Column: Orvieto: Piazzas and Popes

Thirteenth-century Clock Tower in Orvieto, Italy. (Photo by Don Knebel)

Thirteenth-century Clock Tower in Orvieto, Italy. (Photo by Don Knebel)

The small Italian city of Orvieto (“Old City”) was founded by the Etruscans atop a butte formed from soft volcanic rock. The sides of the butte are so steep that a funicular now takes visitors from the train station and parking lots to the city 700 feet above. Because of its secure location, lying along the road between Florence and Rome, medieval Popes often lived in Orvieto and the city reflects that history.

The most visible evidence of papal influence is Orvieto’s cathedral, located on the main square and unexpectedly large for a city of only 10,000. The cathedral is one of the most colorful in Europe, with horizontal stone striping both inside and out and a façade lavishly covered with paintings and mosaics. Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, builders started construction of the cathedral in 1290 and continued for hundreds of years. One chapel in the cathedral features frescoes of the Apocalypse by Luca Signorelli, the inspiration for Michelangelo’s famous “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. Another chapel houses a communion cloth stained when the host began bleeding, convincing a skeptical priest in the nearby town of Bolsena that the consecrated bread really did become the body of Jesus. Persistent claims that the entire cathedral was built to celebrate this “miracle of Bolsena” are not true and skeptics assert the stains came from bread mold.

In 1527, Pope Clement VII escaped to Orvieto during the sack of Rome by mutinous forces once loyal to Emperor Charles V. Fearing a siege, the Pope ordered construction of the 175 feet deep St. Patrick’s Well¸ named for an Irish legend that deep wells provide access to Purgatory. The central shaft is surrounded by two helixes allowing donkeys (and modern visitors) to pass each other as they travel up and down fetching water.

Pleasant cafes in the car-free piazzas of Orvieto feature the wines for which the city is famous. Shops feature ceramics, made in Orvieto since the days of the Etruscans. An afternoon in Orvieto, a short train ride from Rome, is an ideal respite from the bustle of the Eternal City.