Burckhardt described Orvieto’s Duomo as “the greatest and richest polychrome monument in the world”, while Pope Leo XIII called it “the Golden Lily of Italian cathedrals”, adding that on the Day of Judgement it would float up to heaven carried by its own beauty. According to a tradition fostered by the Church, it was built to celebrate the so-called Miracle of Bolsena of 1263.
It was miraculous that the Duomo was built at all. Medieval Orvieto was so violent that at times the population thought about giving up on it altogether. Dante wrote that its family feuds were worse than those between Verona’s Montagues and Capulets. The building was also dogged by a committee approach to design – even the plans took thirty years to draw up. Yet though construction dragged on for three centuries and exhausted 33 architects, 152 sculptors, 68 painters and 90 mosaicists, the final product is a surprisingly unified example of the transitional Romanesque-Gothic style. Credit for guiding the work at its most important stage goes to the Sienese architect Lorenzo Maitani (c.1270–1330), with the initial plans probably drawn up by Arnolfo di Cambio, architect of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.
The facade is the star turn, owing its undeniable impact to a decorative richness just the right side of overkill. It’s a riot of columns, spires, bas-reliefs, sculptures, dazzling and almost overpowering use of colour, colossally emphasized doorways and hundreds of capricious details just about held together by four enormous fluted columns. Stunning from the dwarfed piazza, particularly at sunset or under floodlights, it’s not all superficial gloss. The four pillars at the base, one of the highlights of fourteenth-century Italian sculpture, are well worth a close look. The work of Maitani and his pupils, they describe episodes from the Old and New Testaments in staggering detail: lashings of plague, famine, martyrdoms, grotesque mutilation, mad and emaciated figures, the Flagellation, the Massacre of the Innocents, strange visitations, Cain slaying Abel (particularly juicy), and only the occasional touch of light relief. In its day it was there to point an accusing finger at Orvieto’s moral slackers, as the none-too-cheerful final panel makes clear, with the damned packed off to fire, brimstone and eternal misery.
Luca Signorelli and the Cappella di San Brizio
The inside is a disappointment at least at first glance, as if the facade either took all the enthusiasm or all the money and the church was tacked on merely to prop everything else up. Adorned with alternating stripes of coloured marble similar to those found in the cathedrals of Siena, Florence and Pisa, it’s mainly distinguished by Luca Signorelli’s fresco cycle, The Last Judgement (1499–1504), in the Cappella di San Brizio at the end of the south nave (same hours, except Sun: April–June 1–5.30pm; July–Oct 1–6.30pm; Nov–March 2.30–5.30pm). Some claim it surpasses even Michelangelo’s similar cycle in the Sistine Chapel, painted forty years later and obviously heavily influenced by Signorelli’s earlier treatment.
Several painters, including Perugino and Fra’ Angelico (who completed two ceiling panels), tackled the chapel before Signorelli – a free-thinking and singular artist from nearby Cortona – was commissioned to finish it off. All but the lower walls are crowded with the movement of passionate and beautifully observed muscular figures, creating an effect that’s realistic and almost grotesquely fantastic at the same time. There are plenty of bizarre details to hold the narrative interest. A mass of monstrous lechery and naked writhing flesh fills the Inferno panel, including that of the painter’s unfaithful mistress, immortalized in hell for all to see. In another an unfortunate is having his ear bitten off by a green-buttocked demon. Signorelli, suitably clad in black, has painted himself with Fra’ Angelico in the lower left corner of The Sermon of the Antichrist, both calmly looking on as someone is garrotted at their feet.
The Cappella del Corporale
The twin Cappella del Corporale contains the sacred corporale itself, locked away in a massive, jewel-encrusted casket (designed as a deliberate copy of the facade), along with some appealing frescoes by local fourteenth-century painter Ugolino di Prete, describing events connected with the Miracle of Bolsena. The entire apse is covered in more frescoes by Ugolino, many of which were partly restored by Pinturicchio, who was eventually kicked off the job for “consuming too much gold, too much azure and too much wine”. Also worth a mention are an easily missed Madonna and Child by Gentile da Fabriano and a beautifully delicate fifteenth-century font, both near the main doors.