There can be no doubt that the Duomo of Orvieto is the most beautiful and famous building in the entire city. Visiting Orvieto, but skipping the cathedral, is simply not an option. Visitors gladly pay the admission fee, as the Duomo is, in one word, splendid. The splendour starts on the outside. The magnificent Gothic façade with its mosaics and sculptures immediately draws our attention. The exterior of the cathedral behind the façade is equally impressive, with alternating bands of bluish-grey basalt and white travertine. One easily understands why the cathedral is often compared to the Duomo of Siena. Given the origins of the most important architect of the building, Lorenzo Maitani, the comparison is fully justified.
One remarkable aspect of the cathedral of Orvieto is that, for reasons that are unknown to me, it apparently has no campanile. If you take a look at the Duomo from the Torre del Moro, a tower that is 42 metres high, you will notice that there are some bell-cots behind the transept, but the absence of a proper bell-tower is curious indeed. Compared to the lavish exterior, the interior of the Duomo is conspicuously plain and simple. This was very different in the past: the much more opulent Mannerist and Baroque interior that was added to the building in the sixteenth century has largely been removed again at the end of the nineteenth century. The artistic highlight of the Duomo is undoubtedly the Cappella di San Brizio at the end of the right transept. There we can admire a fresco cycle by the Tuscan painter Luca Signorelli (ca. 1450-1523), which is generally considered a masterpiece. And that is not all, for the cathedral has much more in store for visitors.
Construction of the Duomo or cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta started in 1290. Obviously Orvieto already had a cathedral, but the old cathedral was in a very poor condition. Other churches in the city were more important at the time. Examples include the church of San Domenico, where important cardinals were buried, and the church of Sant’Andrea, where Pope Martinus IV (1281-1284) had been crowned. In the second half of the thirteenth century Orvieto was often a place of refuge for popes. Their presence in the city will have encouraged construction of a new cathedral, and as a consequence it was Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292) who, on 13 November 1290, laid the foundation stone for the present Duomo. It happened to be the feast day of Saint Brixius of Tours, the man who in 397 had succeeded Saint Martin as bishop of that city in France. The old cathedral was co-dedicated to a Saint Brixius (San Brizio) and later a chapel in the new Duomo would be named after this saint. However, it is not certain that this was in fact Saint Brixius of Tours, as there may also have been an Umbrian saint of the same name, who was bishop of an unknown town. I will let the academics decide this matter.
Pope Nicholas, who had been born Girolamo Masci, was the first Franciscan pope in history, but the first lead architect of the Duomo was a Benedictine monk, a certain Fra Bevignate. Around the year 1300 Bevignate was summoned to Perugia to work on the Duomo there. In the meantime, doubts had been raised with regard to the stability of Orvieto’s cathedral, and it was up to Fra Bevignate’s successor to remove those doubts. We know very little about this Giovanni di Uguccione, but it is usually assumed that it was he who changed the design of the cathedral from Romanesque to Gothic. In about 1308 he was in his turn succeeded by Lorenzo Maitani, an architect and sculptor from Siena. It was Maitani who gave the project a much-needed boost.
The new architect provided the building with extra stability by constructing buttresses, although it was later established that the cathedral would have been just as stable without them. Around the year 1325 the Duomo was almost completed, although plenty of additional work remained to be done. Before his death in 1330 Maitani built a new rectangular apse (1328) and later two important chapels were added to both ends of the transept (the buttresses were incorporated into these chapels). The first chapel to be added was the Cappella del Corporale in 1350-1356, the second the Cappella Nuova, built between 1408 and 1444. The latter is also known as the Cappella di San Brizio, and I have already mentioned that it is not entirely clear after which Saint Brixius it was named. Starting in the sixteenth century the interior of the Duomo was thoroughly remodelled by talented architects and sculptors such as Raffaello da Montelupo (ca. 1505-1566), a student of the great Michelangelo, and Ippolito Scalza (1532-1617). In 1877-1891 their interventions were largely reversed. My discussion of the interior of the Duomo below will therefore focus on the medieval art in the cathedral.
