| Naples: Life, Death & Miracles
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ago, magnificent powers of eruption and
erosion shaped the landscape of central Italy.
Thus, Umbria and Tuscany are now studded with
characteristic tufa hills, high strategic blocks,
which, for as long as humans have thought about
such things, have been regarded as "easily
defensible," good places to build forts, castles
and walled towns. Indeed, Orvieto, north of Rome,
shortly after you cross into Umbria from Lazio,
and just off the main A1 autostrada, is one of the
best examples in Italy of the so-called "Medieval
fortress town". Yet, Orvieto has been holding the
high ground for quite a while longer than the mere
Middle Ages. It is an excellent place to review
almost three-thousand years of Italian history.
Well of St. Patrick
As an important center of population, Orvieto was founded by the Etruscans in the 7th century, B.C. The Etruscans are an enigma to us even today. They are among the best-known pre-Roman peoples in Italy, but the inscriptions on the considerable archaeological remains that they left behind still stubbornly resist decoding, and, thus, we know relatively little about them. They were a formidable power, a federation more than a unified kingdom, which carried on commerce —and war— with Carthage and Greece. They eventually lost their last bid for historical permanence at the battle of Cuma against the Greeks five centuries before Christ. Orvieto was one of their principal cities, although its exact role in the federation is unknown. As a seat of lingering Etruscan power, Orvieto was destroyed by the Romans in 263 B.C. There are, today, however, still Etruscan archaeological sites to be seen in Orvieto, including the impressive "Tufa Crucifix" necropolis on the outskirts. Also, the Palazzo Faina in the town houses a museum of Etruscan artifacts.
Romans, Orvieto was not particularly important,
although in the late days of the Empire (around
300 A.D.), it once again became a focus of
agricultural and commercial activities, due to the
existence of the large Roman river port of
Pagliano at the nearby confluence of the Tiber and
Paglia rivers. When Huns and Goths from the north
swept over the Roman empire, Orvieto again became
a good place to be —or at least hole up. It was
high and easily fortifiable. It became a
relatively stable center of Longobard power until
the turn of the millennium, at which point the
Medieval town, as we know it, started to take
The appearance of the present-day town of Orvieto owes much to building which went on during the Middle Ages. Many of the streets are fortunately too narrow for modern traffic—although there are those who insist on giving it a try, anyway. Among all the towers and churches from another age, surely the most spectacular structure is the Cathedral. It was started in 1290 and crafted into final form by the middle of the 1500s. Yet, great masters have continued to add here and adorn there over the centuries, such that, considering the constant restoration going on, perhaps it will never truly be "finished". The facade is the most striking feature, ornamented, as it is, with an incredible welter of bas-reliefs, bronze and marble statues, and mosaic.
Historically, in the Middle Ages, Orvieto, like most of central Italy was a bone of contention between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, supporters, respectively, of Papal authority and aristocratic Imperial power. The Church won out and Orvieto was under the dominion of the Papal State for centuries.
In spite of the
remarkable artistic and architectural activity
during the Renaissance in Orvieto, perhaps the
most singular work is the so-called "Well of St.
Patrick" (photo, above). When Pope Clement VII
took refuge in Orvieto after the sack of Rome in
1527, he had a deep well built in order to protect
the town's water supply in case of a siege. It was
a design of architect Antonio da Sangallo
the Younger, finished in 1543. It can still be
visited today. It is 61 meters deep and almost 13
meters in diameter. Entrance and exit are by the
ingenious device of a double helix, that is, two
parallel, non-communicating spiral staircases,
each one with 248 steps. You go down one way and
come up another, looking out one of the 70 windows
lining the shaft and seeing people right across
from you who are on the other stairway!
Today, the district of Orvieto comprises not only the town, itself, but a dozen smaller nearby communities such as Baschi, Castelgiorgio, Fabro and Montecchio. They all sport castles and towers. some of them in ruins, but others in amazingly good restored condition. Taken together, Orvieto and its tiny neighbours provide almost year-round folk and handicraft festivals, and any single one of them can be a glimpse beyond the quaint, back to one of the most fragmented, violent and fascinating periods in our history.
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