urns in their places. The local Museum—Museo Guarnaccia model of good order and perspicuous arrangement,) contains nearly six hundred Etruscan cinerary urns of curious and beautiful workmanship. Fully two-thirds of them are made of alabaster, and are thus a convincing witness to the time-honoured antiquity of the alabaster industry, which is still the mainstay and support of Volterra. Indeed the whole city is redolent of Etruscan traditions and Etruscan influences, and it would be impossible rightly to comprehend many of the existing features of Volterra—not even the alabaster industry—without bearing in mind its venerable origin.

Antiquity—intense antiquity—is the dominant note of the place. One of the historians of Volterra assigns Noah as its original founder, and Vul, the grandson of Noah (hence Vol-terra) as the maker of its greatness. The very country round about suggests the Flood-either that or a very early stage in the evolution of matter without form and void. Low bare hills and hillocks of clay, deeply fissured by the strong rains and riven and cracked by wind and sun, undulate on all sides with a certain savage grandeur that is not unimpressive. It seems like a prehistoric peep, and it would serve Mr. E. T. Reed admirably as a background; indeed, as we toil up the steep ascent in the diligence we almost expect to see some of his playful monsters sprawling on the mudhills, and leering at us with that genial desire to devour which he has conveyed with so much humour.

The city of Volterra is finely placed, and with its massive fortress and towers still has a very lordly bearing. It is 1714 feet above the sea-level, a height which effectually protects it from the malarial dangers of the close-lying Maremma. The strong bracing air which sweeps through this city set upon a hill is the foe of epidemic diseases, and leaves them no time to take root. The very view is invigorating—it is the sight that may be seen from almost any point of the Etruscan Littoral. To the west the Tyrrhenian Sea, Corsica, Elba, and the Tuscan Archipelago, and farther north the Gulf of Spezia and the Ligurian coast; while to the north and northeast are the marble mountains of Carrara and a long range of snow-capped Apennines rising like a great grey crenulated wall in the middle of the long Peninsula.

The mediaeval fortress of Volterra is now a formidable prison-house. When last I visited it there were 475 prisoners within its walls, all of them murderers. It is an uncanny sensation to look upon nearly five hundred human beings each one of whom has taken the life of at least one other human being. One hundred and forty-nine of them were condemned for life, and that meant murder of a brutal and cold-blooded description; the remainder were imprisoned for periods ranging from fifteen to thirty years, and that would mean murder with extenuating circumstances—murder the result of inconstancy in a sweetheart, of frailty in a wife, or faithlessness in a friend. The confinement is rigorously solitary and cellular; the exercise courts are cellular; there are cellular smithies and cellular workshops; nay, the very chapel is cellular. Two tiers of cells run one above the other, and the prisoner in each, while unable to see his fellow-convicts, can through a long narrow loophole see the altar and the priest who is saying mass. As I walked round the ramparts of the great fortress I could look down into the rows of high-walled exercise courts—not more than lo feet by 10, I should say—in each of which the convict was taking the hour of exercise which he is allowed daily. Every prisoner saluted respectfully, and showed his white teeth in a pleasant smile, glad at the sight of any fresh face. Italian prisons are models of good order and cleanliness, and the cheerfulness and natural patience of the Italian temperament does much to lighten the labour of Italian prison officials. The convicts get two full meals of beans, lentils, or paste, cooked in lard, and meat on Sundays and holidays. Every prisoner may spend 25 centesimi a day if he has it or can earn it; therefore wine is by no means an unknown luxury in the prison. I was there at Carnival time, and the prison clerks were busy with the correspondence entailed in acknowledging the receipt of money sent by relatives in the hope of introducing some of the merriment of the joyous season within the prison walls. The system of rigorous solitary confinement leads to frequent cases of madness. Indeed there is often talk of the Italian Government abolishing the system on account of the great expense of maintaining numerous criminal lunatic asylums. The cellular system does not admit of work being found for every one. What can a stone-mason or a husbandman do in a cell? Enforced idleness, the inability to read or write, the utterly blank existence, never exchanging a word with a soul except the chaplains and the guards, wholly deprives many a poor wretch of wits which were none too strong to begin with. Yet the general impression of visiting any Italian prison is of treatment humane to excess.

