Entering the territory of Sorano from the surrounding plains, you feel as though you have entered another world.
Entering the territory of Sorano from the surrounding plains, you feel as though you have entered another world. The erosions caused by water, the crumbling of the tufaceous cliffs, together with the work of man, have created a unique fantasy landscape - something almost unreal which transports the visitor beyond time and space. Dozens of tufaceous bluffs and peaks, of varied and bizarre shapes, are scattered along the valley of the Lente river. On one of those peaks rises the town of Sorano, stretching crosswise out over the valley, resembling the wall of a dam. Over the centuries, the blocks of tufaceous rock from which the houses are built have taken on the same color of the bedrock on which the village stands so that the houses appear to have been carved from the rock by a the hand of a giant sculptor. Down below flows the Lente river, calm and crystal clear- home to herons greedy for fish and sweet water shrimp.
In the valley, today an archaeological park, hidden in the woods of oak, chestnut, and ilex trees, colossal masses of tufaceous rock thrust up among the branches, rock walls end in a sudden plunge, the rock face is hollowed out with the silent eye-like openings of the ancient tombs where wild boar and goats seek refuge. Half hidden by thick foliage proffering a thousand shades of green, by the bright yellow of the broom in flower, by lilacs - safe shelter for the many hedgehogs and foxes that have made their dens here -- are dozens of terraced slopes planted with fertile gardens, vineyards, and olive groves.
Here the Etruscans carved their monumental roads. It is a moving experience today to follow those roads, still full of magic - and permeated by a natural, archaic, and powerful sense of the sacred. As you wander, you can sense the Etruscans' great love for life, not yet divided between the "sublime spirit" and "vulgar matter." They knew how to penetrate the mysteries of the great mother earth with an almost instinctive intuition which we call divination. Then, when their time was up, they joyously accompanied the body on its return to the immense womb.
This would seem to have been the function of these splendid roads uniting the city of the living and the city of the dead, which lay beyond the river. But with the Etruscans you can never be sure of anything. They were careful not to leave indelible traces. Indeed they seem to have passed through these places with a soft tread and a delicate and sensitive touch. Little remains - but their benevolent presence still lingers, along with an aura of protection, and above all their enigmatic smile. It is this same - almost challenging smile - appearing on the lips of the Etruscan Apollo and of many of their statues and frescoes which has survived through time, despite all the invasions, to reappear more discreetly on the lips of the Mona Lisa. You still see it today, on the faces of their descendants, beneath their high cheek bones.
This penchant for carving out the womb of the earth- no longer the mother goddess- has survived through the centuries - perhaps in obedience to a tradition, or out of necessity, or maybe because the rock here yields more easily. Hollowed in the rock here you find not only the famous tombs, but entire areas of rock dwellings, hermitages, and convents, ceramic and carpentry workshops, dovecots, sheep folds, and barns for donkeys, once the indispensable companions of man's labor. Today the grottoes that line the roads to the village have been transformed into garages for "apetti," buzzing three-wheeled vehicles. You'll see them set off early in the morning for a days work, with a peasant driving and often his wife beside him, a hunting dog in the back, only to return again in the evening, heavily laden, the donkey of our times, carrying firewood, or grapes in the time of the grape harvest, or fruit, vegetables, or flowers picked in season from the gardens.
To visit Sorano is to immerse oneself in the warm atmosphere embracing the whole history of humanity. In the course of a simple walk through the area, you wander from bronze age grottoes, Renaissance palaces, mysterious streets, and Etruscan necropolises, to dark subterranean passages of the imposing fortress, from the medieval village carved in rock to the leafy uncontaminated woods surrounding the village.
Spending a few days in Sorano isn't just a vacation. It is above all an experience which will deeply touch your heart and spirit, like a ray of sunshine warming the seeds that will find here the proper conditions to sprout.
This is a magic and hospitable land - volcanic and tranquil, wild and sweet. Here dwells something inexpressible and magnetic which preserves it from any form of pollution.
