Monday, November 13, 2017

Cats, cathedral, caves in Orvieto

The middle portion of our trip can basically be summed up as a series of hill towns, mostly known primarily for their churches - San Gimignano, Siena, Arezzo, Orvieto and Assisi. Orvieto had been on my bucket list for a while, purely because of the beauty of its cathedral's facade. Our overnight stay here was probably sufficient, but we discovered that there was much more to Orvieto than just a facade.

On the city walls

The fabulous duomo was constructed from the late 13th century essentially to house a holy relic. Legend has it that a priest was conducting Mass at Lake Bolsena, not far from Orvieto, when blood began to drip from the Eucharist and stain the altar cloth below. The cloth was taken to Orvieto, and some 30 years later it was decided that a much more magnificent church was required to house this relic. While the black and white stripes of the duomo walls and pillars are reminiscent of Siena's cathedral, it's that famous Italian Gothic facade that really sets it apart.

The cathedral boasts elaborate carving around the doors, telling Bible stories to the illiterate

Adam and Eve, someone (Abel?) about to get a good axeing, and someone uncomfortably squished under a bush

Death was never far away

Modern sculpture on the cathedral doors: for once, not hideous

Compared to the elaborate facade, the interior of the main part of the cathedral is rather simple. But the side chapels host more treasures

 Firstly, there is the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio, largely decorated by Luca Signorelli in the 15th century. Most of the paintings here concern the apocalypse and the last judgement.

The ceiling was decorated by Fra Angelico and Gozzoli before they were called away to Rome to work on other projects

This fresco depicts the preaching of the Antichrist, the figure standing on the plinth in the centre. He resembles Christ at first glance, but you can see the devil behind him whispering in his ear. The fresco would have recalled the recent execution of Savonarola for heresy. It is also notable for the inclusion of famous figures from Italian art and culture. The central figure in blue and burgundy is Raphael, and the two figures on the lower left are Signorelli himself and fellow artist Fra Angelico, in his monk's habit. Others in the crowd include Christopher Columbus, Boccaccio, Petrarch and Cesare Borgia.

The lower portion of the wall features famous artists and philosophers in dramatic poses, as if watching the apocalyptic events above

The Damned are taken to Hell and recieved by Demons shows people being dragged to hell by human-like demons, whose true nature is revealed by the lurid tones of their decomposing flesh.


A happier scene for the Elect, who are taken to paradise by musical angels.

This one looks grisly, but the nudes climbing out of their graves are being called by the angels to the Resurrection.

Almost sci-fi scenes of the End of the World are depicted over the doorway.

The other, and older, chapel (the Chapel of the Corporal) was built in the 14th century to house the holy relic. It contains frescoes showing the history of the Eucharist and miracles connected to the bleeding Host.

The Eucharist here literally depicted as Jesus' flesh

We also explored the museums attached to the duomo, which hold Etruscan art, some original statues from the cathedral facade, and works by Emilio Greco, who made the modern cathedral doors.

Statue of Mary from the facade

Monkey see, monkey do

The vaults under the cathedral

Just imagine this thing leaping on your back

Apart from the cathedral, Orvieto is also known for its Etruscan past and its underground world. We took a guided tour of the caves, which are mostly manmade and date back 2,500 years at the oldest. They were used for storerooms, to dig wells, and spaces to produce olive oil and grind grain (land up on the hilltop was always at a premium, and in fact the population of medieval Orvieto was much greater than the modern city) and as a space of refuge and preparation for sieges. Even today, almost every private home or business in Orvieto has its own cave - around 1200 in total - but the caves on the very edge of the hilltop are now public land, due to being abandoned by their owners because of the threat of erosion.

The land around the caves was popular with cats, sadly it seemed a popular place for people to abandon them :(

This was the coolest part of the tour. The niches in the walls were built to house doves/pigeons, essentially as insurance for times of siege, when the city would be cut off from the farmland below. As these caves are on the edge of the cliffs, windows allowed the pigeons to come and go, feeding and watering themselves outside, and coming inside to lay eggs and, eventually, get eaten. Perfect low-maintenance food sources.

Capping off our time in Orvieto, at evening we had my favourite dish of the trip - local umbracelli pasta - thick, handmade noodles - with mint and courgette (and presumably a bit of cheese). Simple, but fabulous. Can be enjoyed in Il Giglio d'Oro, right next to the cathedral, if you should find yourself in Orvieto.


  1. That facade is beautiful. And your pic of the cathedral with the moon is amazing!

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