And talking of mad-houses leads me to speak of the Convent of San Girolamo outside the Porta a Selci, which, from being a flourishing dwelling-place of the Sons of St. Francis, has been converted into a Pauper Asylum. The Convent became Government property in the suppression of 1866; the Friars are allowed to inhabit a small portion; the rest of the building is used as an Asylum for women. The windows of what is still part of the Convent look straight down upon the Asylum yard, where I saw a hundred or more of these poor wretches jabbering and grimacing in every stage of madness. It was a shuddering sight, and I could not but pity the poor Friars Minor, who are accorded a corner of their own house on the condition of receiving under their roof the most terrible of all guests. Many Italians do not seem to realise that such treatment of a Religious Order which has so greatly contributed to their country’s glory affects us Englishmen unfavourably; indeed, that it passes our comprehension. All the world venerates Francis of Assisi, and however frail and faulty his. sons may be, most of us can still see in them a reflex of their holy founder. His spirit was most manifest in the present case: tips I who am grumbling and growling because my artistic sensibilities have been outraged—not a murmur, not a word of complaint, escaped any one of the two or three Friars of San Girolamo with whom I had speech.

One of the great sights of Volterra is le Balze, a portentous landslip, about a mile outside the Porta San Francesco. The subsidence is still active, and every year great masses of the sandy precipice fall away with a roar like thunder and a shock as of earthquake. All efforts to stop this devastation have been fruitless, and, indeed, all efforts to stop it have, I fancy, now been abandoned. In the seventeenth century the beautiful church of San Giusto, full of frescoes by Giotto, was swallowed up in the devouring earth. The new church of San Giusto, built to replace it on a spot further away from le Balze, is itself now fairly near the hungry precipice. The Camaldolese Abbey of San Salvatore, resting apparently on a surer foundation, has been left standing on the eastern side of the vasty chasm. It was ” suppressed ” and sold. The present owner has converted the long rows of cells into flats of two or three rooms each; the tenants are workers in the fields and artisans, who pay the modest rental of five livres (three shillings and fourpence) a month.

The Volterrani are a diligent, frugal, orderly race, reliable, honest, contented, and full of a quiet dignity and sobriety that seems born of the place. Their pride sits well upon them, and finds its justification in every stone. People who look to Noah as the founder of their city, who daily go in and out of a gate that is 4000 years old, who dwell in the shadow of a building like the Palazzo dei Priori and beneath the walls of a noble fortress like the Rocca, who count among their great men St. Linus the immediate successor of St. Peter, and St. Leo surnamed the Great, a people which in A.D. 1900 is still engaged upon the same beautiful industry that it practised in 1900 B.C., has indeed motive for legitimate pride.

The Alabaster Industry is well worthy of consideration. Speaking generally, alabaster is nowhere to be found in the world outside the Province of Pisa. Sweeping as this statement may seem, it will yet stand the test of examination provided that we are speaking secunduna idem. Oriental alabaster, the alabaster of Holy Scripture, which is found chiefly in Egypt, is not what is nowadays ordinarily understood by alabaster, but is really a species of marble: it is a carbonate of lime, whereas the alabaster of Vol-terra is a hydrated sulphate of lime, a distinction sufficiently emphatic to mark the sharp difference between the two. I lay stress upon this fact because it is important, as it is also interesting, to show that the rough material of an industry of world-wide celebrity and world-wide diffusion is really confined within a very limited corner of one particular country of the globe. At least the Volterrani maintain that none of the alabaster-like substances found in Derbyshire, Savoy, the Tyrol or Lombardy, are worthy of the name of alabaster.

There are two kinds of alabaster, and they are found in two separate districts of the Province. Veined, striped, and spotted alabaster, opaque creamy-white alabaster, grey bardiglio, and the rich yellow agata, are to be found in the caves lying round about Volterra. The white alabaster used in sculpture, a luminous and transparent stone of faintly cerulean tint, is only to be found in the valley of the Marmolaio near Castellina, some twenty miles distant from Volterra. These, in a rough division, are the two sorts; and these with clearer definition are the two districts.

I have been all over the ” Venelle ” Caves near Pomaia, the property of Signor Ferruccio Ciampolini and his brother, Signor Ottaviano. It is quite a remarkable experience, and one I recommend to the traveller in search of the unique. Seven or eight cavernous mouths at the foot of the gentle slope of the valley of the Marmolaio lead us into a network of galleries which penetrate far into the bowels of the earth, and whose internal communications running alongside the valley are over 1700 yards in length. These galleries are all the result of fruitful excavation.

