The Duomo's nave mimics the contrasting layers of travertine marble and greenish-black basalt of its exterior;
 its minimalism explodes into frescoed color at the apse.

Orvieto Duomo --Part 2

Umbria, Italy
Visited Fall 2003 and 2007

A long journey that created a masterpiece

Starting in 1390 and completing around 1580, construction of Orvieto's Duomo would be expected to merge several styles during a time marked by huge changes in man's view of his world, his God, and the art that integrates both. The Duomo started out as a Romanesque basilica, a form reminiscent of Roman public buildings.  This might seem a bit anachronistic.  Centuries before to the north, the French had raised their great Notre Dame Gothic cathedrals in Paris and Chartres.

Before the ceiling beams were added, the cathedral board of works, scared that the walls would collapse once the weight of the roof was imposed, commissioned unneeded buttresses; these were eventually filled in to create walls for transept chapels, superimposing a Gothic cross footprint on the Romanesque basilica. Later as the Italian Renaissance flourished, the right transept chapel was decorated in a fresco masterpiece.

Duomo rising above tufa
The above view shows the tufa rock which lifts the town of Orvieto and its  masterpiece cathedral640 feet above the junction of the Chiana and Paglia rivers. The Duomo's late-Gothic facade is at left. The brown building in front was the Papal palace while the popes made Orvieto their second home.  (It's now a museum).  The striped effect on the cathedral is created by white travertine marble layers interlaced with green-black basalt.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's turn now to the cathedral's structure and interior.

Overall Layout 

The cathedral construction was administered by a committee appointed by the government of the city (commune).  Typically members were elected by the town council for 6 month terms. They supervised the contracts for the artisans and approved the purchase of materials; a council usually consisted of a treasurer and a representative from each of Orvieto's 4 neighborhoods. However, artistic control was in the hands of a capomaestro -- the master architect.  In truth, these were much more masters than architects.  They served as both designers and builders[67]-- and often as sculptors, mosaicists, etc. Some were literally hands-on managers.  Typically, but not always, they were on-site managers as well.  Plans could be quite sketchy and details would be worked on-the-spot with the artisans in real time.

The "architecture" they practiced was not engineering-based, but rather the accumulation of their (and hopefully many others') experience.  Rules-of-thumb substituted for as yet undiscovered laws of physics.  Consequently, many cathedrals collapsed over the years -- and some of them right away.  Even if the capomaestro (master architect) got the physics right, pagan Mother Nature might assault such godly work.  Usually the cathedral was the tallest building in town -- and therefore a lighting rod, converting roof timbers into embers.  Gravity, lightning -- and in Umbria, earthquakes: did God really want these stone houses of worship to soar into the skies?  

Orvieto's cathedral was first laid out by capomaestro Arnolfo di Cambio who often supervised the construction of several churches at one time,[69] making it unlikely that he would provide much detailed daily direction to the stone masons and other artisans. Four decades later, Giovanni di Agostino was capomaestro at both Orvieto and Sienna at almost the same time during 1330s; not bad for an artisan in his mid 20s.[73]  But many of the other capomaestri at Orvieto were clearly in residence and provided day-to-day guidance and often hands-on involvement as seen by their handiwork in sculpture and mosaic (and often documented in their contracts in the Orvieto archives.) These included Lorenzo Maitani who designed the facade, probably did some of its mosaics, and contributed at least two of the exterior's bronze sculptures.  Another was Andrea di Cione di Arcangelo, known as Orcagna, who created the Rose Window.  The Capomaestro supervised all of the other artisans who might occasionally be paid in goods such as barrels of wine,[85]  as happened in much other medieval construction.

A Romanesque rectangle crossed with the Gothic

side view with buttresses
Around 1290, Papal architect Arnolfo di Cambio outlined a basically Romanesque church and construction began. Patterned after the rectangular basilicas that date back to Roman days, the design evolved as time went on.[300,301]  Since Di Cambrio was supervising construction on many central Italian cathedrals at this time, it appears that a local stone mason, Fra Bevignate da Perugia, exercised day-to-day decision making in erecting the nave and two side aisles.[10]  

As the nave neared completion nearly two decades later, the cathedral committee became concerned about gravity.  Before the first roof timbers were put into place, they thought that the weight of the roof would force the side walls outward until they collapsed.  (Most likely they would have blamed this on the relatively unskilled Fra Bevignate rather than the master architect di Cambio whose other cathedrals stood up quite well.) To stave off the "imminent" collapse, the committee hired a self-described buttress expert named Lorenzo Maitani.  He created the buttresses around the sanctuary areas which can be seen in red in the picture above.  Later engineering studies say the di Cambio's design did not need to be saved by Maitani.  (Even if it did, these buttresses were probably too low to do much good.)Fumi drawing assumed to be in public domain 

The crooked cross

Not only were the buttresses unneeded, they weren't even straight, especially on the left (north) end as shown in the diagram[305] at right labeled "left transept chapel. Probably this was because when the east end (choir) of the nave was shored up, another building was in the way.  Eventually Giovanni di Uguccione[10] expanded these buttresses into walls, converting them into transept chapels. Thus the Romanesque basilica became a Gothic cross-shaped cathedral (although a somewhat crooked one).

