For an introduction to Maremma and a map of the region you may wish to read page one first.
View of Orbetello from the western (Mount Argentario) side of the lagoon
Tuesday, May 12. 1789. At Orbitello I found the whole town celebrating the festival of their patron saint, and was treated with two horse races in the evening. My lodging, which was the only one to be found, was worse than indifferent: I was nearly devoured by fleas, &c.
(..) Orbitello, Monte Argentaro, &c. and Porto Lungone in the Isle of Elba, compose what is called Lo Stato de Presidii. They are considered as the keys of Tuscany, and as such retained by the courts of Spain and Naples. (..) The population is thin, and cultivation scanty; yet all its productions are highly flavoured, and excellent in their kind. The seasons are much earlier here than on the opposite coast, and fruits ripen sooner than in the other part of Tuscany. (..)
Orbitello is the largest town in these parts. Its situation is low, and it is almost surrounded by the lake, which infects the air even to the very gates. From the strength of the population within the walls, the town itself is kept tolerably healthy.
Richard Colt Hoare - A classical tour through Italy and Sicily - publ. 1819
The image used as background for this page shows a statue of St. Blaise of Sebaste, patron saint of Orbetello, at the top of Porta Interna di Terra (see below).
Monte Argentaro is the Mons Argentarius of the ancients, and as such mentioned by Rutilius Numatianus, Cluverius, and others. Colt Hoare
The shades of night as yet are undispelled when we entrust ourselves to the sea. Born of the neighbouring hill-crest, a breeze befriends us. Mount Argentarius juts out amidst the waves and with two-fold ridge confines the blue waters of its bays, shortening the road across the hills to twice three miles, while its extent round by sea is three times twelve. (..) We just succeeded in doubling that long round of scattered crags, nor are the helmsman's anxious détours without heavy toil - so often puffs of wind change with each varying tack: the sails which helped a moment since are suddenly a drag.
Rutilius Namatianus - De Reditu Suo (A Voyage Home to Gaul in 416 AD) - Loeb edition 1934
Wednesday, May 13. At Orbitello I met some friends, whom I had quitted at Siena. After breakfast, we all repaired to the Convent of the Ritiro on Monte Argentaro. We traversed the Lake of Orbitello for two miles then landed, and after mounting a steep ascent for two miles more, under a scorching sun, we found ourselves at the place of our destination. This convent, with another about half a mile distant, has been lately founded. The inmates are Passionists, and of the mendicant order. Their buildings are good and neat, and the situation delightful. The convent is surrounded with a grove of chestnuts and evergreens, &c. and commands an extensive prospect of Orbitello, the Maremma, the sea, Corsica, and other distant islands and coasts. In the vicinity rise abundant springs of the purest water, an article peculiarly scarce in these districts. It is conveyed from hence to the sea shore by means of a subterraneous aqueduct, and afterwards to Orbitello, where the water is very bad. As in the Isle of Elba, the uncultivated mountains are clothed with a brushwood of myrtles,. &c. though not in so great a variety. On the neighbouring coast is a tunny fishery, which produces plenty of good fish. From the monks we received a hearty welcome. We dined in the refectory, and left them a present to say mass, the only mode which the rules of the order permitted to pay them for their trouble. Had I before known of this convent I should have chosen it for my lodging, instead of the place I found at Orbitello. (..) Many think, and I am inclined to coincide in the opinion, that Monte Argentaro was once an island. Its insulated appearance, the rocks adjoining the part connected with the opposite coast by a slip of land, and the daily increase of that slip of land itself, furnish a strong presumptive evidence for such a conclusion. Colt Hoare
Stagno (Swamp) di Ponente: Spanish windmill near the western end of Orbetello (the only remaining of nine which in origin exploited the tidal rise and fall) and in the distance Porto Santo Stefano
Besides the forts of Porto Ercole and Orbetello, is that of St. Stefano, at the other extremity of the harbour. It is connected with the opposite coast by a narrow strip of land, which divides the Lake of Orbitello from the sea. (..) Not far distant from the part on which St. Stefano is situated, is the little island of Giglio, on which I heard there were some trifling remains of antiquity. Colt Hoare
The road to Orbetello (from Grosseto) runs along the swampy shore, with low bare heights inland, (..) and with the lofty headland of Monte Argentaro seaward, and the wooded peaks of the Giglio - by its side; often concealed by the woods of pine, which stretch for miles in a dense black line along this coast. (..) The river Albegna with a little fort on its left bank, marked the frontier of the Presidj, a small district on this coast, which belonged first to Spain, then to Naples, and was annexed to Tuscany at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. (..) For five or six miles after the Albegna, the road traverses pine-woods, and then branches off to Orbetello, which lies at the extremity of a long tongue of sand, stretching into its wide lagoon, and is over-shadowed by the double-peaked mountain-mass of Argentaro.
