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.
Vanishing one evening
without a trace.
Without forgotten clues
on the threshold of my room
and no arrow
to show me the way.
Wherever I could have gone
Would be of no relevance:
Laid at the bottom of the sea
Buried in the darkness of the woods
In China devoid of memory
Looking for a pitiful story
Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.
Everything is fine
As long as nobody ever knows.
Vanishing without a certificate of death
So that one day they will understand
What is baffling me now.
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.