The History of a Centuries-old Building Site
Origins of the Cathedral of Saint Mary’s Assumption
The Cathedral is a sign of the presence of God, as well as of an active and industrious Christian community; it shows the relationship between God and His people’s yearning. The bond with the town history and its inhabitants is so strong that still nowadays the Cathedral is Orvieto’s very symbol, the monument that most shapes its identity.
The Bridge of Towers as Was Seen by Goethe
In September 1786, the great German poet, J. W. Goethe (1749 – 1832), left for a journey to the discovery of Italy, that would last nearly two years. This adventure, overfilled with beauty, would later inspire his Italian Journey. In the pages of that report, a memory of Goethe’s visit to the Bridge of Towers (Ponte delle Torri) in Spoleto is also included. He recalls, “I ascended to Spoleto, and reached the aqueduct, that is also used as a bridge to connect two mountains. Its ten arches, that cross the valley, are built in stone; they have been there for centuries, and carry water to every part of the town. This is the third monument of Antiquity I see; and, one more majestic one. The architecture of those times is almost like a second Nature, in accordance with civic needs. . .”
“Now everything is silent”: The Little Temple
In 1876 an Italian poet, Giosue Carducci, wrote a famous poem called Alle fonti del Clitunno, “At the Springs of Clitunno” (River). It dealt precisely with this site, that is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. Some lines from another poem are reported on Carducci’s monument in Perugia, in the city park (Giardini) named after him, where the Rocca Paolina had existed. Located in the territory of Campello, near Spoleto, the Springs of Clitunno River will bewitch your soul with the delights of its uncontaminated, silent Nature. Underground springs flow into a small lake with still, crystal clear waters, where swans, ducks, fish, frogs live. The surrounding vegetation is luxuriant, so that all kinds of trees mirror themselves in the transparent water of the lake, which thus acquires different nuances of green.
The Rocca dei Perugini Nowadays
The powerful Rocca dei Perugini, “Fortress of Perugian (soldiers),” was built along the town walls near Porta Perugina, the town gate toward Perugia, in fact. This is whence, already in 1296, the road called Via Pievaiola started, that still nowadays connects Città della Pieve and Perugia.
The fortress, currently incorporated in the town center, faces Matteotti Square; and thanks to an intelligent restoration, has become a key factor for the development of tourism.
With reference to its structure, the stronghold is a noteworthy example of military architecture in Umbria. At the same time, its very presence makes an important chapter in the history book of the town, insofar as it reminds us of the time when it was controlled by Perugia. The village was then called Castel (castle) della Pieve; pieve meaning a country church.
Della Corgna Palace: The Historical Context Right in front of the Cathedral, one of the most beautiful lordly mansions in Città della Pieve rises, the
A Look at Our Ancestors
South of Gubbio’s Medieval quarters the Guastuglia Plain (pron. goo-ast-oo-Leah) lies, delimited west by the so-called vallum (military defense line), and east by a river called Camignano (pron. come-in-ya-know). From this area you can admire the Medieval town center, a little above, and the old buildings – the Palace of Consuls, first of all – that made the history of Gubbio.
A Decentralized Center
Gubbio rises at the foot of Mount Ingino with a strong self-consciousness. Framed within a luxuriant Nature, rich in woods and trails, it is considered one of the most beautiful Medieval towns in Italy. A major feature of the old town center are the buildings in calcareous stone, that gives them a typically gray color. Stones that still envelope the secrets of past masters and masterpieces while filling one’s eyes and soul with awe and wonder.
A Giant in the Square
The Palace of Consuls (Palazzo dei Consoli), built in the years 1332-49, rises dramatically on the background of Piazza Grande, the Main Square. It is more than 60 meters (180 feet) high, including its originally shaped bell tower that still nowadays “calls” the citizens. In fact, thanks to teams of master bell ringers who activate the famous Campanone (Big Bell) by hand, the main civil and religious feast days enjoy a fascinating accompaniment.
To reach the palace gate you will go up a staircase built on a flying buttress and shaped like a fan, harmoniously opening on the square. The stone balcony used to be the most important place for the political organization of Gubbio. Here the leaders held their exhortations, or promulgated the decrees for the town’s governance.
At the Court of the Duke of Urbino
The Ducal Palace was built by decision of Federico da Montefeltro in a town area called Corte Vecchia (the Old Court) – right in front of the wonderful Gothic Cathedral dedicated to Saint Mariano and Saint Giacomo, martyrs of the 13th and 14th centuries. The palace was the very first example of Renaissance architecture in Gubbio, which it still overlooks.
The Archaeological Area, at the very core of the so-called Saint Lawrence “Island”, will give you the joy of a discovery trip throughout the centuries. Quite unknown to the local people themselves, these places are hidden inside the hill on which Perugia is built. By entering them, it will become clear how, starting from the Etruscans and via the Romans, then the Papal residence, the town acquired its current shape. Going from the cloister of the cathedral down into the archaeological area can be likened to a time machine that synchronizes its clock with ours more and more as we cross the centuries toward the surface.
