Orvieto Duomo -- Part 1 -- The Façade

Umbria, Italy
Visited Fall 2003 and 2007

The elegant emblem of a troubled institution

After an hour or so walking into and through the Gothic masterpiece that is Orvieto's Duomo, a frequent visitor to Italy may wonder how such a major cathedral could end up in what is today a pleasant but somewhat minor city. Orvieto's Duomo is one of the top three cathedrals in Central Italy; the other two Duomo as seen from the townbelonged to those bitter rivals who long tried to dominate each other and, in fact, the whole  Mediterranean: Siena and Florence.  But Orvieto? Not only did it lack the power of its rival Tuscan cities, it also needed to import many of the artisans who worked on its iconic cathedral. Typically Orvieto's Duomo was often built with Sienese hands.[175] The answer to why Orvieto though, is as simple as the cathedral is complex.  The answer is the pope.

A few decades before work started on the Duomo, Pope Urban IV had made Orvieto his residence.[150] 
When Pope Nicholas IV blessed the new foundation in 1290 as both religious and secular ruler of the town as he was Orvieto's podestà -- the rough equivalent of its head of state (or city). Some of the cathedral's funding came from the papacy as well. Nicholas IV's immediate successors also served as podesta  -- and funded Duomo construction as well.  Both pope and town wanted a cathedral suitable for a pope. They got a stately cathedral, but not the seat of the papacy as that institution was about to start its most traumatic period, moving to Southern France before the Duomo had exterior walls.  By the early 15th century, the cathedral had its walls and perhaps the most magnificent Gothic facade in the world.  But three men each claimed to be Pope -- and none of them were interested in Orvieto.

The hands that cradled the rock

As a work in progress over parts of five centuries, Orvieto's Duomo survived a succession of master architects, some who knew a lot more about art than construction.  Arnolfo di Cambio started in 1290 with a Romanesque layout.  (He also served as the chief architect of Florence's cathedral which started about the same time).[70]  Lorenzo Maitani took over around 1310 for better (the façade) and worse (adding useless buttresses that later were expanded into brilliantly frescoed transept chapels). Maitani's sons took over at his death and they were followed by members of the Pisano family and then by Andrea Orcagna who designed the magnificent rose window. Several others followed and the façade was not completed until early in the 17th century[247]: Over 300 years in the making including parts of 5 centuries.

But Orvieto's Duomo does more than display fine craftsmanship from the late middle ages through the Renaissance; it boasts an even finer paper trail through much of its long construction:  Of great interest to scholars are the substantial archives of the cathedral, a tribute to the record keeping of the elected cathedral board of works that built and ran the place.  These provide the foundation for research into the methods and organization of the medieval craftsmen who came together to build this specific cathedral as well as suggesting how other medieval buildings may have been constructed. While sketchy during the first 3 decades, after 1321 the record is rich in detail regarding the contacts binding the artists, artisans and the materials purchased.
Distance view of Duomo
Why you come back to Italy: the above picture, taken during the 2003 façade restoration, shows how the Duomo towers over Orvieto.

Let's start where most visitors do: the magnificent cathedral façade:

Masterpiece in Mosaic and Marble

Orvieto's Duomo is the earliest Italian architectural masterpiece for which a master plan is available. In fact, two such plans remain and components from each were implemented.  The first showed the influence of the French Gothic, especially that of Paris's Notre Dame built about a century earlier (although it was still incomplete when Orvieto started its build).  The second plan was thought to be by the Duomo's second capomaestro (chief architect), Lorenzo Maitani, and reflects much of the work done during his two decade tenure.[269,270] Maitani's plan also suggests the golden ratio or "root of two" ratio stretching all the way back to Pythagoras and the Greeks.  (And stretching forward into the works of Frank Lloyd Wright and other modern architects.)

Despite any classic ratios, Orvieto's façade is quite Gothic. And Tuscan.  Orvieto was too small of a town to have an abundance of craftsmen; it imported its designers and craftsmen from Florence and Siena. Furthermore, Orvieto wanted to catch up with those Tuscan neighbors as their cathedrals underwent façade construction first in Siena and then in Florence.[690]  As was the case through most of history, technology didn't transfer unless the technologists moved first. These Tuscan (primarily Siennan) artisans relocated to Orvieto -- and sometimes went back and forth to Sienna and Florence as well.  In fact, Siena's cathedral nave continued to rise; so many of these craftsmen must have returned to that city to add a second  story to its facade, one bearing a strong resemblance to Orvieto's mosaic front.  So many carvings, so little time.