George Dennis - The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria - 1878
The one picturesque point between Leghorn and Rome is where the salt lake of Orbetello opens upon the right of the railway, reaching in a shimmering expanse of still water, studded with fishing-boats, to the abrupt purple cliffs of Monte Argentaro. On either side it is enclosed by sand-banks. Strabo mentions this lagoon as the "sea-mark," and it adds greatly to the unhealthiness of the country, which it abundantly supplies with fish. Orbetello is surrounded by walls built in the 17th century by the Spaniards.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Days near Rome - 1875
Orbetello presents a threatening front to the stranger. A strong line of fortifications crosses the sandy isthmus by which he approaches it; principally the work of the Spaniards, who possessed the town for a hundred and fifty years - from 1557 to 1707. On every other side it is fenced in by a stout sea-wall. But its chief strength lies in its position in the midst of the wide lagoon, protected from all attacks by sea by the two necks of sand which unite Monte Argentaro to the mainland; and to be otherwise approached only by the narrow tongue, on whose tip it stands. This Stagno, or lagoon, is a vast expanse of stagnant salt-water, so shallow that it may be forded in parts, yet never dried up by the hottest summer; the curse of the country around, for the foul and pestilent vapours, and the swarms of musquitoes and other insects it generates at that season, yet compensating the inhabitants with an abundance of fish. (..) Orbetello is a place of some size, having nearly 3000 inhabitants, and among Maremma towns, is second only to Grosseto. It is a proof how much population tends to salubrity in the Maremma, that Orbetello, though in the midst of a stagnant lagoon, ten square miles in extent, is comparatively healthy, and has almost doubled its population in 24 years. Dennis
Orbetello has interest for the antiquary. The foundations of the sea-wall which surround it on three sides, are of vast polygonal blocks, just such as are seen on many ancient sites of Central Italy- - Norba, Segni, Palestrina, to wit - and such as compose the walls of the neighbouring Cosa. That these blocks are of ancient shaping no one acquainted with the so-called Pelasgic remains of Italy can for a moment doubt; and that they are also in great measure of ancient arrangement, is equally manifest; but that they have been in some parts rebuilt, especially in the upper courses, is also obvious from the wide interstices between them, here and there, now stopped with mortar and bricks. The masonry tells its tale as clearly as stones can speak - that the ancient fortifications, having fallen into decay, were rebuilt with the old materials, but by much less skilful hands, the defects in the reconstruction being stopped up with mortar and rubble - that the blocks, even where they retain their original positions, have suffered so much from the action of the elements, especially from the salt waves of the lake, which often violently lash the walls, as to have lost much of that smoothness of surface, and that close, neat fitting of joints, which characterise this sort of masonry; and that the hollows and interstices thus formed have been in many parts plastered over with mortar. It must suffice for us at present to know that here has stood an ancient town, originally, it may be, Pelasgic, certainly Etruscan, and afterwards Roman. Dennis
The fishery is generally carried on at night, and in the way often practised in Italy and Sicily - by harpooning the fish which are attracted by a light in the prow of the boat. It is a curious sight on calm nights to see hundreds of these little skiffs or canoes wandering about with their lights, and making an ever moving illumination on the surface of the lake. Dennis
Orbetello does not retain evidence of its ancient past apart from the walls. The town must have been abandoned for a long time until the abundance of fish attracted new inhabitants; a symbolic depiction of spearfishing became the symbol of Orbetello.