Naturally this is not perceptible to everyone. In fact, it isn't unusual to hear distracted tourists say, " Let's go. There's nothing here." And then rush off to other towns with noisy restaurants, brightly lit windows, discos, and perhaps , flat roads. The secret appeal of Sorano knows how to defend itself by becoming imperceptible.
If you try to "sense" this place, rather than just glancing at it for just ten brief seconds - that brief span of time we normally allow ourselves for looking at a landscape, for we are prey to a greediness which causes us rush on to the next image- thing,-- if you stop and look with the tranquillity of those who are not always hurrying, anxious to "see everything" - thereby escaping from themselves --- you will discover that Sorano is not only a splendid landscape, but a world vibrating in harmony with something hidden deep in your soul. We are in the land of the Tirsens, as they called themselves, cradle and refuge of the last sacred civilization. From this earth life springs, in this land of secret rites and daily rituals, with rich volcanic soil and sacred woods, bathed by gushing torrents and streams.
These have caves used for housing and others called "colombari" or coops, most probably intended for raising pigeons. These caves are fascinating, but almost bare compared to those discovered near Sovana. Here the caves, the vie cave, wells, tunnels and hydraulic systems are all joined within a single landscape. The necropoleis, all cut in the tufa, are wrapped in thick, protective vegetation, making them all the more fascinating and mysterious.
The most important tombs are the Tomba del Sileno, the Tomba della Sirena and the monumental Tomba lldebranda, considered the masterpiece of all sepulchre. Sorano is notable for its elegant Renaissance architecture and massive enclosing walls that made it one of the safest defensive offshoots in the county of Pitigliano. It first fell under the Aldobrandeschi family who developed its defensive fortifications by building the enclosing wall which still surrounds the town.
Later the Orsini family built the splendid fortress, considered the town's most interesting monument. In the middle of the 15th century, it became the theatre of the conflict with the Sienese Republic without ever being taken. This prompted Cosimo dei Medici's nickname for it as the "tinderbox of Italian wars". In 1608, it fell definitively under the domain of the Grand duchy of Tuscany.
Rocca Orsini - Sorano
Sorano with its fortifications rises to the summit of a tuff relief, that is almost melted with the town, surrounded on three sides by the course of the river Lente in the homonymous valley. The existence of the Fortress, erected in its primitive forms by the Aldobrandeschi family, is noticed since the 1172. Until the end of the 14th century, due to the proximity of Sovana (principal center of the zone in that time), Sorano remained at the borders of the principal historical events.
With the succession of the dominion of the Orsini family to that of Aldobrandeschi and the contemporary decline of Sovana, Sorano became one of the principal centers of the area and the seat of the new powerful family. In this period Siena tried several times without success to incorporate the fortress inside the dominions of the Republic. The whole inhabited area is extended today between the Fortress of the Orsini, of 14th century origin but completely restructured in 1552 by Niccolò Orsini IV°, and the 'Sasso Leopoldino', cliff strengthened in the 18th century with the construction of a high bastionated wall. The fortress is considered one of the highest examples of Renaissance military architecture. The front toward the town is dominated by two mighty angular bastions, united by a wall curtain to the center of which the main gate, surmounted by a beautiful coat of arms in marble and a thick square tower, is opened.
Also on the western bastion, called of St.Pietro, there's a big marmoreal coat of arms. The other bastion is known as St.Mark. Just passed these imposing defensive works we penetrate the inner ward where the rests of the most ancient nucleus of the fortress rises, a round tower in which are still visible the traces of the disappeared drawbridge: in fact the two parts of the fortification are separated from a depth ditch. Here was the residence of the owner of the castle and the barracks for the garrison. The fortress was completed by three ulterior minor fortifications set on the near hills, of which no more traces stay. In the 1608 Sorano was attached to the Granduchy of Tuscany. Lost its military importance, the complex was inhabited until end of 18th century from the last descendants of the Lorena dynasty. Recently the fortress has been object of important works of restoration that, besides to safeguard its degrade, have brought to the light a cycle of Senese school frescos of the 15th century.