The Gothic façade is truly the most magnificent part of the Duomo. Beautiful sculptural work and equally marvellous mosaics will dazzle visitors and passers-by. What most people possibly will not realise is that it took centuries before the façade was completed. Furthermore, not all elements are original. This is especially true as regards the mosaics, which are made of tesserae that unfortunately have a tendency to come off after a while. A detailed discussion of the façade will hopefully make clear which elements were crafted when. I will start at the bottom and work my way up to the top.
At the bottom the façade has three beautiful portals of which the outer two have pointed Gothic arches, while the one in the centre, which is the main entrance, has a round Romanesque arch. The main entrance has modern bronze doors which were made by the Sicilian sculptor Emilio Greco (1913-1995). More of this work can be seen in the Palazzo Soliano next to the Duomo.
The four large pillars of the lower part of the façade have been decorated with splendid sculpted reliefs. The design of the reliefs is usually attributed to Lorenzo Maitani. From left to right we see Biblical scenes depicting the Creation of Man, stories from the Old Testament, the life of Christ (image on the right) and the Last Judgment. Topping the pillars are the familiar symbols of the four evangelists: from left to right we spot a man for Matthew, a lion for Mark, an eagle for John and a bull for Luke. These statues are also – tentatively – attributed to Maitani and apparently these are still the original sculptures. Unfortunately the statue of the Madonna and Child in a tent above the main entrance is not original. The original version – of which in any case the bronze parts are again attributed to Maitani – was moved to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in 1982.
Nine colourful mosaics adorn the middle part of the façade. The oldest among them is that representing the Baptism of Christ in the gable above the left entrance. Work on this mosaic started as early as 1359. Between that year and ca. 1390 the other mosaics were subsequently laid, except for the one adorning the large cusp which can be considered the crown of the cathedral. I will discuss it in a minute, but let us first take a look at the lower mosaics, which are unfortunately hardly original. The design of the Baptism of Christ is attributed to Andrea Orcagna (ca. 1310-1368) from Florence, who served as lead architect of the cathedral for a couple of years, and to Giovanni di Buccio di Leonardello, a native of Orvieto. The mosaic was re-laid in the sixteenth century after a design by Cesare Nebbia (ca. 1536-1622), a local painter who had a street behind the Duomo named after him. On either side of the Baptism we see an Annunciation in two parts. The original mosaic dates from 1362 and is attributed to the rather obscure Nello da Roma, but what we see today is a version dating from 1649.
The mosaic in the gable above the main entrance depicts the Assumption of the Virgin, which is appropriate given that the cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. In the lower left corner we see how Saint Thomas the Apostle catches the Virgin’s girdle (cintola). The other apostles, depicted in the two mosaics on either side of the gable, are witnesses to the Assumption. Giovanni di Buccio di Leonardello laid this mosaic in 1366, but what we see nowadays is a heavily restored version. The gable above the right entrance has a mosaic of the Birth of the Virgin, or rather a copy made in 1786. Ugolino di Prete Ilario, who will appear again in this post below, designed the original in 1365, and it was laid by Giovanni di Buccio di Leonardello. On either side of the mosaic we see the Annunciation of the Virgin’s Birth, to her father Joachim (left) and to her mother Anna (right). Jacopo Ripanda from Bologna (died 1516) was responsible for the mosaic of Joachim, while Gabriele Mercanti laid the mosaic featuring Anna in the first half of the seventeenth century.
We have now reached the upper part of the façade, which starts with a beautiful little colonnade that comprises a total of 38 arches (9 on the left, 20 in the middle and 9 on the right). Above the colonnade it is hard to miss the truly magnificent rose window, made by Andrea Orcagna in 1359-1360. In the centre of the window the head of Christ is visible, and the window is surrounded by mosaics of the four Latin Doctors of the Church: Gregorius the Great (top left), Jerome (top right), Augustinus (bottom left) and Ambrosius (bottom right). The originals were laid by Piero di Puccio in about 1388, but these have been replaced by replicas in the nineteenth century. Jerome and Ambrosius can fortunately still be admired in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The rose window is furthermore surrounded by 52 sculpted heads in niches. I have not been able to establish who these figures are, but they are certainly not prophets or apostles.
