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Volterra’s Roman Amphitheater: Ancient History with a Bizzare Restoration

August 17, 2015

MHolmes_Tuscany (10)_X

This is my personal favorite sketch from our time in Volterra. It is perhaps not the most pictorially beautiful painting. It could even be called confusing.

You are looking down at the partially reconstructed ruins of a Roman theater, with scabby grass growing between the rocks. It was hot and dry, baking the moisture out of the painting almost immediately. This was actually helpful getting this completed in the short time I had these interesting shadows.

This might not be the sketch you would choose to hang on the wall – but in my mind it holds an interesting story. Which in all honesty, we would never have heard about, if not for our friend Simo showing us around.

These ruins had been lost for many years. But apparently it was obvious to those who understand these things, that there was a Roman theater hidden here. The shape of the terrain is distinctive – and there were probably records – old maps and manuscripts with drawings of the place, or people’s diary writing. So, while most people had forgotten, someone always knew there had been a grand structure here .

In the years between the Romans and the 1970’s this piece of history might have fallen naturally – or been scavenged for stone used to build the town. But there was also a kind of willful ignorance humans will always employ. Because of the high 13th century era wall, and the location at the edge of the city center, it was somehow considered a great spot for tossing garbage. Eventually the ruins were completely buried below the city dump. I guess if you have a surplus of stone ruins in your area, you don’t care about burying a few rocks under your midden heap.



The town of Volterra, which goes back to the Etruscan times, had two modern industries before today’s reliance on tourism. At first it was the heart of an Alabaster carving empire. We heard about at least two great families who made their fortunes exporting treasures in Alabaster. During our week painting, we stayed in a beautiful villa that had been the country home of one of these art-barons. Today it is an artist retreat/bed and breakfast run by artists Klaudia Ruschkowski and Wolfgang Storch.

But the most recent economic engine of the city was an entirely different thing.  A huge mental asylum.

Sometime before its decommission in the 1970’s, the ever expanding complex had a population of 6000 patients. I can only imagine it must have been a Dantean warehouse for the mentally ill – along with any number of unfortunates who were simply tossed in there, never to return. A few internet searches about the asylum raise up grim stories such as 200 patients sharing a bathroom. Modern day Urbex photographers have infiltrated and brought back photos like these.

(Photo: Fabrizio Costa)

We are told that at one point everyone in the town worked for this hospital in some capacity. If not actually guarding the inmates, they were probably washing the sheets, cooking the food, or whatever support was necessary. Perhaps this came naturally, as the town has, since the middle ages, also had a stone fortress with a dungeon, which is still used today as a prison. Presumably the medieval cells have been modernized. (I hope). Coming into town by bus from Florence, we met an artist/actress who was on the way to a theater project in which they perform inside the prison. Somehow in collaboration with the prisoners? I didn’t get the details.

In any case – at some point in the 50’s, a local man named Enrico Fiumi who had been educated as an economist was working at the Guarnacci Museum and Library in some capacity. He became an expert in local history and became aware of the buried Roman theater.

In an incredibly Italian story, he achieved two things. He convinced the asylum to *lend him mental patients*, to carry out the excavation. Presumably as volunteers who would do anything to get out of that place for a short time, and presumably working entirely with hand tools, and without any real training or supervision in Archaeology.

As well – as the excavation took shape – he conducted a many year long campaign to relocate a modern day soccer field that had sprung up next to the old dump – finally allowing them to fully uncover the theater. It was probably harder to evict the soccer players that it was to borrow the mental patients.

Today, you can look down while passing from one gelato shop to the next espresso stand, and snap a picture of the ruins without ever becoming aware of this strange history. This is the kind of thing that I find fascinating, and what leads me to spend an hour in the blazing sun, making this painting.

For the artists still reading to the end: the sketch itself was drawn quickly in pencil to capture the complexity of the floor plan. Then, working very quickly, I painted the dry grass with a marbled mix of Sap Green and Goethite, working left to right systematically in little patches of wet on dry. The pigment Goethite (brown ocher) from Daniel Smith is quite similar to the commonplace Yellow Ocher – but I enjoy it for its opacity and extreme granulation. Effects like this patchy grass can be easily implied by the natural sedimentation of the earth tone. The shadows are mostly mixes with DS Moonglow. A cheater’s color for shadow if there ever was one.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2015 6:34 PM

    The painting has a map-like quality to it (perspective?), which I love. The story behind these ruins is truly fascinating, and your comments on the paints very helpful and generous. Thanks for sharing!

  2. August 17, 2015 7:27 PM

    Fabulous post!

  3. August 17, 2015 9:20 PM

    Love The painting; fascinated by the story. Glad that you dug deeper!

  4. August 17, 2015 9:38 PM

    what a history ! Love the sketch – thanks for the info on goethite and moonglow for grass and shadows.

  5. Ludo permalink
    August 18, 2015 1:45 AM

    Thanks for sharing the story and the watercolor tips. Is sap green also from DS?
    By the way, do you know about a nice tutorial on mixing greens?

  6. Lolly permalink
    August 18, 2015 4:31 AM

    Thanks for sharing your painting and the history. You took me back to my trip there almost two years ago! I most likely stood in the same place from which you stood to make your painting, which is an excellent likeness to this remarkable historical site. You did a beautiful job! It is so nice that you took the time to explain the history.

  7. Elizabeth Moore permalink
    August 18, 2015 10:56 AM

    You’ve captured it just as I remember it. Good to hear the full story as we only heard about it being a dumping ground for the town, not the story of it’s recovery. Beautiful painting, too beautiful to call just a sketch.

  8. Frank Bettendorf permalink
    August 18, 2015 12:30 PM

    Terrific post! I always enjoy your posts and the writing for this painting enhances the experience. Great place to visit and paint except for the heat. Frank B

  9. Jane permalink
    August 19, 2015 8:33 AM

    Wonderful painting and story to go with it. Also, I enjoyed the paint info. I recently purchased Goethite-for the texture.

  10. Peter Ball permalink
    October 11, 2021 8:57 PM

    I love this story and have been trying to find out more about the details. I think it would make a wonderful movie script.

    • October 18, 2021 2:28 PM

      Yes! So much great stuff in that story :) This was told to me by a local artist, so, I have no idea how a person would go about researching, beyond going there in person and talking to the older folks! There was an 80 year old fellow still making Alabaster. I hope he’s still alive! But it was a few years back so hard to say. Best of luck anyway even if you don’t go to these ends – just a fictional version would certainly work!

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