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Orvieto Cathedral

The Duomo of “Orvieto, Italy”

Orvieto is one of the principal sights of the region of Umbria, Italy. Its situation is marvellous - perched high above tufa cliffs - showing traces of every phase of history for the past three thousand years, culminating in its magnificent cathedral. Tourists should on no account miss Orvieto if they are visiting Umbria or southern Tuscany. The tufa butte on which Orvieto is located is itself riddled with tunnels and wells dating from Etruscan times to only a couple of hundred years ago. The most spectacular of these subterranean burrowings is the Pozzo di San Patrizio, a deep well with a double spiral stair leading to the water source at its base. It dates from 1537 and is 62 m deep. If you're in need of exercise, it's possible to descend and return. Try carrying up a couple of buckets of water - it'll bring the life of earlier times vividly before you.


Lake of Bolsena

Principal sights of Orvieto

Orvieto Duomo

The cathedral of Orvieto is one of the most beautiful churches in Umbria, indeed in all of Italy. It was begun in 1285 and is Gothic in style, with three naves. Its tripartite façade was conceived by Lorenzo Maitani and is decorated in its lower portion with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and with mosaics and statues of the Blessed Virgin, the Prophets and the Apostles in its upper part. The walls in the interior are constructed of layers of Travertine marble and of basalt. The choir was frescoed with illustrations of the life of the Blessed Virgin by Ugolino di Prete Ilario, Peter di Puccio and Anthony of Viterbo. The chapel on the right, called Our Lady of San Brizio, was painted by the Fra Angelico of Fiesole ("Christ Glorified", "Last Judgment", and "The Prophets", carried out in 1447) and by Luca Signorelli ("Fall of Antichrist", "Resurrection of the Dead", "Damned and Blessed", etc.). Michelangelo took inspiration from these paintings for his "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel. The "Burial of Jesus" is also by Signorelli, and there are several sculptures by Scalza (1572), among them the group of the Pietà, chiselled from a single block of marble. The chapel on the opposite side, called "of the Corporal", contains the large reliquary in which is preserved the corporal of the miracle of Bolsena. This receptacle was made by order of Bishop Bertrand dei Monaldeschi, by the Siennese Ugolino di Mæstro Vieri (1337). It is made of silver, adorned with enamels that represent the Passion of Jesus and the miracle. The frescoes of the walls, by Ugolino (1357-64), also represent the miracle.

Among the other notable churches of Orvieto are San Giovenale, which contains remnants of ancient frescoes, and San Andrea, which has a dodecagon tower. In 1220, Pierre d'Artois was consecrated King of Jerusalem by Honorius III in this church.

Orvieto Papal Palace

Orvieto was for long in papal territory. Pope Boniface VIII was from Orvieto and donated statues of himself for the main city gates, earning him some criticism from his many enemies.

During the sack of Rome in 1527 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII took refuge at Orvieto. Fearing that in the event of siege by Charles' troops the city's water might prove insufficient, he had a spectacular well (the Pozzo di San Patrizio or "Well of St. Patrick", so called because this Italian expression, inspired by mediaeval legends that St. Patrick's Purgatory in Ireland gave access down to Purgatory, is used to indicate something very deep) constructed by the architect-engineer Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. The central well shaft was surrounded by ramps in a double helix. These ramps were each designed for one-way traffic, so that mules laden with water-jars might pass down then up again unobstructed. An inscription on the well boasts that QUOD NATURA MUNIMENTO INVIDERAT INDUSTRIA ADIECIT ("what nature stinted for provision, application has supplied").

The municipal museum is housed in the Papal Palace and contains displays of Etruscan antiquities and works of art that are, for the most part, from the cathedral.

Palazzo Papale Orvieto

Papal Palace Orvieto

Palazzo del Popolo Orvieto

Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo

Orvieto Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo

This is a simple building that nevertheless maintains an impressive grandeur. Work on the construction of the palazzo began in the 13 C on an area that had been occupied since 1157 by the Papal Palace built under the reign of Pope Hadrian IV.

The original Palazzo del Capitano was a single ground floor loggia that was used as a market place or for meetings, from which the magistrate would speak to the citizens. This was where the surrounding lords or representatives of vanquished cities came to pay their allegiance to Orvieto.

The structure was enlarged within ten years of completion. In 1315 the bell tower was added and, in the following year, a great bell was hung there. The upper part of the structure was covered in 1472 and the large hall divided into two rooms, one large and the other small. The larger of the two occupied an area that corresponds approximately to the room known today as the Sala dei Quattrocento. Subsequently, the building functioned as a residence for the Capitano del Popolo, the Podestà and the Signori Sette.

From 1596, one of the lower section rooms housed the Studium, which had been re-instituted a few years earlier by Lorenzo Magalotti. Students of law, theology and logic came here to study twice a day, each time the bell of Palazzo del Popolo rang, until 1651. The few records that exist of this ancient university appear after this date. Some sources indicate that it dates back to 1013 and had connections with names such as the Benedictine monks Graziano and Gozio of Orvieto.

Etruscan ruins in and near Orvieto

Orvieto is also home to Etruscan ruins and the remnants of a wall that enclosed the city more than 2000 years ago. At the foot of the butte, surrounded by peach and apple trees and a vineyard, the Etruscan necropolis of Crocefisso di Tufo counts a hundred or so chamber tombs laid along a rectangular street grid.

Etruscan temple Orvieto

Temple of Belvedere

Etruscan necropolis Orvieto

Etruscan necropolis

Etruscan script Orvieto

Etruscan script on a tomb

The Rocca or Fortress of Albornoz

The Fortezza dell'Albornoz stands in Piazza Cahen, an area that was once occupied by a temple, known by the Etruscan name of Augurale. The fortress was built by order of the Spanish Cardinal Albornoz on behalf of Pope Innocent VI and designed by the condottiero and military engineer Ugolino di Montemarte.

Originally known as the Rocca di San Martino, construction of this massive fortress started either in 1359 or 1353 near the town’s cemetery. Its aim was to provide the Church with a secure site in the city and to facilitate the consolidation their recent military victories by the Cardinal and his captains.

The original square plan of the fortress was flanked by a small building near the main entrance and surrounded by a moat, which was only accessible by the drawbridge. However, the Rocca was almost completely razed to the ground in 1395 and successive attempts to rebuild it were for a long time unsuccessful. The fortress was finally rebuilt during the mid-15 C using original plans and an additional circular line of fortifications.

After the Sack of Rome at the end of 1527, Pope Clement VII took refuge in Orvieto. To ensure that the city would be sufficiently supplied with water in the event of a siege, he gave orders for the digging of the now famous artesian well Pozzo di San Patrizio (1528-1537). For added security, the pope ordered that a second well be dug to supply the fortress alone.

Rocca Albornoz Orvieto

Fortezza dell'Albornoz

Orvieto - the underground city

The city of Orvieto has long kept the secret of its labyrinth of caves and tunnels that lie beneath the surface. Dug deep into the soft volcanic tufo, these hidden and secret tunnels are only now open to view through guided tours. Their spectacular nature has also yielded many historical and archaeological finds.

The underground city boasts tunnels, galleries, wells, stairs, quarries, cellars, unexpected passageways, cisterns, superimposed rooms with numerous small square niches, detailing its creation over the centuries. Many of the homes of noble families were equipped with a means of escape from the elevated city during times of siege through secret escape tunnels carved through the rock. These tunnels would lead from the city palazzo to emerge at a safe exit point some distance away from city walls.

The Holy Linen of Bolsena

In 1263-64, a Bohemian priest, Peter of Prague, went to Rome to better understand the miracle of Transubstantiation. On his way back from Rome, he stopped in Bolsena to celebrate a mass and he saw some blood spilling from the Holy Host. Pope Urban IV was in Orvieto the time and decided to transfer the Holy Linen from Bolsena to Orvieto. He decided also to create the "Corpus Domini" day, one of the most important feast days of Christianity. On 13 November 1290, Pope Nicolò IV laid the first stone of the new church. Construction continued for about three centuries. The first architect was Arnolfo di Cambio, and it seems that he was helped by Fra' Bevignate of Perugia. Important assistance was provided by the architect Lorenzo Maitani, who created a sound structure for the transept and proposed the coloured façade. The interior of the cathedral is simple and austere. A wonderful organ, one of the biggest in Italy, is located in the transept. The most important work of art of the cathedral is the reliquary of the Holy Linen of Bolsena. There are also illustrations of the miracle of Bolsena and life of Christ.