Another modification to the basic basilica rectangle was the addition of the half-round nave chapels.  The diagram also shows the location of the supporting piers (marked by dots). The red lines attempt to show how these chapels do not line up with the vaults of the naves (as defined by the piers). Apparently this was done to give the first floor of the exterior a consistent look as required by Italian law.[306] Apparently at street level, looking good was more important than structural symmetry, at least for buildings, if not for people.

And why half-round chapels?  Apparently because they resembled the Pope's Lateran Palace in Rome (destroyed in 1586). When he stayed next door to Orvieto's Duomo, the pope could look out his window and be reminded of his Roman neighborhood.[308] This was a good idea in theory, but not too long after the walls started to rise, the Papacy had a succession of seven French popes who moved the papal court to Avignon in southern France in 1305.  Over 80% of new cardinals during that time were French and they, in turn, kept electing French anti-popes after the papacy returned to Rome in 1377.  Two centuries later, the Pope returned to his palace in Orvieto and improved the town's fortifications when the Emperor sacked Rome in 1527.

The Interior

The Nave is generally simple and austere, but explodes with colorful murals on the east end walls of the sanctuary and choir. Interior of Orvieto Duomo
Design outside in: Left: The 10 tall, half-cylinder nave chapels do not line up with the spaces defined by the nave  pillars.  Instead, they are positioned to make the first floor exterior more pleasing to the Orvietans passing by.

The shape and ornamentation of the columns, such as the one seen at left, evolved in the two decades it took to complete the nave. Their capitals evolve as they rose from east to west; those last built at the west end resemble some of the stone decoration on the facade, leading some to speculate that the facade architect, Lorenzo Maitani, in fact took over before the nave was finished.[306]  
The tall half-cylindrical side apsidal chapels do not line up with the vaults rising from the pillars.  Some of these niches retain fragments from their 14th and 15th century frescoes.[249]

The Gothic Sanctuary

The tribune or rectangular apse is bordered on three sides by wooden choir stalls and is frescoed on all three sides by painters of the Orvieto School around 1370 and restored by various Renaissance masters a century later.[32]   Scenes depict episodes from the life of the Virgin.

Interior of Orvieto Duom

Above: the rectangular sanctuary of the east end, transformed by Lorenzo Maitani into the Gothic style.[10] A decade long project ending in 1999 restored the frescoes of Ugolini di Prete Ilario and other Sienese artists who created these in about a decade around 1370.[248]  At that time, they comprised one of the largest fresco cycles in Italy.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge these views of the sanctuary and choir areas:
sanctuary left side Central window sanctuary right side of sanctuary
Stalls of a 14th century squarish wooden choir, designed by either master architect Maitani or by the Seinese Giovanni Ammanniti, surrounds the sanctuary. Maitani probably designed the central window, (1325-1334).  It's about 50 feet high... ...and contains panels depicting episodes from the life of Mary by members of the Orvieto School:.[32] Ugolino di Prete Ilario, Peter di Puccio, and Anthony of Viterbo.

Renaissance jewels of the left front nave area

The left front nave area leads to the transept chapel dedicated to the miracle of Bolsena.  Two prominent renaissance objects here are one of the largest organs in Italy above, and the marble Pieta facing the main altar:

Interior of Orvieto Duom

This 4000 pipe organ was first designed in 1584
.[248]  Updates in 1913 and 1975 have increased its number of pipes to 5,585.[33] It rises above the entrance into the Cappella del Corporale on the north side of the transept. Orvieto native Ippolito Scalza not only  designed the organ, but also 
Pieta carved the four figures on this pietą  from a single block of marble. After 9 years, he finished it in 1579.[35]

The Chapel of the Bolsena Miracle

The left (north) transept chapel, built 1328-56,[125] is devoted to the miracle of the cloth of Bolsena. The cloth was the chalice-cloth (also called a corporal), the small square which the priest drapes over the chalice as he begins mass.  The 1263 Miracle of Bolsena  occurred when a priest doubtful about the Transubstantiation found drops of blood on the host he was consecrating. (Transubstantiation is the Catholic doctrine that during mass the bread and wine change into the actual body and blood of Christ even though the physical appearances do not change).  The doubting Thomas (his name was really Peter and he was a Bohemian priest from Prague) became a believer and the pope thought nearby Orvieto should get a cathedral to commemorate the miracle. (Bolsena was on a volcanic lake about 12 miles away).