Begun only some two hundred years ago, they seem quite a matter of recent incident in the history of an industry where everything is so ancient. The descent is at first spiral, and this enables the stratification to be very clearly observed. It is sufficiently curious and puzzling to the unscientific mind. First a great mass of hard crystallised limestone rock, some twenty-five feet in depth, called by the workers ” it masso” or ” la panchina,” and then a stratum of greyish-blue marl of a depth of four feet; again the mass of limestone, and again the stratum of marl. Four of these double strata have been laid bare in parts of the Venelle Caves, and seven or eight in the Maesta Caves of Castellina on the opposite side of the valley.

It is these huge masses of limestone that form the matrix of the alabaster nodules, which are found embedded within it at irregular distances. The nodules lie in two, three, and even four layers, one above the other, and a thin streak of argillaceous matter mixed with fibrous limestone, forming what is called the ” traversone,” marks the divisions of the layers, and serves in some measure as a guide to the whereabouts of the blocks. At the end of each cavern you will find two or three men working away with their small T-shaped picks by the dim light of the unprotected flaming oil-lamps of Etruscan pattern which, by a singular tenacity of tradition, are still in use in the district. In one case the block of alabaster will be already projecting from its bed of limestone, and the operator is carefully picking away all round it until he shall have extracted the complete block. In another, search is still being made for alabaster, and the workman is vigorously beating down the wall of limestone until he lights upon what looks like the white nose of a nodule. Bringing his lamp close to the glistening patch, and shading it with his hand, the fine translucence of a piece of genuine alabaster is thrown out into startling relief, and the operator begins to pick gingerly so as not to injure his prize. When the ” masso ” is over-obstinate in yielding the wished – for nodules, when, that is to say, there seems a likelihood of much picking in the limestone without treasure trove, two holes are drilled in the rock, and blasting on a miniature scale is resorted to. The average weight of the blocks is 6 cwts., but blocks from 17 to 20 cwts. are of common occurrence. Signor Ottaviano Ciampolini in 1894 sent a block to the Antwerp Exhibition that weighed 58 cwts. and measured 5 1/2 feet. But such a find is altogether phenomenal. It will thus be seen that it is impossible to sculpt life-size figures in alabaster.

The excavators only work six hours a day, and never for more than two hours at a time. The bad air of the caves renders this regulation imperative, for there are no shafts sunk anywhere, and the atmosphere of the remoter portions of the caves is hot and stifling. Still the occupation seems to be a healthy one, and one of the foremen in the Venelle Caves told me that the workers all lived to a good old age. They have a belief, too, that the fine white alabaster powder which they inhale in the process of picking—and they must swallow many a kilo in the course of a lifetime—has strong hygienic properties. Work is begun at seven in the morning and continued to nine o’clock; is resumed from eleven to one; and again from three in the afternoon till five o’clock. The debris of the limestone matrix is removed from the caves in baskets by boys (locally known as ciuchetti, i.e. young donkeys). Both their hands are occupied in carrying the basket, and they are thus unable to light their way up with one of the flaming lamps, but the little fellows, with something of the instinct of bats, have learned to come up securely in the dark; the greater moisture of the centre of the path is a sure guide to their bare feet. They account themselves passing rich and happy on a wage of sixpence a day.

Water is a great enemy to the excavating operations. There are several bits of ingenious engineering in the caves for carrying off the water which has been struck, but deep wells and pools exist in the cavernous recesses which would be a grave danger to the stranger who should venture into these labyrinths alone. In most of the galleries a man of six foot can walk comfortably without stooping, but in others, where the water has oozed through and reduced the paths to impassable mud, the limestone debris has been thickly laid down as pavement, with the result that the height of the gallery has been considerably lowered. There are some twelve principal caves in the Castellina district, and perhaps a similar number of known outcrops, which if worked would, it is supposed, yield the same pure white diaphanous alabaster. Geologically the caves belong to the later Miocene and earlier Pliocene systems. Professor Capellini, somewhere about the year 1860, was the first to discover in them the presence of fossil re-mains, notably the minute fresh-water crustacea Cypris.

I was so fascinated by my experiences in the Venelle Caves, that I also visited some of the caves of the Volterra district. But they seem small and insignificant after the grandiose galleries of Castellina and Pomaia. The stratification is similar, and the method of excavation is similar, and they might have interested me if I had not just come from Pomaia.

