Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail: Bill Thayer 
[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

Orvieto (Terni province)

A town of SW Umbria: 42°43N, 12°27E. Altitude: 325 m. Population in 2003: 20,700.

[image ALT: A large circular window of Gothic stone tracery in a square setting of statues of apostles and prophets. It is the rose of the cathedral of Orvieto, Umbria (central Italy).]

The rose of the Duomo.

Orvieto is a small city of great antiquity, so ancient that its early history is uncertain. Its location is remarkable as well: it occupies a slowly crumbling butte of volcanic tufa, riddled with hundreds of caves, wells and tunnels of every period from Etruscan to medieval to 17c and later; slowly crumbling away as are many such hills in the area (the most famous of which is nearby Cívita di Bagnoregio) and constantly maintained and shored up by massive engineering works.

Orvieto is 38 km west of Todi, 43 km west-by‑northwest of Amelia and 41 km northwest of Orte along the superhighway to Rome; despite its history and culture, it is a particularly lively, vigorous town, with just about the right amount of tourism to infuse it with wealth, yet not enough to spoil it.

More importantly from a cultural standpoint, Orvieto is 23 km northeast of Bolsena, with which it shares a good deal of history. Uncertain, as I said: although full of Etruscan and Roman remains of the earliest period (such as the temple of the Belvedere, and the striking Etruscan necropolis of Crocifisso di Tufo, the best of many in the area), even the town's ancient name remains unknown, Orvieto competing with Bolsena for one name: Velzna in Etruscan, Volsinii in Latin. A solution often seen is that Orvieto was the old Volsinii (Volsinii Veteres) and Bolsena was the new (Volsinii Novae); but this isn't certain. For a sidelong glance at this problem — and a photo of a Roman milestone now 50 m from the cathedral of Orvieto, see the article Milliare of Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, and my note in the caption to it, with a map.

Now I've just mentioned the Duomo, or cathedral church of Orvieto: and there's the other connection with Bolsena. Although the city has a number of fascinating and attractive churches — S. Andrea, S. Francesco, S. Domenico, and especially S. Giovenale come to mind — it is known worldwide for one principal monument, and that's the Duomo, the great glory of Orvieto and a masterpiece of Italian Gothic art. Built in commemoration of a miracle that occurred not here, but in Bolsena (for another sidelong glance, see St. Anthony's mule) the basic building is quite sober, constructed of bands of black and white stone; but a most extraordinary façade has been applied to it: bronze dragons, gables with mosaics resplendent in gold, and a marvelous shirt-front of marble bas-reliefs by Lorenzo Maitani: an early 14th‑century interpretation of the sculptural style of imperial Rome, which is fitting, in a way, since the stone was taken from some of the ancient monuments of Rome. Similarly the interior is very sober except for one large chapel entirely covered in dramatic frescoes by Luca Signorelli: famous in their own right, but also the chief inspiration for Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

No page on Orvieto, even a small one like mine, would be complete without mentioning one of its more unusual sights: the Pozzo S. Patrizio, a deep well shaft into the rock, with two corkscrew staircases (that do not remind anyone in the least of the famous intertwined staircases of Chambord), built in 1527 by Antonio Sangallo the Younger for Pope Clement VII who, having fled from Rome after it was sacked by Charles V's armies, felt he might need to prepare for a difficult siege. The tourist can walk down to the bottom and back. No elevators, and at the bottom, a trickle of greenish water, but it's an interesting half hour.

For a more formal and historical presentation of the city, see the Encyclopedia Britannica article Orvieto.

Yet another approach to completeness: along with Deruta, Gubbio, and Gualdo Tadino, Orvieto has been known for its art ceramics for several hundred years. Unfortunately, though, this is not a field I know anything about: if you are interested in it, you can start with this brief historical survey at UmbriaTourism.


For historical reasons, Orvieto is one of the larger comuni in Umbria, carrying with it from the Middle Ages into modern times a long list of subject towns and hamlets. Many of these places are very small, a few hundred inhabitants if that; as elsewhere in Italy, those that have a certain administrative identity of their own are frazioni of the comune (singular: frazione, literally a "fraction"): a complete list of them follows. I've been thru several of these small places in cars and buses, but only one on foot (Titignano); any other links will be offsite.

Bagni • Bardano • Benano • Canale • Capretta • Corbara • Fossatello • Morrano • Prodo • Roccaripesena • S. Martino • S. Quirico • Sant' Egidio • Sugano-Canonica • Titignano • Torre S. Severo • Tordimonte

A proper website will of course eventually appear here: I've spent about a week and a half total in Orvieto, and like the town, although it's expensive. Right now:

[image ALT: missingALT.]

If you are planning a trip to the area, you will probably find it useful to read my rather detailed diary entries, with several photographs, for Oct. 11‑16, 1998; for more complete and detailed general information on the town, you should see the websites in the navigation bar at the bottom of this page, of course.

[image ALT: A stylized representation of a metal hand-mirror, taken from the binding of a book. It is an Etruscan mirror motif representing that book, George Dennis's 'Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria'.]

The serious student with an interest in the Etruscans will enjoy the brief Orvieto chapter of George Dennis's Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria. Oddly, he mentions neither the Crocefisso di Tufo nor the other important Etruscan necropolis, the Cannicella, and even says that although the city is definitely Etruscan, there survives no Etruscan monument (this although in another chapter, when speaking generally of Etruscan temples, he alludes to the Tempio del Belvedere, excavated in 1828): but the discussion of toponymy and topography will be useful. He likes the Duomo, too.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

[ 2 pages, 4 photos ]

To repair the lacuna in Dennis, here's a little site on the Etruscan necropolis at Crocefisso di Tufo, which is the best preserved Etruscan tomb city in Umbria, and a fascinating place, laid out in rectangular streets just like any other city; many of the tombs have inscriptions over the doors.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

[ 12/26/02: 12 pages, 12 photos ]

So many of you are coming to this page because of the Duomo! A systematic site eventually ought to show up here; for now, though, you will have to be content with some of the wonderful sculpture on the façade of the church, by Lorenzo Maitani and his team.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Site updated: 7 Dec 21