I arrive in Massa Marittima just after sunset, when the travertine of the buildings lights up in ivory and the sky turns cobalt. The square has carefully calculated its balance of power. Here I witness the meeting of the Cathedral, the Palazzo del Podestà, the Clergy house, the town hall, the market Loggia, the Zecca and the surprising Fonte Pubblica, the town’s public water source. Politics, religion and economics, all united and enclosed in a single, beautiful space: this may be why the square’s design is so difficult to describe.
I try not to let myself be fooled. I know that the right-hand columns of the magnificent cathedral’s façade are stood closer together than their left-hand counterparts. It’s a perspective effect, an architectural mirage, an illusion of sorts. I pretend not to notice. Who would have ever thought to build this travertine church in a slant to the rest of the square? I would love to meet the urban planners that managed to realize this incredible space.
I try and figure out what geometrical shape this square of Massa Marittima’s old town might represent, but with no luck. It has too many sides, too many deviations, too many lines. And the steps are another trick to the eyes: slowly almost rotating upon themselves, they suddenly transform into a wall of stone. This square isn’t a triangle. Nor is it even a polygon, and it isn’t simply irregular as the guidebooks suggest. It looks nothing like anything else in the world. It is a new form of geometry. And it is just wonderful. The church’s contemporaries wanted to dedicate it to Garibaldi. This is the kind of place you never leave.
One can sit for hours on the steps of the church and let imagination run riot. And on two separate Sundays, in May and in August, fantasy does actually become reality: the square fills up with crossbow-wielding balestieri. People from three districts (Cittanuova, Cittavecchia and Borgo) unite, at one perennial rivals and the oldest of friends (discord and agreement as one, as they say in the paese). There are 24 contestants, competing to hit a “corniolo”, a tiny little target at 36 metres distance. A prize of a golden arrow and a small medieval crest go to the winner. The day is known as the Festa del Balestro del Girifalco and commemorates the medieval freedom of the municipality of Massa Marittima.
The cathedral’s front steps directly face the Fonte dell’Abbondanza (in Italian the ‘source of abundance’). The artist must have had the fun of a child when, after 1265 (date of the Fonte’s construction), he drew the back wall of this public source. He depicted a leafy plant that bore the most remarkable fruit: erect phalluses. Nice and ripe. Ready to be picked. Some women in the fresco try and make them fall from the tree, others wait in conversation, two of them fight for a fruit fallen to the ground. Not such puritan and bigoted Middle Ages after all! Massa Marittima, in those years, had achieved municipal autonomy: the Fonte dell’Abbondanza was a public place and very popular. That fruit had been painted to be admired. It seems Massa Marittima is able to baffle even the most distracted of travellers.