No expense was spared here.  Mosaics cost about 4 times[73] what murals do.

The façade gables highlight many crucial scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary in stunning symmetry with her assumption into heaven and coronation between the slender spires that frame the cathedral's center. 

Duomo facade

Left: Radiant in mosaic and marble,  Orvieto's Duomo façade dominates the Piazza Duomo.


A first impression of the Duomo is a bit overwhelming, primarily due to the glittering mosaics on the façade: A golden Gothic face on a Romanesque body. As in most of Europe's great cathedrals, visitors see mostly reproductions on the exterior with the sculpture and other art long moved indoors to preserve it.  But unlike many of these cathedrals, the restorations here are typically not mere copies of what came before, although they appear to depict the same Christian legends.  Instead, restorers viewed themselves as artists in their own right and created new images.  However, it appears that with the exception of the topmost gable, the overall subject matter reflects the original framework of Marian lore created by Siena architect Lorenzo Maitani around 1310.  

It took most of the last half of the 14th century to complete these mosaics, starting around 1350 and mostly ending around 1390, and even then the capstone Coronation at the very top gable had yet to finish. The first Restoration started about 100 years later in 1484.  Today only part of one mosaic contains original stone.[90,75] Mostly what we see are "imaginative" reconstructions (actually more like reinterpretations) from the 17th through 19th centuries. Orvieto Duomo Mosaic[247]

Right: a 17th century version of Mary's  presentation in the temple.  By the time many of the original mosaics were redone, the artists would draw cartoons and the artisans would cut and embed the glass into the mortar.[15]   Note also the nine carved niches (aedicules) which underline many of these gables and brandish almost Moorish elements.

Catherine Harding of the University of Victoria has researched the cathedral's archives in order to reconstruct the social organization and methods needed to sustain the significant mosaic project necessary to create this key component of this magnificent façade.  A well documented and preserved paper trail from 1321 through 1390 allows her to  describe a well organized and hierarchical workshop which allowed apprentices to spend their whole working lives creating this façade. They would rise literally on a career ladder (scaffold) from laborer in the on-site factory to apprentice to glass cutter to master glass artisan. Some such as Fra Giovanni Leonardelli would begin their careers at Orvieto as glassmakers and later work on murals in the inner chapels.[83]   And no one got kicked upstairs: Andrea Orcagna created one of the façade mosaics and designed its rose window -- after he became the master builder of the entire cathedral in 1359.  
Mosaic with gold backing
Above: the Assumption of the Virgin into Heaven.  The original (long removed) was by Fra Giovanni Leonardelli.[17] 

In many ways, the Orvieto mosaics show the technical transition from Byzantine to the Renaissance practice.  Much as in the old way, the Orvieto artisans cut the glass and embedded it in the mortar with their own hands.  The vision and the hand were one.   But as time passed, they began to rely more on external drawings and/or drawings on the mortar, allowing lesser skilled craftsmen to cut and embed the tesserae.  This is similar to how the Renaissance masters Titian or Tintoretto created cartoons for others to implement on Saint Mark's in Venice.

Duomo Facade Mosaic

Above the crowning mosaic: Jesus crowns his Mother as Queen of Heaven in the uppermost gable on the Orvieto façade.  The space started with a resurrection scene but became one of the few gables replaced by a totally different episode, in this case that of the coronation (first in 1714 and then by this mosaic from cartoons by G. Bruni in the 1850s).[15]  Blue stone was rare and expensive but used lavishly here.

Here's a tidbit for those of you interested in project management (especially for a masterpiece 300+ years in the making).  Often the master artisans would not know what they were to be paid until they finished their mosaic.  At that time a group of artists, some representing the cathedral works board and some representing the artist, would negotiate what the project was worth in a process called lodo.[87]   This process was used to determine compensation for even as prestigious an artisan as Andrea Orcagna, the most prominent 14th century painter and architect in Florence.  

See all of the mosaics on the façade on our Appendix A page by clicking here:

Orcagna's Rose Window

Rose Window

Above: the prominent Florentine sculptor and architect Andrea Orcagna's Rose Window above two sets of nine niches called aedicules.  Christian architects loved the number 3 and its square 9, making them here into rectangles.

What's a Gothic cathedral without a west Rose Window?  Orcagna's is centered on a head of the Redeemer radiating outward to mosaics of four of the Doctors of the Church.  On either side are niches containing pairs of twelve Old Testament prophets.  Below are eighteen niches and above stand the New Testament twelve apostles.  At center is a bronze of the Lamb of God.

