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.
Every match a dream
Every dream a flight!
One flight after another
On the filthy and shear snow
That scratches the child with asphalt
Death makes its way
And turns her body to marble.
Swallow her silent and alert mouth
Grab her round bare little hands
Snatch her lifetime interrupted
By a macramè frill
Grab her knees dirtied on all fours
Grasp her fury without aims
Seize! Her vices as impulsive butterflies
Grasp! Her oxymoron that prolongs time
Seize! The freezing cold of her motionless tender feet
Grasp! Her waiting at the pulsing of the body
Seize! Her implacable disposition to die
Grasp! The scream of her dreaming heart
Seize! Her frozen match on the ground
Grasp! Her last fleeting moan!
Light the burn out match
Brighten the enchantment of her dream
Clean the filthy snow
Melt that marble body
Soothe the asphalt scratches
Release her breath
Raise her body from the floor
Allow her the last flight.
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.