Volterra is a fascinating city in the countryside of Tuscany with a long history, first as powerful city-state of the ancient federation of Etruria and later as a Roman town. Today the city is still completely walled with its original medieval fortifications and from its ramparts one gets a 360 degree view of the rolling hills of Chianti. Not surprisingly, the city itself is also hilly with narrow shady streets that open into a handful of sunny piazzas that play host to the commune's former government buildings, still functioning cathedral (above) and various other churches.
Volterra is a difficult city to reach for the interested traveler and despite its many attractions is largely tourist-free as a result. We journeyed with Lawrence for about 75-90 minutes by rental car to reach it--first on the autostrada and superstrada and then on steep, narrow, dramatically winding roads that reminded me of my least favorite rides at Disneyland (Thunder Mountain, Matterhorn, Space Mountain) although with a much better view! Imagine here olive groves, wine vineyards, hills topped with iconic rows of cypress and umbrella pines in clusters, dotting the verdant hills.
Ultimately it was worth every hairpin turn! Volterra's real draw is the 1521 altarpiece of Rosso Fiorentino depicting Christ's Descent from the Cross, which was originally made for the city's cathedral (now in the civic art museum or Pinacoteca) and appears below. Others come to Volterra to see its well-preserved Roman theater (one of the most intact in Italy), while Etruscan afficionados sojourn here to visit the oldest preserved city gate built by those ancient peoples of the peninsula.
For me it was a return trip, last completed in 1995. For Dave is was a first time experience.
This is not the Etruscan gate, but one of the other handful from the medieval period. A mere 800 years old.
Although this image is a bit dark, you still get the general idea. Grief-stricken John at the far right is about life size and is clearly meant to be our "entry point" both emotionally and intellectually into the piece. Our group discussed this work and came to a consensus on a number of things:
1) The piece was almost certainly hanging higher than we saw it and in a chapel of the cathedral that forced the viewer to approach the work at an angle from the right. At the museum you could sort of recreate this and it made the work pull together spatially in a more visually resolved way which made John's large size and posture more effecting. Dave, however, had another compelling theory, which he offers in his Poseur's Guide to Art Lesson #8.
2) The piece would have been viewable only at a distance of some feet, created by an altar and perhaps steps in front of this altar. The paint was applied very, very thin in some areas and even allowing for cleanings, Rosso's charcoal underdrawings were readily visible in the lighter garments up close, but from a distance they disappeared and the fabric pulled together as abstract, flickering surfaces, catching the fantastical light eminating from not one, but two fictive sources.
3) Michelangelo's Pieta was likely the ultimate source for Rosso's Christ.
And now for the editorializing... 4) This is a beautiful painting, but not as graceful or visually satisfying as the work it's most often taught alongside and compared to by art historians the world over, namely Pontormo's larger altarpiece but of a similar subject matter and date, the Deposition of Sta. Felicità, c. 1528. [For more on this piece see my May 29 post, "Art as it was Meant to be Seen"]
But perhaps we're all just a little bit biased...quick check...no, I don't think so!