Co-Cathedral of S. Maria Assunta: (left) façade: (right) Cappella di S. Biagio
According to tradition Orbetello, Mount Argentarius and Isola del Giglio were donated by Charlemagne to Abbazia delle Tre Fontane. It was only in 1981 that Pope John Paul II put an end to this very ancient link and Orbetello was included in the existing diocese of Pitigliano and Sovana, two towns in Tuscany near the border with Latium. At the time the main church of Orbetello had the rank of Collegiata, a church of some importance where a college of canons attends the ceremonies, and it became a Co-Cathedral. The oldest records report changes made to the building in 1201. The church was entirely redesigned in 1370-1376. In the XVIIth century it was enlarged, but the old façade was retained.
Co-Cathedral: rose window and statue of Jesus holding the Eucharist symbols
The decoration of the rose window is peculiar to this church because it is based on small heads portraying Charlemagne and kings, queens and bishops of his court, rather than on symbols of the Evangelists, which was rather customary, see S. Pietro at Tuscania and S. Giovanni degli Zoccoli at Viterbo. The name of Orbetello is thought to derive from that of Orvieto, because it was the port of that town.
The inscription indicates that the portal was built by Nicolò Orsini, who belonged to a branch of that powerful Roman family, who had acquired control of nearby Pitigliano and Sovana. The rule of the Orsini on Orbetello was opposed by both Orvieto and Siena and eventually it was the latter town to have the upper hand in 1414.
Co-Cathedral: relief which decorates the main altar
In 1964 works made to relocate an altar led to the discovery of a marble relief which was dated ca 800 on stylistic grounds. It might have been a section of a parapet which separated the altar from the nave which was typical of the design of early churches. The decoration is mainly based on crosses and roughly carved Solomon's knots but it includes also some animals (lion, unicorn, bird and a snake) which had a symbolic Christian meaning (see similar reliefs at S, Sabina in Rome).
(left) Porta Interna di Terra; (centre) coat of arms of King Philip III (also King of Portugal); (right) 1620 inscription and coat of arms of Pedro Giron, Duke of Osuna, Viceroy of Naples in 1616-1620
In 1559 at the end of a long war and in the frame of the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis between France and Spain, the Republic of Siena was assigned as a separate dukedom to Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence. Orbetello and other ports had already been occupied by the Spaniards who regarded them as a detached section (Stato dei Presidii - Territory of the Fortresses) of the Kingdom of Naples. The Spanish Viceroy of Naples appointed a General Vicar who ruled this territory from Orbetello (although he very often did not reside there in a permanent way).
Central pentagonal bastion (la Rocca) near the main gate
The Spaniards built state-of-the-art fortifications at Orbetello and in other towns of Stato dei Presidii. Their purpose was to repel attacks by the corsairs of Algiers and Tunis who acted under the protection of the Ottoman Sultans and occasionally in alliance with France. Similar fortifications were built at Gaeta, the northernmost port of the Kingdom of Naples.
The protection of Orbetello from land attacks was mainly provided by a large pentagonal bastion which stood on the site of previous fortifications built by Siena.
Bastion Enrique de Guzman, Viceroy of Naples in 1595-1599
Smaller bastions completed the fortifications on the land side. The bastions were protected by a deep moat. In the XXth century parts of them were demolished and the moat was filled to allow the development of the town and the passage of the railway. You may wish to see the walls of Peschiera del Garda which are still surrounded by a moat and were built in the 1550s or those of Palmanova, the finest example of Italian military architecture, which were built in the 1590s.
