The city of Orvieto soars high and proud on its tufa plateau, surrounded by the evocative atmosphere of its ancient history. The rock has housed a flourishing Villanovian community since the IX century and in the VII century was chosen by the Etruscans as an important meeting point for the construction of the important Velzna, capital of the Etruscan Cities and Fanum Voltumnae, the sacred and administrative centre for the Etruscan population. The last city to fall under attack of the Romans, which they called Volsini or Urbevetus (Old town) and today Orvieto and during this time the inhabitants were deported to a place “protected less by nature” , probably Bolsena. It reached the peak of its power again in the middleages. In 1371 it lost its independence and fell under the control of the Papal State. Numerous Popes in exile have lived on the natural fortress. Today, the centre of Orvieto presents itself in its elegant renaissance style, while the little lanes lead to houses and streets which in many cases have remained intact since the Middle Ages. Tunnels, caves and wells of the underground city tell their story, life, ingenuity and secrets of our ancestors. Orvieto is waiting for you for a holiday immersed in the wonders of art.
A jewel of priceless beauty and an exquisite example of Gothic-Romanesque style. The Duomo with its shining mosaics stands out, impressive, on the city’s urban skyline. Construction was thanks to Bishop Monaldeschi who in 1290 understood the people of Orvieto’s desire to have a new cathedral. All the citizens, as well as people from all over Europe, donated money towards the building work and in only 18 years the frame work from the foundations to the roof was completed. Luca Signorelli’s frescoes are in the San Brizio Chapel with stories of the Last Judgment and a goldsmith’s masterpiece holds the ‘miracle of Corpus Domini’ in the Corporal Chapel. Ippolito Scalzo’s sculpture, “Pietà” is among the many works of art that enrich the Duomo.
SAN PATRICK’S WELL
This amazing, ingenious miracle was designed by San Gallo the younger in 1526, commissioned by Pope Clement VII who sought refuge in Orvieto at this time following the sack of Rome. He was therefore interested in securing a water supply for the city in the event of a siege. Two independent spiral staircases (surprisingly similar in structure to DNA) of 248 steps go down for 62 metres into the ground lit by 70 windows and connected at the bottom by a bridge.
BEL VEDERE ETRUSCAN TEMPLE
You can see the remains of an Etruscan Temple in a dominant position along Viale Carducci, a sacred building reflecting the canonical description of Etruscan-Italian temples made by Vitruvio in his De Architectura essay. It dates back to V century B.C and it is believed that it was dedicated to Tinia, the equivalent of the god Jupiter, for the Etruscans. Many architectonic terra-cotta decorations which once adorned the temple are now kept in the Faina Museum.
CROCIFISSO DEL TUFO NECROPOLIS
The necropolis dates back to the 6th century BC and its main characteristic is the regularity of its street grid. The chamber-tombs were built along straight roads following an orthogonal layout and are grouped in blocks that resemble the urban residential quarters, and so the City of the Dead provides valuable elements in understanding what the City of the Living could have been like. Large quantities of ceramic and bronze items, both locally produced and imported were found in the graves. Important findings from 19th century excavations are now scattered among various museums abroad, but those discovered during more recent excavations are kept and exhibited in the Claudio Faina Museum and in the National Archaeological Museum in Orvieto.
THE TORRE DEL MORO
Initially called the Pope Tower, it probably got its current name because ‘a dark skinned puppet or Moro’ used to hang from the tower for the Saracen Joust event, an ancient game dating back to the middle ages. Today the tower stands in the heart of the city, majestically marking the centre point of the four city quarters. You can enjoy a breathtaking 360 degree view of the city from the 50 metre high terrace. A famous verse from Dante’s Devine Comedy is written on a plaque at the corner of Via della Costituente, hinting at the bloody fights between the rival families of the Monaldeschi and the Filippeschi dating back to when Orvieto was a Medieval municipality.
THE MAURIZIO TOWER
You can’t miss it, next to the Duomo, this tower was originally the oldest tower with a sundial in Italy. Today there is a construction site clock, which used to mark the start and end of daily shifts during the construction of the Duomo, and in order to preserve it we are not allowed to go up. The bell tower is made up of a bronze statue that has chimed the hour since 1348. and locally the little statue of a man is associated with the name Maurizo which has in turn been given to the tower itself.
PIAZZA DEL POPOLO AND PALAZZO DEL CAPITANO DEL POPOLO
Piazza del Popolo was originally designed to accommodate the Palace and the Captain of the People. The building was built on a pre-existing papal palace in 1157. Here, swearing in and submission ceremonies took place for castles and cities in power. In 1375 The council of Orvieto was ruled by the Church. An example of Roman-Gothic art can be seen in splendid elements such as the imposing staircase, the elegant three light windows, the evocative merlongs in convolute ghibellinian style and the bizarre tower. It is currently a conference centre the Room of the 400 continuously hosts important events. On the lower ground floor there is a small archaeological site with the remains of a V century B.C temple, and a medieval aqueduct and water reservoir.
