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Volterra (Tuscany), Italy

Palazzo dei Priori

 

The city hall is housed in the Palazzo dei Priori, one of the oldest palazzos still surviving in Tuscany. At almost 800 years old it is the province's oldest seat of continuous local government. This lavishly decorated building was the inspiration for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. An inscription near the main entrance tells visitors that the palace was designed by Maestro Riccardo in the early XIII century.

The XII century witnessed decades of violent conflict between the nobility and the rule of bishops. This reached a climate mid-century when Galgano dei Pannocchieschi became the region's bishop. His rule was so unpopular that feudal lords and the town's growing middle classes united against him leading to the building of the Palazzo dei Priori as a symbol of the free commune. This newly formed commune purchased rights for the extraction of salt (the town's main source of income at the time), sulfur, vitriol or sulfuric acid, and alum from the surrounding areas of Larderello, Libbiano, and Sasso. However, the commune soon found itself struggling against the territorial expansion of Siena, Pisa and Florence.

The three-story Palazzo dei Priori is built entirely of local stone. The facade is finished with cornices and crowned with semi-circular battlements, probably added in the XVI century. It is adorned with double arched windows and Della Robbia glazed terracotta arms of Florentine magistrates, added in the XV century. It also carries the canna volterrana, or medieval standard measurement of the commune, engraved between a banner and torch holders. In the late XV century, the palazzo became the seat of the Captain of Justice at which point two Marzocco lions, a Florentine symbol, were added to the facade.

The rather modern looking clock with its offset position was added at a much later date and adds a rather jarring tone to the facade.

The palazzo is topped by a pentagonal shaped tower, part of which needed to be rebuilt after the town's last earthquake in the mid-XIX century. This reconstruction was designed by the architect Mazzei who also added embellishments to other buildings in the Piazza dei Priori. Visitors can get to the top of the tower by stairs or elevator, from where they are rewarded with panoramic views across the town and countryside.

The palazzo is entered through a doorway, decorated with coats of arms, which leads to a stairway holding a fresco of The Crucifixion with Saints by Pier Francesco Fiorentino. He also painted The Crucifixion in the mayor's antechamber. A painting of The Virgin with Child has been attributed to Raffaellino del Garbo.

At the heart of the palazzo on the second floor is a magnificent Council Chamber with an imposing cross-vaulted ceiling. This is decorated with a fresco of The Annunciation and the Four Saints - Cosmos, Damian, Ottaviano, and Giusto painted by Jacopo di Cione and Nicolò di Pietro Gerini. When the fresco was being transferred onto canvas at a later date the sinopia or original sketched outline was discovered and this is now displayed in the antechamber.

One wall of the Council Chamber holds a large XVI century canvas depicting The Marriage Feast at Cana painted by Donato Mascagni.

Artworks in the Antechamber or Sala della Giunta include a wood panel of Persius Flaccus by Cosimo Daddi, a canvas holding a fresco of Saint Girolomo and two small XVIII century paintings, Giandomenico Ferretti's The Adoration of the Magi and The Birth of the Virgin by Ignazio Hugford. There is also a canvas painting of Giobe by Donato Mascagni.

The third story of the Palazzo dei Priori was used as a kitchen and for firewood storage. A useful pulley elevator served these service rooms, operated from the building's inner courtyard.

The lavish council chamber and antechamber are open to visitors when the city council isn't in session.

Opening hours are 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from April to October. The rest of the year they are open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The adult entrance price is 5EUR with concessions and group prices at 3EUR. Children under 6 are free.