My shoulders drifted forward slightly then slammed back into the padded bus seat as our forward momentum temporarily slowed and the driver slipped the bus into gear. We were crawling up a steep, winding road towards the fortress city of Orvieto. The road snaked away behind us winding down toward the open valley and the green fields below.
The road was relatively new. For hundreds of years the city had remained largely impregnable and isolated. Aloof on a mostly flat butte, it was encircled entirely by sheer cliffs. The city was a castle but in place of large stone walls that crawled towards the heavens, Orvieto’s were sheer stone and crumbling boulders which plunged down and into the region’s strong bedrock. Craning my neck and pressing my face against the glass, I fought to look up at the city as we traced our way up and through the city’s gates.
As a testament to the power, defensible nature, and storied history of Orvieto, the town’s residents hadn’t been content to simply let nature’s fortress stand as-it-was. Instead a series of impressive walls were added to the tops of the cliffs further securing the city’s perimeter. This provides a stable series of walkways and viewing platforms for defenders, residents, and visitors alike to traverse in search of one of the many amazing views the city offers.
Orvieto with its battlements and wonderful winding streets has a vibrant history which dates back at least to Etruscan times. While the specifics of history are somewhat murky, it is likely that the city dates back to the 8th century BC and stood as a long-lasting thorn in the side of early Roman dreams of expansion and control. With its proximity to Rome and its position on the road between Rome and Florence, it likely served as a cornerstone of Etruscan defense during the early Roman/Etruscan wars. Most modern evidence suggests that the city was the Etruscan town of Velzna which played a fundamental role in shaping, trading with, and threatening early Rome. However, as with most things Roman, persistence and resilience eventually won out and what we know as Orvieto was incorporated into the growing Roman Empire around 250 BC when the city was conquered and razed to the ground.
Once incorporated into Rome the history books go relatively silent about Orvieto’s role, though the location was considered as an alternative to Rome during some of the early Republic’s more flavorful disasters. Nearly 1,000 years later Orvieto would crash back into history when it was occupied by the Goths. By 600 AD however things started to look up once again for the city as it grew and began to attract wealth. By the early 1100s the city-state had been heavily reinforced by the now wealthy nobles who quickly sought to curry favor with the Pope. In the imperial/papal wars the city fell decidedly on the side of the Guelphs or papal faction and was involved in heavy fighting. This close relationship eventually resulted in the construction of the main cathedral and papal palace. It eventually served as the papal seat in the late 1200s. This continued in various forms until 1860 when the then Italian Kingdom annexed the city state into what would later become the Italian Republic.
While this turbulent and violent history was no doubt horrible to live through, it did a lot to shape the city we get to enjoy today. One of Orvieto’s most fascinating and unusual features dates back to the papal rule of Popes Clement VII and Paul III between 1527 and 1537. While taking refuge in the city during the sack of Rome in 1527 Clement decided to build a massive well to ensure the security of the town’s water supply while under siege. The result? The Pozzi di San Patrizio, a 10-year project that dug a 175 foot deep well through the butte’s solid rock. At its bottom, the well’s diameter is 43 feet and it has 248 steps in addition to intertwined stairwells (one to go up, one to go down).
As I slowly made my way down the 248 steps which were worn by the passage of tens of thousands of feet over the years I found myself acutely aware that I’d have to re-trace each and every one of those steps on my ascent. Keep in mind that while 175 feet doesn’t sound like THAT large a distance, it’s actually the equivalent of a 17-story building. For perspective, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is only 186 feet tall. The well, with its two wrapped staircases and series of windows in many ways feels like an inverted tower except the walls are symmetrical and straight.
The entire experience, especially as I neared the bottom and looked back up towards the tiny pinhole of light at the surface, was fantastic and humbling.
In addition to Pozzo di S. Patrizio, one of my favorite parts of Orvieto was, well, Oriveto. The city is a warren of winding narrow streets and beautiful alleyways. While the city walls and the sheer cliff faces that supported them were ample defense in most cases, the city’s rulers decided not to take any risks. The result is a series of winding streets which while somewhat confusing also do a brilliant job of adding charm and character to the town.
Character which the city’s residents seem to accidenttly complement brilliantly. While I did observe some young people, the majority of the Orvietians I saw around the city were older folks. In typical Italian form they were dressed sharply despite the rain. Some were just out for a casual stroll, others running errands. The result, though, was a city full of people who seemed to reflect and embody the beauty, history, depth and charisma of their city.
It’s hard to express why specifically but with each of these individuals I felt a slight sense of sadness at the lack of opportunity to pause and explore a piece of their story. To the slight vexation of our guide I found myself continually falling behind to pause and snap a furtive photo before lowering my camera to my side as I paused and soaked in the personality of the city and its wonderful people.
