Dwight Peck's personal website

Two weeks in the Lazio region, 2016

Avoiding news of Trump's nightmare "transition team" to the extent possible

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

The plan is to luxuriate for twelve days in Viterbo, with enthusiastic sight-seeing in the region, and a few days tacked onto either side of that for getting there and back.

A daytrip to Orvieto (1)

We've just been to visit Civita di Bagnoregio, 28 November 2016, and now we're continuing about 10km farther over back roads northward to Orvieto in Umbria.

We've just left one city on a volcanic tufa plateau and here's another. This is Orvieto in the distance as we hurtle down the road from the countryside to the south. There's a convenient carpark at the western end of town (on the left), by the Porta Romana, with a classy escalator up into the town.

Emerging from our escalator at the top of the tufa cliffs, we're in the Piazza San Giovanni, facing the pink austerity of the Chiesa di San Giovanni Evangelista -- it's one of the oldest churches in Orvieto, dating from the 10th century, but an earthquake at the end of the 17th century nearly knocked it down and this is the repair job. The paint job is very recent, but the original convent grounds are said still to have lots of good stuff to see.

We're in a hurry, however, racing up into the centre of town. The origins of the city, in its almost impregnable strategic location, go back to the 9th century BC and it's been identified by many as the important Etruscan centre of Velzna (Latin Volsinii), which was conquered and largely destroyed by the Romans in 254 BC.

We're on the Via Giuseppe Garibaldi and scurrying to make the churches before they close at noon for the long lunch. The rebuilt city became known as the Urbs Vetus or Old City (eventually Orvieto), whilst the refugees set up on the nearby lake in Volsinii Novi, New Volsinii (now Bolsena); that's the story, anyway.

Now we're in the Piazza della Repubblica, with the city administration buildings along on the right and the Chiesa di Sant'Andrea or St Andrew facing us.

The church was first built in the 1100s and sports a strange 12-sided belltower.

A simple nave with two wide aisles in a Latin cross layout

There are a lot of interesting frescoes along the walls, many the worse for wear.

The nave is covered with wooden truss roofing but the crossing between the nave and the transept has this attractive vault with clustered columns.

The ambo or pulpit, said to be in a 12th-13th century Roman Cosmati style, deriving from Byzantine geometric influences

Once again, we must hurry on.

We're continuing up the Corso Cavour high street, along the portico outside St Andrew's church. During the later years of the western Roman Empire, Orvieto was taken by Alaric's Visigoths as part of their stranglehold around Rome in AD 410, and King Odoacer's Ostrogoths occupied the town in the 470s; Byzantine Generals Belisarius and Narses apparently successfully besieged Witiges' Goths in Orvieto when mopping up after the siege of Rome in 538, but in AD 596 the Longobard or Lombard King Agilulfo took over Orvieto and was confirmed in possession by the eastern Roman Emperor Phocas in 605. So there's that.

Orvieto was instituted as a self-administering commune in 1137 but came under increasing papal control -- the Guelph or pro-papal faction amongst the leading families was generally ascendant, and the pro-imperial Ghibelline families were periodically expelled. The city's first podestà, or appointed adminstrator, was actually appointed by the Pope himself in 1199, to help in sorting out street battling between the Guelph Monaldeschi and Ghibelline Filippeschi families, and thereafter the podestà was frequently a bishop.

The Corso Cavour looking back towards the Piazza delle Repubblica

The Torre del Moro, 47m tall, was built in the 13th century by a prominent family and then owned by the papacy and known as the Torre del Papa. The origin of its present name, 'Tower of the Moor', is still much debated.

The base of the Torre del Moro at the exact centre of the city, at the junction of Corso Cavour and the Via del Duomo, and adjacent to the Palazzo dei Signori Sette, running from here off to the right on the Via della Costituente, which was donated to the city by Pope Boniface VIII in about 1300 and occupied after 1319 by the administration of the seven city governors elected for short terms from the 25 most important guilds.

