The place to begin your visit to Orvieto is at the Duomo. That's because whether you take the funicolare or the bus, you're likely to wind up at the Piazza Duomo. Take a deep breath and prepare to be stunned. And don't be in a rush to see the next twenty things on your list (but I hope you did have the good sense to purchase the Carta Orvieto Unica pass, which provides admission to most of the significant sights as well as transport), because you may well want to linger and fully experience all the various parts of the Duomo.
Construction on the Duomo began in 1290 on a site previous dedicated to an Etruscan temple as well as a small Christian church and an older cathedral. The new edifice was needed to house the relics of the miracle of Bolsena (I will devote a separate tip to that worthy event and its chapel), from which derives the Feast of Corpus Christi.
Before turning your attention to the resplendent facade, start by simply looking at the beautiful black basalt and white travertine courses on the relatively plain sides to the right and left of the entrance. (You will see one side as the bus approaches the piazza.) There is so much for you to look at once you're actually in front of the Duomo that it's simply impossible to take it all in. I might begin with the massive central bronze doors, which are a recent addition made by sculptor Emilio Grieco around 1970. They depict Works of Mercy.
At the risk of sounding like a guidebook, you might next take a look at the bas-reliefs with Old Testament stories -- just check out that detailing! (Someone has called the facade of the Duomo at Orvieto as being "a piece of lace made of marble" and you can definitely see why.) Then you can begin looking further up the facade to see the mosaics (which are the reason why the Duomo seems to be lit from within when the sun hits it), the great sculptures of the symbols of the four Evangelists, the great Rose Window. It is seven stories of glory.
The interior is just as interesting. I learned from Rick Steves that it was built in a kind of fool-the-eye style, so that from the front doors, the high altar seems to be much further away than it actually is (and, when you get up to the altar and look back, the building seems much squattier than it did from the other perspective). The striated marble continues here, surrounding numerous side chapels. There is excellent stained glass, a number of frescoes and paintings (many of the original frescoes were destroyed in a series of restorations, and some of the paintings were removed to the Vatican), and the beautifully-sculpted baptismal font and holy water stoups. Don't miss the Pieta (1579) of Ippolito Scalza, next to the pier of the crossing. And then you'll be ready to visit the Cappella Nuovo, generally known as San Brizio's Chapel. (I'll devote a separate tip to this marvel.)
But it musn't be thought that the Duomo is simply a repository of sacred art. When we arrived, the cathedral staff were preparing the high altar for a wedding, and the organist was practicing. It was quite a thrill to see the young couple amidst all this grandeur.
The main portion of the cathedral may be visited free of charge from 7:30 AM - 12:45 PM and 2:30-5:00 PM (winter) or - 7:00 PM (summer).
The Duomo has two spectacular chapels, each of which requires a separate admission unless you've bought the Orvieto master pass. The Chapel of the Blessed Corporal commemorates the Miracle of Bolsena. Joan Carroll Cruz, in her book, "Eucharistic Miracles", tells the tale thus: In 1263 a German priest, Peter of Prague, stopped at Bolsena while on a pilgrimage to Rome. He is described as being a pious priest, but one who found it difficult to believe that Christ was actually present in the consecrated Host. While celebrating Holy Mass, he had barely spoken the words of Consecration when blood started to seep from the consecrated Host and trickle over his hands onto the altar and the corporal. The priest first attempted to hide the blood, but then he interrupted the Mass and asked to be taken to nearby Orvieto, where Pope Urban IV was then residing. The Pope listened to the priest's account and sent emissaries to Bolsena for an immediate investigation. When all the facts were ascertained, he ordered the Bishop of the diocese to bring to Orvieto the Host and the linen cloth bearing the stains of blood. With archbishops, cardinals and other Church dignitaries in attendance, the Pope met the procession and, amid great pomp, had the relics placed in the cathedral. One year after the miracle, in August of 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi (the body of Christ).
