February 2021. Wrack & Ruin.

Wrack and Ruin.


There are those who will immediately concern themselves with the etymology surrounding the word ‘wrack’. To most Cornishmen, still with the blood of history coursing through their veins it has strong connotations of wrecked ships, and most importantly, with the salvaged goods cast ashore. In which case they should take note of the important explanation: ‘the remains after the operation of some destructive action or agency’. You’ll note that in modern parlance that does not necessarily indicate the sea. Nor does ‘ruin’ merely indicate the state of a building or structure since, from at least the Sixteenth century, it encompassed ‘material things’, meaning figuratively, ‘persons’ along with ‘places’. Nevertheless, the latter, I will immediately confess, is where I wish to lay emphasis.

Those who have had the pleasure of mooching about Italy will be acutely aware of the ‘wrack and ruin’ of places, along with some truly excellent repair and renovation of the major sites, both public and domestic. However, the former is where any enunciation must be made, in particular the neglect of valuable sites that have both historical and economic value way beyond their present circumstances. As Italy is reckoned to have 75% of the worlds historical monuments this is some burden to have to conserve. I must point out that my examples are all in one particular environment, but reflect solely on their matter of convenience in this commentary. You could put your finger on any town or city on a map of Italy to come up with a parallel example. In most cases they are not forgotten, only inconvenient in the financial or ‘pecking’ order. A typical Italian comune has a surplus of historical necessity beyond its means, a burden mostly in architectural and archaic remains that have long since ceased to serve a domestic purpose. In out of the way places, and in the scale of things, they can be conveniently forgotten and neglected. Tragically, it can be a massive waste of potential financial resources, and employment, one which the region too often chooses to neglect. Not all tourists are just seeking the sun, they are as eager for knowledge as they are for gastronomic experiences. Italy can be seen as a magnificent show case, a theatre where the visitor does not wish to see torn curtains in the wings of the stage, or ripped seats in the stalls. There is a significant and crucial case for recognition of this problem. Let me qualify this point with some local examples that could do with a helping hand.

Volterra lies somewhat off the beaten track, high and once difficult to assail, its twisting highways in modern times a heaven to the ‘boy racers’. Indeed, its eastern flank, until recently, provided an excellent hill climb for those who wanted to ‘burn rubber’. Once the city was surrounded by a girdle of fortifications that, as Dennis informs us, ‘for grandeur and massiveness has never been surpassed’. And he was right. Its walls, some as high as sixty feet, stretched for over five miles, which in the fifth century BC, must have made it one of the largest cities in Europe. Marius took two years camped outside the city walls before the citizens surrendered. How the mighty are fallen, for Volterra is too easily missed given you have to go out of your way to get there. I was once told that history never stands still, a comment meant to reflect on the past becoming the present in relation to the uncovering of long lost remains, adding to our knowledge of human progress. Recently, another important historical site in the city is being excavated: a first century BC amphitheatre in the round completely lost to history, and apparently, quite distinct from the classically inspired semi-circular Roman theatre at Vallebuona beside the Medieval city walls. If so, it represents the grisly past of Roman history, that of blood and gore spectacles. The locals will be agog of course, not merely with excitement, but rather in respect of its impact on tourism. The future will almost certainly determine the final result becoming a tourist must. Therefore, it seems politic to remind ourselves that much has also been neglected, especially as funds will now be diverted to the immensely costly needs of the new site.

The first thing the visitor will notice are the walls surrounding the city, but they may miss the fact that these walls have nothing to do with the Etruscan walls previously mentioned. They are Medieval, with possibly earlier touches of remaining Roman work, and in their entirety represent a mere third of the original walls. To have a glimpse of their Etruscan value you have to leave these surroundings and venture down the via Pisano until, just past the supermarket Conad, you get your first glimpse on the left of the massive stone structure you are able to follow until it swerves away at the ruined Badia (Abbey) or monastery. Though a difficult task to follow as the line it takes is overgrown and neglected, having even consumed an Etruscan tomb which, despite being strategically sign posted for those interested, is absolutely invisible amongst bushes. The contrast between the two types of wall will be obvious. To see a more representative example of the structure you have to be very inquisitive indeed, as signposts there are not! From the Porta Francesco, immediately cross the road and walk down Borgo Santo Stefano, turning left at the fork by the Fonte (Fountain), and pass the Hotel Nencini until you reach the bottom of the road where it meets the via Rossetti. Here, in the lane opposite, you will find a long strip of the wall in good condition, though you will still have to pick out the massive stones from the delicate Roman repairs.