The worked alabaster industry is likewise divided into two strongly differentiated branches —firstly, sculpture, that is to say, sculptured re-presentations of the human form; and secondly, the miscellaneous industry, that is to say, the countless other objects manufactured at Volterra, such as vases, ewers, pillars and stands, baskets, clock-cases, frames, toilet necessaries, animals, fruit, ash-trays, candelabra, crucifixes, holy-water stoups, and the like. These two divisions of the worked industry correspond also with the two main divisions of the rough material, and coincide with the two territorial divisions which I have endeavoured to indicate, for the alabaster used in what is called sculpture comes exclusively from the Castellina district, while the alabaster used in the miscellaneous industry comes chiefly from the neighbourhood of Vol-terra. There is yet another point of division: nearly all the best sculpture of alabaster is now carried on at Florence, whereas the miscellaneous industry is almost wholly confined to Volterra city.

Walking along the by-streets of the city the ear is arrested by the clinking of little hammers and the grating rasp of files, and looking in at a doorway the passer-by will see two or three men busily engaged, with all the absorption of true artists, in fashioning the various parts of a vase or a flower-basket. These men may be a father and two sons, or an uncle and two nephews, or three men united in an informal partnership, or (very rarely) one man employing two others, and they usually unite in themselves the qualifications required in the production of a vase, one being a turner (tornitore) who gives it shape, the other a modeller (squadratore) who fashions its .pillar and base, the third a decorator (ornatista) who carves the decorative adjuncts of fruit and flowers. The master-worker of past days, with his busy band of workers and apprentices, has disappeared, and it is from these small workshops that the articles of the miscellaneous alabaster industry now go forth to the world. The workers sell chiefly direct to the proprietors of the Volterra “gallerie.” A proprietor will bring a block of alabaster and a block of agata to the workshops and say: Make me a vase and a stand out of these; or the worker will purchase the rough material himself, fashion different articles, and carry them to the “gallerie” on the chance of a sale. Then there is the waif and stray of the trade, often a mere youth, who lives a very precarious existence, buying a small block of alabaster when he has a few soldi to spare, working it into various articles, and selling them when he can to the gallerie or to the chance traveller (a rara avis in Volterra?), or carrying them even, when times are very bad, to the neighbouring farmhouses, where he is glad to exchange his works of art for bread and beans and a little thin red wine.

The sculpture of alabaster used at one time to be carried on principally at Volterra, but about a quarter of a century ago this branch of the industry migrated to Florence, where it took root very firmly, and speedily assumed consider-able proportions. There are six or seven important gallerie in Florence where the sculpture, admirably arranged, is on view to all the world. They also do a large export business, chiefly with the United States and Germany; Americans take most of the modern sculpture, and Germans the copies from classical models. The sculpture is subjected to a very simple whitening process: the figure is immersed in water, which is gradually raised to boiling-point and then allowed to become quite cold again. Great care has to be exercised, as too much heat would reduce the alabaster to plaster, and a too sudden exposure to the air would cause it to crack. This process deadens the transparency of the alabaster, and gives it the appearance of fine white marble.

The alabaster industry is picking up again after a long period of adversity. I would that, with a renewal of prosperity, there would also come a change in the debased taste which prevails. In the sculpture classicism, late and early, Greek, Roman, and Canovan runs riot, together with products of the flashy, vulgar modernity and would-be realism dear to Philistines, such as roguish dancing girls, coquettish diving girls, faultlessly clad pifferari, impossibly spruce lazzeroni, improbably prepossessing monelli, and a host of other creations which cause something like a shudder when contemplated in cold alabaster. In the miscellaneous worked industry of Volterra the prevailing taste is little less deplorable. The elaborate, florid design of the vases is such as our grandmothers in the thirties and forties were wont to delight in, but of the severer, simpler taste of the present day Volterra is all unconscious. There is, moreover, a certain per-version of taste in the selection of the objects worked up. A picture frame, for instance, is an incongruous and uncomfortable object when worked in alabaster. The same may be said of the countless little cannons with guns of agata and carriages of alabaster, and also of the alabaster representations in unblushingly realistic colours of fruit and flowers and birds. But the climax of incongruity is reached when the worker—recognising that you are a son of the nation that rules the waves—proudly produces an alabaster model of a modern twin-screw fast cruiser, fully rigged and mounted, and equipped with all the panoply of war!

But while I make these few strictures on the faults in taste which are exhibited in the industry, it is impossible sufficiently to admire the exquisite skill which the workers manifest in the meanest objects. The secret of swift, sure deft-handedness has, more or less unconsciously, been passed on from father to son, and the workers are justly proud of the venerable antiquity of the art and its mellow traditions. Volterra need fear no rival in her special branch of the industry, for she is secure in customs and traditions that cannot well be copied, and this branch of the art at least would perish in any forcible attempt at transplantation.