In order to display the relics appropriately, Ugolino di Vieri was commissioned in 1337-1338 to fashion a reliquary which could be transported through the streets to better impress the faithful. The Chapel itself came a little later; it was built in 1350, and is enclosed by a wrought iron gate by Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna (1355-1362). In addition to the reliquary of the corporal, the altar features a window within which one can view the blood-stained linen. Oddly, one tends to pay more attention to the reliquary, which looks much more imposing; it is an intricately wrought creation of silver, enamel, and gilt which mimics the facade of the Duomo itself. It stands about three feet high, and features twenty-four scenes of the life of Christ and eight stories about the Miracle of Bolsena. The Chapel also incorporates the 1320 painting of the Madonna dei Raccommandati by Lippo Memmi, and a set of frescoes (restored in the nineteenth century) with stories from the Bible as well as a semi-historical series on the institution of Corpus Christi.
The chapel is a low-light area. If you deposit a few coins in the electric slot, various portions of the chapel are briefly lit so that they can be better appreciated.
If you didn't get completely blown away by the Duomo -- or even if you did, but want more -- your next stop is likely to be the Musee dell'Opera del Duomo, which is located behind the cathedral. The physical space was constructed in the late 1200's as a residence for a series of popes; it has been transformed into several galleries where further art treasures of the cathedral are displayed. Separate entry of five euros will also get you into the Chapel of San Brizio, but again -- the combination ticket is the way to go if you'll be seeing a number of Orvieto sights.
There is a lovely frescoes gallery where artworks removed from various churches and convents, now mostly defunct, have been restored and made available. Beauty upon beauty! Interior rooms display (some with very limited lighting to preserve the textiles and works of art) paintings, sculptures, wooden artifacts, liturgical vestments, mosaics, icons, and other precious objects, most generally before the seventeenth century although there are some more recent pieces. Note in particular the works by Simon Martini in "Sala 2", which include a polyptych from the convent of San Domenico and the central panel from the polyptych from the convent of San Francisco, both dating to around 1320.
My guidebook pointed out that there is a curious painting on terra-cotta known as the "Self-portrait of Luca Signorelli." I think I liked to one in San Brizio better, but do give it a look.
April-September hours are 9:30 AM to 7:00 PM. Reduced hours during the remainder of the year, when the museum is closed on Tuesdays.
Orvieto’s duomo is surely one of the most fascinating churches in Italy. And I was astonished to learn that it was not only built as a shrine for a miracle nearby but that we also owe the holiday of Corpus Christi to it (and the miracle). Legend says that a Bohemian (as in the region) monk was in doubt about his belief and decided to do a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way he also made a stop in nearby Bolsena and celebrated a mass. Suddenly blood dropped from the altar bread and formed a cross on the chalice cloth. The young monk went immediately to Orvieto where Pope Urban was residing and the Pope took the chance to legitimate this miracle: Orvieto’s duomo was planned and we all got the holiday of Corpus Christi. The erection of the church took ages however and the original plans were modified quite often. But overall it is a very harmonious sight to see, although the combination of the overly decorated western façade and the black & white stripes of the other walls (travertine and bluegrey basalt) is a bit unusual.
Mare sure to walk around the duomo, mainly the northern walls and look up at the carvings at the apses and the many gargoyles: lions which glance in funny angles down on us and which look as if they have been fixed with glue.
The duomo is open daily from 7:30 to 12:45 and 14:30 to 17:15 (November to February), 18:15 (March and October) and 19:15 (April to September). No entrance fee, but if you want to visit the chapel with Signorelli’s frescoes it is 5 € (to be paid at the entrance to the chapel).
The Gothic cathedral of Orvieto is a truly remarkable site with construction begun in 1290. There is no more thrilling sight than to come upon the cathedral from one of the narrow adjacent walkways as pictured herel The exterior is striped in white travertine and a greenish-black basalt. The facade includes sculptures by Lorenzo Maitani detailing scenes from Genesisas well as New Testment scenes, bronze dragons, and gables with mosaics highlighted in gold creating an unforgettable appearance. The interior is relatively plain except for the San Brizio chapel which contains frescoes by Signorelli believed to be the inspiration for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. These include the "Last Judgement", his masterpiece. Others are inspired by Dante and picture the resurrection of the dead, Paradise, and Hell. Some scenes are believed to picture the torture and death of Savonarola. There are also frescoes by Fra Angelico. In a second chapel, there is a self-portrait of Signorelli with Fra Angelico.
I think most visitors go to Pozzo San Patrizio near Piazza Cahen (at the uphill station of Orvieto’s funicular), but Simone, the receptionist girl of Locanda Rosati, told me that I should better visit Pozzo della Cava and I am very grateful for her advice! It is a bit tucked away from Orvieto’s main axis, although Via della Cava is the extension of Via Carvour to the west.
Pozzo della Cava is a private initiative to show some part of Orvieto’s underground to visitors. The name derives from the well, which is 36 m deep, compared to Pozzo San Patrizio’s 65 m. But this has to do with the fact that Pozzo della Cava is at a lower elevation in Orvieto, the city is declining quite steep from Piazza della Repubblica to the west. The route through the caves is self-guided, excellently done with arrows and explanations in Italian, English, German, Spanish and French. In 14th century it was used as a kiln, which has been lovingly restored. Other parts are butti, small Medieval shafts for garbage disposal, cisterns, a quarry and an Etruscan water conduit. I loved its courtyard (photo 5), where you can have coffee or snacks.
Entrance fee was 2,20 € (April 2008) and it is open from 8 am to 8 pm daily except Monday.
Bring a warm sweater, it might be cold inside. Maybe a torch as well if you feel uncomfortable with the illumination.
Orvieto is a great town for walking. The narrow medeival walkways, some with arches, give way unexpectedly to wide piazzas (and the Duomo). Little souvenier stands are tucked away on the side streets. And occasionally farther from the center, a narrow walkway will lead to a view of the beautiful surrounding fields, countryside, and vineyards. In all of Italy, Orvieto is among the most friendly of towns to tourists. It is hard to overemphasize how nice the people have been to us on our visits.
Ever since I saw a photo of its so beautiful façade I knew I must see it, because I adore mosaic work. And this one is a feast for the eyes indeed! (ok, not as spectacular as Basilica San Marco in Venezia, but beautiful enough) Make sure you don’t only look at it but take minimum 30 minutes time to take in every little detail of it, from the magnificent mosaic pictures to the wonderfully pillars around the main and side entrance portals. Despite the fact that the duomo’s elements haven been added over a period of 700 years (the latest is the central bronze door by Emilio Greco, 1965), it all looks very much harmonic and symmetrical. I liked the statistics, Rough Guide (Tuscany and Umbria) gave: within the busiest building period of 300 years 33 architects, 152 sculptors, 68 painters and 90 mosaicists worked on the façade. Pretty much, isn’t it? I loved the twisted pillars with mosaic inlasy most (photos 2, 3, 5); the patterns reminded me a bit of the ones I saw in the tiles of Uzbekistan’s mosques. I also loved the square above the main portal with the beautiful rose window in the middle, framed by 52 heads (yet I have to find out whom these represent), and “four doctors” as mosaics in the edges (I could identify name tags for Hieronymus, Augustinus, Ambrosius). Above and to the left and right of the relief heads are statues of the apostles and prophets. And then the mosaics with scenes of Virgin Mary’s life!!! The best time to take photos is of course late afternoon when all looks like pure gold. It is also then when most of the visitors will assemble in front of the duomo. I was lucky in April, when we have been many already but we could still move J Most probably the piazza will be packed with people in summer.
If you like to see more photos of the duomo’s exterior, please see my several travelogues (haha, yes, I am grateful for our 10 TL possibility):
photos of the façade, mostly mosaics, close-up photos of the mosaics, striped walls and gargoyles, Evangelists and façade carvings.
The website I have linked below is also worth a look. It is a very detailed description of Orvieto’s duomo, by Texas couple Jane and Dick Schmitt.
The best photo opportunity, by the way, is from the balcony of Palazzo dell'Opera (museum), opposite of the duomo.
According to history experts the region around Orvieto was the most important centre for the Etruscans. They called it Volsinii and Orvieto’s flat surroundings are thought to have been their Fanum Voltumniae. So it is most logical that the Etruscans also had their burial ground here. The one at the base of Orvieto’s hills is called Necropoli Crocifisso del Tufo (the name origins in a cross which was carved into the tuffa stone, but of course this name wasn’t given to it by the Etruscans). It is very easy to reach and gives a fascinating insight into the Etruscans’ burial habits and community structure. The necropolis was already discovered in 19th century, many of the findings are now exhibited in Paris’ Louvre and London’s British Museum. Later, Italian archaeologists have continued excavations and the newer findings are now housed in the museums around Orvieto’s duomo.
