Italy – Orvietto

Thursday 30 August

Reluctant as I am to leave Civita, I am looking forward to seeing Orvietto, a small town on a hill in Umbria. (Civita and Tivoli are in Lazio, of which Rome is the capital). 

As we drive toward Orvieto we look up to see steep cliffs dotted with numerous caves. Interesting, but what takes my breath away is the sudden and unexpected facade of the duomo just a few metres directly in front of the road we enter by. It is superb! Light pink and white marble slabs, plaited marble columns, statues, gold and vibrantly coloured frescoes … 

Our hotel is beside the duomo and our view is of the piazza … And the duomo! The outside of the hotel is pretty, traditional white stucco with shutters, three floors high. The inside though is very modern, with reference to its past with frescoes on the walls.

The exterior of the duomo is very famous with four panels depicting scenes from the bible. The chapel inside is also famous, so we begin by exploring the interior.

The columns are striped white and green marble. Typically the nave is high, made of wooden beams, separated on either side by arches and columns.  The columns are striped white and green marble, the lower vaults between the arches are ribbed and are made of white marble.  

The baptismal font is about two metres high and is elaborately carved from white marble. It is an intricate work of art.

Inside the cathedral is relatively simple … But …  The right transcept, is exceptionally superb. Their are no adjectives to adequately describe it. It easily rivals the Raphael rooms in the Vatican, and even the Sistine chapel. The last judgment fills three big walls. The colours are intense, the story vividly told using facial expressions and body placement. Each wall tells stories. To the left is the anti-christ preaching, people gathering to be judged, and the sorting. The wall in front is paradise. The wall to the right is hell and the raising of the dead. Hell is superb, and the raising of the dead is grotesque. The wall behind is remarkable because the Pieta painted there includes Joseph and Mary Magdelene.
This chapel is fantastic. I examine it in detail trying to commit it to memory, but also wanting simply to enjoy it for for what it is. 

The exterior is remarkable. Four white marble columns are carved in detail to tell biblical stories. Each square tells a story but its Artistry can be appreciated without knowing the stories. From the Book of Genesis, to the Last Judgement, the detailing is exquisite.
We walk/wheel through the streets, noting the little shops, some for tourists, some for the locals to buy their proscuttio, cheeses, bread and fruit. The Piazza del Duomo slopes down to St Patrick’s well at the other end of town. I want to walk down the well, which has a double helix staircase. The well is 65 metres deep and constructed to last forever.

We catch the bus back so Peter doesn’t have to push me up the long hill – I certainly couldn’t push myself! The driver tries to pull the ramp out and in the end uses a screwdriver and the help of a coworker. Their hands get filthy, so when Peter indicates that he will lift the chair down to the ground, the driver, holding his screwdriver, is visibly relieved. (I can’t help contrast that to the Wellington bus drivers who simply shrug their shoulders and say “too bad” when they encounter a problem, even if it’s of their own making, like not pulling in close enough to a kerb. Public transport in NZ for the disabled is a joke.)

I’m grateful that I can walk with crutches and that Peter helps me up and down steps. It means that I can tour the caves under Orvieto, the “underground tour” rather than the short not very informative look into a cave that is also offered.

It is estimated that there over 1200 caves, all carved out by the Etruscans, used by the Romans, then in medieval times and even til quite recently? The first cave we visit has been used as an olive press but, because it has a gabled ceiling, it is thought that the Etruscans used it as a temple. Further on, the second cave had been used as a quarry to cut stones for buildings. There are two types of stones. Tufa which is a soft stone, and basalt which is very hard and was used to make grinding stones for olive presses. The quarry had then been used for storage.

Further on again, the walls of the caves were dusty and flaked easily – cement! The Romans used this for making concrete, another amazing Roman invention/discovery.

Then we came to the most interesting cave of all. Some centuries ago a landowner had bought this cave (the caves could be purchased in the same way as land because as the population expanded more space was needed and the caves provided that space) and obtained permission to excavate to create storage, providing conditions were met eg leaving columns of rock to support the land above. He ignored the requirements and excavated a huge cave that had to be reinforced with brick towers a decade ago. Cracks were appearing … I suppose that eventually, without engineers, parts of Orvietto would simply collapse into the cave.

But that isn’t what makes this cave so interesting … There is a deep well, 120mm x  80mm, with foot and hand holes carved into the longer side. The Etruscans had built a well at least 120m deep – 40m above this point, and 80m down, and used the holes to climb up and down for water! This well would have provided the Etruscans with a source of water to withstand Roman sieges. The depth required to reach water here, over 120m, is twice the depth required to reach water from the St Patricks well, built around the 1100s.

We go outside again, much lower now, but still high on the cliff side where all the caves are dotted. We are about to find out the source of these caves. They are dovecotes! These holes in the cliffs are tunnels leading down from the homes above. Every home had its own dovecote where the pigeons were bred as food … Another means of withstanding a siege. This particular cave had centuries ago been turned into a pottery factory, complete with kiln.

The tunnels had been getting progressively more narrow and steeper, with higher steps. At this point I stopped and waited while Peter and the rest of the group went to see a large Etruscan cave linked by a tunnel to the hospital to be used if necessary as a bomb shelter by patients during WW2. The Germans occupied Orvietto but by agreement between the locals and the British,  the Area around Orvietto was bombed, but not historic Orvieto!

Orvieto is an amazing town. There is great art, architecture, history and archaeology, as well quaint shops and small novelties … When we went looking for food for dinner, we bought our pruscettio and cheese from a shop with a boar’s head in the window!


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