Origins of Orvieto

The name of the city appears to date back to this period of time. In fact, Velzna became known as Volsinii Veteres (Ancient Volsinii) or Urbs Vetus (the Old City) as distinguished from Volsinii Novi (New Volsinii), which today is known as Bolsena.

Etruscan and Roman Orvieto

The history of Orvieto begins in the 9-8 centuries B.C. when the rock was occupied for the first time by the Etruscans. The site of this settlement has in fact been identified with the Etruscan centre of Velzna (Volsinii in Latin), a city which began to flourish at the beginning of the 6th century B.C. This economic prosperity was based mainly upon the production of ceramics and on bronze work.

From a political point of view, Velzna was in the forefront of the resistance to Roman expansion, as a result of which in 254 B.C., having been occupied by the enemy armies, it was razed to the ground. Following upon the destruction of the city came the dispersion of its inhabitants who for the most part were forced to relocate to the highlands overlooking the lake of Bolsena.

Goths and Longobards

At the time of the barbarian invasions, Orvieto was occupied by Alaric the Goth and by Odovacar. Vitige took advantage of its strategic natural position to create a defensive stronghold in the war against the Byzantines. The imperial general Belisarius succeeded in conquering the position after a bitter siege in 538 A.D. It was reoccupied temporarily by Totila before the final defeat of the Goths.

In 596, Orvieto was occupied by the Longobard Agilulfo and had its own bishop and later, in 606, its own counts. One of the counts of Orvieto, Farolfo, within the framework of the religious rebirth imposed by Emperor Otto III, and in collaboration with Saint Romualdo, promoted the establishment of abbeys and monasteries in the surrounding territories. In the 11 C, Orvieto became a Comune or City-State. The towers and palaces of noblemen of the area who had relocated to the city began to be built.

Orvieto the City State

The institution of the Comune is documented beginning in 1137. Twenty years later a treaty was signed with Pope Adrian IV, which increased papal influence in the city and gave way to the struggle between the Guelfs or papal faction and the Ghibellines or imperialist faction. This struggle was destined to extend over a long period of time and marked the successive history of the city.

Orvieto soon became a Guelph stronghold of central Italy, holding out against the repeated attacks of the Ghibellines, who had been expelled, and the emperors Frederick I and Henry IV. In 1199, the Pope appointed the first Podestà of Orvieto, Piero Parenzo, who was later killed in the civic battles between the opposing factions of the Monaldeschi (Guelphs) and the Filippeschi (Ghibellines).

In the meantime, the jurisdiction of the Comune was extended from Mount Amiata to Orbetello. The vitality of Orvieto can be seen in the construction activity of the period. It is at this time that the churches of San Lorenzo degli Arari, of San Francesco, of San Domenico, of Santa Maria dei Servi were built, as well as many public buildings such as the Comunal Palace, the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, and the Papal Palace. And in 1290, the building of the Cathedral was begun.

In the years 1281-1284, Pope Martino IV established a seat in Orvieto, filling the city with Frenchmen against whom the citizens rebelled. The battles were rekindled, and the Filippeschi or Ghibellines were expelled in 1313. New factions arose, the Beffati and the Malcorini, into which the Monaldeschi split. In 1334, Orvieto found in Ermanno Monaldeschi della Cervara its first Lord, who reigned until his death in 1337. In 1354 Cardinal Albornoz occupied Orvieto subjecting the city to papal rule. However, Orvieto preserved its comunal institutions, later becoming the capital of the fifth province of the papal state.

In 1860 Orvieto was annexed to the Italian Kingdom, which later became the Italian Republic.

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