Prophets and apostles have been placed elsewhere around the rose window. In the sixteenth century the façade was still under construction. Michele Sanmicheli (1484-1559) and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546) played an important role in its completion, as they worked on the four spires and the large central cusp. One of my sources claims that in 1555-1556 twelve prophets were placed in the large niches on either side of the rose window. Francesco Mosca (ca. 1531-1578) led the team that sculpted the statues. Rather curiously, only Nahum and Habakkuk can be identified by inscription. Given the font used for the inscription and the style of the statues, I am inclined to follow a different source that dates the statues to the late fourteenth century. This means the story about Mosca cannot be correct. Finally, in 1560-1570 statues of the twelve apostles were made for the large niches above the rose window. Raffaello da Montelupo (ca. 1505-1566) led this project, but it was only completed after his death. If you take a look at the rose window, you will also notice the statue of the Lamb of God on the gable above the main entrance. It dates from 1352 and is attributed to Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna, who was probably also lead architect of the Duomo for a while. The statue of Saint Michael the Archangel and the dragon on the left gable is also his work. The original statue is now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The cusp to the left of the rose window has a mosaic depicting the Wedding of the Virgin. The original (1381-1386) was made by Ugolino di Prete Ilario and Piero di Puccio, but what we see today is a heavily restored work after a design by Antonio Circignani (1560-1620). The mosaic in the cusp to the right of the rose window represents the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. Piero di Puccio made the original in 1376, but the current mosaic dates from the middle of the seventeenth century.
And then we reach the cusp in the centre, the crown of the cathedral. It features a mosaic of the Coronation of the Virgin. The mosaic is a masterpiece, but the story of the decoration of the cusp is a complicated one. The cusp itself was added as late as 1532 and in 1584 Cesare Nebbia was commissioned to start laying the mosaic. Although the theme of the Coronation of the Virgin had been considered as early as the fourteenth century, the Opera del Duomo now wanted the artist to make a mosaic representing the Resurrection of Christ. Nebbia completed the work in 1587, but in 1713 his mosaic was replaced with a new one by Ludovico Mazzanti (1686-1775). The theme of this mosaic? The Coronation of the Virgin! Unfortunately Mazzanti’s mosaic quickly fell apart and was in its turn replaced with the present mosaic in 1842-1847. The current mosaic was apparently inspired by a work by Sano di Pietro (1405-1481), probably this panel painting. This explains the evidently medieval style.
The question that still needs to be answered is the one about the year of completion of the façade. I would choose 1591, the year in which Ippolito Scalza (1532-1617) completed the outer spires. This was 301 years after the laying of the foundation stone. The story of the cathedral after 1591, but also before 1591, is one of restoration upon restoration, and I have already discussed how especially the mosaics from the fourteenth century warranted the restorers’ attention. At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, the famous architect Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839) led a comprehensive restoration of the façade. And maintenance of this most precious part of the cathedral must have continued non-stop after him, for the façade appears to be in mint condition today.
Upon entering the Duomo, the visitor sees a huge empty space (see the image above), as well as the familiar alternating white and bluish-grey bands, both on the walls (partly painted by the way) and on the ten columns, five on either side. The columns create a nave and two aisles. There is no ceiling, so visitors looking up will clearly see the beams and rafters of the roof construction. The cathedral has five chapels on either side, although these are actually shallow niches rather than proper chapels. In many of these chapels we can spot traces of frescoes from the late Middle Ages. The second chapel on the right for instance has a fresco of Saints Anthony the Abbot and James, made in 1449 and preserved fairly well (see the image above). A much more famous fresco can be found on the wall of the left aisle, near the entrance. This painting of the Madonna and Child was made by Gentile da Fabriano (ca. 1370-1427), a talented painter from the town of Fabriano in the Marche. The fresco dates from 1425 and was apparently extremely important, for unlike most of the other frescoes it was not covered with plaster when the interior of the cathedral was thoroughly remodelled in the sixteenth century.
