If you came directly to this page you may wish to read a page on the medieval monuments of the town first.
The cathedral though of Gothic architecture is a handsome building which was begun in 1260 by Nicolo Pisano. The front is adorned with fine statues: among the rest the virgin Mary and the four Evangelists with a bajo relievo of the last judgment by the said Nicolo Pisano and others representing some histories of the old testament. The other half of the front is a surprising work in Mosaic by Scalza expressing the history of the new testament. In the church there is a very fine organ and a basorelievo of Raphael da Monte Lupo. Here is also a chapel which was begun to be painted by F. Angelo, a Dominican, and finished by Luke Signorelli where you see a very beautiful representation of the last judgement.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
Cathedral: south-western view at sunset
It is foreign to the purpose of this work, or I could expatiate on the glories of this Cathedral. Willingly would I descant on its matchless fašade, similar in style, but more chaste and elegant than that of Siena - on the graces of its Lombard architecture - on its fretted arches and open galleries - its columns varied in hue and form - its aspiring pediments - its marigold window with the circling guard of saints and angels - its quaint bas-reliefs - its many-hued marbles - its mosaics gilding, warming and enriching the whole, yet imparting no meretricious gaudiness, - the entire fašade being the petrifaction of an illuminated missal - a triumphant blaze of beauty obtained by the union and tasteful combination of the three Sister Graces of Art. (..) But such objects are foreign to my theme, and I must pass them by, simply assuring the traveller, that no town in Central Italy more urgently demands a visit, for the beauty of the site and surrounding scenery, and for the unrivalled glories of its Cathedral.
George Dennis - The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria - 1848
Notwithstanding the flattering comments by Nugent and Dennis, it was not until the railway linked Orvieto to Florence and Rome in 1875 that the Cathedral received proper attention by Italian and foreign travellers.
Cathedral: north-western view from Palazzo Faina
On November 13, 1290 Pope Nicholas IV laid the first stone of the Cathedral of Orvieto. The construction of such a large church was supported by the magistrates of the town who wanted to provide Orvieto with a cathedral which could compete with that which Siena, the arch-rival town, was in the process of completing.
The enterprise had a religious purpose too; in 1264 Pope Urban IV had instituted the festivity of Corpus Christi when he resided at Orvieto and the new building was meant to house the corporal (a white linen cloth) with blood stains of the Miracle of Bolsena which prompted the papal decision. The design of the fašade was inspired by that of the Cathedral of Siena and it is regarded as a masterpiece of Italian Gothic style.
The fronts of the Cathedrals of Siena and Orvieto
are perhaps the most splendid achievements of Italian Gothic, and show most completely the merits and defects
of the style. The two are much alike; the lower stage
is divided into three square compartments containing the three pedimented doorways of nave and aisles. (..) In the upper storey
a square panel in the centre contains the great western
rose window of the nave, and each of the three divisions
is finished with a gable. Turrets crowned with spirelets
flank the fašade, and two smaller piers with pinnacles
divide the three compartments and run up beside the
central square. (..) Such are these famous fronts, enriched
with precious sculpture and inlays of coloured marble
and mosaic, exhausting all the resources of contemporary
Thomas Graham Jackson - Gothic architecture in France, England, and Italy - 1915
A high concert of colour is the densely carved front, richly covered with radiant mosaics. The old white marble of the sculptured portions is as softly yellow as ancient ivory; the large exceedingly bright pictures above them flashed and twinkled in the glorious weather.
Henry James - Italian Hours (in 1877)
The building was begun in 1290, and consecrated in 1309, the architect being Lorenzo Maitani of Siena, who lived to see it completely finished in 1330. (..) The jamb shafts are inlaid with mosaic, and mosaic pictures fill the tympana and spandrils. But alas! the original mosaics are gone, one of those from the tympana is now in the museum at South Kensington (V&A), and the modern pictures are only worthy of a Caffe Ristorante. (..) The ideal of the Italian was colour; that of the Frenchman light and shade. The sentiment was wholly different; on the one hand there was the mystery, the romance, the seriousness and gloom of the North, on the other the clear, positive directness of the Italian mind, its freedom from illusion, its sensuous enjoyment of beauty and gaiety. Graham Jackson
In 1308 the completion of the cathedral was entrusted to Lorenzo Maitani, an architect and sculptor, who is believed to have been involved also in some of the reliefs which decorate the building. The presence of large mosaics on a golden background was typical of the oldest churches of Rome. Unfortunately the original mosaics wore out and were replaced by new ones in the XVIth, XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries or were poorly restored in the XIXth century.
