The tiny but once so grand Sovana

in Maremma Tuscany

If you have heard of Maremma then it is more than likely because a section of your guide to Tuscany talked about Sovana, Sorano and Pitigliano: Maremma's special triangle of tufa rock villages and towns.

Sorano and Pitigliano are indeed spectacular places that just have to be seen and their incredible surroundings explored. And whilst Sovana would be described in Italian as "bellina" in that it is small and quaint, it has, unfortunately, lost its "raw" charm that the other two, particularly Sorano still retain.

Sovana Maremma Tuscany Italy
The Palazzetto dell'Archivio in Sovana's main square the Piazza del Pretorio

Fortunately, Sovana is only one of a couple of hamlets in Maremma to have succumbed to being transformed into a location set-up for tourists. For practically all the buildings other than the cathedral, churches and museum (read about them below) are bars, restaurants, osterias, tavernas, hotels and other rooms ("camere"), holiday apartments, ceramic, expensive linen clothes and leather shops.

Now its size means that Sovana won't by any means leave you with the same experience as San Gimignano in Tuscany during the day (early morning and evening are entirely different experiences altogether). But, likewise, it is no longer a typical Maremma hamlet or village. But, therein, lies the heart of an important pivotal point at which Maremma finds itself today.

October in Sovana Maremma Tuscany Italy

For Sovana's once much needed restoration, re-habitation and the return of businesses came about as a result of tourist interest, interest which today the governing bodies in Maremma are trying hard to cultivate and feed in order to bring much needed revenue and jobs into the area.

Don't get me wrong, Sovana isn't "tacky". And if you are touring Tuscany and visiting places such as Pisa, Firenze and Siena, you will more than probably remember Sovana as, indeed, "quaint" and curious with its own cathedral. But living as I do in Maremma, it struck me that a fine and difficult balance had been breached and that it was more like "mainstream" Tuscany and had lost its rural Maremma "innocence".

Is it worth visiting? Would I recommend my mum to visit? Yes. Especially, if you take a wonder around as part of a visit to the "Parco Archeologico Citta del Tufo" (the archaeological park of the city of tufa) located just outside of town.

Sovana Palazzo del Pretorio & the Loggia del Capitano Maremma Tuscany Italy
The Palazzo del Pretorio and the Loggia del Capitano to the left

But you won't need to plan allow for a whole morning or afternoon for the hamlet itself.

Best bit: the drive through the approach tunnel carved through the local tufa rock... An unexpected experience that alights the imagination.

If on the other hand, you only have time for Sorano or Sovana, then Sorano with its un-compromised rural life and magical streets and buildings, steals the day every time. But the two make for different experiences entirely.

 

The video

 

A little bit of a LOT of history

Whenever I use the heading, "a little bit of history" it is always a hard task to try and encapsulate the history of a place briefly, when in nearly every instance the section could run into a whole book. If not more. Just for each of the main historic periods, because nearly every one of Maremma's hill top hamlets or towns has a history that goes back to Etruscan or even neolithic man! Sovana may be a tiny hamlet small but boy does it pack a punch in history terms... So here goes (without, I hope, sounding like an encyclopedia).

Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age man

Beginning with neolithic man, the settlement (located close to the cathedral site) at Sovana prospered in the latter Bronze Age, but was apparently suddenly abandoned - still a mystery as to why - at the beginning of the Iron Age. The archaeological remains can be found near the cathedral.

The Etruscans

The next inhabitants were the Etruscans who lived here for ten centuries and for whom "Suana" or "Suama", as Sovana was then known, was a very important city.

There must have been something very special about Sovana, above and beyond that of other pivotal Etruscan cities in Maremma such as Roselle and Vetulonia. Because, uniquely, the Roman colonization did not absorb and dismantle Etruscan life there: it continued for the most part unchanged, including the usage of the Etruscan language, even when the city was formally established as a municipium.

Medieval Soana and a Pope is born...

For such a small place, Sovana has such a huge Roman Catholic history: for it was one of the very first parts of Tuscany to be converted to christianity and became the location of an episcopal see in the 5th century. (See the story of San Mamiliano below.) It is also the birthplace of a Pope: Ildebrando di Sovana, Pope Gregory VII, born around 1020.

Known then as "Soana", between 592 and 605 it was the ruling centre of Maremma under the Lombard family, and similarly so in 935 when the then ruling Aldobrandeschi family abandoned their city stronghold of Roselle due to devastating Saracen raids and moved in. During this time, Soana became a free municipality and remained so for 200 years.

It was the Aldobrandeschi who initiated the construction of the city's fortress, but the families power declined steadily across Maremma over the years, culminating in the extinction of the dynasty with the death in 1312 of head of the family, red-haired Margherita Aldobrandesca (oh, what a woman she was... but a whole other story) daughter of the "Red Count" Count Ildebrandino Aldobrandeschi of Sovana and Pitigliano and the most powerful man in southern Tuscany. Margherita died leaving no male heir. Her eldest daughter, Anastasia de Montfort, had already married Romano di Gentile Orsini of Pitigliano, and so the ownership and control of Margherita's legacy, including Sovana, passed into the hands of the Orsini family. At which point the city lost its freedom.

The Orsini family unceremoniously dumped the seat of power they had inherited and decamped everything to both Sorano and Pitigliano, their preferred home locations from which they began to rule.

In 1410 the city was conquered and occupied by the Sienese Republic army and from then on all documentary accounts tell of repeated attempts at control and raids between Florence and Siena, a decline into deep poverty, and abandonment.

But that was not all, for the malaria for which Maremma was so famous and which claimed the lives of most who lived within the lowlands (a must listen to is Maremma Amara) took its toll on Soana, and then again and again. Even the two hundred Greek immigrants that the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinand II forced to live there did not survive and neither did the peasants similarly billeted later by the Lorena family.

Sovana's buildings lay in rack and ruin and its population decimated: all but 86 remained in the count in 1414. A sorry state from Sovana's high in Etruscan times.

In the mid-sixteenth century, Cosimo I Medici gave what was left to the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

 

Ok, I cheated! I have put all of the Etruscan tombs and Vie Cave information on other pages! Links below.

 

The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore

The middle ages church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Sovana, Maremma Tuscany Italy

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Piazza del Pretorio is nothing too out of the ordinary perhaps to look at from outside, but step inside for a rare treat of a unique piece of early middle ages art: an 8th century carved white marble ciborium, one of the few examples of pre-Romanesque art in the whole of Tuscany.

Middle ages church: Santa Maria Maggiore, Sovana Maremma Italy

Engraved on its stone canopy and Corinthian columns are typical early middle ages decorations of flora and fauna, doves, peacocks, sun discs, spirals and other and geometric motifs. Its original home was Sovana's cathedral and it's construction is believed to have marked the establishment of the Aldobrandeschi family as the new Lords of Sovana.

Middle ages art: rare stone pre-Romanesque ciborium http://www.maremmaguide.com/sovana.html

Santa Maria Maggiore is also home to two frescoes dated from between 1510 and 1520: a "Crocifissione con santi" - Crucifixion with Saints Antonio and Lorenzo (Anthony and Lawrence) - from the Umbria and Lazio area.

And this lovely 1508 "Madonna in trono con Bambino e due sante" - Madonna Enthroned with Child and two Saints Barbara and Lucia - attributed to the early Renaissance school of Andrea di Niccolo. This is the first Madonna and child fresco that I have seen with female saints and my photograph doesn't do its delicate nature justice.

And, if you look really closely... you will find a shoemakers tools within the family crest in the bottom surrounding decoration, which historians believe is most likely the trade of the person who commissioned this masterpiece.

Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints Barbara and Lucia fresco: early Renaissance school of Andrea di Niccolo, Sovana Maremma Tuscany Italy

 

Il Duomo dei Santo Pietro e Paolo -
The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

Cathedrals in the middle ages: the Duomo dei Santi Pietro e Paolo, Sovana Maremma Tuscany Italy

Now somewhat isolated at the end of the village with one of the two roads to reach it - Via Rodolo Siviero resembling a private stone-laid track, the "Duomo dei Santi Pietro e Paolo" - the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul - resides on the highest and what would have been the best defendable ground in Sovana. It is no surprise then, perhaps, to learn that this site was also that of the first pre-historic settlement in the area and, that beneath its foundations, lie the remains of an Etruscan acropolis.

Cathedrals of the middle ages: Sovana Il Duomo San Pietro Maremma Tuscany Italy

That Sovana has a cathedral at all - for it is distinctly different in this respect from other equally important seats of ancient power and rule in Maremma that don't - is believed to be due to the pioneering evangelistic work and conversion to christianity in the fourth century of the residents of the Tuscan Archipelago and lower Maremma, including Sovana, by Mamiliano the Bishop of Palermo. For which he received a Bishops seat at Sovana.

But his legend doesn't stop there...

Saint Mamiliano was exiled by the Vandals in Sicily and either went into hiding or was redeemed - it isn't clear - living first on the island of Sardinia, and then Mon Jovis.

On Mon Jovis he is said to have defeated and killed a winged dragon and the island was re-named Monte Cristo - "mount of Christ", today Montecristo. Upon his death (19 October 460) his body was transferred to the Island of Giglio in Maremma and buried in a convent on the site of what is now the "castello" castle. But the night of his burial was all but serene, for his body was sought after by parties from both Genova and the Island of Elba. In the struggle and fight that ensues, his remains were dismembered and the island was left with just one arm.

The legend continues that his body parts were re-united and re-buried on Giglio in 1600 under the auspices of the Duke Cosimo III of the Medici family. But other sources site that Bishop Apollonio Massaini (1439) transferred his body from Giglio in the 15th century.. And others still that his skull was transferred from Rome to Palermo where it remains in the chapel of the relics of the cathedral and that other pieces of his body still remain in Pisa, Roma, the Island of Elba, the island of Giglio and Sovana.

And then there is his treasure... found in Sovana's oldest church, San Mamiliano (see below).

Whilst the sculptures at the capitals of the three naves are mainly of fauna, stylised animal motifs of cows, calves, and eagles, those at the top of the second column of the left hand nave as you enter the cathedral are different. They are considered to be from the 11th century Lombard school - comparable to those found in the Abbey of St. Antimo at Montalcino, near Siena - of ancient Testament scenes of Adam and Eve, of the sacrifice of Isaac, the prophet Elijah, Daniel with the lions, and of of Moses dividing the waters.

Middle ages sculptures from the cathedral at Sovana Maremma Tuscany Italy

 

Be forewarned that at the entrance to the cathedral - the impressive marble surround main doors are usually kept locked - you will experience a "hard sell" on buying something before you enter it. The first room is given over to a shop and the attendant will inform you that the cathedral upkeep is supported by the shop's sales and, rather, pressingly, direct you to the books in your language and the merchandise.

After I had visited Sovana my Italian neighbour asked if I had entered the cathedral because when she had visited she didn't: she and her family had thought that the entrance was just to the shop and that the cathedral was closed. Now that is interesting, because I also saw two Italian couples get as the entrance, pop their heads in, and immediately turn around without going inside.

I wonder how many others have done the same? But not much stops me exploring, so I did venture inside. Entrance is free by the way.

Domenico Maneti The Holy Trinity, Sovana Cathedral Maremma Tuscany Italy
The Domenico Maneti canvas of The Holy Trinity

 

The Church of San Mamiliano and its treasure

The "Chiesa di San Mamiliano" - the church of San Mamiliano - is now a ruin (just its walls remaining), with a room facing Piazza del Pretorio that has been restored to house the treasure found under its alter.

