At first glance, when walking round to the front of the Orvieto Cathedral or the Duomo di Orvieto along the Via del Orvieto or through the narrow alleys leading to the Piazza del Duomo, the grand structure looks almost out of place in its location, a small town even by modern standards of around 20,000 people. Then one realizes that the Orvieto's spectacular location, perched high on volcanic rock above the hills that surround it, may actually be the perfect setting for this cathedral that seems to soar even further skywards.
All thoughts cease for a moment on reaching the front. The first glimpse of the cathedral can be overwhelming. The Duomo's three gables and seven stories tower over the city's villas, palazzi and houses in true Gothic style. What is dazzling even more than the sheer size is the brilliantly glittering mosaics on its golden facade. They depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. Not all of them are the original stone, having been restored over the centuries and reinterpreted by the new artists. But they still suggest the grandeur and the expense of the original Duomo.
High up between the mosaics on the central section of the facade is the beautiful rose window that is framed by marble busts and gothic niches with life-size sculpted figures. Bring the gaze down and you see the beautiful white carvings on the four marble pillars on the lower level. Each pillar depicts scenes from the Genesis, the Tree of Jesse, the life of Christ and Mary and the Last Judgment. The details on the drapes, the well-formed features, the harmonious coming together of every element seems to suggest a skilled group of craftsmen working together to build this masterpiece. On these pillars stand the bronze statues of the Angel of Matthew, the Winged Lion of Mark, the Eagle of John and the Winged Bull of Luke, because the four Evangelists always have a presence in Christian illustrations.
There are three sets of doors for the three sections of the facade, the vast central bronze door, and detailed ornamentation that are more than you can grasp at once. Behind the ornate facade is a simple long body by contrast, like that of a reclining sphinx. The body is striped with black and white marble, in the style of the pillars inside the Florence Cathedral. On each side, five semicircular chapels break the surface gently, with narrow windows.
Wander into the interiors to find a masterpiece as fine as the facade. This is the Brizio Chapel, whose frescoes painted by the gentle Luca Signorelli are as blood-curdling today as the effect that Dante's Divine Comedy and its stories of hell would have had on this Renaissance painter. His fellow painter and utterly devoted Christian, genius artist Fra Angelico has a portrait of him done by Signorelli on one of the walls, along with a self-portrait of Signorelli himself. Fra Angelico had another role to play - he painted two frescoes on the chapel's ceiling - beautiful, luminous paintings of Christ and the Prophets that reveal the artist's sweetly naïve devotion to his religion.
For the untrained eye, there are a lot of beautiful, ornate elements to take in from the cathedral's exteriors as well as interiors. For the trained eye, the Duomo's architecture is as complex as it looks. And there is so much to take in, that it can take hours to take in all.
The question is who built this matchless towering monument to the heavens?
The Duomo is the work of many designers and artisans, some of them known, other anonymous. The story behind the building of the Duomo is just as interesting as the architecture itself. The cathedral was commissioned in the late thirteenth century and the first foundation stone was blessed in 1290. There were two other big cathedrals in Italy at the time - in Florence and Siena. These two important medieval cities were engaged in a continuous push and pull for power because each wanted to expand their already sizable territories.
But low-key Orvieto hardly seems the likeliest candidate to have been chosen at the time for another Duomo in the grand scale of the first two. After all, the town had only recently become self-governing, and the bishop of Rome was still overlord. The city even had to bring in artisans from Siena to work on the Duomo di Orvieto because Orvieto didn't have any of its own.
Why was Orvieto chosen as the site of the cathedral?
The answer is as simple as the architecture of the Duomo is complex. Just a few decades before it was commissioned to be built, Pope Urban IV had made the city his home. This was clearly because Orvieto was in an enviable position, built on a steep hill of volcanic rock and controlling the road between Rome and Florence.
There was also another, more fascinating reason for the choice of Orvieto. Just a few decades before Pope Nicholas IV blessed the foundation, a miracle had taken place in a town just to the southwest called Bolsena. A German priest named Peter of Prague had been passing through the town in 1263 and stopped at the Church of St. Cristina before he continued his pilgrimage to Rome. What may have made the miracle that followed more moving, if the descriptions of the priest are accurate, is that while he was pious, he may have found it difficult to believe that Christ inhabited the consecrated Host. While Peter of Prague was celebrating Holy Mass above the martyr St. Cristina's tomb, blood began to trickle from the Host and dripped on the altar and corporal (the linen altar cloth).
Frightened, the priest interrupted Mass and was brought to Orvieto to see Pope Urban IV. The rest is history. The Pope sent an investigator to Bolsena and had the blood-stained linen cloth as well as the Host brought to him. Today, the corporal is preserved in the large silver shrine in the Capella del Corporale inside the Duomo.
Like many European cathedrals, the Duomo was also built on the site of an older, dilapidated structure. Yet the Popes who were eager to build a grand Duomo there in the style of the Florentian and Sienese ones took as long as sixty years to convince the townspeople to sponsor the structure that would go on to become one of Italy's most revered cathedrals.
It is interesting that the Duomo is one of the earliest Italian masterpiece for which we still have the master plans - in fact there are two. The original was planned by Arnolfo di Cambio, who had made a name for himself by designing the Florence Cathedral. But the sheer scale of the Duomo project meant that those who designed it would not live out to see it finished. Cambio died in 1310, and master architect Lorenzo Maitani from Siena took over. Maitani revised a part of Cambio's plan and worked twenty years until his death in 1330, mostly on the facade.
The beautiful mosaics and most of the marble work were assigned to an anonymous guild in Orvieto. The mosaics of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary took most of the second half of the fourteenth century to complete. At the time, the artisans working on the mosaic spent nearly all their lives at the workshop, making the Duomo their life's work. They went up the career ladder from on-site factory laborer to apprentice, then to glass cutter and finally to master glass artisan, just like they climbed the scaffolding to inlay the mosaics on the Duomo. From time to time, they may have gone back to work on the cathedral at Siena, since they were Sienese after all and the Siena Cathedral needed some work on the naves. At the time the mosaics were inlaid, they possibly cost about four times of what murals would cost. Clearly, no expense was spared in the building of the Duomo.
Most recently in the twentieth century, Emilio Greco designed and cast the massive and magnificent bronze door at the center, with scenes depicting the works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, burying the dead, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, sheltering the homeless and clothing the naked.
The Duomo is worth every hour of attention you give this masterpiece of human artistic endeavors. It took more than 300 years to complete, across parts of five centuries, since work began in 1290. Like a sieve, it took in the best of the styles of each passing century, so you can see Gothic, Tuscan, Christian, Byzantine, and some northern elements in the style.
Even today, it continues to be renovated and reinterpreted by artists who don't just restore the structure and the artwork based on old plans, but also re-imagine the subjects in their own way. In that sense, the Duomo is a magnificent work in progress and like the Tower of Babel, a heroic communal monument to the genius of Man.