Orvieto, Italy

Orvieto and its Cathedral in Umbria, Italy

Orvieto Italy

Orvieto, Italy

Orvieto sits atop an isolated mesa, 1033 ft above sea-level and 640 ft above the surrounding plain, offering unparalleled views of the Umbrian countryside. The town is now completely pedestrianised and can be reached on the east by a funicular railway from the station, or by escalators and a lift elsewhere. The town is very picturesque, particularly now that it is traffic-free, both due to its magnificent position and also the unusually large number of fine 13 C houses and palaces that still exist in its streets.

Orvieto's chief glory is its duomo, the splendid cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was begun before 1285, perhaps by Arnolfo di Cambio, on the site of an older church, and from the 13 C until the 16 C was enriched by the labours of a whole succession of great Italian painters and sculptors. The exterior is covered with black and white marble. The interior is of grey limestone with bands of a dark basaltic stone. The plan consists of a large rectangular nave, with semicircular recesses for altars, opening out of the aisles, north and south. There are two transeptal chapels and a short choir. The most magnificent part of the exterior and, indeed, the finest polychrome monument in existence, is the west façade, built of richly sculptured marble from the designs of Lorenzo Maitani of Sienna, and divided into three gables with intervening pinnacles, closely resembling the front of Sienna cathedral, from which it draws its inspiration. With the splendour of the whole, the beauty of the composition is marvellous, and it may rank as the highest achievement of Italian Gothic. It was begun in 1310, but the upper part was not completed till the 16 C. The mosaics are modern, and the structure has suffered somewhat from 19 C restoration. The four wall-surfaces that flank the three western doorways are decorated with very beautiful sculpture in relief, once ornamented with colour. The subjects are scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and the Last Judgment, with Heaven and Hell.

In the interior on the north, the Cappella del Corporale houses a large silver shrine, resembling in form the cathedral façade, enriched with countless figures in relief and subjects in translucent coloured enamels - one of the most important specimens of early silversmith's work still extant in Italy. It was begun by Ugolino Vieri of Sienna in 1337, and was created to hold the Holy Linen of Bolsena, which, according to the legend, became miraculously stained with blood during the celebration of mass to convince a sceptical priest of the truth of the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is supposed to have happened in 1263, while Urban IV was residing at Orvieto. It was to commemorate this miracle that the existing cathedral was built. On the south side is the chapel of S. Brizio, separated from the nave by a fine 14 C wrought iron screen. The walls and vault of this chapel are covered with some of the best-preserved and finest frescoes in Italy. They are among the noblest works of Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli, mainly painted between 1450 and 1501, the latter being of especial importance in the history of art owing to their great influence on Michaelangelo in his early days. The choir stalls are fine and elaborate specimens of tarsia and rich wood-carving and are the work of Antonio and Pietro della Minella (1431-1441). The cathedral is especially rich in 16 C sculpture, containing as it does many statues, groups and altar-reliefs by Simone Mosca and Ippolito Scalza.

Close by the duomo of Orvieto are two Gothic buildings, the Bishop's Palace (1264) and the Palazzo dei Papi (begun in 1296), the latter with a huge hall now containing the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Orvieto, with various mediaeval works of art, and also objects from the Etruscan necropolis of the ancient Volsinii. The Palazzo Faina has another interesting Etruscan collection. The Palazzo del Comune is Romanesque (12 C), but has been restored. S. Andrea and S. Giovenale are also Romanesque churches of the 11 C, both housing later frescoes. The ruined abbey of S. Severo, one mile south of the town, dates from the 12 C. The church of S. Domenico contains one of the finest works in sculpture by Arnolfo del Cambio. This is the tomb with recumbent effigy of the Cardinal Brago or De Braye (1282), with much beautiful sculpture and mosaic. It is signed Hoc oPVs Fecit Arnvlfvs. It was imitated by Giovanni Pisano in his monument to Pope Benedict XI at Perugia.

Among the later buildings of Orvieto, a few may be noted by Sanmicheli of Verona, who was employed as chief architect of the cathedral from 1509 to 1528. The fortress built in 1364 by Cardinal Albornoz has been converted into a public garden. A well, now disused, called Il pozzo di S. Patrizio, is one of the chief curiosities of Orvieto. It is 200 ft deep to the water-level and 42 ft in diameter, cut in the rock, with a double winding inclined plane, so that asses could ascend and descend to carry the water from the bottom. It was begun by the architect Antonio da San Gallo the younger in 1527 for Clement VII, who fled to Orvieto after the sack of Rome, and was finished by Simone Mosca under Paul III.

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