The Miracle is supported by little historical evidence.  Furthermore, it would have occurred during the lifetime of Pope Urban IV who established the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264 -- but failed to reference this "smoking gun" in the Bull that established that feast day to honor the mystery of the Eucharist.  No matter -- the chapel and reliquary left behind celebrate the miracle of Bolsena and the Euracharist in general using lavish fresco and enamel.  Paint and plaster don't doubt.

Interior Capella Corporale--Orvieto Duomo

Above: Frescoes occupy just about every inch of wall space as seen in this central view of the crucifixion scene.  Painted 1357-1363, they are primarily the works of three Orvietan artists: Ugolini di Prete Ilario, Domenico di Meo, and Giovanni di Buccio Leonardelli.[48] The 1358 aedicula-shaped tabernacle was designed by Nicola da Siena[248] but finished by the Duomo's then-capomaestro who created the rose window: Andrea Orcagna.[33]

Capella Corporale Left Side

Above: the left side of the Chapel of the Corporal showing a graphic novel (note the textual narrative) relating the history of the Eucharist.  Note the lower left hand corner called "The Conversion of the Saracens."   Nothing like an arrow to remove all religious doubt!

Chapel of the Corporal right side

Above: the right side of the Chapel of the Corporal shows scenes relating to the Miracle of Bolsena, a town near Orvieto.  These include Pope Urban IV who heard of the miracle while living in Orvieto and asked that the cloth be brought to him.  He directed Thomas of Aquinas to compose a mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi.[124]

The scenes on this side lack the text on the frescoes of the left side.  The niche contains ...
Interior Capella Corporale--Orvieto Duomo
..this 1339 Madonna of the Recommended by the Sienese Lippo Memmi, in the Italian Byzantine tradition. The Gothic came late to Italy and it was heavily influenced by the classical and Byzantine traditions which were stronger here than in northern Europe, given this area's heritage and location.

relliquary of the miracle of the corporalThe Reliquary

Below is the large (4.5 foot tall) reliquary which contains the chalice cloth (corporal) of the miracle of Bolsena. Brackets on the base allow this large enameled icon to be carried in processions on the feast of Corpus Christi.  (Click here to see such a procession).   It is the 1337 silver handiwork of the Sienese goldsmith Ugolino di Męstro Vieri.

Its shape suggests the Duomo facade with its triple gables summit. The enameled scenes depict the Passion of Christ and the Miracle of Bolsena.

The cloth inside contains red drops (of blood, believers say) that roughly resemble a traditional profile of Jesus.  

Not the last Last Judgment

Financed by the Monaldeschi, a weathy Orvietan clan,[249] the south transept chapel was completed later (1408-1444)[125] and is thus called the new chapel (Capella Nuova). It featured relics from local saints and after the icon of the Madonna of San Brizio  was placed here, it became known as the Chapel of San Brizio.  Visitors approach through a a large iron gate.

Any discussion of this magnificent cathedral must pay tribute to the even more magnificent Last Judgment frescoes in this chapel by the Renaissance master  Luca d'Egidio di Ventura de' Signorelli. But long before Signorelli, there was Angelico. Wishing to decorate this area with frescoes in order to attract visitors and help Orvieto recover its once important position, the cathedral works committee engaged the well-known early Italian Renaissance painter Fra Angelico to fresco this chapel's vaults, starting in 1447.But under pressure to begin work at the Vatican, this Dominican reneged on his contract before completing work on even the first three segments.  With his pupil Benozzo Gozzoli, Angelico had painted images featuring Christ, Mary, and the Apostles; but for a half century, these remained unfinished.[71] 

After a search, Luca Signorelli,
was at first tasked with completing Fra Angelico's frescoes. Impressed with his skill and speed, the cathedral board of works let him finish the chapel vault and sides, creating a masterpiece and what was then probably the greatest Last Judgment fresco.  That judgment would, of course, not last.  An upstart named Michelangelo visited Orvieto, saw its frescoes, and was not uninfluenced.  Threedecades later he created his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.  When Michelangelo was still 8 years old, Signorelli himself was painting frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, 15 years before starting his masterpiece here in Orvieto.  It was a small world, but one well frescoed.

