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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

p342 Orvieto

Orvieto (anc. Volsinii (q.v.), later Urbs Vetus, whence the modern name), a town and episcopal see of the province of Perugia, Italy, on the Paglia, 78 m. by rail N by W of Rome. Pop. (1901) 8820 (town): 18208 (commune). It crowns an isolated rock, 1033 ft. above sea-level, 640 ft. above the plain, p343commanding splendid views, and is approached on the east by a funicular railway from the station. The town is very picturesque, both from its magnificent position and also from the unusually large number of fine 13th‑century houses and palaces which still exist in its streets. The chief glory of the place is its splendid cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin; it was begun before 1285, perhaps by Arnolfo di Cambio, on the site of an older church; and from the 13th till the 16th century was enriched by the labours of a whole succession of great Italian painters and sculptors. The exterior is covered with black and white marble; the interior is of grey limestone with bands of a dark basaltic stone. The plan consists of a large rectangular nave, with semicircular recesses for altars, opening out of the aisles, north and south. There are two transeptal chapels and a short choir. The most magnificent part of the exterior and indeed the finest polychrome monument in existence is the west façade, built of richly-sculptured marble from the designs of Lorenzo Maitani of Siena, and divided into three gables with intervening pinnacles, closely resembling the front of Siena cathedral, of which it is a reproduction, with some improvements. With the splendour of the whole, the beauty of the composition is marvellous, and it may rank as the highest achievement of Italian Gothic. It was begun in 1310, but the upper part was not completed till the 16th century. The mosaics are modern, and the whole church has suffered greatly from recent restoration. The four wall-surfaces that flank the three western doorways are decorated with very beautiful sculpture in relief, once ornamented with colour, the designs for which, according to Burckhardt, must be ascribed to the architect of the whole, though executed by other (but still Sienese, not Pisan) hands. The Madonna above the principal portal falls into the same category. The subjects are scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and the Last Judgment, with Heaven and Hell. In the interior on the north, the Cappella del Corporale possesses a large silver shrine, resembling in form the cathedral façade, enriched with countless figures in relief and subjects in translucent coloured enamels — one of the most important specimens of early silversmith's work that yet exists in Italy. It was begun by Ugolino Vieri of Siena in 1337, and was made to contain the Holy Corporal from Bolsena, which, according to the legend, became miraculously stained with blood during the celebration of mass to convince a sceptical priest of the truth of the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is supposed to have happened in 1263, while Urban IV was residing at Orvieto; and it was to commemorate this miracle that the existing cathedral was built. On the south side is the chapel of S. Brizio, separated from the nave by a fine 14th‑century wrought-iron screen. The walls and vault of this chapel are covered with some of the best-preserved and finest frescoes in Italy — among the noblest works of Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli, mainly painted between 1450 and 1501 — the latter being of especial importance in the history of art owing to their great influence on Michelangelo in his early days. The choir stalls are fine and elaborate specimens of tarsia and rich wood-carving — the work of Antonio and Pietro della Minella (1431‑1441). In 16th‑century sculpture the cathedral is especially rich, containing many statues, groups and altar-reliefs by Simone Mosca and Ippolito Scalza. Close by are two Gothic buildings, the bishop's palace (1264) and the Palazzo dei Papi (begun in 1296), the latter with a huge hall now containing the Museo Civico, with various medieval works of art, and also objects from the Etruscan necropolis of the ancient Volsinii (q.v.). The Palazzo Faina has another interesting Etruscan collection. The Palazzo del Comune is Romanesque (12th century), but has been restored. S. Andrea and S. Giovenale are also Romanesque churches of the 11th century; both contain later frescoes. To the 12th century belongs the ruined abbey of S. Severo, 1 m. south of the town. The church of S. Domenico contains one of the finest works in sculpture by Arnolfo del Cambio. This is the tomb with recumbent effigy of the Cardinal Brago or De Braye (1282), with much beautiful sculpture and mosaic. It is signed HOC OPVS FECIT ARNVLFVS. It was imitated by Giovanni Pisano in his monument to Pope Benedict XI at Perugia. Among the later buildings, a few may be noted by Sanmicheli of Verona, who was employed as chief architect of the cathedral from 1309 to 1528. The fortress built in 1364 by Cardinal Albornoz has been converted into a public garden. The well, now disused, called Il pozzo di S. Patrizio, is one of the chief curiosities of Orvieto. It is 200 ft. deep to the water-level and 42 ft. in diameter, cut in the rock, with a double winding inclined plane, so that asses could ascend and descend to carry the water from the bottom. It was begun by the architect Antonio da San Gallo the younger in 1527 for Clement VII, who fled to Orvieto after the sack of Rome, and was finished by Simone Mosca under Paul III.

The town appears under the name Οὐρβιβεντός in Procopius (Bell. Goth. ii.11, &c.), who gives a somewhat exaggerated description of the site, and as Urbs Vetus elsewhere after his time. Belisarius starved out Vitiges in 539, and became master of it. In 606 it fell to the Lombards, and was recovered by Charlemagne. It formed part of the donation of the Countess Matilda to the papacy. Communal independence had probably been acquired as early as the end of the 10th century, but the first of the popes to reside in Orvieto and to recognize its communal administration was Hadrian IV in 1157. It was then governed by consuls, but various changes of constitution supervened in the direction of enlarging the governing body. Its sympathies were always Guelphic, and it was closely allied with Florence, which it assisted in the battle of Monteaperto (1260), and its constitution owed much to her model. In 1199 the first podestà was elected, and in 1251 the first capitano del popolo. There were considerable Guelph and Ghibelline struggles even at Orvieto, the latter party being finally destroyed in 1313, and the representatives of the former, the Monaldeschi, obtaining the supreme power. The territory of Orvieto extended from Chiusi to the coast at Orbetello, to the Lake of Bolsena and the Tiber. The various branches of the Monaldeschi continually fought among themselves, however, and the quarrels of two of them divided the city into two factions under the names of Muffati and Mercorini, whose struggles lasted until 1460, when peace was finally made between them. After this period Orvieto was peaceably ruled by papal governors, and had practically no history. Owing to the strong Guelphic sympathies of the inhabitants, and the inaccessible nature of the site, Orvieto was constantly used as a place of refuge by the popes. In 1814 it became the chief town of a district, in 1831 of a province, and in 1860 with Umbria became part of the kingdom of Italy, and became a subprefecture.

See L. Fumi, Il Duomo d' Orvieto e i suoi restauri (Rome, 1891); Orvieto, note storiche e biografiche (Città di Castello, 1891), and other works.

[T. As.]


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