Pozzo di San Patrizio
(St. Patrick well)
Visitors who travel to central Italy delight in Orvieto's provincial charm. The laid-back atmosphere of this Italian town provides a treasure trove of architectural wonders that delight energetic travelers. One impressive structure to include on an Orvieto travel plan involves discovering the Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick Well).
Usually, ancient wells don't spark much interest. However, this 16th century underground well causes much enthusiasm. You will be astounded by the Pozzo di San Patrizio, and experience the challenge of descending to its cavernous depths.
Located in the beautiful cliff-side city of Orvieto, Italy, the Pozzo di San Patrizio is an engineering marvel designed to obtain water from the depths of the bluff where the city sits. Curiously, the Pozzo di San Patrizio resulted in central Italy due to a possible conflict.
First, an extraordinary fact about the ancient town of Orvieto is that it did not have a constant supply of fresh water. It was an impressive fortress-city in central Italy built upon a ridge formation. Orvieto's location on top of a bluff of sheer volcanic rock served as a defensive site and papal refuge in ancient times.
In peacetime, gushing spring water could easily be obtained at the base of the cliff. Rainwater was not an option in this part of Italy, as it soon evaporated in the porous limestone base of the cliff called tufa.
In 1527, Pope Clement VII faced political turmoil when he would not maintain favorable relations with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. The encounter with the papacy in Italy reached its crucial point when the emperor's underpaid and rebellious troops staged a mutiny and marched on Rome .
The imperial troops proceeded to sack Rome. Pope Clement VII escaped to the Castel Sant'Angelo , where he was held hostage by the soldiers for six months. The pope fled the castle disguised as a servant and sought refuge in Orvieto.
Fearing troops might lay siege to the Orvieto, the pope commissioned architect-engineer, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to build an underground well system. The future Pozzo di San Patrizio would provide Orvieto with an adequate water supply in case the pope could not travel outside its fortress walls to return to Rome.
At the time, Sangallo was the most visionary architect-engineer in Italy. He designed the Pozzo di San Patrizio based on previous studies conducted on extracting water from Orvieto's cliff. The research determined which site would be best to build the structure that would be known as Pozzo di San Patrizio.
The idea was to tap into the water table to reach the underground supply in an easier manner. Previously, the townspeople had been using underground rainwater cisterns to collect water. When completed, the innovative engineering masterpiece of St. Patrick Well would be unique in Italy, making it a travel attraction for the future.
The bold scheme of St. Patrick Well consists of a circular shaft 200 feet deep and 45 feet wide lighted by 72-arched windows cut into the Pozzo di San Patrizio. Two spiral staircases descend from opposing doors of the shaft to access and transport water.
Both stairs wind around each other, never meeting and resembling the structure of a DNA helix with 248 steps for each one. St. Patrick Well's ingenious design permitted mule-drawn carts carrying water bags to descend on one side of the double helix and ascend on the other end without ever colliding. In the 1800s, monks would rename the structure St. Patrick Well, as its dark chamber resembles the cave where the Irish saint prayed.
Orvieto's geology facilitated the building of the Pozzo di San Patrizio, but it was no easy task. Workers needed to dig the deep opening with chisels or axes and many more were used to cart bricks for to bolster the structure of St. Patrick Well.
Pope Clement VII and Charles V solved their differences. Orvieto remained invasion-free, and the pope could once again travel freely. The Pozzo di San Patrizio was finished in 1537 under the orders of Pope Paul III. When completed, St Patrick's Well represented a unique design in Italy that provided many generations in Orvieto with fresh drinking water.
The now unused St. Patrick Well remains in similar conditions as it did back then. When visitors travel to Orvieto, the Pozzo di San Patrizio remains a popular attraction.
To experience a memorable getaway, travel to nearly traffic-free Orvieto and delight in the old city's medieval charm. For a more authentic experience in traveling to St. Patrick Well, climb Orvieto's natural fortress hill on the slick cable car or Funicolare that transports visitors to the railway station next to the Pozzo di San Patrizio.
Inquiring tourists who travel to Orvieto admire St. Patrick Well's construction and history. Go down the winding stairs slowly and take pictures of the effects created by the filtering light on the many tones of the boundary wall.
Experience the cool air as you descend to the bottom of the St. Patrick Well and enjoy a moment of timelessness, as you marvel at the towering cylinder above. Travel back to 16th century Italy and wonder in the innovation of the Pozzo di San Patrizio.