Despite an admission charge, photos are verboten here.  Below are a few public domain photos of Signorelli's Dante-inspired masterpiece courtesy of Wikipedia:

(Click on any of these thumbnails to see these frescoes full screen size)
Signorelli's AntiChrist Signorelli's Ressurection Signorelli Hell
Signorelli's Antichrist preaching with the Devil at his side in front of the Temple of Solomon..  At lower left, the two bystanders in black are thought to represent the two artists: Fra Angelico and Signorelli. Signorelli's Resurrection featuring his trademark nude figures.  What he lacked in color, he made up for in anatomy.  Michaelangelo was obviously impressed.. Signorelli's scenes from hell allow for all manner of twisted bodies. At center the devil absconds a women, suggesting some of Zeus's classical abductions.

The Nave west end

Decades before Fra Angelico started his frescoes in the Capella Nuova, his more famous contemporary Gentile da Fabriano created this International Gothic Madonna and child gracing the south aisle just before the west entrance.   Despite its art and the reputation of its artist, we are lucky to have what's left of this fresco, given the 7 centuries of vicissitudes these walls have endured.

Gentile_da_Fabriano -- Interior of Orvieto Duomo
Above: a 1425 damaged fresco by Gentile da Fabriano; the tall and graceful Mary is typical of International Gothic and this is a Maestą, an iconic convention showing the Madonna and child on a throne.  The rounded face and soft drapery is characteristic of da Fabriano.  This makes quite a colorful contrast with the stripes of volcanic basalt and travertine marble that give the side aisles and nave its severe look.

Today the interior of the gray-and-white striped nave is relatively uncluttered, making the explosion of color of the chapel and apse frescoes even more dramatic.  However, this was not always the case.  In the first century of this Duomo's long existence, its town was in decline[542] from plague, politics -- and a papacy that had moved to Avignon in France rather than making Orvieto its second home as the city fathers once thought would be the case.  About all the noble families of the town had was the cathedral -- and they proceeded to layer fresco upon fresco in the nave touting their importance, a bit like handbills pasted on vacant walls in busy cities.

A plethora of popes

In the meantime, the papacy had moved back to Italy after eliminating an anti-pope named John XXIII -- did you piously think you knew who John XXIII was? You have a right to be confused, there were, in fact, three popes simultaneously when the election of Martin V ended the Western Schism. Martin visited Orvieto in 1420 in his attempt to revive the Papal states.  He did revive the Duomo board of works which, in turn, began clamping down on the cathedral's fresco pollution.

Hoping good art would drive out bad. the board also invited the two most prominent artists of the early 15th century to create significant works for the nave. These two were Donatello who was to create a statue for the Baptismal font (he probably never did), and Gentile da Fabriano who created the frescoed Maestą shown above.[542]  Famous or not, little of Fabriano's work has survived the ages.  Later Duomo Boards cleaned up most of the other frescos on the nave and side aisle walls and appear to have spared Fabriano's only because it had a devoted religious following -- not for its artistic value.  
Right: This baptismal font with its lions and elaborate frieze reliefs was carved by Luca di Giovanni for 16 years, completing in 1406.[33] Many other artists have augmented Luca's work.

The large arcade as seen here is  characteristic of the larger 13th century Italian Gothic churches.

Below is a photo taken of the right (south) aisle at the 17th century pulpit by G. Mercanti
.[81]   At the left is the grilled gate leading to the Renaissance masterpiece of the Cappella Nuova (Chapel of Saint Brizio).  To the right is one of the aisle chapels -- one of ten tall half cylinders, some of which, as seen here, still containing their lovely Byzantine-inspired high decoration.  While this wooden pulpit is impressive, the pulpit itself is a poor rival to the Nicola Pisano's stone masterpieces found in  other great central Italian cathedrals such as at Pisa or Sienna in the 13th century.
Most of these ten chapels were decorated by the late-Renaissance master Girolamo Muziano and his pupil Cesare Nebbia in the last half of the 16th century.  Muziano began the work in his early twenties and continued even though he was became the most prominent artist in Rome around 1570.  For the most part, their work did not survive the 19th century "clean-up" of frescoes on the wall.  Only some of their altarpieces can now be seen across the street from the Duomo in the Cathedral museum.[410]  

Above:  G. Mercanti's 17th century wooden pulpit

To see a description of this cathedral's magnificent facade, one of the mosts significant Italian Gothic exterior works, click here.

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