It was Sovana's first cathedral and one of its earliest buildings. Built upon the site of the first Christian temple using the walls of a preceding Roman temple, the foundations of which in turn rest upon an Etruscan structure in tufa rock. In the seventeenth century the arched Palais Bourbon del Monte was built between and attached to both the churches of San Mamiliano and Santa Maria, resulting in the bell tower of the first being incorporated within its walls and the entrance door of the later being moved from opposite the altar to the side of the building.

The cathedral was the original resting ground from the mid-fifteenth century in Sovana of the relics of Saint Mamiliano until they were move to the new "duomo".

The treasure of Monte Cristo?

Legend and documentary evidence have told for centuries of the "treasure of Monte Cristo" hidden within the walls of the Monastery of San Mamiliano on the island. Many searched to no avail and such was the interest in this apparent hoard of gold that in the sixteenth century, whilst the coastline of Maremma was under frequent and devastating raids from Barbary pirates, the then Prince of Piombino and Grand Duke of Tuscany forbid further investigations so as not to attract further attention.

Modern day researchers and archaeologists continued the treasure hunt...

Then in 2004, under the altar of the ruin, 498 solid gold coins in mint condition were discovered. But not on the island. In the church of San Mamiliano in Sovana. So the legend had been true, but for sixteen centuries the location had been wrong? Or had it? Perhaps the treasure, whether you believe it to be the considerable wealth that Bishop Mamiliano had accumulated on the island or the loot of years of pirate raids, had been transferred with his body. But if that is so, by whom? And, if so, who continues to add to their mass for fourteen years after his death, for the gold coins were coined between the years of 457 and 474 under the Roman Emperors "Leone" and Antonio" - Leo I of Byzantium and Procopius Anthemius.

So, a mystery still remains. And I like that :)

The entrance fee to the mini museum is Euros 4,00.

Opening times:

August - September: 10:00 - 13:00 and 15:00 - 19:00
October 8 - November 4: 10:00 - 13:00 and 15:00 - 18:00
November weekends: 10:00 - 13:00 and 14:00 - 17:00
December 26 - January 6: 10:00 - 13:00 and 14:00 - 17:00

Closed Wednesday, except during the month of August or national holiday days.

If the idea of gold treasure captures your imagination then you should know that the church of San Mamiliano in Sovana isn't the only medieval church in Maremma in which a gold treasure has been found within its ruins... Il tesoro di Scarlino.

Gold treasure coins: lost gold treasures. Il Tesoro di Scarlino - the treasure of Scarlino

 

The fortress Rocca Aldobrandesca

Sovana Rocca Aldobrandesca Maremma Tuscany Italy

Now a partly dismantled ruin, Sovana's eleventh century fortress defended what was once the only entrance to the city, the "Porta della Rocca". This eastern aspect of the city was the most vulnerable of the cities defences and so, once you had gained access through the outer gates and crossed the forts inner courtyard, you would still have had to traverse the inner ravine that separated the fort from the city via its drawbridge.

Restored and enlarged during 12th, 14th and 16th centuries, including the addition of curtain walls, it was then abandoned and partly dismantled in the 17th century as defence against its potential use by ...

You won't be surprised to learn that, as with the other ancient buildings in Sovana, its foundations lie upon both previous Roman and Etruscan fortifications .

Whilst you can stroll around its perimeter, the inside of the Aldobrandesca fortress isn't open to the public.

 

Parking

You can't miss the signs for the village car park which is centrally located just a few feet behind the main Piazza del Pretorio.

It is a pay and display car park (every day, including national holidays and weekends), but before 08:00, between the hours of 13:00 and 15:00, and after 20:00 it is free.

TIP
The ticket machine clicks any excess morning payment over to the afternoon, which means if you arrive just before lunch and pop in a Euro or thereabouts you will be covered for all the time in the world you need to explore the village and decide where you might want to eat, have a lazy lunch and then explore some more.

 

Refreshments

Well, I drank the most expensive cafe I have had in Maremma for in ages long time here.