Just 100m northward along the Via della Costituente, in the Piazza del Popolo, this is the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, originally just the ground floor loggia built in the 1280s over an earlier papal palace built in 1157 by Pope Adrian IV (the only English pope), with the upper stories added in the 1470s. In addition to housing the administration of the Captain of the People, nominally in charge of military preparations under the neighborhood and guild militias, it served as a marketplace and venue for ceremonial civic functions (like officially submitting to the Pope's authority in 1375).

The fine windows of the Palazzo del Popolo, in a style repeated elsewhere in the monumental old buildings in the city.

A view from the Palazzo del Popolo over the rooftops -- what can that be?

The Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, now a congress centre

From the Palazzo del Popolo across the Piazza del Popolo, facing the northern end of the Palazzo dei Sette. The administration of the Seven Signori met in the Palazzo del Popolo from the beginning of its government in 1292 until it moved to the Palazzo dei Sette in 1319.

Strolling in a leisurely manner up the Corso Cavour back towards the Torre del Moro, to learn whether Kristin has finished her very satisfactory lunch in the L'Oste del Re opposite the tower.

The little park Largo Barzini along the Via del Duomo

The Via dei Magoni off the Via del Duomo

The "Mago di Oz" workshop

More good stuff coming up, evidently

The excellent Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta or Duomo di Orvieto was begun in 1290 supposedly in order to house the relic of the miracle of the "Corporal di Bolsena" of 1263 (but also because the old cathedral was falling down). Originally designed in a Romanesque style, it passed through a number of subsequent Gothic and Sienese Gothic styles until it was finally considered to be finished, in the early 17th century.

In the Piazza del Duomo

The stunning façade is made up of a lot of elements, over time: it's like a wall of three vertical pillars and gables, each comprising a door framed by broad pillars, topped by a loggia, and rising to a pinnacle, with a rose window in the broader central pillar.

The lower elements date from the late 1200s and early 1300s, and the rose window had been completed by 1380. The bas-reliefs on the three piers cover most of the familiar Old and New Testament tales, leading up to the life of Jesus and onward to Judgement Day. This first one, on the left end, does the Garden of Eden, etc., from the book of Genesis.

The three bronze doors replaced original ones in 1970 and date from 1964; they embody angels on the side doors and a series on "works of mercy" on the central one.

The golden-themed mosaics above the piers, most having to do with the life of the Virgin Mary, dated originally from a project beginning in 1321, continuing mainly through the second half of that century, but have been repaired and somewhat redesigned a number of times, most recently in 1842.

The rose window also dates from 1354-1380, and the statues in the niches above and around it represent the twelve apostles and twelve Old Testment prophets respectively.

The Madonna and Child in the tympanum is by Pisano in 1347, but that's a copy; the fragile original is in the Museo dell'Opera next door and we'll see it later.

The cathedral walls, both inside and out, are done in the familiar Sienese or Tuscan style of alternating stripes of white travertine and grey or blue basalt.

We're lounging about in the Piazza del Duomo awaiting the advent of a post-lunch Kristin. It's from the Tourist Office in the piazza that begin the guided tours of some of the 1,200 "tunnels, galleries, wells, stairs, quarries, cellars, unexpected passageways, cisterns, superimposed rooms with numerous small square niches for pigeon roosts" in a kind of underground city ("Underground Orvieto") dating from Etruscan times forward. (We didn't have time for the tour; bet it was wonderful.)

We're presently standing on the orange spot (about to enter the Duomo), having come up into town on the escalator on the western side (the dotted red line). After having viewed with awe the Duomo interior (following Kristin's arrival), we'll proceed farther eastward along the Corso Cavour (blue hatched lines) to the Albornoz fortress and St Patrick's Well before calling it a well-spent day.

The brilliantly simple interior of the Duomo, a nave and two aisles in a Latin cross, with six bays along the walls. The travertine/basalt alternation evidently runs up somewhat less than two metres from the floor, and the remaining stripes were painted on in the 19th century (sure fooled me).

