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Friday 16 October

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Attractive nicely readable uncial, the texts identifying prophets and apostles. The top text reads Sapienter nos redemit ut ars diaboli deluderetur arte Christi, slightly adapted from the legend of St. Bartholomew in the Legenda Aurea. The middle text, In die occisionis occidistis iustum et nemo resistit uobis, is a close adaptation of a passage in the Epistle of St. James (James 5:6). The bottom text, truncated here, reads Servos Iesu Christi nos esse fatemur et ob causam nostrae salutis. . ., which must surely be intended to identify a deacon, thus very likely St. Philip or St. Stephen. The latter, however, is universally represented as a young man — he became the Christian Church's proto­martyr thanks to a speech that in its rashness has all the earmarks of youth — whereas in the Western tradition St. Philip is almost always represented as a man of middle age or older: so Philip it must be, considering also that he was an apostle and Stephen was not.

Monday 12 we started earlier, with a rather slow visit of S. Giovenale; both James and I feeling a bit harried by the otherwise good tour provided by the custode, who knew his stuff, with respect to the actual church and local history at any rate. Lots of sometimes curious frescoes of various periods including a very odd-looking Crucifixion with banners as branches of the Tree,​a and both St. Sebastian were represented quite dressed (don't remember that anywhere else).​b An extremely well preserved Lombard altar mounted in a probably 12c sculptured stone frame. The church itself, extended in the Gothic period, has a twice-elevated choir, for which no really satisfactory explanation (but no crypt). Another rare item: a funerary remembrance calendar, late medieval; the commemorations being grouped in clumps of four or five successive days, about one a month, and the dates grouped into weeks by dominical letters A‑G.

Eleven o'clock found us at the top of the Torre del Moro when the hour was struck — right next to us, and thus it seemed rather suddenly! The Tower is of no particular interest, but the view is instructively panoramic — it's by quite a ways the highest point in Orvieto — but we'd bought (20 ML) the Carta Unica covering several (but not all, in fact) of the town's monuments, so why not. The tower, unintuitively, seems to be wider at the top than the bottom, since the attractive standard-depth wooden stairs installed in it are 3 steps by 5 at the bottom and 5 steps by 7 at the top: at the same time, it certainly doesn't feel tapered out, although it does feel rectangular; another little mystery.

12:15 and we were at the Azienda on the piazza del Duomo for a tour of a small piece of under­ground Orvieto (tours at 11, 12:15, 15, 16:15) which although only a very small part of it, was representative and turned out to be very useful for understanding Etruscan (and other) holes and caves.

Not counting the purportedly unexplored or at least officially uncensused military zone of the town, about 20% of the mesa, there have so far been found about 1100 noncommunicating caves, holes, wells and tunnels. This was just one of them (#536, I believe): a 17c oil press, two Etruscan wells and a 19c extension. We took, with misgivings, the English-language tour, since there were already 2 other couples queued up: our young guide, not a history or art major, spoke good English and had even boned up on some of the technical terminology, and had real knowledge of the Orvietan cave situation, not just a canned spiel.

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The most interesting thing, for both James and me, was the Etruscan wells, said to be uniformly 0.80 by 1.20 m in cross-section, with alternating footholds all the way down, explained as construction (and I would add, occasional maintenance) devices. None has been explored thru to the bottom, probably some 60‑80 meters below and presumably water, thus wells, at the impermeable clay layer. The real problem is a fascinating one: how did the guys who built these wells breathe? There are no side entrances nor ventilation, and every indication is that they were dug from the top by lowering the man down on a rope, with some rappelling using those footholds. The deeper it got, the longer it took to get down and back up and out; and also, the darker it must've been. Now I can't imagine they dug in the blind — I didn't test with a plumb, but they certainly feel vertical, and the sides are neat and regular: so they must've had light, which means something oxygen-consuming down there, meaning — or so it seems — that they couldn't stay at work very long, unless somehow they had air in a pipe somehow??? Mind you tufa is soft so the work is fast, but it's still a mystery.​c

Then to the archaeological museum (near the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, currently closed): pots mostly; the Etruscan armor we saw 5 years ago, which looked exceptionally well preserved, is now in restauro, although the greaves had been left behind in the case, reminding one of the Wicked Witch of the East — Other than the pots, 2 small frescoed tombs, in varying condition: preparation of the funeral banquet (pretty clear and complete), consuming it, procession.