CHURCH OF SAN GIOVENALE
Built in 1004 on the remains of a Paleo-Christian church and dedicated to Saint Juvenal, which was built on a previous Etruscan Temple dedicated to Jupiter. It was built using donations from the seven richest and most noble families of the city. The Majesty is kept here (15th Century), generally known as our Lady of Rescue, donated by the Ghezzi family and was found hidden under a silver plaque in the 20th Century.According to tradition, it was Orvieto’s first Duomo. Here there are frescoes from the school of Orvieto of 1200 and a rich and interesting collection of medieval painting. Situated on the western side of the rock, you will enjoy a spectacular view of the valley of the River Paglia.
CHURCH OF SAINT ANDREW AND BARTHOLOMEW
The church dominates Piazza della Repubblica (Republic Square) and was built on the ruins of the oldest Paleo-christian church, which was at the time built on a sacred area for the Etruscans and Romans. In the underground chambers there are some impressive excavations where you can observe the archaeological traces of the different stages in history from the Villanovian to Medieval periods.
CHURCH OF SAINT DOMENICO
One of the first churches built by the Domenican Order in Italy. Here you can see the desk from which Saint Thomas gave his theology lectures during his time in Orvieto between 1263 and 1264, he was asked by the Pope to write for the Corpus Domini Office. The tomb of Cardinal de Brey by Arnolfo di Cambio is decorated with a figure of the Madonna, a roman statue of the second century.
CHURCH OF SAINT FRANCIS
Founded in 1240, on the highest point of the city, it contains a pianting by Pietro Puccio, depicting the different moments of Saint Matthew’s life, an early example of comics in history of art, and can be seen upon request by asking the church warden.
CHURCH OF SAN LORENZO DI’ ARARI
The austere building in Romanesque style is believed to have been built around the year 1000. Precious frescoes decorate the interior that mostly represent the life of Saint Lawrence. The name comes from the fact that the altar was carved from a circular Etruscan altar (Ara) . The Templar symbols inside and on the outside of the church are particularly interesting.
POZZO DELLA CAVA
A huge hole in the tufa rock, 36 metres deep, dug by the Etruscans to draw spring water. Pope Clement VII enlarged it around 1527 and it was closed to the public in 1646, when following a fight, five French officers were thrown into it. Every year the owner prepares an impressive and evocative nativity scene with life sized statues and ornaments made with artisan materials. The nativity scene winds through the caves and tunnels representing scenes of daily life in Jesus’ time.
You will be amazed to discover that in Orvieto there are as many caves underground as there are buildings on the surface. A true and real underground city. Our ancestors kept olive oil presses and ovens in the tufa rock, dug wells and pigeon holes, and quarried material to build houses and create passage ways between important buildings to be able to move among the centers of power without running any risks or being seen. It was possible to move underground as well as enter and leave the city safely and in secret. Obviously they thought of everything to prevent the city from collapsing under the weight of the city on top and so they had regulations and frequently installed pillars of tufa which in all effects support the weight of the built up area above.
NATIONAL ARCHAELOGICAL MUSEUM
The complex of Papal Palaces that stand next to the Duomo include several different buildings constructed between 977 and 1296. In particular Palazzo Soliano, the home to the National Archaelogical Museum and here many important items are kept which were found in the Cannicella, Fontana del Leone, Settecamini and Crocifisso del Tufo Necropoli. You can also see a rare sarcophagus and two famous chamber tombs, discovered in 1863 by Domenico Golini.
The building, a gift to the city from Count Claudio Faina is today home to the Civic and Archaelogical Museum and findings from the holy site of Cannicella such as the Venus of Cannicella, Gold and bronze funeral objects from various necropolis of the city, a rich collection of coins, a precious collection of bucchero vases and friezes that decorated the Temple of Belvedere.
The Mancinelli Theatre, situated along Corso Cavour is majestic and elegant. It is an example of Resurgence Italy and was built at the behest of the local people who formed a Theatre Consortium for its construction. They gave it to the town in 1866 and it was named after Luigi Mancinelli, a distinguished composer and conductor of the Orvieto Orchestra.
It is one of the most important Italian theaters of the 1800s and is appreciated for its particular elegance and for its exceptional acoustic quality. The richness of the decorations in the foyer, the four tiers of finely decorated balconies, the marvellous Danza dell Ore on the ceiling and the Three Muses on the harmonic arch each with her respective symbols, the elegant foyer with grotesque decorations that remind us of the classical and renaissance world, and the luminous gallery. The famous and historical front curtain depicting Belisarious freeing the city from the siege of the Goths is a work of art by Cesare Fracassini.
The Theatre Café is on the terrace of the portico, where it is very pleasant to browse books and newspapers that the local library puts at your disposal.
AND MUCH MORE…
The Albornoz Fortress The walk round the perimeter of the rock of Orvieto, numerous other buildings, churches and monuments make it seem like you can never know enough about the little gem of a city, Orvieto.