The tombs are from the period between 8th and 3rd century B.C., all arranged in a regular pattern, similar like a city with paths leading through the burial ground. Most of the tombs have only one funerary chamber at lower elevation than the ground with two stone benches on which the sarcophagi were resting (photo 2). The tombs have a saddle roof which was covered with soil and marked with special stones, called cippe: roundish ones for men and cylindrically shaped ones for women (photo 3). The entrances were sealed and the architrave above the entrance bears the names of the deceased in Etruscan letters (read from right to left; main photo). The way the tombs are arranged and the fact that there are no ones which are significantly bigger or more pompous lead to the assumption that the Etruscans in Orvieto lived in a relatively homogeneous society. However, one of them obviously did something bad, because he was banned. I’ve read about this only after my trip, but will come back to see it with my own eyes. Tomb no. 29 is said to have an inscription AISIAS and signs of another one, which was removed; a damnatio memoriae.
It is very peaceful here and it is exciting to stroll around the ground and peak into the tombs. The past comes to a very vivid life again. However I realised that I enjoyed the fact that only a few others were visiting the necropolis. I don’t know how it would have been with more visitors, chatting and laughing. But maybe this place lets people be a bit more quiet? (yes, I know, this sounds a bit arrogant but sometimes quietness is better to explore a place).
There is a small but very much explanatory museum near the entrance. Please make sure you visit this before you continue to walk to the burial grounds. It is full with graphics (like the one in photo 5) about Etruscan life and their burial habits and how the tombs were built. The explanations are in Italian and English. I also loved the surroundings: meadows, trees, shrubs, wildflowers and a big Judas tree in full pink bloom (see my travelougue).
In case you come by car, there is a huge parking ground next to the street and given its size, I assume that it can be quite crowded in peak times.
Entrance fee was 3 € (April 2008) or 5 €, which then includes entrance to the Archaelogical Museum next to the duomo.
This is a huge and important cathedral. Don't go at lunch time, it will be closed.
If you go in the late morning, the sun will be just right for photos which will reflect the golden color off the front of the cathedral.
This cathedral is not located so near the main piazzas as you would think.
There are better restaurants down near the other piazzas, the area near the cathedral is more like a tourist trap.
The soft tuffa stone “below” Orvieto is ideal for carving. Already the Etruscans knew this and dug holes, cellars and caves. This all had the fascinating benefit to enlarge “room” but without making it visible to the outside world. And in the warm climate underground cellars and caves had another big advantage: keep food cool and stay out of the heat for daily work. In addition to Pozzo della Cava (see previous tip) there is also “Orvieto Underground”, which can be visited, only through a guided tour however. This is a series of caves in the outmost part of the city’s tuffa “block”, south of the duomo, about a five minutes walk. These caves were mostly used for community purposes, spacious cavities with oil mills (photo 3, which were in use until 19th century), wine cellars, wells and artesan shops. Fascinating are also many caves facing the outer walls with holes to the outside and a hundreds of little cavities (approx. 30x30x30 cm). These were dovecotes, where doves were bred to guarantee food, also in cases of siege. In addition, dove droppings were used as fertilisers in the vineyards (haha, this might be an idea for cities with pigeon problems…). It is fascinating to walk through all these caves and cellars. Ou r guide Gabriella did an excellent job explaning all the little details and history of Orvieto’s underground. At the entrance is also an explanatory board (illuminated) which shows how much of the city actually has underground cellars and rooms: 1200 caves were found up to now, and the ground below Orvieto seems to be something like a Swiss cheese.
Tours can be booked at the tourist office opposite of the duomo (with the duomo in your back it is to your left at the piazza). They leave from there every approx. two hours, but this depends on the amount of requests. Even in April (2008) three tours were leaving after 3 p.m. Most of these are in Italian, but they also offer several tours in English, German and Spanish, usually in the afternoon. In the group I joined we were only three plus our guide, so there is no minimum of visitors necessary. The tour was 5,50 €. Bring a torch in case you feel uncomfortable in the dark, although it is properly illuminated. And bring a warm sweater, it is cool inside.