This remodelling operation was dictated by the demands of the Counter-Reformation. Simone Mosca (1492-1554) and the aforementioned Raffaello da Montelupo (ca. 1505-1566) and Ippolito Scalza (1532-1617) all served as lead architects of this extensive project for a while. However, not much of their work remains today. A philosophy popular in the nineteenth century stipulated that medieval churches had to be given back their medieval appearances. As a consequence, in 1877-1891 virtually all elements even vaguely reminiscent of Mannerism of Baroque were removed from the Duomo. If you happen to enjoy art from these periods, rest assured: there are still some elements left. For instance, to the left and right of the choir there are two beautiful altars that are very similar in style. The oldest of the two, the Altare dei Magi, is on the right and dates from 1514-1546. Michele Sanmicheli worked on the altar between 1514 and 1526, but made little progress. Antonio da Sangallo then made a new design, which – starting in 1535 – was executed by Simone Mosca, who was assisted by Raffaello da Montelupo and his own son Francesco. When the altar was finally completed, work started on the Altare della Visitazione on the other side (1547-1554). Father and son Mosca, Raffaello da Montelupo and Ippolito Scalza were all involved. Behind the last column on the left is a sculpture that needs to be mentioned here as well: a beautiful Pietà. Raffaello da Montelupo got the commission, but he died before he could start. The Pietà (1570-1579) was therefore sculpted by Ippolito Scalza. A very good image of it can be found here.
Frescoes by Ugolino di Prete Ilario
The splendid frescoes in the apse were painted between 1370 and 1384 by a team of painters led by Ugolino di Prete Ilario. We unfortunately know very little about Ugolino, but his name is intriguing: Ugolinus, son of the priest Ilarius. Perhaps the illegitimate child of a priest who did not take celibacy seriously? It is often reported that Ugolino was from Siena, but it is just as likely that he was a local painter, born and raised in Orvieto. His team was certainly composed of local artists. Together these men decorated the three walls with stories from the life of the Virgin. The frescoes on the left wall are still in excellent condition and those on the back wall still look pretty good too. Unfortunately the images on the right wall are clearly damaged in places, and time has not been kind to the vault either. Some of the frescoes on the right wall were retouched at the end of the fifteenth century.
In spite of the damage, the fresco cycle is a marvellous piece of fourteenth century religious art. Perhaps Ugolino and his team have not been given enough credit for it. And of course it was rather unhelpful that in the sixteenth century the influential painter, architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari attributed the cycle to Ambrogio Lorenzetti (whose work was in fact a source of inspiration for Ugolino). To give the real painters the credit that is rightfully theirs, I will discuss their frescoes in some detail below:
On the back wall we see, from bottom to top and from left to right:
- The presentation of the Virgin in the temple and education of the Virgin;
- The marriage of the Virgin and Joseph;
- The presentation of Jesus in the temple;
- (damaged) the flight to Egypt, Joseph in his workshop, the Virgin teaching Jesus;
- Annunciation of the death of the Virgin;
- Death of the Virgin;
- Funeral of the Virgin;
- Christ granting the Virgin eternal life.
Above these frescoes and above the stained glass window we see the traditional Assumption of the Virgin. The side walls feature stories from the lives of the Virgin’s parents, Joachim and Anna, and several more scenes featuring the Virgin, Joseph and the birth and life of Christ. There is even a scene about the circumcision of Jesus (left wall, second register, third fresco from the left). The two circular windows are surrounded by pairs of Doctors of the Church (above) and Evangelists (below). Unfortunately the images of Ambrosius and Luke on the right have not been preserved.