Ravelin near Stagno di Levante
The moat was protected by three ravelins, outworks which were typical of XVIth century fortresses (see a Venetian one at Famagusta) of which one is still standing. They were blown out when the attackers managed to seize them. You may wish to see a XVIth century fortress built by the Spaniards at Milazzo in Sicily.
The Spanish Navy with the help of that of the Republic of Genoa had only one enemy (the corsairs) to deal with until 1635 when France declared war on Spain. King Louis XIII and his prime minister Cardinal de Richelieu financed the construction of a large Mediterranean fleet. In June 1646 36 galleons, 20 galleys, and a large complement of minor vessels sailed from Toulon towards Mount Argentario. This fleet carried aboard an army of 8,000 infantry and 800 cavalry who were disembarked and laid siege to Orbetello. A Spanish fleet was sent to the relief of the town; after an inconclusive naval battle off Mount Argentario the Spaniards were able to land at Orbetello and enter the town through a minor gate on Stagno di Ponente. You may wish to learn about soccorso minore and soccorso maggiore during the 1565 Siege of Malta.
The French continued their siege to Orbetello until the end of July when a Spanish army came from the Kingdom of Naples across the Papal State and forced the French to withdraw with heavy losses. The war ended only in 1659 with the Treaty of the Pyrenees; France made some territorial gains and the current frontier between the two nations was established then. King Louis XIV of France married Maria Theresa of Spain, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain. In 1688 a new war broke out between France and a coalition of European nations which included Spain and the fortifications of Orbetello were strengthened in case of a new French attack.
(left) Porta Interna di Terra (town side); (right) coat of arms of King Charles II and inscription making reference to Luis Francisco de la Cerda y Aragón, Duke of Medinaceli, Viceroy of Naples in 1696-1702 (see some of the ancient statues which he shipped to Seville to embellish his family palace)
Another reason for strengthening the fortifications lay in the fact that Charles II was ill and heirless. The main European nations were discussing how Spain and its Empire should be partitioned when he was still alive. The King died in 1701. The Duke of Medinaceli sided with Philip V of Bourbon and became his prime minister. He eventually grew sick of the French influence on the Spanish court and in 1710 he was incarcerated in the Alcázar of Segovia for plotting against his master.
Grunenbergh (aka Guzman) gunpowder magazine (1692); Ferdinand de Grunenbergh was a Flemish military architect who worked also at Borgo on Malta; the four "pyramids" were added in the XIXth century to support lightning rods
The Spanish Succession War ended in 1713 with the Kingdom of Naples (and Stato dei Presidii) being assigned to Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI of Habsburg. The Austrian rule came to an end in 1734, when the Kingdom of Naples was conquered by Don Carlos of Bourbon, son of Philip V of Spain. Orbetello does not retain much evidence of the last period of its links with the Kingdom of Naples. In 1801 Stato dei Presidii was incorporated into the Kingdom of Etruria which in 1807 became part of the French Empire.
The Congress of Vienna assigned the former Stato dei Presidii to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The new rulers undertook large works to improve the healthiness of the town and of the lagoon, in the frame of a major attempt to reclaim Tuscan Maremma. In 1860 the town was annexed to the Italian State.
Co-Cathedral: XVIIth century details: (left) ceiling of Cappella di S. Biagio; (right) tombstone
Because Orbetello was not a bishopric see, the town does not retain much evidence of religious monuments and works of art, but some details are worth being noticed.
Wandering about: (left) S. Giuseppe; (right) typical Tuscan portal
In Maremma - other pages:
Corneto (Tarquinia) - Palazzo Vitelleschi and Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Tarquinia
Tarquinia - Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi
Montalto di Castro and Canino
An Excursion to Grosseto
An Excursion to Porto Ercole