JANUARY 2023. Making Architecture An Art. Part Two:


JANUARY 2023. 


I have taken this rather long introduction as a prelude, not merely to the city walls as such, but to the creators of all our social edifices from time immemorial, the builders, or in Italy, the Muratóri (master mason: indicative of the Latin word murus – a wall). That the modern builders are different from their ancestors is very much a of matter of the materials in use, and perhaps the methods of working them, for on a domestic scale they still need to lay bricks on cement, and lay tiles on the roof. To achieve the great height of a modern building such as a skyscraper, requires foundations sometimes more than two hundred feet deep and a metal skeleton riveted together. As a comparison, the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa has foundations of a troublesome fifteen feet deep. On a more domestic scale, fired bricks have been in use for about five thousand years but for defensive work such a material was of little use, especially after the invention of the canon, though they might still have been used to clad thick earth embankments. Volterra, for instance, had walls stout enough to repulse any invading army, and only two events in its near three-thousand-year history suggest, on both occasions, only surrendering after two years of siege when they ran out of food!

Putting this into perspective, the building material the Etruscans used in Volterra, not only for stout defensive walls, but the dwellings within, was a sedimentary rock called Panchina, a pale conchiferous sandstone, and though classified as geologically soft, is in fact just the opposite. Working with this stone is laborious and tiresome work if a flat face is to be obtained on more than one side. Such a one-foot square stone may take the mason armed with mallet and chisel twenty or thirty minutes to prepare. It is also very expensive when you consider there may be thousands in a conventional house; therefore, the stones were generally laid in what an English builder would call inexpensive “Random Rubble” or rough courses as you might see in a wall.


For houses, they might be stuccoed. If to be left visible they would then be laid in various sizes, but level courses, called “Regular Coursed”. This latter would be a very rare and expensive example today in a domestic dwelling, even if quite within the builder’s competence.  


The Roman builders of two thousand years ago used Random Rubble for buildings that were to be clad in marble as in this private bath house in Volterra.


The examples we can see in Volterra’s ancient defensive walls are plainly rough coursed “Random Rubble”, originally laid on top of the archaic worked quadratic stones– but still, five and a half miles of them, in some places holding up a thirty feet high wall, takes the breath away! One wonders how long it would take a mason to prepare a four-foot square stone for it – and there would have been thousands, if not millions of them in such a wall! So too its gateways, where they fashioned the stones into what can only be described as monumental in form, not just holes in the walls. At one, Porta Diana (il Portone), an example can be more easily studied of its huge Etruscan construction, despite its crown and extrados seemingly being lost sometime around the middle of the last century. It would have probably seemed lost in the height of the abutting walls.


Of course, this local type of construction was not confined to Italy alone, and some are older than Roman. The massive stones of Stonehenge and Carnac, and the possible trading links of the Phoenicians with Cornwall, all demonstrate that the builders’ skills and construction methods were perhaps international, being passed on by itinerant stone masons. William Golding in his novel “The Spire”, excellently describes these artisans employed in the construction of Salisbury Cathedral. They were not Christian, serving their own gods at night round camp fires on Salisbury Plain. Not much can be expected to survive from the exertions of the Roman empire, which encompassed most of Europe, though their builders must have found plenty of local pupils to absorb the technical intricacies of the building trade. Even after the fall of its empire these skills continued to be absorbed by succeeding generations, and we can trace them through the lofty construction of cathedrals and ancient towns where the local stone can be mined and utilised. The most famous example of Roman building skills and ingenuity can be found at Bath in the United Kingdom, where a large and complete complex of First Century public baths supplied from a hot spring delivering half a million gallons a day at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, is still in use after two thousand years. The city itself, dominated by its Palladian style architecture in pale honey coloured oolitic limestone, harks back to an ancient and international building heritage. One that exists in every corner of Europe to this day.

In Italy, many local building firms are small with generally no more than six muratóri, which is sufficient to maintain local needs, and possibly combining with others for any large work. Given the elements of their dusty toil one might be forgiven in thinking they are mere labourers. But it is possible to shine a light on what is, in fact, quite the opposite. Volterra is lucky indeed to have an artisan who when the ‘minutia’ of his labour is assembled demonstrates what is, in fact, veritable works of art!

Mauro Parenti, owner of a local building company, now over ninety years of age, has turned his work over long decades into a miniature art form. As a hobby, he fabricates model buildings using real life skills, early family photographs, and original old materials, to construct the famous and important historical edifices of Volterra.

Some examples from the Exhibition:


A Corner of the Exhibition Room.

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                          Chiesa San Agostino

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Badia Camaldolese


Teatro Romano

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Porta Docciola


 Badia Camaldolese


The Baptistery


IL Maschio (Fortezza Medicea)




Badia Camaldolese.

An exhibition of the complete collection is at present held in the Teatro Persio Flacco - Volterra. (Eventually, a space for a permanent display may hopefully be found within the city.)

And new ideas still keep cropping up!

Note: This is not a model, but the Roman anfiteatro discovered close to the Etruscan Porta Diana. The surrounding terraces, yet to be excavated are thought, at the present time of excavation, to have held upwards of six thousand spectators!