Many more beautiful works of art can be found in the apse, of which I will mention three. First of all, there is the stained glass window by Giovanni di Bonino from Assisi, which was made in 1334. It is the only surviving medieval window in the entire cathedral. The other windows date from the end of the nineteenth century and are partially made of alabaster, which creates a nice and soft light inside the Duomo. The crucifix in the apse, made in about 1320, also warrants closer inspection. It is attributed once again to Lorenzo Maitani. And then there are the choir stalls from 1330-1370. These were made by artists from Siena and, following the religious customs of the time, were originally placed in the nave in front of the high altar. This arrangement can still be seen in churches such as the San Clemente in Rome. However, as a result of the sixteenth century Counter-Reformation choir stalls were usually moved, in this case to the apse. This created more space for churchgoers and ensured that they could see the sacred host held up by the priest.
And now that the sacred host is mentioned, it is time to discuss the Cappella del Corporale. A corporal is linen altar cloth onto which during mass the bread and wine, i.e. the body and blood of Jesus, are placed. Catholics believe that during mass the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine changes into his blood. This is called Transubstantiation. In 1263, a priest from Bolsena doubted whether this Transubstantiation really took place, but all doubts quickly disappeared when the host the cleric held up began to bleed and stained the altar cloth. The blood-stained corporal was not just proof of the doctrine of Transubstantiation, but it also instantly became a coveted relic. It is not entirely clear how this relic found its way from Bolsena to Orvieto, a trip of some 20 kilometres. However this may be, in 1350-1356 a special chapel was built at the end of the left transept where the corporal is now kept. The Cappella del Corporale is normally only open for those who want to pray. This may come as a disappointment for those who want to admire the art in the chapel, but fortunately we still have Google Street View. The altarpiece, painted by the Sienese artist Lippo Memmi, can be viewed here.
The frescoes in the chapel were painted between 1357 and 1364 by the aforementioned Ugolino di Prete Ilario and his team, so they were active here before they worked in the apse of the cathedral. A part of the frescoes is obviously related to the Miracle of Bolsena. The frescoes of the vault can also be admired fairly well from outside the chapel. I for instance took a picture of the fresco of the rider on a white horse, armed with a bow (see above), who is mentioned in the Book of Revelation 6:2. He has hit a demon with one of his arrows, thus saving a scantily clad lady. Above him floats a blond Christ dressed in white. Next to him are seven candlesticks, also from Revelation, and below his left hand we see a host. The host returns on the other three frescoes. In the fresco featuring Saint Paul it for instance floats above the chalice. On the altar is a corporal, so now you know what it looks like. The text of the fresco, which is difficult to read, is from 1 Corinthians 11:28-29: “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (NIV). Unfortunately I have not been able to establish who the two figures to the left of the altar are.
Cappella di San Brizio
The chapel that is now generally known as the Cappella di San Brizio was originally simply called the Cappella Nuova, the new chapel. Construction of the chapel started in 1408 and work was completed in 1444. The story of decorating the Cappella Nuova commences three years later, in 1447. In June of that year Fra Angelico (1395-1455) and his assistant Benozzo Gozzoli (ca. 1421-1497) started painting the chapel vault. They needed three months to finish Christ the Judge and several prophets. Fra Angelico then left for Rome, where Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) was so demanding that the artist never returned to Orvieto. As a consequence, the great painter was unable to leave his mark on the chapel. The subsequent history of the chapel bears close resemblance to that of the Brancacci Chapel in Florence: for over fifty years no painter could be found to complete the frescoes. In Florence it would ultimately be Filippino Lippi who finished the work started by Masolino and Masaccio. In Orvieto the man who saved the day was Luca Signorelli (ca. 1450-1523) from Cortona.
Signorelli was not even a first choice. Pier Matteo d’Amelia (ca. 1445-1508) and Perugino (ca. 1446-1523) were summoned to Orvieto to embellish the chapel, but they have left us little to no work. In April 1499, it was Signorelli’s turn. He first completed the vault frescoes that had been left unfinished by Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli and then painted the second vault in the chapel. However, his best work was produced in 1500-1504: a series of truly fantastic frescoes on the chapel walls that revolve around the theme of the Last Judgment. Signorelli held a great interest in human anatomy and it was rumoured that he collected body parts in cemeteries during the night. Whether these rumours were true or not, it is clear that Signorelli and his assistants thoroughly enjoyed painting human shapes and forms. The frescoes feature a remarkable amount of nudity. Breasts, buttocks and the odd penis are all there on the walls of the Cappella di San Brizio.