Statues in niches is a common characteristic of the great French Gothic cathedrals built about a century before the Italians got into that business.   (Check out the statues of Notre Dame by clicking here).  It's likely that many of the Italian carvers working on Orvieto's facade had traveled to France and were influenced by these stone masterpieces -- but then went their own way.  Eight of the statues here are attributed to a minor Italian sculptor, Nicola de Nuto.[300]    

Rose Window Exterior Rose Window Interior
The Redeemer at the center, four doctors of the church at the corners (Click on these images to see screen size enlargements)

While serving as the master architect here in Orvieto, Orcagna also commuted back to his home town of Florence to help build their cathedral as well.  While in Orvieto, he was also the master craftsman for the scene of the Baptism of Jesus once seen above the left door. By then (1358), he was an expert in drawing and painting and so the Duomo committee thought he would also be capable in mosaics.  However, his work in this new medium deteriorated rapidly.[73] As an architect, sculptor, painter, and poet, this early Renaissance man may have spread himself or his mortar too thin -- but Orcagna's Rose Window still filters its kaleidoscopic light into the cathedral.

The Orvieto Marbles

While the glistening mosaics make a stunning first impression, tourists quickly migrate to the lower-level pilasters which display bas-reliefs, separated by acanthus branches, depicting the Christian religious view of the history of man (including that which is to come!) in 2 wide and 2 thin marble "albums." Click on these pictures below to see screen size renderings.

Left Pillar Left center pillar right center pillar right pillar
Northwest corner:  the Book of Genesis Central left: the Tree of Jesse.  (Middle pillars are thinner than) Central right: Episodes from the lives of Jesus and Mary Southwest corner: the Last Judgment
The marble carved covering for the four piers on the lower level of the Duomo

Like the later gilded mosaics rising above them, these carvings on these piers demonstrate a high level of group craftsmanship.  These are products of the Gothic age where work was both communal and anonymous.  The Renaissance would soon enough produce artists trying to convince the West of their individual and often branded genius.  Here several masters, along with teams of assistants, worked to produce scenes that unite religious iconography from the Old Testament (Pier 1's depiction of the Book of Genesis), through the New Testament life of Jesus and Mary on Pier 3, until its culmination in the Book of Revelation's Last Judgment on pillar 4.  Uniting the Old and New is Pier 2, the Tree of Jesse that linked the Hebrew King David to his descendant Jesus or Nazareth.  In terms of artistic expression, these presage the Renaissance; in terms of promoting artists, they are delightfully anonymous Gothic.
partitioned slab
While at first glance the piers appear to be each cut from four pieces of marble, they are in fact 162 different slabs.   At right is John White's diagram of the components of Pier 4 -- the Last Judgment.[284] The stones appear to have been carved, at least in rough form, upon the ground and then raised into position.[297]   A completely finished panel would have five or so separate steps including final polishing. These steps would be completed on the ground and then the slab would be hoisted into place.  Work proceeded from the lower scenes to the higher.  However, many of the higher scenes were left  unfinished.  No one is sure why.

The Master Builder
Around 1308, a generation after work on the Duomo began, a new master architect, Lorenzo Maitani was hired from Siena.  Most likely, he proposed the overall design for the whole façade, including these marbles.  Although these marbles are unsigned, it is likely that the first (Genesis) and fourth (Last Judgment) piers are primarily his work as well.[254]   He also did some of the bronze statues and had other responsibilities in Orvieto such as supervising the construction of bridges.  Perhaps Maitani was a renaissance man in a Gothic time, but not quite an engineer: He added unneeded buttressing to to the choir area, thinking it would fall down without it.[261] ;Maitani served at least 21 years as capomaestro (chef architect); unfortunately, documentation is quite sparse during his tenure.  After his death in 1330, he was succeeded by a team of 3 including his 2 sons.    

It is also likely that the greatest Gothic sculptor Giovanni from the great sculptor family, the Pisani, created some of these reliefs, and clearly some scenes from the New Testament were at least "inspired" by the reliefs on his Gothic sculptural masterpieces that are the pulpits in Pisa and Pistoia.[298]  

Despite these big names, the Orvieto Duomo marbles appear to seamlessly unite the efforts of at least 3 or 4 masters and many more members of their workshops.  Despite the cathedral's paper trails and scholarly analysis of carved faces, hair, draperies, foliage, or whatever, no individual carver can be attributed conclusively to any of the reliefs.  These reliefs are collective, anonymous, and Gothic -- unlike the output of the highly individual Renaissance sculptors who were to follow.  While these anonymous artists carved their stone, Andrea Pisano was ushering in the Renaissance through the bronze doors of Florence's Baptistery.

