The history of Orvieto is quite fascinating. Like the other hill towns of central Italy, it sits on a huge mass of tufa rock, likely from an ancient volcanic eruption. This rock is solid in some parts, not so solid in others.Orvieto's first traceable history comes from the Etruscan civilization, beginning about the 9th century BCE. This was a culture of great splendor and importance and Orvieto (known then as Velzna) was the most important town in the Etruria territory. Below the cliffs of this village, archaeologists and histories discovered what they think is the Fanum Volumnae, an ancient sanctuary that was thought to be the center of the Etruscan religion.
Here, the Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis was excavated, along with remains of the Temple of Belvedere. The necropolis is an ancient burial site consisting of over 200 tombs made of tuff (tufa) blocks. This is a likely predecessor to what tombs looked like in the the time of Christ. Each tomb was owned by individual families and was marked with family names, which can still be seen. In a tour I took in my last visit, our archaeologist tour guide mentioned that there is an early connection between one of the families, whose tomb is in this burial site, with that of Remus and Romulus, the traditional founders of Rome.
Velzna was also the political center, where the leaders of the 12 major Etruscan cities (dodecapoli) would gather to worship the gods and decide by common consent the political strategies to adopt.
Under the settlement, the Etruscans built a series of caves and tunnels to connect themselves. They did this because they often were under siege from unfriendly neighbors. Many of the homes in the village have underground "basements," some of which have been excavated to connect up to the various tunnels. There are still olive presses in some of these caves, dating from the Middle Ages. And they are still great places to store cheese and wine, two commodities for which Orvieto is famous.Eventually, Orvieto fell to Rome in the third century BC, although it took them two years to conquer this natural fortress, with cliffs on all sides and its intricate web of caves and numerous wells. The Romans destroyed most of the evidence of the Etruscans and then used the area to supply crops, wine and other goods to Rome. There are only a few traces of Roman civilization in the village.
This area was dominated by the Goths, Byzantines and Lombards until about 1000 CE. It was then that Orvieto began to repopulate, especially on the northwest side, which is known today as the Medieval Quarter. This is evidenced by the presence of the Chiesa d'San Giovenale (Church of St. John), whose first documentation was in 1004. (More on Orvieto churches later!)
During the 13th and 14th centuries, Orvieto, then called Urbs Vetus (See the present name taking shape?), advanced and increased its power. It was a time of great artistic and cultural flourishing. Thomas Aquinas taught in a school here and composed a special liturgy for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which originated here (more on that later). Pope Urban IV found refuge here from a civil war in Rome for a couple of years. Other popes "summered" in Orvieto. Most importantly, this time included the construction of the duomo. The cathedral, besides being known for its beautiful mosaic facade, also contains in its chapel (Chapel of San Brizio) frescoes by Fra Angelico and, most famously, Luca Signorelli's masterpiece, the Last Judgment, based on Dante's Divine Comedy, written in 1314.
This amazing time ended in 1348, when a pandemic followed by continuous internal fighting within a ruling family (sound at all familiar?) destroyed the Comune of Orvieto. It came under the rule of the Papal State and, then, in 1860, was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.
This history with all of its drama and richness is, in large part, what draws me to Orvieto. Sometimes, I think that, in the US, we're too young as a nation to understand that our hold on democracy is tenuous. That it takes constant work and effort to maintain it. Here, in Italy, the people understand this. And, they also know that life goes on. That history continues. And that, no matter what, there is resurrection and life even after death and destruction.
Or, in the words of Julian of Norwich (b. 1343), an English feminine mystic: "All will be well. And all will be well. And all manner of things will be well."
Fino a tardi, arrivederci!