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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria

by George Dennis

published by John Murray, Albemarle Street
London, 1848.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p524  Chapter XXIX


Poco portai in là volta la testa,

Che mi parve veder molte alte torri,
Ond' io: Maestro, di', che terra è questa?

— Dante.

La cità di Orvieto è alta e strana.

Questa da' Roman vechi el nome prese
Che andavan lì, perchè laer era sana.

— Faccio degli Uberti.

These headings of the author's are used here as local links to text on this webpage.
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Delights of the pack-saddle Glorious situation of Orvieto Its Etruscan character Vestiges of an Etruscan town Its ancient name unknown Etruscan tombs and relics The Duomo of Orvieto

The last Etruscan site in the great central plain that I have to describe is Orvieto, which lies on the extreme verge of the plain to the north-east. From Bolsena it is distant eight or nine miles; from Monte Fiascone, nearly eighteen. Both roads are "carriageable."1 I took the latter; and in default of a better mode of conveyance was fain to journey on an ass, with another for my luggage.

This most of transit is pleasant enough in a fine country and fair weather; and in Italy one sacrifices no dignity by such a monture. But when nebulae malusque Jupiter rule the heavens, or the road is to be travelled with all speed — preserve me from the pack-saddle! I cannot then exclaim — delicium est asinus! — be he as excellent as any of sacred or profane renown, from the days of Balaam to those of Apuleius or Joan of Arc, or even as Dapple himself of immortal memory. Asses, like men, are creatures of habit. Ognuno al suo modo, ed il sommaro all' antico —  p525 "Every one to his own way, the ass to the old way," says one proverb, — Trotto d' asino non dura troppo — "An ass's trot never lasts too long," says another — both of which I verified to my cost on this journey; for though the rain burst from the sky in torrents, my beasts were not to be coaxed out of their wonted deliberate pace, consistent with the transport of charcoal, flour, and firewood, by any arguments ad lumbos I could offer; and I had no alternative but to follow their example, and take it coolly for the rest of the journey.

Between Montefiascone and Orvieto, but considerably to the right of the road, lies Bagnaréa, the ancient Balneum Regis, which I believe to be also an Etruscan site, but I had no opportunity of visiting it.2

The first view of Orvieto from this side is one of the most imposing in Italy. The road, which is level for the greater part of the way, leads unexpectedly to the verge of a cliff where a scene magnificent enough to compensate for any discomfort, bursts on the view. From the midst of the wide and deep valley at my feet, rose, about two miles distant, an isolated height, like a truncated cone, crowned with the towers of Orvieto. The sky was overcast, the atmosphere dense and misty, and the brilliant hues of sunshine were wanting; yet the grand features of the scene were visible as in an engraving. There were the picturesque convent-towers embosomed in groves on the slopes in the foreground — the luxuriant cultivation of the valley beneath — the Paglia snaking through it, spanned  p526 by its bridges — there was the wide stretch of the city, bristling from its broad cliff-bound rock, in the centre of the scene — the background of mountains, which looming through vapour and cloud, lost nothing of altitude or sublimity — and the whole was set in a frame-work of tall precipices, hung with woods, and with many a cataract streaking their steeps —

"A pillar of white light upon the wall
Of purple cliffs, aloof descried."

The rock on which Orvieto stands is of red tufo, scarped naturally beneath the walls, but then sinking in a steep slope into the valley on every side. This is the extreme verge of the tufo district, and the nature of the ground resembles that of the northern division of Etruria. The site in its perfect isolation differs from that of any of the towns in the volcanic distance, Horta excepted, but resembles that of Rusellae, Saturnia, or Cosa; and the traveller who approaches it from the north, will hail the rock of Orvieto as just the site for an Etruscan city.

The antiquity of Orvieto is implied in its name, a corruption of Urbs Vetus.3 But to its original appellation we have no clue. The general opinion of antiquaries, for Raphael of Volterra downwards, has marked it as the site of Herbanum.4 Müller broaches the opinion that this Urbs Vetus was no other than the "old city" of Volsinii, which was destroyed by the Romans on its capture.5 But the distance of eight or nine miles from  p527 the new town is too great to favour this opinion. Niebuhr6 suggests, with more probability that it may be the site of Salpinum, which in the year 362 (B.C. 392) assisted Volsinii in her war with Rome.7

Unlike most Etruscan cities, Orvieto does not retain a vestige of its ancient walls. It has even been asserted, on authority, that the city was not originally fortified.8 It is now however girt by walls of the middle ages, and has a strong fortress to boot.

That Orvieto occupies an Etruscan site is abundantly proved by the many tombs opened of late years in the slopes around the city, some containing masonry, others Etruscan inscriptions both on the outer and inner walls — together with painted pottery, both of the archaic and pure Greek style — black ware with figures in relief, as at Chiusi and Sarteano, — ash-chests of stone — statues of terra-cotta — bas-reliefs, painted in the Etruscan style — cippi, both cones and discs, with Etruscan inscriptions — bronze figures, vases, and sundry domestic implements — coins — scarabaei — and the thousand and one articles which compose the furniture of Etruscan tombs. One tazza found here had been placed in the tomb in a mended state, the fragments being rivetted together by metal wire.9 All these things are now matters of history  p529 or tradition, for no sepulchres remain open in the slopes around the town,a nor are there any Etruscan relics preserved there, as far as I could learn.10

Orvieto is a city of six or seven thousand inhabitants, and is neater and cleaner than most towns in this part of the Papal State. The inn, called L' Aquila Bianca, has tolerable pretensions to comfort. The two great lions are the Duomo, and the Well of San Patrizio. Of the latter with its strange corkscrew descent, I have nothing to say; but how can I be silent on the Duomo?

It is foreign to the purpose of this work, or I could expatiate on the glories of this Cathedral. Willingly would I descant on its matchless façade, similar in style, but more chaste and elegant than that of Siena — on the graces of its Lombard architectureb — on its fretted arches and open galleries — its columns varied in hue and form — its aspiring pediments — its marigold window with the circling guard of saints and angels — its quaint bas-reliefs — its many-hued marbles — its mosaics gilding, warming and enriching the whole, yet imparting no meretricious gaudiness, — the entire façade being the petrifaction of an illuminated missal — a triumphant blaze of beauty obtained by the union and tasteful  p530 combination of the three Sister Graces of Art. I could say much of the interior and its decorations — of its spaciousness and gloomy grandeur, more devotion-stirring than other cathedrals of Central Italy — of the massive banded columns, with their quaint capitals — of the frescoed walls and chapels, and the manifold treasures of art — the dignity and simplicity of Mochi's Virgin — the intensity of feeling in the Pietà of Scalza, and its well-contrasted divinity and humanity — the delicacy, tenderness, and celestial purity and radiancy of Fra Angelico's frescoes, — and above all I could descant on the glories of Luca Signorelli, not elsewhere to be appreciated — on the elevated poetry, the grandeur of composition, the grace and truthfulness of execution of those marvellous and awful frescoes which have immortalized his name, and made him a model of sublimity to Raffaelle and Michael Angelo. But such objects are foreign to my theme, and I must pass them by, simply assuring the traveller, that no town in Central Italy more urgently demands a visit, for the beauty of the site and surrounding scenery, and for the unrivalled glories of its Cathedral. If he be in search of objects of medieval art, let him omit what places he will between Florence and Rome, but let him see Orvieto.11

The Author's Notes:

1 A so‑called diligence leaves Viterbo for Orvieto two or three times in the week, passing by Monte Fiascone.

2 It lies about 6 miles from Montefiascone, on a cliff-bound hill; and more than a mile beyond is another similar height, with ruins on it, called Civita — a sure clue to the existence of an ancient city. Dempster (II. p413) says that some have taken Bagnaréa for the Novempagi of Pliny (III.8). But Holstenius (Annot. ad Cluv, p47) and Westphal (Römische Kampagne, p157) with more probability suggest Viano, Ischia, Agliola, Bassano, and other places north of the Lake of Bracciano, as the sites of the Novempagi.

Thayer's Note: Bagnaréa is now Bagnoregio, and the dying town of Civita on its crumbling tufa outcrop has found a new life as a major tourist destination, thanks mostly to Rick Steves: see for example this site for its history and some photos.

3 It was so called by Paul. Diaconus, cited by Dempster II. p409. Annio forged for it an ancient name — Oropitae, or Orbitum.

4 A town mentioned by Pliny (III.8) in his catalogue of colonies in Etruria. The similarity of the first syllable can alone have suggested an identity with Orvieto. Even Cluver (II p553) held this notion. But Dempster (II. p409) ridiculed it.

5 Etrusk. I p451. Orioli (Nouv. Ann. Instit. 1836, p50) holds the same opinion; which is refuted by the Chev. Bunsen, Bull. Instit. 1833, p96.

6 Nieb. Hist. Rome, II. p493. This opinion was also held by some of the early Italian antiquaries.

7 Liv. V.31, 32. That this city was more remote than Volsinii seems evident from the fact that the Romans in this campaign first encountered the forces of the latter city. That Salpinum was of considerable power and importance is shown by its association with Volsinii, one of the Twelve. Niebuhr does not think it improbable that Salpinum itself was one of the sovereign states of Etruria (loc. cit.; cf. I. p120). And that it was strongly fortified by nature or by art would appear from the security its citizens felt within their walls — moenibus armati se tutabantur — and from the fact that the Romans, though they ravaged its territory, did not venture to attack the city. Cramer (Ancient Italy, I p225) thinks that the name Salpinum may be traced in an old church, called S. Giovanni in Selina, a few miles to the north-east of Viterbo. But, according to this mode of investigation, a more probable site may be found in the Torre Alfina, a fortress on a lofty height, 10 or 12 miles north of Bolsena, and 3 east of Acquapendente. "Alphia", "Alphnis", "Alphna" and "Altphna" are names of Etruscan families, corresponding to the Latin Alfius. Lanzi, II. pp368, 450, 455, 527. A bilingual inscription to this effect is given in the Suppl. Bull. Inst. 1833, No. IV.

