The Duomo di Orvieto is widely considered the most glorious example of Italian Gothic

The Duomo di Orvieto
Italian Gothic at its Finest

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In 1263 or 64, a Bohemian priest was on his way home from a pilgrimage to Rome. He stopped at Lake Bolsena, near the Umbrian town of Orvieto, to celebrate a holy mass, and was astonished to see so much blood drip out of the communion wafers that it soaked through the cloth below. Pope Urban IV had the cloth carried to Orvieto and, to commemorate the miracle, he established the sacred holiday of Corpus Domini. Raphael covered one wall of his famed Rooms at the Vatican with a highly stylized representation of this fundamental event in church history.

At the time, the cathedral of Orvieto was an old dilapidated building, certainly unworthy of housing such an important relic. It took the Popes sixty years to convince the townspeople to sponsor the construction of a new one.

ot until 1290 was the cornerstone laid, but soon the old basilica began to acquire a whole new gothic appearance, which blended Byzantine and northern elements and softened them into the so-called Italian Gothic style, of which the cathedral of Orvieto is a prime example. Still, as so often happens in Italy, no one is entirely certain who the author was. The prevailing opinion is that it was a rather obscure monk named Fra' Bevignate da Perugia, but many scholars think he was merely executing plans drawn up much earlier by the great Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio.

Perhaps it is irrelevant to try to link one name to this magnificent sanctuary, which took well over two centuries to reach its greatest splendor. Come with us now on a virtual tour of the Duomo di Orvieto[.WAV File].

Click on the photos below to see a larger image.

Visitors to Orvieto stroll down narrow medieval alleyways and suddenly find themselves face to face with this astounding façade, which soars seven stories into the sky. Begun by Lorenzo Maitani in the year 1300, it took more than 100 years to complete.
It might be hard to imagine that behind the incredibly ornate façade of the church lurks this simple oblong structure. No one knows who designed it, but the horizontal stripes of black and white marble, the bifore windows and the external niches all suggest that the Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio drew up the original plans.
The delicately carved rose window of the façade is surrounded by framed marble busts and life-sized sculpted figures in gothic niches.
Among the most important examples of early 14th-century Italian sculpture, the panels surrounding the main doors serve a function that was quite common in those days, when only the privileged few knew how to read: they tell stories. These are from Genesis. In the lower left, God is seen creating Eve from Adam's rib; above, the snake presides as Eve hands Adam the apple of original sin.
Elaborate in its simplicity, the cathedral's majestic interior is divided into a main nave and two flanking ones. Notice the delicate capitals atop the columns.

uca Signorelli created what is perhaps the finest masterpiece in this treasure trove. Certainly he was influenced by the dire warnings in fellow Florentine Dante's "Divine Comedy," but Signorelli was present in Piazza della Signoria when the apocalypse-preaching zealot Savonarola was burned on the stake, and we imagine this experience probably led more directly to the blood-curdling scenes that gentle Luca painted on the Brizio Chapel. Working feverishly night and day, he frescoed every inch of the chapel with scenes depicting the end of the world, the resurrection of the dead, Paradise and Hell.

Angels play in Heaven and place crowns on the heads of the Blessed, who have been chosen to ascend to Paradise. The beautiful bodies, tranquil angels and golden background are in stark contrast to the horrifying scenes of Hell elsewhere in the chapel, and show the rewards of loving God while we are on Earth.
The upper part of the scene shows angels playing and gazing at the Blessed, some of whom kneel while others prepare to take off in flight to gain their position in Paradise.
The opposite side of the wall bears obvious referrals to the first verses of the Divine Comedy. Two very sad angels watch, helpless, as mountains erupt into flame and a group of people who were too lazy to choose between God and Satan follow the Devil carrying a white flag. These doomed souls will not gain entry to Heaven nor to Hell. Below, a boat piloted by Charon crosses the River Acheron to carry the condemned towards Hell. In the bottom right corner, the judge Minos punishes a guilty man.
This dramatic fresco represents all the desperation of the condemned, persecuted and tortured by the devils as portrayed in a mass of flesh, muscles and bodies prostrated by pain.
This scene occupies the great entrance arch to the chapel. In the lower right corner, Sibilla is seen reading a book of prophesies announcing the imminent cataclysm, while the prophet Ezechiel (wearing a turban) points to the warning signs: the disappearing stars, the red moon and the grey or black sun. Above to the left, devils spit fire on the men who try to flee while deranged women attempt in vain to protect their children.
This scene was probably influenced by Savonarola's execution by burning at the stake. Just to the right of the center, the figure of the Anti-Christ stands on a pedestal with a devil clinging to his shoulders. All around is a crowd of figures each representing an important role, such as the rebellious Archangel hit by lightning, a woman receiving money for her sins from a Jew.
Inside the small chapel of Corpi Santi an entirely different atmosphere reigns during the vigil over Christ's body.
On the wall featuring stories of the Antichrist, Signorelli painted an exquisite portrait of himself (left) and his fellow artist, Fra' Angelico, who was renowned not only for his artistic genius, but also for the sweet naivete of his utter Christian devotion.

The church may be visited free of charge from 7:30am to lunch and 2:30pm-5pm (winter) or 7pm (summer).

Click here if you'd like to stop in Orvieto on your way between Rome and Florence, or take a day trip there from Rome with a private guide.

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