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In the midst of this beautiful countryside on a tufa summit circled by misty mountains (approximately 120 kilometres north of Rome) is Orvieto, "this age-old city where time stands still among geraniums and the stonework of bygone days, where breath-taking beauty mingles with a zest for life redolent of the ancient Etruscans; this strange hill-top town, so sad yet so splendid, so exalted and spell-binding, awaits you ...". What immediately strikes you about Orvieto is the Romanesque-Gothic cathedral which is (almost) as stunning as the cathedral in Florence.
Work on it began in 1290 in order to house the relics of the Miracle of Bolsena (1263) which can be seen in the Cappella del Corporale to the left of the high altar, and more than 350 architects, painters, sculptors and masochists contributed to its splendour. In the right-hand chapel, the Cappella San Brizio, Luca Signorelli's priceless frescoes, painted between 1499 and 1504, of the "Preaching of the Antichrist", the "End of the World", the "Resurrection" and the "Last Judgement" will enthral you as they did Michelangelo who is said to have been influenced by them when he painted the "Last Judgement" in the Sistine Chapel.
The ceiling in the Chapel of San Brizio was done by Fra Angelico and Gozzoli of the "Apocalypse", while the fresco of the "Virgin and Child" in the north aisle is by Gentile de Fabriano, and the marble Pietà on the right-hand wall is by Ippolito Scalza. The mosaic and marble façade was designed by Lorenzo Maitani in the early 14th century, with additions by Andrea Pisano and others before being completed at the beginning of the 17th century. Most of the mosaics were remade in the 17th and 18th centuries and the central bronze doors were the work of Emilio Greco in 1965. The 13th century Gothic Papal Palace also stands in Piazza del Duomo, and it was here that the refugee popes found shelter.
The spacious lower floor hall houses the Cathedral Museum where sculptures by della Robbia and Arnolfo di Cambio, among others, can be admired. Two other museums in the square are the Archaeological Museum, where mainly Etruscan finds are on show, and the Civic Museum which was bequeathed by Count Claudio Faino in 1954 and which houses 5th and 4th century BC Greek vases, pottery, bronze statues, terracotta busts and sarcophagi, Etruscan jewellery and figurines. In Piazza della Repubblica stands the other great monument of Orvieto, the Church of Sant'Andrea, with its magnificent alabaster windows, the tabernacle by Arnolfo di Cambio and the 12th century Romanesque 12-sided tower.
It was built in the 12th century on top of 6th century ruins, and is historically famous not only because the Fifth Crusade was proclaimed there by the pope in 1218, but also because it was here that Pietro d'Artois was crowned King of Jerusalem, the Duke of Anjou was crowned King of Naples in the 13th century, and Martin IV was installed as pope in 1281. The Church of San Domenico in Piazza XXIX Marzo houses the tomb of Cardinal Guillaume de Braye by Arnolfo di Cambio, and the Church of San Francesco in Piazza di Fabei is where the funeral rites were held for Henry of Cornwall, who was stabbed to death in Viterbo in 1272, and where Pope Boniface VIII canonized Louis IX of France during a service in 1297.
A short walk from the Cathedral along Via del Duomo takes you to Piazza del Popolo and the Romanesque and Gothic Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo which overlooks the market-place. In the 12th century it was occupied by the clergy and then by the Capitano del Popolo and later was a Renaissance theatre. At the north-eastern end of the town, just off Piazzale Canen beside an Etruscan temple, is one attraction that simply should not be missed: St Patrick's Well (Pozzo di San Patrizio), so called because it was said to resemble the place where the Irish saint retreated to pray. It was built by Sangallo the Younger between 1527 and 1537, and possibly (though it is by no means certain) commissioned by Clement VII, that unfortunate and ill-starred pope who allied himself with France, Milan and Venice to overthrow Charles V, but who was beaten time and again before Rome was eventually sacked on 6th May 1527, and he was forced to seek refuge in Orvieto.
Because he feared further reprisals, he had the artesian well excavated to ensure a constant supply of water and improve the city's ability to resist in the event of a siege. The Artesian Well - Boring operations were carried out to probe for water in the tufa and clay of the cliffs beneath the city, and it eventually gushed out at the Fonti di San Zeno. The well is 13.4 meters wide and more than 61 deep, and two spiral flights of steps, which never cross, wind their way down the cylindrical shaft, one used to go down and the other to come up again. The interior is illuminated by 72 large windows which receive light from the mouth of the well. Even today the descent into the well can be rather unnerving as the temperature drops and the light gradually fades the lower you go.
Once at the bottom, you step onto a small wooden bridge and if you look up you can see the striking variety of colours. The lower part of the tufa shaft is predominantly the reflected blue of the water, but higher up the many plants and weeds clinging to the walls turn it green. At the entrance is a Latin inscription that says: "Quod natura munimento inviderat industria adiecit", which very roughly means that whatever nature denied the city's defences, the work of man provided. There is also a lovely panoramic view of the Paglia Valley from the terrace. Besides being famous for its coloured ceramics, majolica, terracotta, woven fabrics and lace, this spectacular city also attracts visitors during the three annual historic festivals. The Feast of the Palombella is held at Pentecost when a procession winds through the streets, the dove makes a symbolic appearance and fireworks are let off to represent the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles.
On Corpus Christi Day the relics of Bolsena are taken from the Cathedral and carried in a solemn procession through the town in keeping with a tradition that is centuries old. From 10th-20th March, the people celebrate St Joseph, the city's patron saint, by organizing traditional religious services, gastronomic exhibitions and a recent initiative, the Palio dell'Oca. The Legend Of The Badia - What particularly fascinated me was the Badia perched on its hill east of Orvieto overlooking the Paglia Valley, and the legend behind it telling of two friars who were set upon and brutally beaten on this spot in the 13th century. As they lay dying, a woman came across them and when she touched the garments of one to see whether he was still alive, her hand became glued to the fabric.
At this, the friar spoke to her and commanded her to build an abbey where he and his brother friar lay, and as soon as she agreed, she was miraculously freed. Although she did in fact initiate the building, she died before it was completed, and it was left to the friars who inhabited it to finish it. The Badia is now a super restaurant and hotel which has kept its characteristic style in the hewn stone walls and uneven flagged floors and the series of small communicating chambers which give a cosy sense of history while other senses are being sated. The tiny church beside it is full of relics and is usually kept locked, but the key is sometimes produced with all due flourish and ceremony for reverent visitors.