Massa Marittima is perched on a hill a few kilometres from the Maremma coast, in Tuscany, central Italy. We visited in early summer when tourists are scarce, the temperature ideal and the atmosphere relaxed and welcoming.
Leaving the car just outside the city centre, it’s a short, steep walk into the main square Piazza del Duomo. This is a fabulous example of Medieval architecture. With picturesque corners, ancient buildings and stunning views, it might be less popular than other more famous towns in Tuscany, but it’s no less impressive.
Massa Marittima, Italy – The majestic main square
The Cathedral dominates Massa Marittima’s main square from the top of a stone staircase. The bright marble illuminates the piazza, which is flanked by some beautifully preserved Medieval buildings. The Palazzo dei Podestà, adorned with coats of arms by the different ruling podestà, hosts a small archeological museum, with some Etruscan artefacts. Here you can learn a bit about the pre-history of this area.
You’ll notice the Palazzo Comunale, which is made up of two Medieval house towers. The central part that unites the two towers is in pure Gothic style, and you can clearly see how it joins the two towers together.
⇒ This is a common feature in Tuscany. When the defensive function of the tower houses was no longer necessary, the edifices changed with the trend and became palaces. This is how the tower houses eventually disappeared. Some original tower houses in Tuscany are still in their original form however, the most famous ones are in San Gimignano, nicknamed “the Manhattan of the Middle Ages”.
The extraordinary Cathedral dedicated to Saint Cerbonius
The Cathedral is the artistic gem of Massa Marittima. The lowest most ancient part, is Romanesque, while the upper part of the facade with the three spires shows influences of the Sienese Gothic.
The elegant structure and the fine decorations make it a very evocative sight. Take time to enjoy the details of the decorations, and you’ll see that the lions that guard the main portal play a meaningful role: protecting the faith (represented by the cub and the calf) and serving as a menacing warning against the enemy of Christianity.
⇒ Massa Marittima Cathedral is among the Best Romanesque Churches in Tuscany.
The church is dedicated to a very special character, Saint Cerbonius, who was Bishop in the VI century. The story goes that the Pope himself, Gregory I, was so taken by him that he got to his feet when he received him during his visit.
You can see his story told in stone in the ark behind the Cathedral’s main altar. Cerbonius’ symbol is a goose, as a gaggle of them diligently followed him to Rome as he was travelling to pay his homage to the Pope. In the main portal you also find scenes depicting the story of the saint, and his travels by sea to Rome, where the geese were offered to the Pope as a gift.
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A walk around Massa Marittima reveals many surprises
TREE OF FERTILITY
A few steps behind the church you’ll find the most curious feature of the town, the Fertility Tree fresco. Dating back to the 13th century, it was only rediscovered in 2000, and depicts a group of women in Medieval guise around a huge tree that has human penises dangling from its branches. A woman is trying to reach one with a pole, others are arguing, while black birds are flying over the scene.
Art critics don’t agree on one single interpretation of the fresco. Some think it’s an allegory of fertility, as this was the public fountain bringing life-giving water to the town. Others see it as a political manifesto by the Pope-following Guelphs against the Ghibellini (followers of the emperor) who, the Guelphs thought, would have spread heresy and sexual perversity if they rose to power.
CHURCH OF SANT’AGOSTINO
The Church of Sant’Agostino, set in the high part of town, also deserves a visit. It’s a Gothic structure with a simple bare facade, a single nave and some baroque paintings. We particularly loved the 15th century cloister, a peaceful space with a suggestive atmosphere.
THE VIEW FROM THE SIENESE FORTRESS
If you walk up the steep street to the Sienese fortress you’re in for a treat. One of the original gates and the western wall still stand. But the reason to venture up here is the view. From here you can see the coast and Elba island, so head there for the best photo ever. The tower was a symbol of the town’s independence and when Siena finally took over, they reduced its height and linked it to the newly built fortress.
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The narrow streets of Massa Marittima constantly surprise you, with lovely shops selling jewellery and ceramics, little enoteche and relaxing open air tables. Vicolo Ciambellano is where you’ll find – what they claim – is the smallest taverna in Italy.
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