However, that is not exactly the way of all things. Entrances to the medieval city include an Etruscan gateway, the Porta all’ Arco in good condition, but to get an idea of the staggering size of ancient Volterra you must leave by the Porta Fiorentina, taking a very long walk down hill to the Porta Diana. Whereas the Porta all’ Arco has been continually maintained, even with Roman additions, the Porta Diana has been left almost to rack and ruin. It is very substantial and monumental, but you would be hard pressed to visualise a complete representation of what it looked like two thousand five hundred years ago. 
However, if you Google “Volterra Porta Diana” some old photographs taken at the turn of the century add some idea. Of these two gateways, even in neglect and dilapidation, the Porta Diana feels more representative of the period, given the obvious massive stone structure that in part remain along with its extremely narrow opening, all the easier, perhaps, to once defend.



The true original appearance is, unhelpfully, left to your own imagination, perhaps because the city fathers judged no one would venture so far out of their way. But its time may have come, given that it could become the gateway to the excavation of the vast new historical site next door, mentioned earlier!

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the present Roman theatre below the medieval walls, this one dedicated to Augustus in the First century BC. Defined by its cavea, or tiered arc of seats, it has been attractively restored, giving an excellent visual idea of its importance within the city before the walls were restructured. Behind the stage lies the equally visible thermae, the absolutely necessary ‘baths’ of Roman civilisation. It has the classical layout with tepidarium (warm), caldarium (hot), and frigidarium (cold), baths – the latter in the form of a swimming bath. Given the ground plan, it may also have had a laconicum, much like a present-day sauna. The whole is very well delineated and preserved.

However, there is second Roman thermae that can only be described as almost forgotten. Can you imagine a nearly two thousand year old extant historical monument being left to rack and ruin? Such is the fate of the Guarnacci Roman Baths down from the Porta San Felice, next to the school. Of small size, and probably once joined to a villa, it dates from possibly the Third Century A.D. and therefore nearly two thousand years old. It also had hot and warm baths, and what appears to be two cold baths. It also had a sauna, and the remains of a furnace room. Its overgrown site has well outlined walls, partially standing, and in restorable condition.



But no one seems to have been up to the task, despite the educational example nearby, of making the site a presentable cultural and educational area. At some time, it must have been attempted as the collapsed remains of previous ambitions surround them and which were probably more extensive than are visible now.


 I do not know if the Comune of Volterra, or the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze are responsible for abandoning the site, or whether the building of the school foundations overrode its importance, allowing neglect to set in. Whatever the reason, this architectural blemish demonstrates a serious neglect in the conservation of yet another valuable historical site.  


[A little must be said of the Badia di San Giusto, mentioned in relation to its proximity to the Etruscan walls as this is in a fairly healthy condition, maintained by a local bank, and open to the public during the summer months. Originally a Benedictine order in the 12th century, it quickly changed hands to the Camaldolite order, was suppressed by the French government in 1808 and returned to the Camaldolites in 1820. It was finally abandoned in 1846 due to structural damage by earthquakes. I include the monastery here because the exemplary task of maintaining the building has a somewhat ironic twist to the theme preceding this article. There is a distinct possibility that every penny invested in the structure will ultimately be lost as the creeping destruction of the Balze cliff will one day reach its walls and consume them, an event that has already seen the swallowing up of a church and 120 or so souls in the hamlet surrounding it. For those who find they have the opportunity, the circa 133 metre Le Balze (Cliffs) Volterra is best seen from the area in front of the local camp site.]