Orvieto: the “narrante” city

This is an excerpt from the book “Umbria

Pozzo di San Patrizio
Pozzo di San Patrizio – Photo © Michele Torbioli – proprietà Regione Umbria

The city of Orvieto exists in symbiosis with the tuff cliff on which it stands, an extraordinary example of the integration of nature by the work of man.

An example of the fact that our ancestors were aware of this relationship between architecture and nature is the inscription on the famous well of San Patrizio which reads: quod natura munimento inviderat industria adiecit (What nature denied for defence – in this case water – was added by the work of man).

Visiting this town means journeying through history, for traces of each and every period of the almost three thousand years of its existence crop up everywhere in this preconstituted physical entity.

The two statues of Boniface Vlll set in the city gates at the opposite ends of the town suggest an ideal itinerary for the tourist of today, for the Pope entered the town through the Porta Soliana, known later, after the “Rocca” or Fortezza dell’Albornoz was built, as Porta Rocca, and he left through the Porta Maggiore.

Boniface Vlll was anything but a tourist and had even been Capitano del Popolo in Orvieto, yet somehow these two statues, which earned him no less than a charge of idolatry, can serve as symbols both of the attention the city of Orvieto so truly merits, and the traditional hospitality of its inhabitants.

Nowadays one no longer has to reach the top of the cliff on a mule, for a modern system of “alternative mobility” provides an access to the town that is both easy to use and fascinating with the funicular (run by water in the nineteenth century and now completely modernised) at one end and a lift and an escalator are at the other, signs that the old historical center, built on a human scale, has been returned to citizens and tourists alike and is once more the realm of the pedestrian.


Orvieto: the etruscan city

Orvieto played a leading role in the Etruscan confederation from the sixth to the middle of the third century B.C. when it fell victim to the inexorable advance of Roman power.

Orvieto was the seat of Fanum Voltumnae, the most important shrine of the Etruscan federation, and various elements are still extant which tell us something about the structure of the ancient city, whose name seems to have been Velzna.

What remains of the Temple of Belvedere, near the well of San Patrizio, comes closer than any other to the canonic Tuscan temple as described by Vitruvius.

The podium of another building has recently come to light under the Palazzo del Popolo. It is comprised of large blocks of tuff and was probably of a religious nature. The base of the altar in the church of S Lorenzo was once a circular Etruscan altar. The Pozzo della Cava, an ingenious well, is the work of Etruscan engineers.

The most important collections of Etruscan finds from the city as well as the surrounding territory are on view in the museums.

Of particular interest are the architectural temple terracotta’s The Sanctuary of Cannicella (excavation is still in progress) and the Necropolis of Crocefisso del Tufo, both at the base of the cliff of Orvieto, complete our picture of the last of the Etruscan cities to be destroyed by the Romans.

Duomo di Orvieto
Duomo di Orvieto – Photo © Michele Tortioli – proprietà Regione Umbria

Orvieto: the medieval city

In the early Middle Ages the rock of Orvieto was once more seen as an ideal natural bulwark and the new urban center took shape around the year thousand. It reached its zenith in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and its unique urban layout is still to all extents what it was then.

The most representative public buildings – the Town Hall or Palazzo Comunale, the Palazzo del Popolo, the Duomo or Cathedral, and the Palazzo dei Sette rose side by side with the older churches such as San Giovenale, Sant’Andrea, – and the convents of San Domenico, San Francesco, Sant’Agostino and Santa Maria dei Servi, the complex of the Papal Palace – and the private palaces and tower houses of the aristocracy.

The medieval city-state, with Orvieto at the center of an extensive territory, achieved its highest civic and political expression in the free commune: the Guilds and Trades developed, providing the population with a wealth of finely made objects, while life in the city continued on its busy way, through periods of peace and turmoil, with the passing of time marked by the strokes of the Clock of Maurizio, the first automaton of its kind to regulate the working hours.

Orvieto Panorama
Orvieto Panorama – Photo © Michele Tortioli – proprietà Regione Umbria

Orvieto: the modern city

Doomsday or the End of the World which Signorelli frescoed in the Chapel of San Brizio in the Cathedral between 1499 and 1503 marked the end of an epoch, the end of the Middle Ages, and the beginning of the modern age.

The fact that one of the figures in the scene of the Anti-Christ has been identified as Christopher Columbus is highly indicative.

Throughout the sixteenth century the city was renewed and the medieval fabric integrated with new palaces and churches designed by famous architects including Michele Sammicheli, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Simone Mosca, and Raffaello da Montelupo.

The dominant figure in the second half of the century was Ippolito Scalza, a native son, who, more than anyone else, helped transform the aspect of the city.

The nineteenth century also witnessed a similar renewal of the city with the qualified contributions of architects such as Giuseppe Valadier and Virginio Vespignani, who added both public and private structures in the neoclassic style.

The classic facades and elegant buildings from different periods to be discovered as one strolls along narrow streets which still mirror their original medieval layout hint at the history of a city which, despite continuous modification, has lost none of its charm of old.

Artificial cavities Orvieto   Artificial cavities Orvieto
Artificial cavities

Orvieto: the underground city

The cliff on which the city of Orvieto stands is riddled with an unbelievable number of artificial cavities – an intricate labyrinth of tunnels, galleries, cisterns, wells, quarries and cellars. It is in the bowels of the city that the memory of the succession of inhabitants who once lived on top of the “Rock” still lingers on.

A guided visit, that winds its way easily through the caves, enables the tourist to fully appreciate this unique underground world. It is in a sense a journey in a timeless dimension, which narrates the story. of the geology of the rock and the specific aspects of Orvieto’s history: the colombari, the pozzolana quarries, the underground oil-press.

The solution to the problems inherent in settling on the Rock have always been sought for underground: the search for water and the preservation of food. The micro climate to be found in the caves made it possible to preserve both solid and liquid provisions, including wine. The fact that one of the names by which Orvieto was known in antiquity was Oinarea, “where wine flows”, gives us an idea of the great importance of wine at the time, and still today “Orvieto” is a wine well-known to connoisseurs throughout the world.

Where to stay in Orvieto

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