However, of all the streets and people I saw in my time in Orvieto, and perhaps Umbria as a whole, the one that truly stole my heart and made me smile most was this wonderful couple. As they slowly made their way up the street, the older gentleman with a cane in hand and his partner’s arm in the other, took slow but careful steps. Showing the wear of age, it was obvious that each step took him some effort. As they walked slowly both would sway side to side mirroring his steps. What caught me in particular was the rhythm they seemed to naturally fall into. With each step they would seamlessly and effortlessly sway one way and then the other. I couldn’t help but muse that this must be a regular ritual, one that they had repeated for years. They were in sync with each other. Aligned. It was a wonderful moment to share, even as an outsider looking in, and one I wouldn’t mind finding myself living some 60 or so years from now.
For me a special part of Italy’s charm is its age. I just adore the well-maintained, oft-repaired but still crumbling, nature of the cities. Perhaps it’s just because I’m from the American West and I have a novel draw to tangible representations of human history. Perhaps, and I should think far more likely, it is adoration based in the fundamental nature of who we are and how we relate to identity, humanity and society. Of the many doorways I passed as I made my way towards Orvieto’s central cathedral, this one caught my attention: reinforced by metal beams, doors ajar and poorly aligned, bricks showing signs of wear and abuse. This is the type of thing I travel for. A small, easily-overlooked piece of a far grander city but one that entices the passerby who pauses to dream; to embrace fanciful musings and to ponder the history of the door. Who were the men and women who built it, who used it, who abandoned it, and who will some day reclaim it. Doors like this one, perhaps more than others, show the vivid fingerprints of history.
Before long I found myself looking up from my camera viewfinder roused from delightful daydreams only to note that the rest of the group was vanishing down a far alley. It was time to leave Orvieto’s winding vibrant streets behind in favor of an intimate look at the city’s crown jewel: Oriveto Cathedral.
Those familiar with Italy may note that the Cathedral mirrors the feel of Siena’s famed Cathedral which was completed in 1263. In many ways the two are siblings. The Duomo di Orvieto was begun in 1290 but it wasn’t officially completed until 1591. Now, how’s that for extended construction delays?
As we slowly explored the fantastic detail of the front facade, I was taken by a wonderful series of carvings depicting the embrace of temptation in the garden of Eden. I am always amazed by the masterful control of fine detail and expansive complexity that marks these types of works. While this picture captures a roughly 1 foot by 1 foot section of the wall, the entire piece towered over our heads at least some 15-20 feet.
The Cathedral features the banded travertine and basalt stripes that make the region’s cathedrals so unique. It always impresses me just how effective the alternating brickwork is in bringing simple, clean, and powerful decoration to what might otherwise be massive but somewhat sterile stone walls.
The colors of the alternating horizontal stones combine with the Cathedral’s plentiful stained glass windows to cast a veritable rainbow of different colors and shapes on the walls of the building.
…and then there is the size. The Orvieto Cathedral is built in a cruciform shape and focuses on a wide open and spacious feel with high, graceful arches and long, narrow windows. The builders knew exactly what they were doing and the end result is you feel small. Very small.
An assortment of additions, add-ons, and refurbishments have been done over the years. Perhaps the most noteworthy of which was the Papal Palace which was built immediately next to, and attached to, the Cathedral. Today the Papal Palace has an equally important, if far less powerful role as home to a small museum.
The highlight of the Cathedral’s interior is the beautifully preserved Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio. Added in the mid-1400s it features vividly colored depictions of doomsday scenes on the walls while Jesus and wise men look down in judgement from the room’s vaulted ceiling. The scenes are by the famous painter Luca Signorelli.
This wall depicts “The Elect in Paradise” and shows Signorelli’s depiction of paradise with friendly angels relaxing and playing music for the assembled souls.
Another depicts the “Preaching of the Antichrist”. Apparently this was designed to highlight the execution of Savonarola, who was executed in Florence in 1498 for heresy. Of the figures depicted it is believed that Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch, Raphael and even Christopher Columbus are all present.
Signorelli’s mastery of the human figure (though at times somewhat awkward…some of the women look like they have breast implants) is fantastic. Particularly in the diverse nature of each individual’s features. I find that far too often art from this period and in this type of setting tends to take on a sameness. Not so with these. Each could easily be broken down into small sub-scenes and be hailed as a masterpiece in and of itself.
Then there are, of course, the brutal depictions of violence being meted out upon the damned. While I’ve always found these depictions fairly distasteful and morbid, they definitely do succeed in making their point. The vomited laser beams are definitely a nice touch.
Nothing says disaster like people trampling each other in fear, right? The depth of focus, varied body positions and musculature in this scene are fantastic and the seemingly 3D codpieces definitely elicited a slight chuckle from my inner five-year-old.
My final stop in the Cathedral was the Chapel of the Corporal which serves as home to the blood-stained corporal from the miracle of Bolsena. In addition to the corporal it also boasts a number of beautiful frescoes from the mid-1300s.
The partial afternoon I had to explore Orvieto was not nearly sufficient. Of the many streets I saw and wandered there were many more I missed. I also missed the opportunity to explore Orvieto’s expansive underground city. The fortress city is the stuff of legends and a wonderful destination for a visit. The view from the fortress walls is engaging and I think you’ll find the city giving flight to your imagination, especially if you catch it on a day when it isn’t clogged with visiting tourists.