Finally, a slow walk to S. Giovanni (the other spur, the pendant to S. Giovenale) via the v. della Cava in between, and the mildly interesting privately owned Pozzo della Cava complex, that does indeed feature a large Etruscan well; there's a cistern down there too — originally Etruscan — and a couple of medieval "butti" (a "butto" is Orvietano for a long vertical garbage dump, every medieval house here had one).

The Etruscan walls in the v. Cava, said by one guide to be very interesting, are private property and we were told in the neighborhood that they are not visitable.

S. Giovanni is of no interest — about eight small lapidary fragments, Lombard thru Renaissance — altho' the area is scenic; the contiguous Renaissance cloister is sweet and looks South American; the rooms leading onto it housed an exhibit of essentially pornographic paintings (sex shop activities) that were to boot quite ugly: an odd thing to find in a cloister.

The second church on the piazza is tiny and closed, and must be called S. Maria del Pianto — a painted inscription calls it something like Templum Deiparae de Planctu — and the outside, again, must be its best feature. Attached to it, aha, the Grotte del Funaro: the owner was just opening up for work, climbed into his front door and down into a staircase right from the threshold.

Our own dinner was back at last night's La Grotta, by appointment as it were, around 8:30. Another good meal, maybe a touch less good, but the grappa was good, or at least better than grappa usually is. Tagliolini (James, surprisingly, ai funghi porcini; me al sugo di anatra), piccione in salmí (James: spezzatella di cinghiale); Fobiano, La Carraia 1996 (another Umbrian IGT) of Sangiovese — finally that's a vulgar taste I don't really like, although the wine was in fact quite decent. Grappa: I repeated yesterday's Amoroso, and James had a Picolit (60° alcohol — it'll knock yer sox off — a bit too much for me, altho' good; James didn't find it too strong) from Domenis; and we were lagniapped another Domenis, their "Secolo", which I just can't remember — To bed.

Thursday 13 we finally left Orvieto — an expensive, crowded and very touristy place (can't believe Rick Steves calls it an out‑of-the‑way discovery, vel simile!!) where our hotel room, if large, was not so good and at 160ML almost Rome prices. . . .

Before leaving — our bus was from the Piazza Cahen at 1305 — we wrapt up some loose ends, including a second bout of photography of mine at the Duomo, since the S pier of the façade was suddenly cleared of its scaffolding in the morning; and a quick look at the débris of Roman mostly stuff inside the grilled-in front of the Museo Emilio Greco — the best milestone so far —

Later Notes:

a The iconography is that of the Lignum Vitae, the Crucifixion as the Wood of Life: a relatively rare theme, but commoner in Umbria than elsewhere in Italy; the fresco in S. Giovenale is one of four painted examples in Umbria. (The others, according to Alessandro Simbeni, "L'iconografia del Lignum vitae in Umbria nel XIV secolo e un'ipotesi su un perduto proto­tipo di Giotto ad Assisi", in Franciscana 9:156, are in the refectory of S. Francesco in Gubbio, a fresco in S. Lorenzo at Cerreto Borgo, and a manuscript illumination in the Biblioteca Augusta in Perugia.)

b Although we are used to a standard iconographical representation of St. Sebastian, more or less nude, attached to a column and pierced with arrows, earlier depictions of him do give him a full set of clothes: as for example the mosaic of the saint, identified as belonging to the seventh century, in the church of S. Pietro in Vincoli in Rome ("Roman Church Mosaics of the First Nine Centuries", AJA 10:253).

c This may not be the problem it seems. At the time of the American War between the States (1861‑65), it was taken for granted that a tunnel could be dug without any ventilation for 120 meters, which is longer than these shafts are deep. That was felt to be the maximum, in much the same way as these common speculations in Orvieto: which was disproved, with disastrous consequences to the Confederate army, in the battle for Petersburg, VA on July 30, 1864.

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