Under Maitani's superintendence were employed no fewer than forty architects,
sculptors, and painters from Florence and Siena, who
settled at Orvieto and were formed into a corporate body
with a separate head for each craft. Graham Jackson
The completion of such a large enterprise was made possible by the creation of Opera Pia Sanctae Mariae or Opera del Duomo, a foundation in charge of the construction of the Cathedral, similar to that founded in Florence in 1296 for the same purpose (and in Rome in 1506). Many wealthy citizens made donations to Opera del Duomo, rather than to ecclesiastical authorities. This body is still in charge of the maintenance of the building. Its museum (MODU Museo dell'Opera del DUomo in a palace behind the Cathedral) displays some works of art which have been removed to ensure their conservation, e.g. the statues in the lunette of the central portal and two original mosaics of the fašade. The Cathedral was dedicated to St. Mary of the Star; the dedication was changed to St. Mary's Assumption in the XIXth century.
Four great bronze statues depicting the symbols of the Evangelists project from the fašade. They were part of the complex iconographic project which was developed for the fašade which included the mosaics, four panels of marble reliefs and three other bronze statues at the top of the pinnacles of the portals; see that of St. Michael the Archangel in the museum. The choice of using bronze statues was perhaps suggested by those at Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia, because usually these symbols were sculptured at the corners of the frame surrounding the rose window as at Spoleto and Tuscania.
The piers between the portals, and beyond them, are
covered with sculpture of a most interesting kind. The
resurrection and last judgement and other sacred subjects
are represented by groups of small figures, tier above
tier, divided by sprays of delicate foliage branching right
and left from an upright growth of interlacing stems.
It is uncertain to what artist these admirable sculptures
must be attributed. Vasari says they are by Niccola
Pisano, but it is now believed that they were carved
between 1325 and 1331, and Niccola died in 1278 and
his son Giovanni in 1320. Graham Jackson
Summa Theologica is a compendium of all the main theological teachings of the Catholic Church written by St. Thomas Aquinas in 1265-1274. The four panels of reliefs which decorate the pillars at the sides of the portals could be called a Summa Theologica in marble as they were meant to illustrate key aspects of the Christian faith. The first one starts from the beginning as it portrays episodes from the Book of Genesis.
Cathedral: decoration of the second pillar: episodes from the Old Testament and the Crucifixion
The second panel is a sort of link between the Old and the New Testament; it does not show some very popular and very often represented episodes of the Old Testament such as the Sacrifice of Isaac, but it focuses on episodes and personages prophesizing the advent of a Messiah.
The image above shows the variety of marbles which were employed to decorate the frames of the panels. Companies of artists were sent to Rome to search the ancient monuments for the most suitable stones.
Cathedral: decoration of the third pillar: episodes from the Gospels
The third pillar was decorated with sixteen episodes of the life of Jesus which the believers were very familiar with from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion. In all four panels the episodes were framed either by branches and leaves of ivy and vine (first and fourth pillar) or by a complex of acanthus leaves and small portraits of prophets (second and third).
Cathedral: decoration of the fourth pillar: the Last Judgement
Believers were asked to follow the moral teachings of the Church as set in the Ten Commandments or in the parables of Jesus. They were told their behaviour would be judged and they would receive divine reward or punishment. The fourth panel illustrated the phases of the Last Judgement. The last episode portrayed the sinners being brought to Hell by horrible devils, a most terrifying scene. In Orthodox churches this episode was painted on the rear fašade so that it was the last to be seen, a sort of final warning not to sin (you may wish to see the Last Judgement at Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas in Greece) and occasionally this occurred in Catholic churches, e.g. at Farfa.
