When I think of Orvieto I think of its wonderful white wines, light, easy to drink, with a delicate bouquet. Orvieto Classico is the superior variety, containing a higher proportion of the grechetto grape. This wine has been in demand since Roman times, and in the Middle Ages it was known as the “wine of the Popes”. Luckily there is plenty available for us lesser mortals to savour.
A visit to Orvieto had been on the cards for some time, and with the sun shining there was no excuse not to head for this ancient city.
Nothing prepared us for our first view of the city, perched on a tufa butte, the soft volcanic stone forming the platform on which the city stands. We parked in the Piazza del Popolo, its central location (arrived at more by accident than design) being perfect for exploring. The Palazzo del Popolo dominates the square, an impressive example of late 13th century civic architecture. It was built from the local tufa stone, with a bell tower and fluted merlons. No, I didn’t know what a fluted merlon was either, but it is the fancy bit on the castellations – how very decorative!
At close quarters, the Palazzo del Popolo has more decorative features. This detail looks like piped icing…..
…..and this lovely chequered design….
From the same square we could also see the 12th century Torre del Moro (Tower of the Moor) which is 137 feet high and has a 14th century bell that is still in working order.
Orvieto’s greatest attraction is its cathedral. Founded in 1290, it was 300 years and over 30 different architects later before the magnificent edifice was completed. It was designed to celebrate the Miracle of Bolsena and to accommodate its prized relic.
In 1263, a German priest stopped at Bolsena, near Orvieto, en route to Rome. Although he was devout, he struggled to believe that the Eucharist was the body and blood of Christ. Whilst celebrating mass at Bolsena, it was said that drops of blood seeped from the host onto a linen cloth. This cloth is still exhibited in Orvieto cathedral. As a result of this “miracle”, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi.
The cathedral is approached via narrow, winding streets. The first sight is truly breathtaking.
The facade is dazzling, with its mosaics glinting in the sun, detailed carvings and wonderful statues.
The cathedral’s sides are striped in white travertine and black basalt. The facade is typically Umbrian, narrow but delicate, soaring into infinity.
On closer inspection you can see the myriad colours incorporated into the design. The workmanship is exquisite.
A side view shows the huge bronze statues of bulls, lions and griffins leaping out of the facade.
The interior is surprisingly simple, cool and airy.
The sparse use of colour makes it even more effective where it is used.
There is a chapel dedicated to the Miracle of Bolsena – a rather dingy place, with the blood-stained linen cloth as it centrepiece. But it is the Capella della Madonna di San Brizio (Chapel of Our Lady of Saint Brizio) that rightly draws the attention. It is a masterpiece of the Renaissance, with frescoes narrating the themes of the Last Judgement by Luca Signorelli and Fra Angelico.
It is said that Michelangelo drew inspiration from these frescoes for his paintings in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It is not difficult to see why.
The cathedral dominates the square, but the Palazzo Papale (Popes’ Palace) which combines 3 14th century buildings commissioned by 3 popes and later combined into one complex, is also of interest.
You can sit and watch the world go by at a cafe whilst marvelling at the cathedral.
The streets of the old city retain their medieval buildings and picturesque alleyways.
Turn a corner and you find an ancient church – Sant’Andrea was built on the site of a Roman temple and is one of Orvieto’s oldest buildings. Its 12-sided bell tower dominates the church.
The elevated position of Orvieto means that it offers great views from its walls.
Orvieto is not, however, preserved in aspic. It is very much a living place, with bustling shops and people enjoying their city. We stopped to watch some energetic street dancing.
And there is humour too: irreverent perhaps, but amusing nevertheless.
There is much more to Orvieto than we were able to see in a day: underground caves, Etruscan tombs and museums. All of the right ingredients to prompt a return visit.