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Orvieto (Umbria), Italy

Church of San Giovenale

Of all the religious buildings that characterize the city of Orvieto, the church of San Giovenale is the one that reveals the most ancient history.

It was built in 1004 on the remains of an early Christian church and it is believed that an Etruscan temple dedicated to Tinia, a divinity similar to Jupiter, was built on the same site even further afield.

An ancient sacred area on the edge of Orvieto's cliff

Considered in its early years as a cathedral (the Cathedral would be built only three hundred years later), San Giovenale boasts a peculiar position in Orvieto's topography, overlooking the north-western edge of the cliff that supports the entire city

This position was once also justified on grounds of control of the territory and suggests that the development of the city originated precisely from these places, in today's Olmo district, which favoured the subsequent development of housing in an eastern direction.

Today the area in front of the church is one of the main attractions for tourists and visitors, because of the beautiful view offered by the valley below the river Paglia.

Architectural characteristics of the ecclesiastical complex

The church of San Giovenale was probably built at the behest of the noble families who controlled the city at that time, such as the Monaldeschi, the Conti and the Salvani.

The structure of the ecclesiastical complex is in line with Romanesque stylistic canons, but there are also Byzantine and Lombard influences, especially in the interior decorations.

The square apse and the side entrance portal (14th century), surmounted by a bas-relief with the effigy of the saint, the first bishop of Narni are also Gothic in style.

The gabled facade blends in with the massive bell tower, the imposing height suggesting that it was used as a lookout point.

The interior of the church: the magnificent medieval frescoes

The church of San Giovenale is spread over three naves and is on two levels, connected by a central staircase.

The frescoed tuff columns outlining the naves are undoubtedly the most characteristic artistic element.

During the seventeenth century it was considered necessary to sprinkle the interior walls of the church with lime to disinfect them after the plague epidemic and this greatly damaged much of the artistic mural heritage.

Recently renovated, the valuable medieval frescoes of the Orvieto school are now visible in all their splendour. These paintings date back to various stages of construction, dating from the mid-twentieth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Other elements to admire inside the church are the marble altar, with a clear Byzantine matrix and the most famous painting, a valuable Madonna del Soccorso unearthed only during the 20th century.

A place to be discovered, to learn about the past of the city

The beauty of Orvieto lies in the unique atmosphere which can be felt in its streets and monuments, an almost magical combination of art, history and cheerful relaxation.

In the ecclesiastical complex of San Giovenale, this feeling is enhanced by a silent mysticism, which pervades the ancient interior of the church and is expressed in the magnificent naturalistic views offered by the external viewpoint.

This is San Giovenale: an appointment with history, almost a journey through time to the origins of the city.