December 2022. City of Stone. Part One.

December 2022.

City of Stone.



One cannot help noticing as you wander about Tuscany that the visual periods of architecture can be divided simply into two quite separate images. One of stone and one of brick; albeit the latter often, far from discreetly hidden, under a layer or two of plaster. It would be reasonable to assume that the burden of cost has a lot to do with it, but time somewhat more. Before the invention of Portland cement in the nineteenth century the Egyptians used a gypsum-based cement, while the later Romans, invented a lime-based version. Indeed, the latter has proven superior to modern cement, despite being created from some rather exotic materials! Nevertheless, architecture as we know it needs this sticky stuff. We can sidestep the original inhabitants of Tuscany, a Villanovan people, who probably created small wattle and daub structures. Ditto, initially the Etruscans. Being an immigrant sea faring people, they probably had recourse to the construction of mud huts until they had established more permanent bases. To appreciate the meandering background of the Etruscans, and the architectural influences they brought with them, you have to imagine the route of these early migrants and remain aware that it can be measured in ‘millennia’ of time as well as ‘generations’ of people. Establishing a firm base to create a civilization is not something done over-night! Understanding the ‘foundations’ of their culture has not been easy either.

The Etruscan alphabet is the same as Greek but the meaning, bar one or two words, is totally obscure! The best shot at deciphering it has been made by the French semasiologist, Doctor Mayani. Using this as a basis we can trace their civilization through a route that travels from Albania down the Adriatic Sea and round into the Aegean Sea, given that such voyages for safety would hug the coast line. From there they could pass, in relative security, into the Mediterranean Sea round Turkey and the Lebanon to Egypt. It is this last port of call that turns out to be of considerable interest architecturally. It also throws a different complexion onto our understanding of the people. They appear to have been piratical by nature and therefore of considerable use to the Egyptians who knew of them as the Teresh or Tyrsenians, first seen in the Pharonic wars around the twelve century BC. defending the sea lanes from potential enemies. On its conclusion they seem to have settled in Egypt perhaps during the reign of Mernptah (1215BC) for a period of c.300 years where they assisted in the building of pyramids, before their final exodus taking them to Italy, at the conjectural time of c.900BC. They also appear for the first time in ‘real’ history through the writings of Dionysius who recorded that they were Aegean pirates known as the Tyrrheni, and though seen by modern historians as hypothetical, there is a strong enough link to believe that the Etruscans were a people who, having given up their piratical ways, first settled on the coast of Greece and the islands of the Aegean. Dionysius goes on to tell us that these people colonized Italy and were the same who built the Pelasgic wall of the Acropolis at Athens. This small fact ties in nicely with the Tyrrhenian sojourn in Egypt and their assistance in the construction of pyramids, a skill they were to use later in building the mighty walls that once encircled Volterra and other Etruscan cities in Tuscany. 


 (A nice contrast demonstrating the Etruscan stones with Roman and medieval.)

To support a segment of this conjecture there is also the possible Greek influence demonstrated by the fact that the Etruscan language, using the same letters, was written and read from right to left! Back to architectural matters. Volterra is a city of stone with a few bricks thrown in for good measure, but you would be more than hard pressed to recognise the Etruscan influence anywhere. This is a medieval city without a doubt, dark and gloomy, intense with the weight of its age. But as you wander about down its lanes you begin to realise avoirdupois has an entirely different significance. Now that seems a funny statement to make: a heavy city! The perception is created by this density of colour, segmental and unified into the homogeneous consistency of lead; an archaic mass towering all around you, one that hides the secret of its soul. That is a disappointment when so much is made of a heritage stretching back nearly three thousand years! But you can discover parts of it - with a little imagination!


(Arco Etrusco - Porta all'Arco.)

Firstly, you need time. Time to realize that Volterra is a city within a city – the one you stand in, and the one it stands in – representing the present and the past. They are obviously not the same, but if you look hard enough, you can see them both. The difficulty is the city has a propensity for changing its style, from Etruscan to Roman to Medieval. Fashionable it has been, but time is not kind to modality. For this you cannot blame its builders who only construct what society wishes or demands, replaces what it has grown tired of, has destroyed in pique, or replaced by posterity. Let them be, and go instead to find where they have once been.

That is easier said than done. To gather a visual concept of the original extremity of its walls, you must leave the city by the Porta Francesco and travel down the road to Florence for about a kilometre. From the camp-site car park, on the very edge of a deep chasm, you find the first fragments of its northern walls. Only eight feet high, but large enough to make you wonder how they lifted these massive stones and placed them one upon another to construct such a colossal defensive barrier, in places reaching thirty feet high, and stretching for more than four and a half miles!

 (Section of the outer walls of Volterra.)

   (Vicolo della Penera. 

As the historian Dennis says: “We now but see the skeleton of her Titanic form.” You cannot begin to imagine it, battered by time and war from its original visual unity, until you recall those Egyptian pyramids, and the Acropolis in Rome. Luckily, at Volterra, a stretch still exists in its entire height  to match our imagination. It has small patches of Roman repair work, but surely a two thousand plus year old wall can be allowed a patch or two! A more accessible stretch of wall, though much reduced in height, has been restored and easily accessed from the Viale dei Filosofi.

(PART TWO: JANUARY 2023 ).