(left) XVIIIth century French map of the territories between Florence and Rome and the Arno and Tiber rivers, the brown line indicates the border between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (left) and the Papal State (right); the darker area is shown in the next map; (right) 1864 map of Val di Chiana: blue dots: towns covered in this section; red dots: towns covered in other sections: Montefiascone, Bolsena,
Acquapendente, Bagnoregio (Bagnorea), Todi, Perugia and Assisi
Val di Chiana, named after Chiani, a small stream which empties into the Tiber, is a valley between Tuscany and Umbria having a north-south direction. At the time of the ancient Romans Via Cassia, the road which linked Rome to Florence, crossed this valley. In the XIth century, during a conflict between Perugia and Orvieto, the inhabitants of the latter town built a dam on the Chiani which turned the valley into a marsh. The route of Via Cassia was modified and it ran across Acquapendente and Siena. The political division of the valley between the Papal State and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany added to the misery of this part of the country until the late XVIIIth century when the two states reached an agreement which eventually led to reclaiming the valley. This section includes also some "excursions" to visit towns of Val di Chiana which were part of the Grand Duchy.
The last Etruscan site in the great central plain (of Viterbo) that I have to describe is Orvieto, which lies on the extreme verge of the plain to the north-east. From Bolsena it is distant eight or nine miles; from Monte Fiascone, nearly eighteen. Both roads are "carriageable". I took the latter; and in default of a better mode of conveyance was fain to journey on an ass, with another for my luggage. This means of transit is pleasant enough in a fine country and fair weather; and in Italy one sacrifices no dignity by such a monture. But when "nebulae malusque Jupiter" rule the heavens, or the road is to be travelled with all speed - preserve me from the pack-saddle!
George Dennis - The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria - 1848
In 1875 the route of the Florence-Rome railway was significantly shortened by the opening of a new section across Val di Chiana. In 1877 Henry James complained about the change: The railway journey from Florence to Rome has been altered both for the better and for the worse; for the better in that it has been shortened by a couple of hours; for the worse as (..) the train deflects to the west and leaves the beautiful old cities of Perugia, Assisi, Terni, Narni, unvisited. (..) Now, however, for compensation, the express train to Rome stops at Orvieto.
In 1964 Autostrada del Sole, the main Italian highway, was completed by the opening of the section between Chiusi and Orvieto. Both Orvieto and Val di Chiana have greatly gained from these transport facilities and are visited by very many tourists whereas in the past Grand Tour travellers usually did not include them in their Italian itinerary.
Orvieto is a large strong city, on a steep hill, surrounded on every side with rocks and precipices. (..) It was once a potent and populous city but is now much upon the decline.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
(above) Western side of the rock with S. Giovenale on the left; (below) south-western side of the rock; (inset) distant view of the rock from the north showing the Cathedral on the left
The first view of Orvieto from this side is one of the most imposing in Italy. The road, which is level for the greater part of the way, leads unexpectedly to the verge of a cliff where a scene magnificent enough to compensate for any discomfort, bursts on the view. From the midst of the wide and deep valley at my feet, rose, about two miles distant, an isolated height, like a truncated cone, crowned with the towers of Orvieto. (..) The rock on which Orvieto stands is of red tufo, scarped naturally beneath the walls, but then sinking in a steep slope into the valley on every side. This is the extreme verge of the tufo district, and the nature of the ground resembles that of the northern division of Etruria. Dennis
Orvieto is situated on an isolated rock at the north-eastern end of the volcanic plateau which characterizes northern Latium. The steep cliffs of the rock provided a natural defence which attracted the first settlers.