Pillar of Length: The Jesse Tree
Detail from the Jesse Tree Pillar

Pier 2 holds the Tree of Jesse branching from Jesse (just below the center of the picture) rising in an Ancthus vine to his son David ... and then upward to Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary (both thought to be of the House of David as medieval lore felt that the members had to marry within the House of David.)  Not only do the Davidian kings appear here, but also "pagan" prophets such as Virgil and the Sibyl -- attesting to the appeal of Jesus as Lord of all.

 "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots."   So says the prophet Isaiah looking forward to the New Testament in predicting that the Messiah would descend from the Old Testament David (Jesse's son).  Looking backward, the Evangelist Luke listed all 43 generations between the Jesse and Jesus.  

As the iconic link between the Old Testament (as seen on pillar one) and the New (pillar 3), the Jesse Tree is a natural for pillar 2 -- but it is much more than that.  Cathedral architects had a rich set of Christian iconography to decorate their work -- why pick a symbol usually relegated to one of many stain glass windows (as it was at York Minister.  See this oldest stain glass in England by clicking here).   Historic drawings of the cathedral show the Jesse Tree as among the earliest of ideas for the façade.  The acanthus vines on the other pillars reflect the foliage required to depict the Tree of Jesse. Why let this fairly obscure symbol drive the presentation of the much better known scenes of Adam and Eve and the Crucifixion?

The answer appears to be historic.  The popes were gravitating to Orvieto as their second home and this cathedral was to make a statement to thwart the Cathari or Albigensian heresy that they had been fighting during the century before the Duomo started.  The heresy attacked Christian institutions as well as dogma.  By 1200, the Cathari had 11 bishoprics including 6 in Italy.  Their rapid spread must have been through conversions, for their dogma held all of the material world to be evil -- and therefore outlawed sex.  By the time the Duomo was built, the Popes had pretty well wiped out the threat -- but they didn't know that.  Generals and Popes are always fighting the last war, and so they had a template created to use the Tree of Jesse to emphasize the human roots of Jesus. If God came from the world and had a human body, then the Cathari who held everything material was evil must be wrong.  This pillar then was a bold refutation of that heresy and a tribute to the Catholic doctrine of Incarnation (the Word made Flesh.)[143]

Jesse Trees had long graced the walls and windows of Western churches, but Orvieto's is the first of a new breed apparently commissioned by the Pope around 1260.[145]  The Balkan areas were also assailed by the Cathari.[161]   and appealed to the Popes for assistance. Eventually the Jesse Tree first laid out on Orvieto's façade found its way to 18 churches there, an unparalleled migration of an archetype into the Eastern Orthodox realm.  Orvieto's particular brand of Jesse Tree with supporting prophecy from Virgil and other pagan prophets is found nowhere else in the Western world.

Fit but not finished
Unfortunately, work on the bas-reliefs stopped before all of the figures received their final touches.[254]  In nearly every case, however, a true master at least roughed out the scene.  Minor artists appeared to specialize in various details, such as angel wings or hair.  These details are mostly complete throughout the piers.  However, the masters who completed faces, limbs, and flowing garments didn't always get to finish -- perhaps because their skill created a demand for their service in other projects in central Italy.  (For instance, Florence and Siena were building portions of their cathedrals at the same time.)

One might argue that our modern, sometimes microscopic, perspective literally was unexpected by these artisans. Nowadays, sculptures originally positioned high on façades and meant to be viewed from the ground may be seen at eye level in museums and/or photographed close-up and in unnatural light.[690]  Sculptors can go to the dark side and employ shadow as well as light. In fact, most of the pictures on this page were taken with telephoto assistance from 1 to 10 times enlargement.  Were these higher reliefs left unfinished because the artisans didn't expect anyone from ground level to notice?  Maybe on some churches, but probably not at Orvieto, where fingers and hair could be finally finished while limbs and faces remained rough.  
The third pier dealing with the New Testament scenes from the life of Jesus and Mary is a case in point, especially in the higher rows which are, of course, far from the eyes of the viewers on the ground.  Let's start with a well-finished scene: Below is a lower rendition of the Three Magi visiting the Christ Child. Examine this a moment (or click on the picture to get a screen size view).

