8 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Orvieto
Only 100 kilometers north of Rome, the Umbrian town of Orvieto stands high above the Paglia valley on a crag of soft limestone called tufa. Founded by the Etruscans, Orvieto later became a stronghold of the Guelfs in the struggles against the anti papal Ghibellines. Its high location and steep approaches proved useful, and several times the beleaguered Popes sought refuge here. There are two distinct towns: the old high one and a newer one in the valley, where you'll arrive by train or park your car. A funicular will whisk you up to the old town, where you'll find most of Orvieto's tourist attractions. Some of the most interesting of these lie underground, carved into the porous tufa since Etruscan times.
The city's top tourist destination is this striking church with its unusual façade, quite different from those you've seen elsewhere in Italy. It seems as though its interior decoration has been put on the outside -- alternating courses of black basalt and yellow limestone were decorated by the finest artists of the day, covering every surface with sculptures, stained glass, and brightly colored mosaics. But unlike most Italian churches with mosaics decorating their facades, this one is clearly and unmistakably Gothic in design, not Byzantine. It is, in fact, one of the most splendid examples of Italian Gothic architecture. The intricately cast modern bronze doors, completed in 1969, are by Emilio Greco.
The church was founded in 1290 in honor of the Miracle of Bolsena, an event that gave rise to the papal bull of 1264 that instituted the feast of Corpus Christi. During a mass in nearby Bolsena, blood issuing from a consecrated host stained the chalice cloth, which is now kept inside a gold reliquary behind the altar of the Cappella del Corporale. The cathedral's highlight though, is the Cappella del San Brizio, featuring Luca Signorelli's frescoes of the Judgment and Resurrection. Instead of using symbols to represent these themes, Signorelli told the stories through real people, with very human emotions and actions. These are among the supreme achievements of 15th-century painting, and his humanistic approach inspired the younger, but contemporary artist Michelangelo. Expect a wait to see these in busy seasons, as admission to the chapel is limited to a fixed number at a time.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, Orvieto
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Orvieto
2 Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick's Well)
Beyond the Fortezza (now public gardens), the Pozzo di San Patrizio is a well, 61 meters deep with two separate spiral staircases winding around the shaft. One was built for the descent, and the other for the ascent of the donkeys that brought up water from the well, and the ingenious double-helix design allowed them to move in both directions continuously without collision. In 1527 during the Sack of Rome, Pope Clement VII took refuge in Orvieto, commissioning the construction of the well to supply water in case of siege. You can descend the several hundred steps to its bottom. Not far from the well, along the green perimeter of the cliff, you can see the stairway, parts of the foundation, and columns of an ancient Etruscan temple, Tempio del Belvedere.
Address: Viale San Gallo, Orvieto
3 Torre del Moro
The quadrangular tower overlooking the heart of the old city is 40 meters tall, and was built in the late 13th century to keep watch for possible invaders. In the 1800s, it became a cistern for the new aqueduct system; the clock was installed in 1876. The 360-degree views from the observation deck are splendid; an elevator can take you about halfway, but you'll have to climb the rest of the stairs to the top.
Address: Via Cavour, Orvieto
4 Corso Cavour
Orvieto's main street, Corso Cavour, traverses it from east to west, and along it are some of the city's major attractions. At its junction with Via del Duomo is the Torre del Moro; opposite stands the 16th-century Palazzo Gualterio with a highly-decorated Late Renaissance doorway. At its western end is busy Piazza della Repubblica, with a number of outstanding buildings. Beside the massive 12th-century Palazzo Comunale is the beautiful facade of Sant'Andrea church, with its 12-sided 11th-century tower. In medieval times, the appointments of three popes -- Martin IV, Nicholas IV, and Boniface VIII -- took place in this church. Showy Palazzo Ottaviani is now a bank headquarters.
5 Via della Cava
Narrow lanes and houses built - and carved -- of tufa stone make this part of the town very attractive to explore. At Via della Cava 7, you can visit underground rooms carved out of the rock. At another house, a 36-metre-deep Etruscan well known as Pozzo della Cava was discovered. An entire underground route beneath this medieval quarter takes you past a series of discoveries that include rooms used as a ceramics workshop in the Middle Ages, an Etruscan tomb that became a medieval textile workshop, and holes used as dumps, where more finds are constantly coming to light. From Porta Maggiore, which is the oldest town gate and was also hewn from the rock, you can walk along the former fortifications to the little church of San Giovanni for some good views.
6 Etruscan Buildings and Necropolis
Near the Pozzo di San Patrizio are the remains of the Tempio Etrusco, and below the north side of town, is an interesting Etruscan necropolis known as Tombe Etrusche del Crocifisso del Tufo. Most of the tombs date from the fifth and sixth centuries BC. Another Etruscan necropolis lies to the south of town (Tombe Etrusche di Cannicella). Artifacts found in these tombs are displayed in the Palazzo Soliano and Palazzo Faina museums in Orvieto.
7 Museo Archeologico Nazionale & Civico (Etruscan Collections)
At either side of the cathedral are the Palazzo Soliano and Palazzo Faina, each housing museums of local Etruscan finds. Palazzo Soliano, built between 1297 and 1301, houses the Museo Archeologico Nazionale with five rooms filled with exquisite Etruscan pottery, metalwork, and stone carving. Pictures and sculptures from the cathedral are also displayed in the palace.
Facing the cathedral at the opposite end from Soliano is the Palazzo Faina, which houses the Municipal Museum, with collections of Etruscan and Greek vases. Here, you'll also see coins and unique amphorae made by Exekias, the best pottery designer from Attica. Several sections are devoted to the exceptionally fine black and red ceramics typical of Attica. Look also for Etruscan bronzes.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, Orvieto
8 Palazzo del Popolo
A short distance north of the Torre del Moro is the Piazza del Capitano del Popolo where outdoor markets are held on Thursday and Saturday. The impressive crenellated facade of the 13th-century Palazzo del Popolo, built in volcanic tufa stone, is approached by a flight of steps. During the Middle Ages, this palace was the home of the Capitano del Popolo (Captain of the People), who represented the interests of the populace in dealing with ruling nobility. Since then, it has served as a university of law and theology, a theater, and most recently as a conference center. You'll notice that several other buildings in Orvieto reflect some of the decorative elements of this palace, especially the elegant ground-floor arches and the window cornices. The delicate stonework in the windows is especially beautiful.
Address: Piazza del Capitano del Popolo, Orvieto