Saint Peter’s Abbey in “Borgo Bello”
The way that starts from the Church of Saint Ercolano, and that in past times led directly to Rome, ends in Borgo Bello, the “Beautiful Suburb,” an area that developed thanks to the Benedictine abbey dedicated to Saint Peter.
As soon as you pass one of the monumental town gates, designed by Agostino di Duccio (1418 – ca 1481), you will notice the geometrical shape of Saint Peter’s belfry, with a sharp steeple that overlooks the low houses in the quarter. That belfry is one of Perugia’s symbols, along with the Etruscan Arch and the Great Fountain.
The complex currently includes – beside Saint Peter’s Church – the department of Agriculture of the Perugia University, and a Medieval-like botanical garden.
The Intriguing Story of a Fortress
In Perugia’s old town center, at the southern end of Corso Vannucci (Main Street) there is an area with flowerbeds, benches, and fountains, where the Palace of Perugia’s Province and the equestrian monument to the first king of united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II (1820-1878), also rise. This is where a group of buildings existed, called Rocca Paolina: a fortress built by decision of Pope Paul III in the mid-16th century.
A Town Symbol
The Palace of Priors is undoubtedly one of the most important buildings in Perugia, beside being a masterpiece in Gothic style. Its structure develops partly along Main Street (Corso Vannucci) in the old town center, and has its acme in the façade facing the main square, Piazza IV Novembre.
The square, one of the most beautiful in Italy, is marked by the strong polar opposition between the civil side of the town, precisely the Palace of Priors, and the religious side, i.e. the buildings in the so-called Saint Lawrence “Island,” in a Medieval atmosphere enlivened by the water springing from the Great Fountain.
The Fontana Maggiore, a gem of Gothic sculpture
The Fontana Maggiore (Great Fountain) is the sculptural symbol of Perugia. It was built in 1278 to celebrate the completion of a long aqueduct that, by taking cleverly advantage of the principle of communicating vessels, could even conduct water uphill on Perugia’s hills. The fountain, surely among the oldest and most beautiful in Italy, is in fact considered a masterpiece of Gothic sculpture.
The Saint Lawrence “Island”: the ancient district, heart of Perugia since Etruscans. It includes Perugia Underground, the Chapter Museum and the Cathedral.
Perugia and Its Etruscan Walls
Perugia was one of the main Etruscan towns. Its external walls, dating back to the third century BC (with some older, fourth century parts), still witness the importance the town had acquired. The whole perimeter is some three kilometers (1.5 miles) long; many sections remain visible, while others have been incorporated within later buildings. The Etruscan walls follow the ups and downs of the soil. In the lower areas they fold inwards, so that the overall shape recalls a clover
A Central Role in the Town
The Medieval tower is among the buildings that stand out in Orvieto’s skyline, together with the imposing Cathedral. The tower will remain conspicuous even if you walk in the town streets – it would be impossible not to note this building, some 50 meters (150 feet) high, which dominates all others not only because of its dimensions, but also because of its central role in the city planning. The tower is the very center, starting from which the four town quarters – Corsiva, Olmo, Serancia, Stella – are distinguished. With reference to this, its sides are oriented according to the cardinal points. Its position also makes it the Civil Tower. What does it mean? What makes it different from a belfry or a tower-house? Like all true civil towers, this has bells that marked the most important occasions in town life. Only in a later epoch did it begin to house a clock too.
Antonio da Sangallo, a Brilliant Engineer
On the edge of the Orvieto Cliff there is a small square in which only a cylindrical building exists, apparently quite anonymous. This structure, however, hides a “thing ingenious with fancy and wonderful with beauty” inside. This is how Giorgio Vasari (in the 1550 edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects) ends the description of this fascinating work of architecture and engineering: a well dug deep into the tuff.
The Hollow below the Town
Orvieto lies on top of a huge rock of volcanic origin, made of tuff and pozzolana. Visitors cannot but be charmed by this plateau, called la Rupe (the Cliff), that rises and dominates the valley all around, with its woods and vines. Man did not only colonize this rocky habitat, and add all sorts of buildings, up to the cathedral and towers, but – in all epochs – also dig underground hollows. Tuff has been housing a town below the town for centuries. So, Orvieto can be also visited in the depths of its own ground, and can boast unique underground areas. Some 1,200 artificial underground hollows have been counted; they were dug from the Etruscan Era to the Renaissance, and still later on. Under the town streets, see tunnels and rooms of all kinds: culverts, wells, silos, columbaria (dovecotes), furnaces, Medieval dumps. So, a curious symbiosis can be sensed between the Orvieto people and the rock – human engineering talent, the needs of everyday life, and Nature here mix by making an alliance that still nowadays surprises us.
From Freedom to Being Dominated
During the Middle Ages, Orvieto enjoyed a long period of welfare and independence as a “free Commune” – its rulers being autonomous from the Emperor, both politically and economically – in spite of the intestine clashes between the parties of Guelphs (who supported the Pope’s authority) and Ghibellines (who supported the Emperor). During the whole 13th century the town was a rich one, and organized itself through the basic communal institutions insofar as it was perfectly in a position to rule itself, control its own territory, and thrive.