Volterra, Italy

Volterra Cathedral


For visitors wanting to take a walk back through the art and sculpture of Tuscany and Italy as well as get a glimpse of changing styles in church architecture then there is no better place than the lavish interior of the San Giovanni Cathedral.

The cathedral or Duomo can be found on the Piazza San Giovanni, a charmingly peaceful little square in the center of town. For centuries, the cathedral has been the town's main place of worship with a honey-colored but rather austere exterior that belies the richness of the colors and architecture to be discovered inside.

Among its sumptuous interior visitors can travel through several centuries of work by revered Tuscan artists and sculptors and search out little quirks hidden within the building and paintings that depict local life and families.

Look out for the hermit's tomb. This unfortunate local personality was sacrificed in gratitude when an epidemic of plague left the town.

Visitors enter the cathedral through its baptistry where a stone font can be seen. This is a common factor in many Catholic churches, because symbolically, of course, worshippers were unable to take their place in the rituals of the mother church without being baptized.

The origins of the site as a pagan place of worship have been lost back in the mists of time but the original Christian church here was known to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The present cathedral underwent major changes and was rededicated to the Assumption of Mary in the early XII century. The Cathedral's Romanesque facade dominates one side of the Piazza San Giovanni and is finished with an impressive entrance added in the XII century and worked in an attractive intarsia of different shaded marbles, thought to be the work of Nicola Pisano.

Once eyes have adjusted to the interior from the bright sunshine of the square it can be seen that the cathedral is laid out in the traditional pattern of the Romanesque Latin cross along with two side aisles flanking the central nave. This original layout is still clearly visible despite the cathedral being totally modified under the auspices of Bishop Serguidi in the late XVI century. This remodeling enthusiastically followed reforms laid down by the Council of Trent, a counter-reformation movement aimed at strengthening the Catholic church against the growing popularity of Protestantism in Europe. During the remodeling, the columns that divide the nave from the aisles were richly decorated in stucco worked by Gianpaolo Rossetti with their capitals embellished by Leonardo Ricciarelli. A sculptured frieze in Montecatini stone was left in place from an earlier period to provide a framework for the cathedral's six main altars. During this period graciously arched Romanesque windows were replaced by more severe rectangular windows befitting a serious reformation.

A gilded and coffered ceiling

Visitors should take a few moments to sit in the nave and admire the rich and colorfully decorated ceiling, designed by Francesco Capriani and finished with carvings by Jacopo Pavolini of Castelfiorentino. Its sumptuous gilding was added by Fulvo della Tuccia. The symbolic design holds the Holy Ghost at the center, surrounded by marble busts of Saints Ugo, Pope Linus, Giusto, Clemente, Greciniana, and Attinea.

The Assumption of Mary takes center-place above the altar and is flanked by Saints Ottaviano and Vittore.

As in so many places in Italy, reminders of the Medici family are never far away. Their coat of arms, along with those of Bishop Serguidi and the town's commune surmount the ceiling's triumphal arch. The arrangement is finished with an inscription thanking the Medicis, the Bishop and the generous citizens of the town for their donations towards the construction and dedication of the ceiling.

A XIX century transformation

Two and a half centuries later in the mid-XIX century, further restoration work was undertaken after an earthquake left the town damaged. The white and gray striped walls that can be seen today were painted and the flooring relaid in a stark geometric pattern of black and white marble. The richly decorated stucco columns were given a facelift, to give them their striking red granite finish. The incumbent bishop generously provided a donation which allowed a Presbytery to be added. This was designed and worked by the architect Aristodemo Solaini.

A fire at this period also saw a remodeling of the transept with walls and steps in Tufa stone. This was designed in the Gothic style so popular in the XIX century. Unfortunately, this period of restoration saw the loss of a XVI century organ.

Oratory of the Virgin Mary

The Oratory of the Virgin Mary contains two niches protected by XVII century wrought-iron gates. The left-hand niche contains The Nativity with a background painting of The Journey of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli while The Epiphany is depicted in the right-hand niche.

A recent attribution of these life-size painted terracotta figures has been given to Giovanni Della Robbia.