Near the front door is a baptismal font with a base of little lions, created by several hands between 1390 and 1407.

And just above it on the wall, one of the few remaining original frescoes in the nave, a Madonna and Child Enthroned by Gentile da Fabriano in 1425, in the originally-Byzantine "Maestà" theme popular in the region of Rome in the early 13th century.

Some more original frescoes that did not fare well during subsequent spasms of renovation.

Standing in the crossing, in front of the high altar: this is the Chapel of the Corporal in the north transept, surmounted by an organ in a structure designed in the 1580s by Ippolito Scalza, and just to the left, a large four-figure pietà made by the same artist from a single block of marble, completed in 1579.

This is the altar and large reliquary containing the Santo Corporale, traditionally a major reason for the building of the Duomo itself. The reliquary itself was created by the Sienese goldsmith Ugolino di Vieri in 1337-38.

The traditional story of the "Miracle of Bolsena" goes that a priest from Bohemia had been having painful doubts about whether the host and wine of the mass were genuinely transubstantiated into Christ's body and blood, a centrepiece of medieval Catholic doctrine; to resolve the matter, he made a pilgrimage to Rome, and passing by Bolsena near Orvieto in 1263 he celebrated mass in the basilica there. As he consecrated the host, it began to bleed, and the blood stained the 'corporal' or linen napkin upon which it was carried, apparently looking sort of like the face of Jesus. It was a miracle, obviously, and Pope Urban IV, residing in Orvieto at the time, sent the local Bishop to grab the thing and bring it back here at once.

The chapel is coated with interesting frescoes, mostly by Ugolino di Prete Ilario in the 1330s, but of course usually too far away to be seen very clearly.

Though some seem distinctly odd, like this one in which the knight seems to be defeating the demon and trampling down the maiden he was saving from it. There's probably a sensible story to go with it.

But most of Ugolino's frescoes in the chapel tell the story of the finding and presentation of the Corporal in the city.

Part of the story insists that Pope Urban was so keen to receive the Corporal that he led a vast procession out of the city to the Rio Chiaro bridge to wait for the Bishop to show up.

Presenting the Corporal to the pious populace, a trending story in its day.

There's much more to Ugolino's version of the story, but you'd probably have to know the story first to have the least idea of what's going on.

There's a Last Supper up over the door, with 14 figures in it. That's Christ in the centre, and 11 of the disciples ranged about him, and Judas in the front with a friend he's brought along.

There's Judas and his friend. And only a little two legged animal and some bread rolls for dinner, besides Jesus' big plate of eucharist hosts.

This is not just any old story -- the Sacro Corporale has been tested by numerous scientific methods. The holy article is paraded around the city on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

Fig leaves required as mandatory dress in the cathedral

The high altar in the apse

The entire apse features frescoes executed by Ugolino di Prete Ilario in the 1370s, him of the Corporal Chapel some years earlier, on the Life of the Virgin Mary

We're passing to the chapel in the southern transept, the Chapel of San Brizio, built between 1406 and 1444.

Don't look too closely into those reliquaries. We don't want to know.

An aspiring escapee

Frescoes along one wall are by Fra Angelico of Fiesole, assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli, beginning in 1447, but he was called back to the Vatican, and at the end of the century the great Luca Signorelli of Cortona was contracted to complete his intentions, and with his assistants' help the project was completed in 1504.

Luca Signorelli's visions of the Last Judgment are considered to be his finest works and were understood even at the time to have inspired some of Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel.

His Resurrection of the Dead is disturbing and looks like something right out of Dante.

Oh, yes, Dante it is then.


People who are taking matters very, very seriously. Very upsetting; we'll leave now and go out to look at the spiral columns on the façade.

Right, lovely, feeling better now.

Now we'll step round the corner for a look at the Papal Palace and Cathedral Museum. That's on the next page.

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 23 January 2017.

Viterbo trip,
Nov-Dec. 2016