Up to now I still don’t know if I liked the interior of Orvieto’s duomo or not. It certainly did not live up the expectations I had based on the façade. Maybe it was too colourful inside, too many different styles and decorations? It is huge, of course; the outside shows already its rough dimensions. The white-bluegrey stripes are continuing inside and frescoes have been discovered at the walls during recent restoration. To the left is the famous Capella del Reliquiario del Corporale with a beautiful gold shrine with gemstones for the chalice cloth (corporal in Italian). And to the right is Capella della Madonna di San Brizio of early 15th century. Luca Signorelli and Fra Angelico painted here the famous frescoes cycle of the Last Judgement. These have an incredible three-dimensional space I never saw in any painting before. Photography is strictly forbidden inside, but luckily Wikipedia has good photos of some of these frescoes: antichrist, the damned are taken to hell, elect in paradise, resurrection of the flesh.
There is an entrance fee for the capella, payable at the little gate in front of it. It is 5 €, but this includes entrance to Opera del Duomo museum at the back of the duomo.
The website I have linked below is also worth a look. It is a very detailed description of the interior of Orvieto’s duomo, by Texas couple Jane and Dick Schmitt.
When I arrived in Orvieto after having parked the car at Campo della Fiera and took the escalators up to the city I started wandering around the backstreets and suddenly found myself on Piazza della Repubblica. And there was another fascinating twelve-sided belltower (I have seen the one of La Badia earlier, see further on in the to-do section). This one belongs to chiesa Sant’Andrea, which was once an important gathering place for Orvieto’s religious powers. Even earlier, during Etruscan times, a central temple stood here, but one needs to check with the church’s curator first (Via Cipriano Mariente no. 17, behind the church), because excavations are still ongoing. The belltower is decorated with beautiful stone carved coats of arms and I also liked the style of the openings at the top. Sorry, no close-up photos, because the sun was “in the way”… The left wall of chiesa Sant’Andrea has a loggia where flower stalls are established and add a beautiful touch of colour to the piazza. (sorry for my strange main photo… this was taken with my wide angle lens…)
Apart from the marvellous mosaics the western façade of Orvieto’s duomo has another striking masterpiece: the “picture bible”. It consists of four stone carved panels of early 14th century, each approx. 8x4 m. They show scenes from Old and New testament and finally the Last Judgement. Start exploring these with the one to the left: it is about genesis, the second one has scenes with prophecies of messias, the third one is about life of Christ and the fourth one (to the right) is the one called Last Judgement. It is said that this one inspired Luca Signorelli to paint his famous frescoes inside. These panels are a real piece of art with a lot emphasis to details. But it is difficult to identify the scenes in the upper parts. A movable ladder would be perfect…..
More photos in my travelogue: ”picture bible”
Even if your time or interest don’t allow you to visit Orvieto’s museums, you might like to consider to visit at least the one which is attached to the duomo: Opera del Duomo. In case you have seen Capella San Brizio inside the duomo, the entrance to this museum is included in the ticket anyhow. I found it fascinating, mainly some very old wooden shrines with magnificent inlays. When I was in Orvieto (April 2008), some rooms of the museum were undergoing restoration and the exhibits were moved to other rooms. The restauration might still be ongoing, better check with the tourist office.
The museums aroud the duomo are:
(1) Opera del Duomo (at the back of the duomo’s right = southern side):
Entrance fee: 5 €, which includes visit to Capella San Brizio inside of the duomo;
(2) Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (with the duomo’s portal in your back it is to your left):
Religious art mainly, but from the balcony you have a splendid view to the duomo’s western façade;
(3) Museo Archaeologico C. Faina e Civico (with the duomo’s portal in your back it is to your left):
Private museum with Etruscan arts and crafts, entrance fee 4,50 €;
(4) Museo Archaeologico Nazionale (to the very right of the duomo, see photo 1):
Etruscan art, mainly from the nearby necropolis, entrance fee 2 € or 5 € as a combination ticket for museum and necropolis;
(5) Museo d’Arte Moderna “Emilio Greco” (same building as Archaeologico Nazionale):
Greek and Etruscan art, entrance fee 2,50 € or 5,50 € as a combination ticket for Pozzo San Patrizio as well.
Oh and there is also the Carta Orvieto Unica (Orvieto Card) for 12,50 € which includes free entrance to many museums, the necropolis and Orvieto Underground. For more details please see Orvieto’s website