8 It seems never to have been doubted that it is Orvieto, which is spoken of by Procopius (de Bell. Goth. II.20) in the sixth century after Christ, under the name of UrbiventusΟὐρβιβεντὸς — an apparent corruption of Urbs Vetus — as being besieged, and captured from the Goths, by Belisarius. Yet the picture he draws of the place is so far from accurate as to render it certain, either that he wrote from incorrect information, or that he did not refer to Orvieto. He says:— "A certain height rises alone from the hollow, smooth and level above, precipitous below. This height is surrounded by rocks of equal altitude, not quite close, but about a stone's throw distant. On this height the ancients built the city, not girdling it with walls or any other defences, for the place seemed to them to be naturally impregnable. For there happens to be but one entrance to it from the (neighbouring) heights, which approach being guarded, the inhabitants thereof feared no hostile attack from any other quarter. For save in the spot where nature formed the approach to the city, as has been stated, a river ever great and impassable lies between the height of the city and the rocks, just mentioned." Cluver (II p553) pronounces this to be a most accurate description of Orvieto, and Mannert (Geog. p406) thinks it answers completely to that city. It is evident that neither had visited the spot. It would be impossible to give a truer description — except as regards the size of the river — of Nepi, Civita Castellana, Pitigliano, Sovana, and many other Etruscan sites in the volcanic district; but it is not at all characteristic of Orvieto, whose complete isolation, caused by the absence of the usual isthmus, is its distinctive feature, and from which the nearest of the surrounding heights can hardly be less than a mile distant. The description seems to be written by one familiar with the spot; and this confirms me in the opinion that it is not Orvieto to which it refers.

Thayer's Note: Dennis is absolutely on target here. No one who had ever been to Orvieto could write what Procopius did about it; yet that description does have the feel of the eyewitness about it, so he must be writing about some other place.

The fact stated by Procopius that the founders of this city, whatever it might be, raised no fortifications, being satisfied with the natural protection of the steep cliffs on which it stood —

Excelsae rupi impositum sine moenibus ullis —

is particularly worthy of notice. For, if true, it will explain the absence of all vestiges of ancient walling around certain Etruscan sites — Sorano, for instance, and Nepi, where the narrow isthmus alone seems to have been fortified; and also opens room for speculation on the extent of the ancient walls on Etruscan sites in general. Yet we find remains of ancient fortifications on heights utterly inaccessible, as at Civita Castellana, and must conclude that in such instances at least, the cities, however strong by nature, were completely girt with walls.

9 Two vases similarly mended by the ancients are preserved in the Gregorian Museum at Rome; and such have often been found at Vulci, says Lucien Bonaparte, Mus. Etrusque, pp78, 108, 111. For notices of the excavations and discoveries made on this site, see Bull. Instit. 1829, p11; 1830, p244; 1831, pp33‑37; 1832, p216; 1833, p93 et seq. — Bunsen; Ann. Instit. 1834, p83 — Bunsen.

10 Similar evidences of Etruscan antiquity were discovered ages since on this site. Monaldo Monaldeschi of Cervara, who in 1584 wrote Historical Commentaries on Orvieto, states that "on the rock of the city there are quarries of sand and pozzolana, and likewise subterranean roads hewn in the rock in ancient times, which lead from one part of the city to another. Caves also, running under ground, where wine is preserved most fresh" (lib. II. p15). By these roads he evidently means the rock-hewn sewers, which existed here, as usual on Etruscan sites in the volcanic district, though none areº now to be seen, opening in the cliffs. The caves were probably tombs in the slopes beneath the walls. For he elsewhere (lib. I. p3) states that "many sepulchres are found continually, of pagans and Greeks (i.e. Etruscans), with vases of black earth fashioned in sundry ways, and with divers figures, and other beautiful things, whereof many are to be seen in the Archivio of the city."

11 Orvieto is about 28 miles from Città la Pieve, and 34 from Chiusi. The road is hilly but tolerably good. It is only 18 miles from Todi — the ancient Tuder in Umbria — an interesting site for its extant remains as well as beautiful scenery — and more than 40 from Perugia, by the same road. The traveller northward leaves the volcanic district at Orvieto. The region of plain and ravine is behind him; that of undulation before him. Abrupt and perpendicular forms give place to gentle slopes and flowing outlines. Tufo is exchanged for a yellow sandstone full of large oyster-shells and other marine productions and often containing thin layers of rounded pebbles.

Thayer's Notes:

a no sepulchres remain open in the slopes around the town: This is a rather odd statement. The immediate vicinity of Orvieto is the site of several major Etruscan necropoli (purists please pardon that Italian plural, I cannot bring myself to write either "necropolises" or the correct Greek form "necropoleis" that Dennis uses), at least one of which, the large, well-preserved and altogether striking Crocifisso di Tufo, was first excavated, if in the typical disorderly fashion of ancient antiquarians, about 15 years before Dennis wrote.

b Lombard architecture: The Duomo of Orvieto does not in the least belong to what is now called the Lombard style; rather, it is an (outstanding) example of Italian Gothic.

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Page updated: 19 Jun 02