…in Italy one can simply be.
— Pietros Maneos
I’ve been in Orvieto alone a week, and while I spend a lot of time on research and writing, I have had time to go out and check out the town. This is my fourth visit here, the first one where I’ve stayed in the historic center. Most of the other times I’ve come in for a day, although I did spend a few days down the hill in the new town once.
Orvieto, if you don’t know, sits on a plateau of tufa rock in Umbria. Founded by the Etruscans in the 9th century BC, it was a city of wealth and prestige. It took Rome two years to conquer it (3rd century BC) because the city is basically a natural fortress since it is on that cliff. The Etruscans also had dug an intricate web of caves, tunnels, and wells under the city, so they were able to defend their city quite easily. I don’t want to get into the history per se, but consider the fact that the Catholic popes felt it safe enough to live there—especially during the civil war in Rome.
The entire historic center of Orvieto is what sits on the plateau. Getting from the plateau to the valley is easy in some ways, and a little difficult in others. In medieval times, there were three main piazzas in the city, each representing a particular power: Piazza Della Repubblica (political), Piazza Del Duomo (religious), and Piazza del Popolo (the people). The three piazzas exist today and still, to some extent, represent those three powers.
Piazza Del Duomo
In the 13th century, Pope Urban IV commissioned the building of a basilica in the piazza next to his palace. He wanted a church grand enough and safe enough to hold the relic of a miracle that occurred in nearby Bolsena. Construction on the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta (Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary) finally began in 1290 and was not complete until 1591. You can see by looking at it that the styles change from Romanesque to Gothic architecture as the years and construction continued.
Note that five popes lived in Orvieto from 1261-1303 (not constantly), although none died here. Art historians say that the 13th century papal palace on the piazza is one of the most complete and intact papal palaces to survive.
Piazza della Repubblica
Piazza della Repubblica (PdR) has always been the center of civic power in Orvieto. Located at the end of Corso Cavour, PdR was also the center of religious power prior to the building of the Duomo. Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, which dominates one side of the square, dates back to the 6th century and was the supposed site of the crowning of three popes. While the church is one of the oldest buildings in Orvieto, it sits on top of the remains of an Etruscan temple, which I have yet to visit.
My apartment is off of an alley (L’Archetta di Sant’Andrea) across from the church and the Palazzo Comunale (government building). Other former palazzos overlook the piazza.
Piazza del Popolo
The Piazza del Popolo came into existence in the 13th century as a site for the Palazzo del Popolo. The palazzo was to be the seat of the representative of the people of Orvieto, giving them a way to balance power in the city. Today, the piazza is home to the town’s Thursday and Saturday markets (among other things).