Ornate Orvieto

By Rick Steves

Umbria's grand hill town, Orvieto, while no secret, is worth a good half-day of sightseeing. Just off the freeway between Florence and Rome, with three popular claims to fame (cathedral, Classico wine, and ceramics), it's loaded with tourists by day and quiet by night.

The town sits majestically on a big chunk of volcanic rock called tuff, and the streets are lined with exhaust-stained buildings made from the carvable stuff. Train travelers and drivers use a handy funicular that shuttles them quickly from the train station and car park at the base up to the hilltop town.


Orvieto's Duomo(cathedral) has Italy's liveliest facade (from 1330), thanks to architect Lorenzo Maitani and many others. Grab a gelato and study this gleaming mass of mosaics, stained glass, and sculpture.

Why such an impressive church in a little town? Because of a blood-stained cloth. In the 1260s, a skeptical priest — who doubted that the bread used in communion was really the body of Christ — passed through Bolsena (a few miles from Orvieto) while on a pilgrimage to Rome. During Mass, the bread bled, staining a linen cloth. The cloth was brought to the pope, who was visiting Orvieto at the time. Such a miraculous relic required a magnificent church.

To the right of the altar, the Chapel of St. Brizio features Luca Signorelli's brilliantly lit frescoes of the Apocalypse (1499–1502). Step into the room and you're surrounded by vivid scenes of damnation and salvation — Orvieto's artistic must-see sight. Only 25 people are allowed in the chapel at a time.

Archaeological Museum (Museo Claudio Faina e Museo Civico)

Across from the entrance to the cathedral is a former palace holding a fine Etruscan collection. The highlights of the first floor are the Roman coins (push the brass buttons and they dance). A first-floor balcony affords a grand view of the cathedral. The best of the Etruscan vases and bronzes are on the top floor, where you'll also find a WC and free coffee. Look out the windows at the Duomo's glittering facade.

Museo Emilo Greco

This museum displays the work of Emilio Greco (1913–1995), the Sicilian artist who designed the modern doors of Orvieto's cathedral. His sketches and bronze statues show his absorption with gently twisting and turning nudes. Greco's sketchy outlines of women are simply beautiful. The artful installation of his work in this palazzo, with walkways and even a spiral staircase up to the ceiling, allows you to view his sculptures from different angles.

Underground Orvieto Tours (Parco delle Grotte)

Orvieto is honeycombed with Etruscan and medieval caves. Guides weave a good archaeological history into an hour-long look at about 100 yards of Etruscan and medieval caves. You'll see the remains of an old olive press, two impressive 130-feet-deep Etruscan well shafts, and the remains of a primitive cement quarry.

St. Patrick's Well (Pozzo di S. Patrizio)

Modern engineers are impressed by this deep well — 175 feet deep and 45 feet wide — designed in the 16th century with a double-helix pattern. The two spiral stairways allow an efficient one-way traffic flow: intriguing now, but critical then. Imagine if donkeys and people, balancing jugs of water, had to go up and down the same stairway. At the bottom is a bridge that people could walk on to scoop up water.

The well was built because a pope got nervous. After Rome was sacked in 1527 by renegade troops of the Holy Roman Empire, the pope fled to Orvieto. He feared that even this little town (with no water source on top) would be besieged. He commissioned a well, which was started in 1527 and finished 10 years later. It was a huge project. (As it turns out, the town was never besieged, but supporters believe that the well was worth the cost and labor because of its deterrence value — attackers would think twice about besieging a town with a water source.) Even today, when a local is faced with a difficult task, people say, "It's like digging St. Patrick's Well." It's a total of 496 steps up and down — lots of exercise and not much to see other than some amazing 16th-century engineering. Bring a sweater if you plan to descend to the chilly depths.

To round out your Orvieto visit, window-shop for ceramics, and sample some Classico wine. Local wineries offer tours and tastings. Drinking a shot of wine in a ceramic cup as you gaze up at the cathedral lets you experience the three joys of Orvieto all at once.