The new cathedral was built on the site of a previous one and most likely the elaborate portal on its southern side belonged to that church. It is placed between two of the five small semicircular chapels which project from the side wall. They strengthened the structure of the building and at the same time they had a decorative effect.
I could say much of the interior and its decorations - of its spaciousness and gloomy grandeur, more devotion-stirring than other cathedrals of Central Italy - of the massive banded columns, with their quaint capitals - of the frescoed walls and chapels, and the manifold treasures of art - the dignity and simplicity of Mochi's Virgin - the intensity of feeling in the PietÓ of Scalza, and its well-contrasted divinity and humanity - the delicacy, tenderness, and celestial purity and radiancy of Fra Angelico's frescoes, - and above all I could descant on the glories of Luca Signorelli, not elsewhere to be appreciated - on the elevated poetry, the grandeur of composition, the grace and truthfulness of execution of those marvellous and awful frescoes which have immortalized his name, and made him a model of sublimity to Raffaelle and Michael Angelo. Dennis
The choir ends square, with a single long window of four lights, and there are quadripartite vaults over choir and central crossing. The columns and walls, both within and without, are of white and black stone in bands, marble being reserved for the fašade. The nave arches are semi-circular, but those across the aisles are pointed. (..) Altogether this is an extremely beautiful building, both inside and outside. Graham Jackson
Cathedral - floor: (left) a tile designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger with the symbol of the Farnese, the family of Pope Paul III; (right) a XVth century tile with inscription indicating the burial site of a local family
In the XXth century the old floor was so worn out that it was almost entirely replaced by a new one. Although the same stone was used the new floor is too polished and shining and the interior of the Cathedral has lost the "gloomy grandeur" described by Dennis. A part of the floor retains the design of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger who worked for the Farnese, who had many fiefdoms south of Orvieto, e.g. the Duchy of Castro. A few tiles have inscriptions and heraldic symbols which indicate the location of burials.
Cathedral: (left) large baptismal font; (right) details
Between the aisle windows the wall is, as it were, buttressed by narrow semi-circular apses, probably intended for small chapels. Graham Jackson
The Cathedral does not have proper chapels along the side aisle. In most Catholic churches the baptismal font is placed in the first chapel to the left; this especially after 1577 when Cardinal Carlo Borromeo wrote Instructiones Fabricae et Suppelectilis Ecclesiasticae, a booklet which established precise rules about the design and decoration of churches. The baptismal font of the Cathedral was placed near the left portal, in line with the Christian interpretation of a sentence by Ezekiel (47.1) The man brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east).
The baptismal font is a very complex one and it is supported by rather primitive marble lions whereas the reliefs of the red basin have Renaissance features. It was made in 1390-1407 by three different sculptors.
(left) Cappella dei Magi - marble altarpiece: detail by Raffaello da Montelupo; (right) PietÓ by Ippolito Scalza near the main altar (in origin it was inside Cappella di S. Brizio)
The marble altarpiece of Cappella dei Magi was designed by Michele Sammicheli, an architect from Verona who is best known for the fortifications he built for the Republic of Venice. In his early career as an architect he worked at Orvieto as superintendent of the Opera del Duomo. The altarpiece was actually executed by him and other four sculptors, including Raffaello da Montelupo who had worked with Michelangelo at the Monument to Pope Julius II.
Ippolito Scalza (1532-1617) is best known as an architect and many palaces of Orvieto were designed by him. Similar to other architects of his time he was also an excellent sculptor.
Francesco Mochi (1580-1654) Born near Florence. (..) His first
independent work of importance, the large marble figures of the Annunciation at Orvieto, show in a fascinating mixture the components of his style: linear Tuscan and realistic North Italian Mannerism. Mochi knew how to blend these elements into a
manner of immense vitality; the Annunciation is like a fanfare raising sculpture from its
slumber. (..) After his return to Rome he executed his most spectacular work, the giant marble
statue of St Veronica (St Peter's, 1629-40), which seems to rush out of its niche driven
by uncontrollable pathos. In this work Mochi already reveals a peculiar nervous vehemence and strain. (..) His later statues, such as the Christ and St John from the Ponte Molle, the Taddaeus at Orvieto and the St Peter and St Paul of the
Porta del Popolo (1638-52), are not only an unexpected anachronism, but are also very
unequal in quality. (..) His Baroque works antedate those of the young Bernini, whose superiority
he refused to acknowledge - and it was this that broke him.
