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 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.
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.
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.
When the Etruscans Founded Orvieto: From Sky down to Earth
A tour between earth and sky: this is how Orvieto can be visited and discovered because of both its geographic position (a town rising on top of a cliff, surrounded by a valley) and its history (from ancient Etruscans to nowadays). In Orvieto, in fact, tuff and human genius live indissolubly together since the era when the Etruscans founded it. But, who were the Etruscans? Even if their origin has still to be completely explained and many conjectures are made, they for sure were a people who existed in Central Italy between the ninth and the first centuries BC. Etruscans, basically, were skilled merchants in touch with the other civilizations of the Mediterranean Sea. The top expansion and power of their city-states took place between 800 and 600 BC, before they fell under Roman domination.Orvieto was among the last towns to be conquered by the Romans, namely when it was defeated in 264 BC.
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.
Hiking on the Orvieto Cliff Ring Introducing the Tour: The Cliff Ring
The town of Orvieto can answer very many kinds of interests: art, culture, food, ancient history, and even – Nature and sport! All these issues are linked and connected by the very structure of the town as it has been shaped during the centuries, rising on top of its tuff cliff (called la Rupe).