Orvieto’s tufo and labyrinth of caves have shaped its independent identity, its Etruscan altars and relics – and the character of a renowned white wine, writes JOY DODDS.

I'VE always imagined the cliff-top city of Orvieto as something of a civilised referee, raised high on the dais of tufo over the Paglia region, calling for order in the race for supremacy between Rome and Florence.

And yet this south Umbrian city is older than both its better-known neighbours, being "primus inter pares" (first among equals) of the 12 cities of the Etruscan League before the legendary Romulus and Remus ever had their significant Tiber-side meeting with a suckling wolf!

This striking city, perched 325 metres above sea level on "la rupe" (the cliff), has been continuously inhabited since the 8th century BC. Sacred to the local Etruscans, the city was called Volsinii when their civilisation reached its highest point. Archaeologists have excavated the area to reveal an array of Etruscan relics, on show in Orvieto’s museums.

Super-power Rome eyed nearby Orvieto as an annoyance and destroyed it in 264 BC, the last Etruscan city to fall to the juggernaut. It lapsed into decay for at least six centuries until Rome, in turn, fell to the Barbarians. Once again, Orvieto’s garrison character and tufo formations encouraged citizens to tunnel underground to resist attack.

With the advent of the Middle Ages, the pendulum swung back and Italian cities flourished, climaxing with the Renaissance. While Rome and Florence certainly outshone Orvieto in art and architecture, it responded to the challenge with its unique duomo , standing apart with its gilt mosaic façade of black and white stripes. Commissioned in 1290, the duomo took three centuries to complete, during which its design moved from Romanesque to Gothic, with striking frescoes by Fra. Angelico and Luca Signorelli.

The huge golden triptych façade with elaborate spires and horizontal bands of white travertine marble and blue-grey basalt remains the representative image of Orvieto to the world. One of Italy’s greatest cathedrals, its one-off design reflected the character of this fiercely-independent commune, determined to stay aloof, elevated.

Pope Clement VII sought refuge there in 1527 and ordered the excavation of an enormous well through the volcanic tufo rock to ensure Orvieto’s water supply under siege. The result, Pozzo di San Patrizio, includes 72 large windows for light and access for pack animals and is considered the highest expression of Renaissance ingenuity and construction.

Another well, Pozzo della Cava, was only discovered recently, its underground passages and grottoes filled with archaeological treasures. Orvieto’s Belvedere Temple remains are the clearest example of Etruscan religious construction from the 5th century BC, as is the necropolis of the Crucifix of Tufa, comprising chamber tombs built from quarried tufo, each decorated with ceramics and bronzes. Recent renovations to the Palazzo del Popolo led to the discovery of the remains of an Etruscan temple.

Orvieto is a highly civilized community, best represented by finds to be seen in the National Archaeological Museum, attached to the Duomo in the centre of the city. Inside you’ll find funereal objects excavated from the environs, including amphorae and bronze and iron pieces. More are to be found in Palazzo Faino Archaeological and Civic Museum, including 3500 pieces – vases, coins, prehistoric finds - donated by the Faino family, the local nobility.

The altar stone in the Church of San Lorenzo de Arari is supported by an ancient Etruscan altar, while the nearby Church of San Domenico was founded on the ruins of an Etruscan church, back in the 13th Century.

In fact, ever-determined to express its individual style, many Orvieto structures and churches feature tufo in their construction – the Church of San Giovenale has three naves with eight cylindrical tufo columns. I found its age-old ambience emotionally overcoming, while stepping outside to a parapet overlooking the rolling Umbrian countryside, festooned with cypress pines and vineyards, little different to its appearance a millennium ago was also greatly stirring.

Even older, the Church of Sant’Andrea dates from the 6th century AD, as evidenced by the remains found in its underground vaults. Outside is the very 21st Century bustling provincial market in Corso Cavour, with stalls producing everything from delicious porcetta rolls to homewares, under a brilliant blue sky.

Apart from the cathedral, medieval Orvieto is well represented in such treasures as the Opera del Duomo Museum – a repository of detached frescoes from its churches, stunning goldsmiths’ works and sculptures by artists such as Andrea Pisano – and the nearby clock tower, the Torree di Maurizio – one of the oldest in Italy and built to mark the rhythm of work on the duomo building and to check the punctuality of its labourers!

Another intriguing facet of Orvieto is its royal connections – Henri III of England visited the Church of San Francesco in 1273 and 24 years later, the canonisation of French king, Louis IX, known as St Louis, took place there.

Just as an ancient volcano created Orvieto’s great pedestal, so too did it enrich the hillsides below with a special mixture of minerals that gave Orvieto Classico, from trebbiano grapes, its internationally recognized flavour. The Etruscans first produced wine in the district and the Romans continued this tradition. Even 1500 years ago, Orvieto earned the name “Oinarea”, meaning "where wine flows". For centuries, the tufo caves of Orvieto’s cliffs have been used to ferment and mature the already-famous wine, the trebbiano grapes allowed to rot as they lay in open casks.

Today, the Etruscan-Roman Wine Route Association runs the annual Orvieto Con Gusto festival in October. Its Palazzo del Gusto and regional wine cellar is located in a former Lateran convent, with a beautiful cloister and 16th century well.

Orvieto is also the international headquarters and leader of the “Slow City” movement, an offshoot of the Slow Food Movement. The city also stages a famous Winter Jazz Festival between Christmas and New Year, with international artists.

The populace is enterprising in other ways – as the underground has always been the sustenance of Orvieto, an intricate labyrinth of tunnels, cisterns, galleries, wells and cellars has been built, corresponding with the city above, built on the cliff tops over a period of 3000 years. Excavated from the tufo, the underground showcases the panoply of Etruscan, medieval and renaissance elements that have shaped Orvieto, including columbaria, mills, water wells, medieval butti and a quarry.

With its distinctive location and geography, architecture and wines, Orvieto is the perfect foil to the more obvious domination of Rome and Florence. While not as famous, Orvieto is splendid, unexpected and so gloriously alone.


By car: Autostrada A1 Rome-Florence. Take Orvieto/Fabro exit.

By train: FS line Rome-Florence, one hour from Rome, 90 minutes from Florence. Express train is faster.

Catch the funicular railway up to Piazza Cahen from the station, then a bus, or walk, to Piazza del Duomo (inclusive ticket).

More details: International Rail, (03) 9571 2003. www@internationalrail.com.au


La Babia, a former monastery, 5km south of Orvieto, yet well-equipped and with a swimming pool. +39 (076) 330 1959.

Hotel Maitani, Via Lorezo Maitani 5. +39 (076) 334 2011.

Older-style but our corner room looked towards the duomo, as did the outdoor terrace for dining and relaxing.

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