Rudolf Wittkower - Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 - 1955
The statues of the Twelve Apostles which decorate the interior were made in line with a plan developed by Scalza which was completed only in 1722 (see a gypsum model of one of the two last statues by Bernardino Cametti in the museum). In 1897 the statues of the Apostles and of the Annunciation were removed to the museum of the Cathedral and only in 2019 they were brought back to their original location.
Cappella del Corporale: XIVth century frescoes of the vault which were repainted in the XIXth century (access to the chapel is reserved only to those who wish to pray)
The interior shows a curious
reversion to the basilican plan of long colonnades, not
divided into bays, with wooden roofs over both nave and
aisles instead of vaulting. There is a
shallow transept not extending beyond the aisles, and at
each end of the transept, which is as high as the nave, is
a lower chapel. (..) That on the
north contains the reliquary of the Bolsena miracle. Graham Jackson
The overall aspect of the Cathedral is that of a Latin cross building, but this result is achieved by the addition of two chapels to the basilica layout of the interior. A similar scheme was adopted in the late XVIth century/ early XVIIth century at S. Maria Maggiore to align the old Roman basilica with the recommendations of Cardinal Borromeo.
The chapel on the south contains the famous
frescoes by Luca Signorelli and Fra Angelico, with their
portraits, and the marvellously foreshortened figures by
which Luca astonished his contemporaries. Graham Jackson
Cappella di S. Brizio was completed in 1444 and it is famous for its fresco decoration, which was started by Beato Angelico (and his assistants, including Benozzo Gozzoli) in 1447-1449 and was completed by Luca Signorelli in 1504. You may wish to see some very fine paintings by Beato Angelico at Cortona.
Cappella di S. Brizio: the Prophets by Beato Angelico (upper left corner) and other frescoes by Luca Signorelli depicting the Doctors of the Church (upper right corner), Hell (left) and the Resurrection of the Flesh (right)
There seems to be a moment in the life of every great man in which he touches the height of his possibilities, and reaches the limits of his powers of expression. To Signorelli it came late, at an age when most men begin to feel at least their physical powers on the wane. (..) That opportunity came, when, at the age of fifty-nine, he was called upon to undertake the vast work of these Orvieto frescoes. With the exception of the Sistine Chapel, no such task has been achieved at so sustained a pitch of imaginative power and technical excellence. Whether the subject stirred his dramatic spirit, or whether the great spaces to be filled gave an expanded sense of liberty to his genius, or whether his powers, intellectual and physical, really were at the zenith of their strength; whatever was the cause, he succeeded in executing a work which ranks among the greatest monuments of the Renaissance.
Maud Cruttwell - Luca Signorelli - 1899
The agreement signed by Signorelli explicitly stated that he should follow the advice of theologians in the representation of the various phases of the Last Judgement. The dramatic way he portrayed these phases is an indication of the tension on moral and religious issues which existed in Italy at the time of Pope Alexander VI. Basically it was caused by the contrast between the revival of interest in Classical art and philosophy and calls for Christian renewal.
