A medieval poet called it
"city high and strange"
and an Orvietano described his town as
"a hunk of tufa surrounded by lots of air"
The town of Orvieto is located in central Italy, in Umbria, the region known as "the green heart of Italy". It stands high on a tufa plateau with cliff walls falling sheer to the valley below. The town is located just off the A-1 toll autostrada, the principal north-south superhighway of central Italy, and on the express railroad line, la Direttissima, both of which link it quickly to major cities north and south.
There is no doubt that the city was built on a human scale and that history has molded every feature. What remains of the Etruscan settlement, Velzna, is particularly imposing. Much material, both Etruscan and imported, has come from the necropolises at the base of the Rock. Much of this is now on view on one or the other of the two archaeological museums on Piazza del Duomo, the collections of the Fondazione per il Museo C. Faina and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Velzna was one of the most famous of the Etruscan city-states and the last to fall to the Romans, in 264 BC after a long siege. Over 2000 bronze statues were taken in plunder from the sanctuary dedicated to Voltumna, one of the most important divinities in the Etruscan pantheon. Once the city was conquered, the Romans were more interested in the surrounding territory than the town itself. One of the more spectacular sites of the many in the area is the river port of Pagliano. Current archaeological research is concentrating on the remains of the sanctuary of the Etruscan federation, with excavations by the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell'Umbria and the University of Perugia (see Archaeological Excavation in the Curriculum section).
Orvieto once more flourished in the Middle Ages when it became a powerful Commune. The majestic monuments of this period include the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, the Torre del Moro and the Torre di Maurizio, at one corner of Piazza del Duomo. But Orvieto is known above all for its Cathedral, this incredible example of Italian Gothic architecture, begun in 1290. The cathedral houses many works of art, with pride of place going to the San Brizio chapel and Luca Signorelli's frescoes of the End of the World (1499-1504).
The Archaeological and Environmental Park (PAAO), together with the existing network of hiking and walking itineraries in the territory of Orvieto, is an important part of the cultural contribution to the understanding of the aspects relating to history and to the environment.
The very air of Orvieto is different, with a breeze springing up from nowhere in the afternoon in Piazza del Duomo. A favorite pastime is wandering through the cool lanes of the medieval quarter or ambling along Via del Corso, one of the principal arteries which cuts the modern urban fabric in two. Both visitors to the town and those who live there spend delightful hours in the numerous shops and restaurants lining the street.
The only way to really get to know Orvieto is on foot, leisurely discovering its secrets one by one. A figure carved over the portal of a noble palazzo or a flowering garden next to a convent are intimate details you will long remember. The walls of the houses will talk to you if you are willing to listen and read their story of towers torn down, windows walled up, cellars dug out of the rock. It is a city of men and women created for men and women.
And since it is a city meant for people, large parking places have been created outside the Rock, with access to the city on top via escalators and elevators. This is also why a funicular or rail cable car (one of the first built in Italy and once running on water!) connects the town to the railroad station below.
Orvieto is intensely alive and plays host in winter to one of the most important Jazz festivals in Italy, Umbria Jazz Winter. Nor has it turned its back on tradition, for a historical procession with participants in magnificent period costumes is part of the celebration that recalls the Christian miracle of Bolsena. Tradition says that in 1263 a Bohemian priest who doubted the presence of the body of Christ in the consecrated Host was saying mass in the nearby town of Bolsena when blood issued from the host as he broke it for mass. The linen altar cloth on which the drops fell is now in the Cathedral and is carried through the streets of Orvieto for the feast of Corpus Christi in June.
Orvieto has not only maintained its traditions but is striving to protect some of its most important values, those bound to wine and food. It has become one of the leading "slow food" cities, devoted to the quest for more genuine foods that exalt both history and the palate. In October one of the most sought-after gastronomic festivals is held in Orvieto. It is definitely not chance that the 2002 award for the best winemakers was assigned by a leading American periodical to two brothers in the area of Orvieto.
Fine crafts are also at home in Orvieto. Wood is lifted to greater heights by the Michelangeli workshop, which studies new aspects and new solutions and the pottery of many artisans often goes back to the medieval tradition, when Orvieto was one of the principal centers for its production in Italy.
Orvieto is therefore a city in which to live and absorb the culture of Italy in all tranquility, unlike the great Italian cities of art, so crowded with tourists. On the other hand Orvieto is also ideally located and the most important Italian and European cities are within easy reach. Art, history and modern life come together in a pleasing blend, and those who have had a taste of life in this medieval city, who have fallen under its spell day after day, inhaling the atmosphere with the mosaics on the cathedral glowing gold at sunset, the warm tawny color of the tufa, the fog that envelops the cliff in the morning, find that sooner or later they must return.
To learn more about Orvieto, visit the following sites: