Out on a limb from the rest of Umbria, Orvieto is perfectly placed between Rome and Florence to serve as a historical picnic for tour operators. Visitors flood into the town, drawn by the Duomo, one of the greatest Gothic buildings in Italy. However, once its facade and Signorelli’s frescoes have been admired, the town’s not quite as exciting as guides and word of mouth make out. This is partly to do with the gloominess of the dark volcanic rock from which Orvieto is built, and, more poetically, because it harbours something of the characteristic brooding atmosphere of Etruscan towns (it was one of the twelve-strong federation of Etruscan cities). Two thousand years on, it’s not difficult to detect a more laid back atmosphere in the cities east of the Tiber – founded by the Umbrians, a sunnier and easier-going people. All the same Orvieto is likeable, the setting superb, the Duomo unmissable, and the rest of the town good for a couple of hours’ visit. And you could always indulge in its renowned white wine if you’re stuck with time on your hands. Over New Year there's also the Umbria Jazz Winter festival: five days of marching bands and jazz performances.
It is the first impressions of Orvieto from afar that tend to linger; its position is almost as remarkable and famous as its cathedral. The town, rising 300m sheer from the valley floor, sits on a tabletop plug of volcanic lava, one of four such remnants in the vicinity. It starts to look fairly average again from the dismal town around the train station, but hit the twisting 3km road up to the old centre and you begin to get a sense of its drama and one-off weirdness. Orvieto’s old centre is compact and walkable: all of the main sights are within a twenty-minute stroll of the Duomo.
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.
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. 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 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.
Top image: Orvieto, Umbria Italy © Jasper Suijten/Shutterstock