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Theresa Guin

When in Rome: Escape to Orvieto

Theresa Guin, Senior Rome Coordinator


Rome is such a dazzling city that any effort to make a “Must-See” list is a serious challenge. Then, when in Rome, attempting to see everything on the list can feel overwhelming. Faced with so many competing choices, maybe the simplest solution is to take a day off! Yes — however paradoxical it may seem — taking a high-value day off from the many wonders of Rome may be just what the overwhelmed traveler needs. Leaving the city gives travelers a more leisurely day in their Italian sojourn. Assisi is the obvious choice for many devotees of St. Francis. Tivoli and Castel Gandolfo are two other beautiful towns, only a short train ride from Rome. My favorite and most frequent day trip is to a town in Umbria, called Orvieto.

Directing Traffic

Theresa Guin directing traffic on a group trip.

Orvieto is a small hilltop town an hour’s train ride from Rome. Approaching Orvieto, the town seems perched on a wide pillar or raised shelf, placed in the center of a valley. The walls form an encircling crown above the sheer cliff and surround the city. From the train station, a visitor can either choose the steep walk up to the top or take the short and inexpensive funicular ride.

Evidence of Orvieto’s long history is discernible throughout the town. The archeological museum reveals the city’s origins with its collection of Etruscan pottery and sculpture, excavated from the nearby necropolis. The Romans subsequently conquered the Etruscans and, after the Romans, Orvieto was invaded and occupied by the German chieftains Alaric and Odoacer for its strong natural fortifications. In the 10th century, Orvieto established a commune and flourished as a trading post between Florence and Rome right through to the high medieval and late medieval ages, the latter corresponding to the High Renaissance for scholars of arts and letters.

During this golden period of the High Renaissance, Orvieto’s most charming sites were built. In 1353 A.D., a papal legate ordered the building of a massive fortress on the former site of an Etruscan temple to make Orvieto a secure stronghold for the pope. The fortress was later demolished, but its walls and foundations form a beautiful public park overlooking the olive groves and vineyards below. While the views from the surface of the town are stunning, Orvieto has an exciting subterranean world. Beneath the town is a labyrinth of tunnels, which visitors can tour. Orvieto sits on a bluff of volcanic rock, called tufa, which is easily excavated and hardens when exposed to air. When the Etruscans settled there, they sunk wells beneath the town and built cistern chambers to collect and channel water. This construction project would continue expanding beneath the town for the next 2,500 years, forming dizzyingly complex layers of grottos, cellars, escape routes, and work spaces for pressing olives, forging, and firing pottery.

Cathedral of Mary, Orvieto

Exterior view of the Rose Window of the Cathedral of Mary, Orvieto. Orvieto. Photo Credit: Gianni Carredu

The jewel of Orvieto is undoubtedly the cathedral — or duomo — dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. Approaching by train or passing through the valley, the cathedral dominates the skyline of Orvieto. The alternating layers of white travertine marble and green-black basalt that clothe both the exterior and interior walls are arresting. Stepping into the piazza before the cathedral, the resplendent facade stuns the viewer with its complexity and beauty. The two central mosaics portray the Assumption of Mary and, crowning the central gable, the Coronation of Mary by Christ, with the mosaics of two side gables depicting the life of Christ. In the center of these glittering mosaics is a brilliant rose window, encircling the face of Christ Redeemer. At eye level, ringed by grapevines or acanthus are four panels of base-relief sculpture, telling stories from the Old Testament, the Gospels and Revelation. Between sculptures and mosaics are intricate twisted columns, geometric tile designs, gargoyles, sculpted leaves and vines, all surrounded by and made of beautiful rose and white marble. It’s hard to imagine a more refined and elaborate church facade than this one.

Inside the church, the white and apparently black bands stack upon each other up to the distant ceiling, giving the illusion of even greater height. Light streams gracefully through the stained glass of the upper windows and through the alabaster windows on the aisle walls. There are many treasures to visit inside the duomo, but two stand out in terms of religious and artistic importance.

The first, located in the left side chapel, is an ornate reliquary housing the blood-stained corporal of the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena. The cathedral was built, and the feast of Corpus Christi instituted, to commemorate this Eucharistic miracle, when a host bled on the hands and corporal of a doubting priest. For religious pilgrims in particular, therefore, Orvieto is a destination of immense significance.

A scene from Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Flesh.  Photo credit: Wikicommons

A scene from Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Flesh.  Photo credit: Wikicommons

A second treasure lies within the cathedral’s small and intimate Chapel of the Madonna of San Brizio, which hosts an extraordinary fresco cycle of the “End of the World and Last Judgment” by the Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli. While his contemporary Michelangelo’s work was described as terribile by contemporaries, meaning full of awe and terror, Luca Signorelli was nicknamed pellegrino for his eccentricity and whimsy. This nickname certainly applies to the frescoes in Orvieto, where Signorelli was faced with representing the gravest and most daunting of subject matter — including a mass grave, no less — set within an extremely confined architectural space. In the end, his eccentricity led him to treat each and every last person in this cosmological drama — with millions of winners and losers, millions of damned or saved — as a real person with an eye-opening story to tell. Each of the seven fresco panels, which take us from “Preachings of the Antichrist” right through to the “Inferno” and “Chosen Called to Paradise,” offers both human perspective on events and startling reactions to it, the latter bordering on tragic-comic at times.

On a wall depicting the “Resurrection of the Flesh,” for example, Signorelli shows idealized bodies rising out of the earth within a featureless graveyard to respond to the angelic call from above. We observe none of the macabre features associated with graveyards in this scene, however, only a series of whimsical and humorous figures winking at us as they take on flesh and come back to “life.” In the middle distance, the naked figures are beautiful and arranged in groups, looking toward the heavens. The foreground depicts men struggling to pull themselves out of their graves, several needing their companions to yank them up. Among them, a man and group of skeletons laugh over some joke as another skeleton lounges in the right-hand corner. Next to Signorelli’s “Resurrection” is his “Judgment of the Damned,” a violent and terrifying scene that nonetheless contains a dash of humor — or at least some horseplay — in it. A blond female figure, who has appeared in other scenes in the chapel and is commonly interpreted as a woman who rejected Signorelli’s affections, is depicted here too. In the Damned she looks genuinely forlorn as a flying demon carries her away atop his back, turning and smiling at her maliciously/lasciviously/wickedly as he does so.

Emerging from the duomo at sunset is lovely beyond description. After sunset, glass and iron lanterns bathe Orvieto’s streets in warm, golden light. The streets of Orvieto are narrow and winding with flower-covered balconies and arches crisscrossing overhead. Enjoying the tranquil beauty of Orvieto, if only for a visit to its main church and an evening stroll, is a lovely trip, especially for travelers who have already experienced the overwhelming beauty of Rome.