Having eaten my lunch sat at one of the outside tables of the bar in Piazza del Pretorio, I went inside and ordered a cafe which I carried to my table and well, just be aware that although it is normal practice in many Italian cities especially tourist ones to pay substantially extra for a cafe or drink if you sit at a table rather than consume it stood at the bar, in maremma it is a rarity er to be charged extra. but not in Sovana. Although my panino cost no more for me to eat at the table than it would have done to take away, my after lunch cafe did.

Whereas 10 kilometres along the road in enchanting Sorano, a piping hot cappuccino and pastry stuffed with chooclate cost me nothing extra to consume sat on a terrace table in the main piazza... (total Euro 1,90).

And, if you are tempted by the Enoteca sign that reads along the lines of... "why settle for a panino when you could eat a plate of sliced cold meats, cheese all with a bell bicchiera (lovely) glass of wine sat at an outside table" as I was, so I asked the owner what the price was as there was none on the blackboard under the message it will cost you:

Euros 13,50 for the sliced salami etc
Euros 3,50 for a piece of cheese, and
Euros 3,50 for that glass of wine...

all in all an expensive light lunch, especially when the local osteria was offering a wide choice of antipasti and primi piatti - one of each - with either a quarter of wine or a half litre of water for Euros 10,00 (table in the street or indoors). That's why a panino!

Take your pick. As for me, next time I'll be taking a picnic from one of the local "merende" (snack) produce stops or eating in Sorano.

 

Toilets

OK, I don't normally do this and I don't want my page to become infamous for its toilet review, but to all the mums out there with young children, one of the nicest (and clean) public toilet I have ever used on my travels in Maremma is in the centre of Sovana. It has toilet roll and, heavens forbid in an Italian loo, soap too (the nice stuff you would buy for home)! They look more like a posh hotel facility than a public one, which leads me to suspect that the during the summer season the vacant little "kiosk" area within the entrance is probably manned and perhaps it is a fee paying or museum ticket holders only facility?

Sovana Visitor Centre toilets

There's also an internal seating area in which dads/partners can wait and hold onto the bags etc...

There is a disabled toilet but, unfortunately, the entrance steps make it impossible to gain access in a wheelchair without help. But, perhaps again, in the summer there is a ramp?

I even took a pic because I was so impressed!

 

You can find them in the Polo Museale Sovana Centro Servizi Visitors Centre: the doorway to the right in the centre of this photo just south from the main central square and next door to the osteria.

Polo Museale Sovana Centro Servizi Visitors Centre, Maremma Tuscany Italy

 

Places to stay

Sovana Hotel and Resort, Maremma Tuscany Italy

A I said, even though Sovana is a small place, there are many places in which to stay the night or longer. The best rated accommodation in the hamlet itself is the small (eighteen rooms) four star Sovana Hotel and Resort in Via del Duomo with its own lawned garden with views of the cathedral, a maze for children and double en-suite rooms.

 

The Etruscan tombs and Vie Cave

Sovana Vie Cave: Via Cava di Poggio Prisca

The Via Cava di Poggio Prisca

Sovana Etruscan tomb Ildebranda

The pillared Etruscan Ildebranda tomb

The "Parco Archeologico Citta del Tufo" encompasses sites around Sovana, Sorano and Vitozza. The entrance to the Sovana part of the park and the Etruscan Vie Cave and tombs can be found just north of the Calesine stream a couple of kilometres along the road that heads east out of Sovana to San Martino sul Fiore, Saturnia and Semproniano. You can't miss it, as the wooden office is only a few feet from the road and the parking is well sign-posted.

NOTE: It is between this site and the town that you will drive through that tufa tunnel I mentioned. :)

If you are thinking of visiting the main tombs, be aware that the entrance gate (within the woodlands inside the park and after the ticket office) closes at 17:30. The rest of the park isn't enclosed or locked, but if you want to see the tomb for which Sovana is most famous then you need to be there before 5.30pm.

Find out more: the Etruscan tombs at Sovana. And walk the Vie Cave with me!

 

Explore some more...

  • Visit Sorano and Pitigliano

 

 

 

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