Cappella di S. Brizio: "Preaching and Fall of the Antichrist" by Luca Signorelli
Vasari thus speaks of the frescoes: "In the principal church of Orvieto that of the Madonna he completed with his own hand the chapel which had been begun there by Fra Giovane da Fiesole (Beato Angelico); in which he painted all the history of the end of the world, with strange fantastic invention: Angels, demons, ruins, earthquakes, fires, miracles of Antichrist, and many other of the like things ; besides which, nudes, foreshortened figures, and many beautiful designs. (..) Wherefore it does not surprise me that the works of Luca should have always been most highly praised by Michelagnolo, nor that certain things of his divine Judgement which he painted in the chapel were in part courteously taken from the invention of Luca." (..) In the "Preaching and Fall of the Antichrist" the foreground is filled with groups of the followers of the false prophet, who, with the features of Christ, stands on a little raised dais, listening with an evil expression, as the Devil behind him, unseen by the crowd, whispers into his ear what he shall say. Before the dais are scattered gold vessels, bars and coins, with which he tempts the audience. Farther back to the right, different groups represent the false teaching and miracles of Antichrist, and in the background is his Temple, with armed men going in and out of its open portico. Cruttwell
The Apocalypse is a rare subject for Italian artists, and this is one of the few known paintings portraying the Antichrist, who is supposed to come to the world before its end. In Signorelli's fresco the action takes place in an Italian city and quite possibly it reflected recent events, e.g. those which led to the execution of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar, who was condemned as Antichrist by the Church and was burnt at the stake in Florence in May 1498.
Cappella di S. Brizio: PietÓ by Luca Signorelli (see the same subject in another of his paintings at Cortona)
Under the larger frescoes, is a recess, in which was formerly the sarcophagus containing the bones of Pietro Parens, the patron saint of Orvieto. In this recess, under the brackets on which the sarcophagus stood, Signorelli has painted one of his most beautiful "Pietas." (..) Behind is painted the Tomb, on which is a relief in grisaille of four naked figures bearing the dead body of the Saviour. This formed the lower part of the now removed sarcophagus, the three stone supports of which still project from the wall. On the right of the "Pieta" is painted the martyr Pietro Parens himself. The saint gazes down with tender reverence at the scene at his feet, standing in fur-trimmed robes and cap, one hand on his breast, the other holding the palm of martyrdom. Over his head is the hammer, the instrument of his death. The face is of extreme beauty, with gentle expression, the robes are finely draped, the attitude most natural, and the whole figure is one of the noblest and most sympathetic of all Signorelli's works, and deserves to be better known. On the other side, and also as supporter of the "Pieta," stands Faustinus, another patron saint of the city, also a very beautiful figure, with features which recall the type generally used by Signorelli for S. John. At his feet lies the millstone with which he was drowned. On either side, in the thickness of the wall, is a medallion in grisaille, containing the scenes of their deaths, very powerfully painted. Cruttwell
In 1502 Signorelli lost his son Antonio because of a pestilence; he had nearly the age of Jesus Christ at his death and Vasari reports that Signorelli made a drawing of his naked body. Based on this episode, many suggest that the Christ of the PietÓ is a portrait of Antonio.
The chapel was dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, but in the early XVIIIth century it was turned into the chapel of the family Gualterio (see the portal of their palace). Its decoration reflects the Roman fashion of the time for the use of coloured marbles (see a page on this topic).
In 1154 Adrian IV was the first pope to reside in Orvieto and his example was followed by many others. A series of palaces was built to
the south of the Cathedral, the last one (Palazzo di Soliano) at the initiative of Pope Boniface VIII in 1297.
The palaces were poorly kept in the following centuries. Bishop Stephen Gardiner paid a visit
to Pope Clement VII who resided in Orvieto after the 1527 Sack of Rome, and he reported to King Henry VIII:
The Pope lieth in an old palace of the bishop's of this city, ruinous and decayed, where, when we came to his privy-chamber, we passed three chambers, all naked and unhanged with the roofs falling down. And as for the Pope's bed-chamber, all the apparel in it was not worth twenty nobles, bed and all. (from A. J. C. Hare - Days near Rome - 1875).
Having lost their original purpose of housing the Papal Court the buildings were adapted to other uses and modified according to new fashions. In the late XIXth century architect Paolo Zampi redesigned the papal palaces in an attempt to bring them back to their XIIIth century aspect. They now house Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (with a section dedicated to XXth century sculptor Emilio Greco) and Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Orvieto.
Orvieto - Medieval Monuments
Orvieto - Renaissance Monuments
Orvieto - Museums
CittÓ della Pieve
An Excursion to Chiusi
Castiglione del Lago
An Excursion to Cortona
An Excursion to Montepulciano
An Excursion to Castiglion Fiorentino
An Excursion to Arezzo