Tempio del Belvedere, an Etruscan temple at the eastern end of the town which was discovered in 1828 (see some elements of its terracotta decoration at Museo Faina)
The antiquity of Orvieto is implied in its name, a corruption of Urbs Vetus. But to its original appellation we have no clue. (..) Müller broaches the opinion that this Urbs Vetus was no other than the "old city" of Volsinii (Bolsena), which was destroyed by the Romans on its capture. But the distance of eight or nine miles from the new town is too great to favour this opinion. (..) Unlike most Etruscan cities, Orvieto does not retain a vestige of its ancient walls. It has even been asserted, on authority, that the city was not originally fortified. It is now however girt by walls of the middle ages, and has a strong fortress to boot. Dennis
The rock housed an Etruscan town which was conquered by the Romans in the IIIrd century BC. According to the prevailing opinion the Romans chose to relocate the inhabitants to Bolsena, instead of founding a colony, and the old town was abandoned.
View from near S. Giovenale towards Mt. Amiata (5,333 ft) the highest mountain of southern Tuscany
The sky was overcast, the atmosphere dense and misty, and the brilliant hues of sunshine were wanting; yet the grand features of the scene were visible as in an engraving. There were the picturesque convent-towers embosomed in groves on the slopes in the foreground - the luxuriant cultivation of the valley beneath - the Paglia snaking through it, spanned by its bridges - there was the wide stretch of the city, bristling from its broad cliff-bound rock, in the centre of the scene - the background of mountains, which looming through vapour and cloud, lost nothing of altitude or sublimity - and the whole was set in a frame-work of tall precipices, hung with woods, and with many a cataract streaking their steeps. Dennis
The natural protection offered by the rock attracted new inhabitants from Bolsena in the Early Middle Ages. They occupied the south-western corner of the rock near the ancient access to the Etruscan town. The first bishop of Ourbibentos is recorded in 590 in a Byzantine chronicle.
(left) Walls near Porta Maggiore; (right) Porta Maggiore; (inset) marble ribbon above Porta Maggiore which held a coat of arms, similar to that of Pope Paul III at Palazzo Soliano and at Bastione del Sangallo in Rome
The Etruscans cut the cliff to provide their town with a proper access and this is still remembered by the name given to the street leading to the gate: Via della Cava, Street of the Quarry, because it was excavated into the rock. Porta Maggiore was the main access to the town until 1882. The niche above the gate housed a statue of Pope Boniface VIII who often resided at Orvieto.
The Pope was portrayed with the very tall conical headdress which he introduced to signify the supremacy of his position over kings and other sovereigns (you may wish to see in more detail the headdress in the funerary monument of the Pope by Arnolfo di Cambio).
The ancient Romans placed their written laws in the Tabularium, a building overlooking the Roman Forum. The municipal authorities of Orvieto imitated them by writing their most important laws on marble inscriptions which were placed in the Town Hall. That of 1209 dealt with taxation rules: it listed exemptions from taxation which could be revoked in case of great danger, e.g. a war.
an autumn morning I left Orvieto to travel by vettura southwards. The
valley that surrounds the isolated height where the city stands was filled with dense mist, like a
rolling sea of white waves; nothing of town, towers, or rocks was visible through that autumnal veil.
Charles Isidore Hemans, son of poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans (from A. J. C. Hare - Days near Rome - 1875)
Foggy mornings are not unusual in the inner valleys of the Italian peninsula, see other examples in Sabina and at Todi.
posterula is a Latin word meaning small, rear gate. The name may appear inappropriate for the XIIIth century tall gate built at the eastern end of the rock, but it refers to a small gate which stood there and was replaced by Porta Postierla. The XIIIth century marked the peak of the power of Orvieto which controlled a vast territory including a port (Orbetello, small Orvieto) on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The whole rock was fortified, although the town was limited to its western side.
Because of its Cathedral, Orvieto is strictly associated with Italian Gothic architecture, but some of its early churches show other styles. S. Giovenale is a Romanesque church (XIth century) built in a commanding position. Its bell tower was most likely a watchtower from which the inhabitants could be forewarned of enemies approaching the town.