The first fresco of the cycle is to be found on the left wall. It depicts the Preaching of the Antichrist (see above). The Antichrist can be seen standing on a platform. He looks like Christ, but has the devil behind him who whispers all kinds of evil words into his ear. It is generally accepted that the Antichrist is in fact the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). He was an advocate for church reforms, but was also responsible for the destruction of precious art during the so-called ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. Artists like Sandro Botticelli were under his spell for a while, but Luca Signorelli hated him. In 1498 Savonarola was burned at the stake in Florence. The fresco in Orvieto served as a warning for people who with their words incite others to evil deeds. In the top left corner we see that the Antichrist meets a bad end. He is defeated in the sky by Saint Michael the Archangel, while on earth dozens of his followers are killed.
Contemporaries of the painter would have recognised many celebrities among the figures standing close to the preaching Antichrist. The rather pompously dressed young man with his hands on his hips is for instance sometimes identified as the painter Raphael (1483-1520). The woman on the left who accepts money from a man is probably a prostitute. She returns in some of the other frescoes. On the far left Signorelli painted his self-portrait, with Fra Angelico – who, like Savonarola, happened to be a Dominican friar – behind him. Plenty of things are going on in the background. Someone is brought back to life, we see a group of clergymen, and people are decapitated. And then there is a large building, a bit of an amalgam of a pagan temple from Antiquity and a Christian basilica.
The cycle continues on the arch above the entrance to the chapel. Signorelli had little space here to paint his Destruction of the World, but he proved that he was a true master painter. On the right wall the dead are rising to hear the Last Judgment. They seem to be emerging from some kind of ice plain and all of them are naked or virtually naked. Above them two angels are blowing on trumpets to wake up the dead.
The two other frescoes on the side walls were painted opposite each other and should be viewed together. On the left (i.e. to the right of Christ the Judge on the vault) we see how the righteous are granted a place in Heaven while on the right (i.e. to the left of Christ) the wicked are condemned to eternal life in Hell. The second fresco is much more spectacular than the first. In the sky we see the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Signorelli painted himself as a horned blue devil grabbing a naked woman. Above him people are falling from the sky and a naked woman is flying around on the back of a winged demon. Is she the Whore of Babylon mentioned in Revelation 17? What is striking is that she is almost certainly the same woman as the one groped by Signorelli and as the prostitute in the fresco of the Antichrist. She must have been based on a woman the painter knew and had a bone to pick with.
The complete chaos dominating the scene of the wicked contrasts sharply with the serenity of the fresco featuring the righteous. Up in the sky an orchestra of angels can be seen making music. The frescoes of the righteous and the wicked are joined on the wall behind the altar. Below Christ the Judge we see Heaven on the left and Hell on the right. On the altar stands a panel painting from the thirteenth century which may have already stood in the old cathedral. The Baroque frame was obviously made later. This Madonna di San Brizio was made by an unknown painter and was set up here in 1622. It is hardly a stunning work of art, but the religious importance of the painting is immense.
The website Key to Umbria is a true mine of excellent information about the Duomo. Highly recommended! Additional information came from my Dorling Kindersley travel guide on Umbria and from the relevant pages on Italian and English Wikipedia. More information about Luca Signorelli’s frescoes can be found here. A good article about Ugolino di Prete Ilario’s frescoes is Sara Nair James, The Exceptional Role of St. Joseph in Ugolino di Prete Ilario’s Life of the Virgin at Orvieto.
 I follow Sara Nair James, The Exceptional Role of St. Joseph in Ugolino di Prete Ilario’s Life of the Virgin at Orvieto.
 Ross King, De Hemel van de Paus, p. 182.