It is hard to say whether Etruscan or medieval memories hold sway in little Sovana. While the presence of the Etruscans is strongly evidenced by the necropolis, the enchantment of the historic center is entirely medieval: Sovana's closely-grouped religious and public edifices illustrate the importance of this town during the feudal era, erected on a block of tuff in a patch of the Tuscan Maremma along the border with Latium.
It seems incredible that this village of only a few houses, traversed by a single street (the only one left), once held city status, that it was the main center of a vast county and a fortified stronghold which gave birth to a pope.
All of Sovana lies between the fortress and the Cathedral, monuments which stand as symbols of the political power of the Aldobrandeschi and the spiritual power of the Church. Of the Aldobrandeschi Fortress, set within the medieval walls, some imposing ruins remain, including the lopped-off tower. Built in the 11th century and later restored by Siena and the Medici, its underground passages were connected to Sovana's other gateways, allowing for the rapid movement of troops. In the 17th century, having lost its military importance, the fortress was dismantled. At its base, near the gate, the fortress incorporates blocks of ancient Etruscan walls from the 6th century BC.
From the fortress gate the visitor can enter via del Pretorio and continue on to the central square, overlooked on the left by: the externals walls of San Mamiliano, the town's oldest church (erected in the 4th century AD over the remains of an Etruscan and later Roman construction); the Bourbon Del Monte Palace, owned by the marquis of the same name, with its rustic façade and wide colonnade (16th century); the adjoining Church of Santa Maria (12th-13th century), which retains traces of the Romanesque and Gothic periods, 16th-century frescoes, two Roman cippi and above all a splendid pre-Romanesque ciborium (8th century), unique in Tuscany.
The square, enclosed by the 13th-century Palazzetto dell'Archivio with its
bell-gable and Clock Tower - so named because used for public functions - presents on its right the Palazzo Pretorio (13th century), restored by Siena, whose coats of arms dominate the façade next to those of the Medici. At its side, the Loggia del Capitano bears a coat of arms of Cosimo I. Now isolated from the rest of the town, the Cathedral rises on the western strip of the block of tuff dominating the valley of the necropolis. It exhibits various styles - Lombard, Romanesque, Gothic - in correspondence with the different periods in which it was constructed. The cathedral's most important period was that of its expansion by the Aldobrandeschi and Pope Gregory VII during the 11th century, as demonstrated by the many Romanesque elements. There are exquisite sculptures dating to this epoch on cornices and capitals, especially those of the portal and of the lunette over the main entranceway.
Piazza del Pretorio, with its cozy medieval atmosphere, the ciborium in the Church of Santa Maria and the cathedral portal are not the only wonders offered by a tour of Sovana. The warm hue of the tuff, hollowed out and polished by the water, the verdant oaks and the dense shrubbery in the ravines and gorges almost conceal the most important rupestrian Etruscan necropolis, made up of a wide variety of tombs (chamber, cube, niche, trench, temple) and by a maze of pathways hollowed out of the rock. The most beautiful funereal monuments date back to the beginning of the 3rd century BC, including the large Pola and Ildebranda tombs, which recreate an Etruscan temple of the Hellenistic age.
In the depths of the wood we find chamber tombs wedged into the ridge of tuff. We can also admire the intriguing niche tomb of the Siren, in whose arch the figure of the deceased was sculpted, lying on the convivial bed. To the left stood Vanth, the goddess of death, now recovered in fragments and exhibited in the Archeological Museum of Florence. Contemplating the sleep of the dead, sister death seems to reveal to us the ultimate secret of the female soul: death, like life, should be pure, artless, innocent, natural.
Now the visitor has only to visit the principal town of the commune, Sorano, and venture into the alleyways of this medieval village, with its small piazzas,
portals of aristocratic residences framed in rusticated stonework, Via del Ghetto with its Jewish oven, and its houses huddled together on the cliff overhanging the Lente river valley.