The bell tower of Abbazia dei SS. Severo e Martirio (south of the rock) has a Romanesque bell tower (XIIth century) typical of Lombardy (a similar tower can be seen in page three and at Amelia, another town of Umbria not far from Orvieto). The church is much older; see an elaborate IXth century marble relief now at Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
In the XIIIth century an aqueduct was built to provide Orvieto with water and chronicles indicate that the town had several fountains. The aqueduct however was built at too low a level (it did not rest on arches); the complex system which made the water rise to the level of the town wore out and in the XVIth century it was completely abandoned and the fountains were replaced by wells (e.g. Pozzo di S. Patrizio and others).
S. Francesco: (left) façade; (right) portal (the image used as background for this page shows a detail of the portal of S. Agostino, another large church of the same period; Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians built their churches in different parts of the town, similar to what occurred at Spoleto)
S. Francesco was built in 1240-1266. Its size indicates the importance acquired by the order founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi. The portal was decorated with a pink stone from Mt. Subasio, the mountain of Assisi, which characterizes many churches of that town.
The solemn funerals of Henri of Almain were held in this church. The English knight was assassinated in Viterbo in March 1271. The ceremony was attended by Pope Gregory X and by King Edward I of England and his wife Eleanor of Castile who were on their way home from the Holy Land.
The Dominican Order was approved in 1216 and it soon became very popular. S. Domenico was built in 1260-1280. The pillars of the church were decorated with layers of white and black (volcanic) stone, a pattern which was followed a few years later for
the construction of the Cathedral.
S. Domenico was a very large church, but in 1934 its nave was demolished to make room for modern buildings. The church had been modified in the XVIIIth century and in the 1930s its Baroque style was not much appreciated. The transept and the tribune were spared and a portal from another church was utilized as an entrance to the much reduced building. Some very fine paintings by Simone Martini (ca 1320) were relocated to Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
Guillaume de Braye was for twenty years (1262-1282) one of the most influential members of the Papal Court which often moved from Viterbo to Orvieto. His monument in S. Domenico shows the talent and skill of Arnolfo di Cambio, the leading architect and sculptor of his time. The monument was dismantled in 1680 and reconstructed, perhaps not accurately, in 1750 with the loss of the canopy. The two servants who close the curtains break the rigid pyramidal scheme of traditional gisants monuments. Two small similar statues which were part of the monument are on display at Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
(left) Torre del Moro; (centre) Torre del Maurizio; (right) Torre Polidori
The political structure of a medieval Italian town-state such as Orvieto was very complex. The town had its own governing bodies, but it had to accept the ultimate sovereignty of the Pope or even of the German Emperor. Leading families competed for supremacy and opposite factions were often at war. This had an impact on the urban landscape of Orvieto as many families built towers to protect themselves. Some of these towers were eventually incorporated into public buildings and were utilized as supports for clocks and bronze figures striking the hours on a bell.
In the XIIIth century the power of the families of noble origin was challenged by Popolo Grasso (Fat People), an emerging class of merchants and representatives of the guilds. They advocated a greater role in the government of the town. The Capitano del Popolo was a magistrate elected by this class and in a way it resembled the plebeian tribunes of the ancient Roman Republic, such as the Gracchi brothers. This political structure required a building which could house assemblies of the representatives of Popolo Grasso. Palazzo del Popolo was built in 1281-1308 and its sheer size was meant to symbolize the importance of the institution. You may wish to see that of Todi.
Sala dei Quattrocento, a great hall for the assemblies, could house four hundred delegates and today it is often used by political parties for their conferences. After the decline of the local independent government system, Palazzo del Popolo was utilized by delegates of the popes who painted the walls of Sala dei Quattrocento with their coats of arms and with those of the popes who appointed them, similar to what occurred at Spoleto.
Palazzo del Popolo: (left) a window; (right) nearby well with the coat of arms of Pope Clement VII (inset)
Orvieto - Cathedral and Papal Palace
Orvieto - Renaissance Monuments
Orvieto - Museums
Città della Pieve
An Excursion to Chiusi
Castiglione del Lago
An Excursion to Cortona
An Excursion to Montepulciano
An Excursion to Castiglion Fiorentino