History of Volterra


See Volterra guide for highlights and historic monuments

Origins of the name Volterra

A very ancient city of Etruscan origin, Volterra was originally known by the name of Velathri, a term used quite widely across the Etruscan region. According to linguists Velathri derives from the ancient 'Velzna', a term also related to other place names such as Feltre, the old Volsinii (Orvieto), and Bologna (in the Etruscan language 'Felsina' or 'Felsnal').

The name, according to the most authoritative Italian scholars, while indicating a place, would originally have been an ancient name of a noble family then later becoming a place name. As for the meaning of the term, it seems that the Etruscan names containing the root 'Vel' usually indicated a height, a hill. By extension, the same root as "Vel" was found in the names of families of "high" status. The Romans translated the name as Volaterrae

History of ancient Volterra

Volterra was a powerful and wealthy city under the Etruscans. It was equipped with a wall more than 7 kilometres long and had a population that exceeded 20,000 inhabitants. So much wealth is explained by the fact that Volterra was built on hills rich in metalliferous veins, and also owned several salt-works - which generated a large volume of business and substantial gains for the population.

The wealth of Volterra attracted the attention of the Romans, who attacked the territory of Volterra, and, after the Battle of Lake Vadimone in 283 BC Velathri joined the Italian confederation under the name of Volaterrae.

In the first century BC it gained Roman citizenship, of which it was later deprived by Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) during the civil wars. Under the emperor Augustus important monuments were built, such as the Theatre and the Cistern.

Volterra after the Romans

With the fall of the Roman Empire, Volterra was subject to barbarian invasions and the battles between the bishops and his vassals, but he maintained a long dominion over the city.

In the mid-13th the power of bishops was disputed and the city changed into a Municipality, seeing a struggle for control among the great feudal families (the Panocchieschi, Ubertini and Belforti).

Florence, allied to the Belforti, strengthened its influence over the city and, in 1427, the Dominant City (Florence) gradually extending its power over Volterra, which entered into the sphere of the Medici influence in the 15th century and whose symbol is the donjon, built for Lorenzo il Magnifico (1449-1492) to emphasize the submission of Volterra to Florence.

The Florentine rule, however, was followed by a bitter conflict that ended with the defeat and plundering of the city. Throughout the 16th century, Volterra followed the fortunes of Florence.

The city then entered a part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, but its economy, because of epidemics and wars, suffers a serious crisis, which continues until the 19th century when a renewed salt industry once again helped Volterra to flourish.

See also the visitors guide for Volterra.