This time I take the stand.
The Maremma is a wild section of southwestern Tuscany, a mixture of coastal plains, craggy valleys, and hills that rise inland towards Monte Amiata. It’s a beautiful area, but was also feared in the past because of the malaria that infested the lowlands, and as a result the few who had to live there settled the hilltops. The Aldobrandeschi, one of the great feudal families of the middle ages, established Massa Marittima on a hill known as Monteregio (the royal mountain) sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD.
The town was well situated, providing easy access to the ore veins that are plentiful in the area, and in the 10th century the local Bishop selected it to be his see. Construction of the cathedral, San Cerbone, began shortly thereafter, and as the town increased in importance the Bishop’s successors refortified the city walls; by 1225 Massa was a thriving free commune, and a new section, now called the Città Nuova, was added above the old part of town.
A wealthy mining town is a tempting target, and indeed the Sienese moved in, occupying Massa Marittima in 1335; they substantially increased the size of the Palazzo Pretorio, where the governor lived, and also fortified the walls separating the old and new parts of town, building a keep that on the one hand considerably strengthened the town’s defenses, and on the other dominated the citizenry as well.
The plague dealt Massa a tremendous first blow in 1348, and then the ore veins began to give out. Mining stopped in 1396, and since the malaria in the lowlands made agriculture unsafe the population gradually declined; by the end of the Medici rule in the 1730s the town boasted only 537 inhabitants. Recovery came with the House of Lorraine, which drained the lowlands to curb the malaria, and also relaunched the mining industry; in the recent past mining has given way to tourism, while the agriculture is in the process of shifting from grain and animal husbandry towards viticulture and olive growing.
One can explore Massa Marittima in the course of a morning, and it’s perfectly positioned to serve as a base from which to explore the surrounding countryside as well.
To begin with Massa, you’ll want to start in Piazza Garibaldi, the square in front of the Cathedral. San Cerbone, perched atop a slight rise, has a beautiful late 13th century Romanesque façade that’s among the best preserved in Tuscany; note the bas-reliefs above the door and the statues above the rosette. The interior is vast and very calm, with a number of beautiful artworks; in particular you’ll want to see the baptismal font with scenes from the life of the Baptist in the right nave, which was done in 1267 by Giroldo da Como. The 13th century crucifixion at the head of the right nave is by one of Duccio di Buoninsegna’s followers. The main altar has Goro di Gregorio’s the Arca di San Cerbone (1324), with scenes from the life of the saint, while the Madonna with Child at the head of the left nave is based on Duccio’s Maestà (which is in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Siena); the panting was likely done in 1316 by one of the Master’s followers. The chapel also has a few fragments from a panel that was stolen at the beginning of the past century and sawed up so the thieves could sell individual saints on the black market (what you see was recovered from a compartment in a suitcase bound for Paris).
When you leave the cathedral, to the left you will see the Palazzo Pretorio, the Governor’s palace, with the coats of arms of the various governors who held sway over Massa. It’s now the town museum, with a number of prehistoric artifacts including a stela (stylized human
statue) dating to 3000 BC, some beautiful paintings, including Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Maestà, coins and dies from the period when Massa minted its own coinage, and, in the upper floors, a nice collection of Etruscan artifacts; the views from the windows as you climb the stairs are quite nice, and the prison cells on the top floor add an unexpected counterpoint.
As you emerge from the Palazzo you will see, across the square and down a gentle incline, a building with porticoes. It was the grain silo in the middle ages and was therefore called the Palazzo dell’Abbondanza (the Palace of Abundance); it also hosts the town’s major fountain under the arches, where people used to come to get drinking water, and has an anonymous fresco on the back wall that ranks among the most unusual I have seen; it’s entitled “The Fertility Tree,” and features women standing under a tree with dozens of lavishly erect phalluses hanging from the branches. There are scholars who say the phalluses are actually cakes, which may be true, but the way one of the women uses a stick to drive away the birds flying under the branches (or pull a phallus down), and the way another couple fight over one they have managed to get is eloquent enough.
In any case, the fresco, which was hidden under encrustations prior to a recent restoration, seems to have been painted in 1265, and probably refers to an ancient fertility festival that was still celebrated in the 1200s but was subsequently suppressed and forgotten.
Return to Piazza Garibaldi and walk down Via Butigni, the lane to the right of San Cerbone. You will come to Via Parenti, which leads to a city gate; after admiring it turn the other way and walk on past the tourist office, which once hosted the town mint, and turn up the next alley (immediately after street number 32). To the left you’ll see a narrow alley that tunnels through the buildings; follow it. After about 50 yards, to the left there will be a grate with a well behind; according to the plaque on the wall, this is where Bindoccio Pannoccieschi (the son Pia de’Tolomei’s husband had with his second wife, after having Pia put to death so he could marry the other woman; Pia tells Dante “Siena made me and the Maremma unmade me” when she meets him in the Purgatory), drowned on May 1 1300.
Continue until the alley ends and follow the steps Via della Libertà; the building to the left with the stylized sun (number 63) on the façade is where San Bernardino da Siena was born. Via della Libertà leads back into Piazza Garibaldi; as you enter the square the town hall will be to your right; it was assembled by combining three 12-14th century buildings and unifying the composition with a travertine façade. The Casa dei Conti di Biserno, with its pretty renaissance windows (number 7) is also nice.
From Piazza Garibaldi take via Moncini up to the Città Nuova; the street climbs gently for a short ways, and then becomes stepped, with ridges to allow horses’ hooves to gain purchase. You’ll enter the new part of town through the Porta Sillaci, an imposing gate built by the Sienese after they took power; immediately beyond the gate is an older tower known as the Torre del Candeliere o Torre dell’Orologio that the Sienese incorporated in their defensive structure, linking it to the walls with a breathtaking arch. To the left in the square is the Palazzo delle Armi, the garrison that was built in the 1443 that is now home to Massa’s Museo di Arte e Storia delle Miniere, a museum that traces the history of mining in the region from the Etruscan times to today. If you go up Corso Diaz, and turn left onto Via Populonia, you’ll come to a 17th century olive press. If you go straight you’ll reach Sant’Afostino, a pretty Gothic church begin in 1300, with an elegant apse and pleasing cloisters.
If you don’t take Corso Diaz, but instead walk past the Palazzo delle Armi and though the gate, you’ll come to the church of San Francesco, which serves a convent that is said to have been founded by Francis himself in 1220. The building was once considerably longer, but the nave was shortened when the ground gave way. There is, in any case, a nice 12th century crucifix and a painting with scenes from the life of San Cerbone.
It will by now be time for lunch. There are a number of restaurants in Massa, for example Da Tronca, Via delle Porte 5 (Tel 0566 901 991; 30 Euros/person plus wines). Classic Tuscan country cooking. However, if you want something special, take your car and drive down the hill to Ghirlanda (towards Siena); the Ristorante Bracali is one of the best in Tuscany (Località Ghirlanda 2, tel 0566 902 318; closed Tuesdays, 100 Euros +/person plus wines).
Getting to Massa Marittima: If you’re coming from Rome or Milano, the easiest way to reach
Massa Marittima is to take the Autostrada and then the Aurelia, the old coastal road that has now been transformed into a 4-lane highway; exit at Follonica and take the Massetana (SS 439) inland. If you’re coming from Florence and don’t mind a winding drive, take the Autopalio to Siena and then follow SS 441 until it leads into the Massetana.