Pier 3: The Adoration of the Magi

Pier 3: The Visit of the Magi to the newborn Christ Child

Like nearly every scene on these 4 pillars, the position of the characters and their facial expressions well convey the dramatic essence of the religious episode.  Unlike some (especially the higher) scenes, all five carving stages are complete.  Clothes show folds, marble has been polished, limbs and fingers are detailed.  Here also the joining of individual slabs together is obvious at left as are some of the detail work on Mary's pillar, the Magi's crowns, hair, beards -- and the angels' wings.

Contrast this with the view below of the right figure which, I believe, is of the devil (perhaps always a work-in-progress) attempting to tempt Christ:

Pier 3: Temptation in the Desert

Pier 3: the Temptation in the Desert

In this case, Christ has been in the desert for 40 days, but he still looks better than Satan whose face has yet to be carved (however, the brooch holding his cape around his shoulders appears better completed.)  The trees in the valley below seem to show the most finish.  Christ's left elbow appears in need of chisels (but his hair is nicely combed).  (Many more scenes are depicted in the slideshow available by clicking on the right side).

The devil is not always in the details
John White[290,291]  uses scenes such as the Temptation (above) to support his theory that 3 or 4 individual masters would rough out all 162 tablets, allowing lesser carvers to specialize in hair, beards, wings or sleeves. Being in less demand, these specialists would finish first -- leaving this unfinished masterpiece with highly refined sleeves but perhaps crude hands, well combed hair but vague faces, etc.  But from a distance, it all works well.  The few hands who did the rough cuts well understood how to extract the drama of Scripture from marble.  And probably for just that reason, these anonymous masters were pulled for other projects in late medieval central Italy.  Seven centuries later the overall design still unites the Old and New religious traditions, the individual scenes well convey the intensity of the story, and the details that did get finished show the consummate skill of a workshop, rather than individual artists.  An unfinished masterpiece trumps polished mediocrity.

See more of the marbles on the Duomo's façade on our Appendix B page by clicking here:

Bronzes: Statues... 

The marble pillars separating the Duomo's 3 sets of doors need 4 bronzes to hover over them.  Christian Iconography does the number 3 (e.g., Trinity) well, but the number 4 is a bit of a stretch. Typically it's populated by statues or symbols of the four Evangelists, as seen here.    (Click on any of these pictures below to see screen size.)
Angel of Matthew Winged Lion of Luke Eagle of John Winged Bull of Luke
Angel of Matthew Winged Lion of Luke Eagle of John Winged Bull of Luke
The symbols of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John bless the pillars they stand upon.

Like much of the mosaics and marbles, the Duomo's 4 large and 1 small bronze statues are the work of an anonymous workshop in Orvieto.[292]  However, many scholars feel that the cathedral's - master architect (capomaestro) who designed the facade, Lorenzo Maitani, is also responsible for 
Emilio Greco Doorthe eagle of Saint John and the Angel of Saint Matthew.[299,3009]  

...and Doors

Six centuries later, the most recent enhancement to the facade is the bronze door (1961-64) by the Sicilian sculptor Emilio Greco (1913-1995).  The central door is divided into 6 sections depicting the 7 corporal works of mercy.  (See photo at right).

Can you name them?  The upper left cell feeds the hungry and gives drink to the thirsty.  To its right, angels help bury the dead.  Continuing clockwise we have visiting the imprisoned, then visiting the sick at lower right, then sheltering the homeless, and finally (at mid left) clothing the naked.  See more photos of the door by clicking here.

The visiting of the imprisoned scene appears to depict a pope.  Was this John Paul II visiting (and forgiving) his near-assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca?  Probably not since that event happened in 1983, 13 years after the doors went up in 1970. Unless, of course, we have more prophets on these doors than we were aware of.  Orvieto liked Greco and vice versa; he donated several works in what is now a museum here dedicated to his art.

We'll continue our visit of Orvieto's cathedral by examining the architecture and the interior.  Join us by clicking here.

Into Cathedral Facades?  If so, click below for lots more pictures of these Gothic masterpieces:

Notre Dame (Paris)  Siena Florence

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Florence Duomo Facade

Florence's façade was later replaced in the 16th century and then again in 1871 with the statued front we see today.  (Click here to see Florence's facade.)

See much more of the Duomo's mosaics by clicking on the slideshow below:
See much more of the Duomo's bas-reliefs by clicking on the slideshow below:
See much more of the Emilio Greco's door by clicking on the slideshow below: