Lying outstretched between heaven and earth, between the dark depth of the underground and the shining heights which the daring Duomo reaches out to, the city of Orvieto has always had an intense life in its underground space, to which inhabitants entrusted their existence, survival and economy over the course of the centuries. The extensive hypogeum (underground network) and the man-made sites of various nature, as everything that appears obscure and mysterious, have been and are still attracting the imagination of visitors and inhabitants alike.
Nowadays, thanks to continuous study and research, Orvieto’s underground reveals as many as 1200 caves; also, due to the entrepreneurial spirit and skills of some individuals, a number of meaningful spots of the underground city have been made accessible to the public, thereby becoming a destination for fascinating visits and tours. Visiting and knowing Orvieto cannot not include interacting with its mysterious caves. Therefore it is worth including a detailed exploration of the town’s tunnels and caves in your program which, with all due respect to their mysterious fascination, will reveal, through unsuspected marks and traces, that this inextricable underground network mainly served a practical purpose.
The particular attention paid by scholars to Orvieto’s underground started being more systematic in the nineteenth century with a research by Gian Francesco Gamurrini on the wells and tunnels of the Etruscan town of Volsinii, and proceeded with Adolfo Cozza’s works and the realization of the Carta Archeologica d’Italia, (Italy’s archaeological map) that detected the presence of many underground structures in Orvieto and was enriched by the precious interventions by Pericle Perali contained in his 1928 research Orvieto etrusca. Further important information emerged in succeeding years, firstly thanks to some excavation campaigns that brought to light, amongst other things, the findings located underneath Saint Andrew’s church, between 1937 and 1939; and secondly during the restoration of Palazzo Faina in 1983, when investigations were carried out revealing remains in some pits. Archaeologist Claudio Bizzarri’s extensive studies on underground Orvieto that started in the 1990s became the starting point for the Orvieto Underground project that is nowadays one of the strengths of the underground city.
It was the peculiar geology of the cliff the town is built on, made mostly of tufa and pozzolana, that allowed the inhabitants to excavate the over thousand caves that cross and overlap one another under the urban fabric, over the course of Orvieto’s three thousand years of history. The traces of the Etruscan Velzna, the Medieval Urbs Vetus, the Renaissance and modern Orvieto will accompany you along an extraordinary journey back in time, on an emotional path leading you down into the deepest roots of the town, to present you with a more suggestive and less overused memory of it. These pages of material culture can be read in close connection with the history above ground, because of the indispensable and complementary services that the underground city assured to the city on the surface. If you venture into the underground area you will come across a multitude of man-made sites of different shapes: tunnels, channels, tanks, wells, pits, caves and production centres dating back to different ages and, most peculiar, an array of rectangular niches close to each other, named colombari, were pigeons were bred and given nesting places for obvious food purposes in caves opening towards the open air.
Its construction was commissioned to Antonio da Sangallo the Young, in 1527, as a request of Pope Clement VII, in order to ensure water supply, should the city be under siege. Completed in 1537 under Pope Paul III, given its size and the accurate project layout, the well shows its ambition to be remembered as a daring and majestic enterprise.
A visit to Orvieto underground cannot exclude the exploration of the suggestive path of the Pozzo della Cava that, in the heart of the Medieval district, will carry you down into the cliff through an array of caves rich in archaeological findings.
Visiting and knowing Orvieto cannot not include interacting with its mysterious caves. Therefore it is worth including a detailed exploration of the town’s tunnels and caves in your program.
A very interesting artificial cave, hosting paleobotanical remains dating back to 350 thousand years ago, belonging to the ecosystem that existed well before human presence, and preceded the formation of the tufa rock cliff on which Orvieto rises.
In theCollegiate Church of Saints Andrew and Bartholomew, usually named Church of Saint Andrew by the Orvietani, possibly the most ancient one in Orvieto. The church basement confirms that this place of worship dates back a long time.
Fra il Duomo e il Pozzo di S. Patrizio (VIII sec. d.c.), Adriano Di Mario appassionato di archeologia, ha scoperto e ripristinato dopo tanti anni di scavi antichi camminamenti, pozzi silos, pozzi cisterne, pozzi butti.
Con scarpe comode, vista aguzza e fiato sospeso concedetevi una minuziosa esplorazione dell’Orvieto sotterranea. Per meglio gustarla, suddividete il vostro giro in due diverse giornate: non tralasciate nulla, ogni luogo vi riserverà emozioni e suggestioni particolari!
Pozzo di San Patrizio, Grotta dei tronchi fossili, Orvieto Underground
Museo della Pozzo della Cava, Sotterranei di Sant’Andrea
The Etruscans were the first to excavate wells, channels and tanks in their search for water, and set up an advanced system of underground hydraulic architecture. The most popular Etruscan wells, some examples of which can be seen during the Orvieto Underground visit, are vertical channels, mostly rectangular in shape, of a more or less standard size (cm 120x80); they show notches for footboards for the descent and ascent; sometimes the channels had a circular shape, their diameter was approximately one metre, and they weren’t always provided with footboard notches. They could be used as connections with the underground tanks or as channels excavated to reach the water resources. The Etruscans were masters in hydraulic engineering, and created a system of clay-lined waterproof tanks.
The water-related connections between the surface town and the underground went on during the Middle Ages: the construction of the public aqueduct dates back to the thirteenth century; some remains are visible in the archaeological area located under Palazzo del Popolo (accessed from the Palazzo itself) and along the escalator route leading to Piazza Ranieri from the car park of the Campo della Fiera. Water flowed down from the Alfina plateau and, after being forced through a channel, was distributed to the various fountains through an underground water supply system. Besides this resource, wells and other public and private tanks were also available, as confirmed by documents of those times.
Tanks and wells were scattered around the town during the Renaissance as well. The most significant examples are, for the visitors, Saint Patrick’s well, and the even more ancient Pozzo della Cava (the Quarry Well); but for those who want to focus their attention on the graceful monumental tanks located in some squares and cloisters (Piazza del Popolo, Cloister of St. John’s, Cloister of St. Francis inside the Municipal Library of Piazza Febei), or take a peek at some private inner courtyards, the connections between the architectural testimonies on the surface and the man-made sites underground will be continuingly eloquent. In this interaction between the surface and the underground, one should not miss a detailed observation of the archaeological site in the underground space of Saint Andrew’s church, a guided visit which should be booked in advance, and of the Cave of the Fossil Tree Trunks, hosting paleobotanical remains dating back to 350 thousand years ago, belonging to the ecosystem that existed well before human presence, and preceded the formation of the tufa rock cliff on which Orvieto rises.
Nowadays, thanks to continuous study and research,
Orvieto’s underground reveals
as many as 1200 caves.
The product of many happy researches carried out in pits located in Orvieto’s underground and dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, that brought back to light ceramics and majolicas and, as far as Palazzo Faina is concerned, hand-crafted objects dating back to Etruscan times, now belongs to a number of valuable public and private collections around the world. Luckily, a number of items are still in Orvieto: some became public property by donation (or were bought back) and are still waiting to be exhibited in suitable sites, some others, of valuable workmanship, belong to the MODO and some others, that are kiln wastes, to the Pozzo della Cava (the Quarry Well). This is also a visit that should not be missed, as it will put you in touch not only with interesting hand-crafted objects revealing the traces of excavating activities dating back both to Etruscan and Medieval times, but also with the whole fascinating underground environment that surrounds them.
A hypogeum of unique interest and fascination with regard to the production of ceramic objects, is also the nearby Museo delle Maioliche Medievali e Rinascimentali Orvietane (Museum of Orvieto’s Medieval and Renaissance Majolicas); you will be able to view an interesting array of individual pieces, collections and repetitive objects on the actual site where they were produced, and the kiln where they were baked, which is almost intact, to confirm that Orvieto’s ceramists had an intense and uninterrupted production activity.
Cellars for food and wine storage are many and omnipresent, sometimes ancient but, for the most part, still being used; there is also an abundance of animal shelters, sheds for tools for the vegetable gardens that have always identified the slopes of the cliff, fulloniche for washing and dyeing wool, areas destined to rope-making and even a large mill that, together with other valuable handcrafted objects and man-made sites, amongst which a pozzolana quarry, will not fail to amaze you during your “Orvieto Underground” visit, something that cannot be missed! Wear comfortable shoes, sharpen your sight and, with your bated breath, treat yourselves to a detailed exploration of underground Orvieto. Split this tour over two days, to better enjoy it: do not overlook anything, as every site will surely give you particular emotions!
Protesa tra terra e cielo, tra le viscere oscure del sottosuolo e le luminose altezze verso cui si slancia l’ardito Duomo, la città di Orvieto ha sempre avuto un’intensa vita sotterranea, a cui gli abitanti hanno affidato nei secoli esistenza, sopravvivenza ed economia.