Secret History of Art

Volterra and Rosso’s Deposition

One of the greatest works of 16th century Mannerism

/ by Noah Charney

Palazzo Priori, Volterra.
Vola terrae, the flying land, as it was known to the Romans is one of the most striking towns in Italy, a plateau that seems to float in the sky above the Tuscan landscape. Like so many central Italian towns, it began as an Etruscan settlement called Velathri, though the natural protection afforded by its position attracted residents as early as the 8th century BC. For sheer geological majesty, especially when first glimpsed from a distance, Volterra and perhaps Orvieto vie for most memorable. It has been the seat of bishops and an important outpost of the Florentine Republic and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. And it appears with unusual frequency in works of literature, from the erudite (Jhumpa Lahiri, William Stendahl) to the popular (the Twilight series).


The first time I saw Volterra, I was leading a group of student of university students as their art history professor. I’ll admit that I didn’t really know much about it, but had to pull an hour’s on-site lecture out of my hat, so was frantically boning up on the bus ride over from Florence. I knew that it has long been a center of the alabaster trade—I still keep two souvenirs from that first visit. I have a perfectly-formed, ivory-colored egg that could easily be mistaken for real, but which is made from milky alabaster, as well as a nearly-finished head of a horse, expertly carved but, for whatever reason, discarded incomplete, and the more charming for it. And of course I knew of the “big gun” of Volterra, the masterwork that puts it on the artistic map: the Deposition (1521) by Rosso Fiorentino.


Poet of the Week
Anna Axfors
I hate nature

I hate nature

I can't stand looking at moons

night after night


Now the sun lies so smooth

over the mountains and the only thing that remains is

a rabbits gentle leap over everything



And now something inside me comes loose

like ice during the global warming

when lots of ice falls into the ocean, becomes ocean

something inside me comes loose

and becomes me


Soon scene serenade

and bodies

arctic light over the sea and death

I have abandoned my old ideology and my new one is to try to create my own


And I have also had a flower beside me

in bed

when they thought I was dead

I have been afraid of death for six years

but it is not until now that I understand that life is short and then again I become afraid of life itself, just like the dodo dances until the day ends and it makes me so happy when I think about that you can do whatever you want and I don't want to wait until they think I'm dead

with having a flower beside me in bed

arctic light over the mountains on the other


sane swing soft serenity


arctic light over both lungs

I sigh, I fall asleep

I make a phone call

I'm tasting blood in my mouth and

it’s morning

she answers with hair she answers with tears

Time passes

Shame doesn't make you


but stiff in the


I don't like skincare

"constantly moisturize the skin"

I don't like that advice

Oh God

I can't do it

I lie on the ground and close my eyes,

slowly dying

even though I'm pressing my ear to the ground – I hear


it seems like earth

doesn't have a heart

ha ha, I've always known that

that it's only the ocean that has a pulse

And I have stopped believing in


now I believe,

maybe not only,

but a lot


"A gene is a locus (or region) of DNA which is made up of nucleotides and is the molecular unit of heredity"

it is what it is – it doesn't eat

it feels good no longer being able to blame someone

I no longer need to think about if I'm

middle or under class

I only Am

and it's nice

I listen to Celine Dion and drink beer

that's nature poetry to me

My thought is a flower in my head

the pillow smells pee and I don't care

a full meadow soon blossoms there

I will walk on it when I fall asleep

I will walk barefoot because nature is not very hard

I'm harder

For a period in my life I only wore black clothes

that’s why I don't know what to wear tomorrow,

everything is black

When I look through the window I see all the way to

the underground clubs where I used to dream

I loved this city before it had walls

I loved this sea before it bled

and I saw it from

afar and it smelled




I felt it from all directions

Sway sweat sear promises amends

that comes in your mouth, my orgasm

falling asleep to the sound of animals

in flight

My lovely fate is to make sure that air doesn't enter the bread bag and makes the

white bread hard

Then you will be disappointed

And in everything they want to remove

It doesn't live

it's not possible

It doesn't eat

it doesn't collect

It's raining violently, drops are whipped

against the windows, and explode and explode and land on rivers

I’ve never heard of, never been to

It feels like someone is touching my hair, fondly as if life is already over and will

be summarized

don't worry

but the Day that this weather is warning us

for will come

that brownness

has already come

"what can't happen" happen everyday

How I love the sound of


because it's useless and unbearable

Once I watched a documentary about Christiania it was about that kids who

grew up there were traumatized for life b/c all the sex and drugs (just another day in

motherfucking paradise). I could smell the smell of abuse and ashtray through the tv

screen, the edge of dirt under the nails

Someone said that I will never be right in the head and that I was and angel, a small animal.

I sat on Medborgarplatsen today and felt

the winds of change

whatever can happen whenever

you never know when the next thing will happen

I pray to the predictable god that I will be

like a jellyfish floating in the water, that I won't

know what will come later that I won't be ready

because it doesn't have smell nor color but it must

be good

I wound up spending the whole hour in front of the Deposition. One of the greatest works of 16th century Mannerism, it has to be seen in person. I had no idea how large it was, with nearly life-size figures removing the body of Christ from the cross. I had notes on the work (students always love the fact that Rosso kept a pet monkey, which he trained to play pranks on an annoying monk who lived next door), but did not refer to them. I was in a sort of goose-bumpy trance. What struck me immediately was how modern the painting appeared—even Cubist. It was clearly comprised of blocks of colored, layered on in chunks, almost like a mosaic of cutout gem-toned paper. The composition looks like a nocturne, but is actually a solar eclipse, as ten windblown, mourning bodies seek to remove Christ from the cross. We are confronted with the logistical difficulties of moving a body in rigor mortis from an elevated position, with four people perched like birds on ladders, one of whom is falling off the ladder as Christ’s body slips down. The work is shocking in its brilliance, color, drama and size. Worth a journey, worth a pilgrimage, worth a move.


Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Volterra the Citadel.
After that first visit I, like so many entranced by Volterra’s combination of grandeur, position, culture and charm, thought about buying a home there. I have no Italian roots, only a love for all things Italian (art and food above all), but had long fantasized about settling down there. I’m far from the first—there are thousands of Anglophone expats with vacation or retirement homes in Italy, with Tuscany as the preferred spot, and Umbria not far behind. My family wound up choosing the other “floating land,” the town of Orvieto, for our domicile, but Volterra ranked high on my wish list. Its size (11,000, half that of Orvieto) means that, while there is plenty to do, it feels like a big small town. Its proximity to cities (Florence, a 90 minute drive, or Pisa, one hour) mean that action is available when you’d want it. But the rural life that beckons in Volterra’s surrounding, wine-rich hills has intoxicated many a foreigner, and very nearly won me over. I would have happily moved there just to be able to pop in and see Rosso’s Deposition whenever I liked. Who knows, I might have even acquired a pet monkey, to keep the neighbors in line.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.