Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry 2003 


Aeons ago, magnificent powers of eruption and erosion shaped the landscape of central Italy. Thus, Umbria and Tuscany are now studded with characteristic tufa hills, high strategic blocks, which, for as long as humans have thought about such things, have been regarded as "easily defensible," good places to build forts, castles and walled towns. Indeed, Orvieto, north of Rome, shortly after you cross into Umbria from Lazio, and just off the main A1 autostrada, is one of the best examples in Italy of the so-called "Medieval fortress town". Yet, Orvieto has been holding the high ground for quite a while longer than the mere Middle Ages. It is an excellent place to review almost three-thousand years of Italian history.

The Well of St. Patrick             

As an important center of population, Orvieto was founded by the Etruscans in the 7th century, B.C. The Etruscans are an enigma to us even today. They are among the best-known pre-Roman peoples in Italy, but the inscriptions on the considerable archaeological  remains that they left behind still stubbornly resist decoding, and, thus, we know relatively little about them. They were a formidable power, a federation more than a unified kingdom, that carried on commerce —and war— with Carthage and Greece. They eventually lost their last bid for historical permanence at the battle of Cuma against the Greeks five centuries before Christ. Orvieto was one of their principal cities, although its exact role in the federation is unknown. As a seat of lingering Etruscan power, Orvieto was destroyed by the Romans in 263 B.C. There are, today, however, still  Etruscan archaeological sites to be seen in Orvieto, including the impressive "Tufa Crucifix" necropolis on the outskirts. Also, the Palazzo Faina in the town houses a museum of Etruscan artifacts.

Under the Romans, Orvieto was not particularly important, although in the late days of the Empire (around 300 A.D.), it once again became a focus of agricultural and commercial activities, due to the existence of the large Roman river port of Pagliano at the nearby confluence of the Tiber and Paglia rivers. When Huns and Goths from the north swept over the Roman empire, Orvieto again became a good place to be —or at least hole up in. It was high and could be easily fortified. It became a relatively stable center of Longobard power until the turn of the millennium, at which point the Medieval town, as we know it, started to take shape.

The appearance of the present-day town of Orvieto owes much to building that went on during the Middle Ages. Many of the streets are fortunately too narrow for modern traffic although there are those who insist on giving it a try anyway. Among all the towers and churches from another age, surely the most spectacular structure is the Cathedral. The flagstone was laid in Nov. 1290 by Pope Nicholas IV. Construction lasted almost three centuries with the style evolving from Romanesque to Gothic as construction progressed. The Gothic facade is one of the great masterpieces of the Late Middle Ages, with an incredible welter of bas-reliefs, bronze and marble statues, and mosaic. Great masters have continued to add here and adorn there over the centuries, such that, considering the constant restoration going on, maybe  it will never truly be "finished". The Pope intended the cathedral to be a suitable home for the Corporal of Bolsena, the relic of a miracle which allegedly occurred in 1263 in the nearby town of Bolsena. A priest found that his Host (the wafer used in Holy Communion) was bleeding so much that it stained the altar cloth. The cloth is now stored within the cathedral.

In the Middle Ages, Orvieto, like most of central Italy was a bone of contention between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, supporters, respectively, of Papal authority and aristocratic Imperial power. The Church won out and Orvieto was under the dominion of the Papal State for centuries.
                                                                                                                                    photo by Neal Perrine

In spite of the remarkable artistic and architectural activity during the Renaissance in Orvieto, perhaps the most singular work is the so-called "Well of St. Patrick" (top photo, above). When Pope Clement VII took refuge in Orvieto after the sack of Rome in 1527, he had a deep well built in order to protect the town's water supply in case of a siege. It was a design of  architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, finished in 1543. It can still be visited today. It is 61 meters deep and almost 13 meters in diameter. Entrance and exit are by an ingenious double helix —two parallel, non-communicating spiral staircases— each one with 248 steps. You go down one way and come up another, looking out one of the 70 windows lining the shaft and seeing people right across from you who are on the other stairway!

Today, the district of Orvieto comprises not only the town, itself, but a dozen smaller nearby communities such as Baschi, Castelgiorgio, Fabro and Montecchio. They all sport castles and towers, some of them in ruins but others in amazingly good restored condition. Taken together, Orvieto and its tiny neighbors provide almost year-round folk and handicraft festivals, and any single one of them can be a glimpse beyond the quaint, back to one of the most fragmented, violent and fascinating periods in our history.

                     Ancient World portal                                             to top of this page

© 2002 - 2023