Orvieto: the museums of the Palazzi Papali

Part of the buildings of the Palazzi Papali.

Orvieto was once a place of refuge for popes who, for whatever reason, were temporarily unwelcome in Rome. This is still visible in many places in the city. Pope Urbanus IV (1261-1264), for instance, resided in Orvieto for a while and a cardinal he created, Guillaume de Bray, was buried in the church of San Domenico, where one may still admire his splendid tomb. On a plaque attached to the church of Sant’Andrea visitors will read that Pope Martinus IV (1281-1284) was crowned in that church in 1281. And if the notorious Sacco di Roma of 1527 had not forced Pope Clemens VII (1523-1534) to flee to Orvieto, there is a fair chance that the famous well in the city, the Pozzo di San Patrizio, would never have been built. But the former presence of the popes is nowhere demonstrated better that in the Palazzi Papali, the quarters that Urbanus IV, Martinus IV and Nicholas IV (1288-1292) constructed next to the Duomo. These building – they are far too modest to call them palaces – are nowadays all connected and are home to both the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (MODO) and the Museo Archeologico.

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

In the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo we can admire works of art that were previously in the Duomo and in other churches in and around Orvieto. Among the works from outside the city we for instance find an Annunciation by an unknown painter dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century. The two-part fresco once adorned the church of Santo Spirito de’ Monaci Armeni, also known as the Santo Spirito al Tamburino, which stood outside Orvieto and was abandoned decades ago. Although the identity of the painter is unknown, it is clear that he was influenced by local painters such as Ugolino di Prete Ilario and Piero di Puccio. In the same room we also find another fifteenth century fresco that depicts Saint Julian, the knight who accidentally killed his parents that were sleeping in his bed. Julian had mistakenly assumed that he had caught his wife committing adultery… The room discussed here is a bit confusing; visitors who have not done their homework might think that this is the entire museum, as the room is not connected to the other rooms. To see the rest of the museum, one must go outside again and take the stairs to reach the other parts.

Annunciation (early 15th century).

Saint Julian (15th century).

Room with frescoes.

Immediately at the beginning of these other parts we stumbled upon one of the highlights: a Maestà or Madonna and Child in a bronze tent surrounded by bronze angels. The Madonna and Child were made of marble and very likely predate the bronze elements. These elements are attributed to Lorenzo Maitani (died 1330), the most important architect of the Duomo of Orvieto. The Maestà stood above the main entrance of the cathedral, but was moved to the museum in 1982. It is a beautiful work of art, highly reminiscent of Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna del Padiglione, which can be admired in Milan.

Maestà, bronze parts by Lorenzo Maitani.

Mary Magdalene – Luca Signorelli.

Homer and Virgil.

The Libreria Albèri.

Visitors may nowadays also enter and explore the Libreria Albèri. This is a library that was built between the Duomo and the papal quarters in 1499 by order of the archdeacon Antonio Albèri (ca. 1423-1505). In 2012 it was reopened to the public. It is both tempting and fully justified to compare the library to the Libreria Piccolomini in Siena, as archdeacon Albèri was the tutor of Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini (1439-1503), archbishop of Siena. Piccolomini’s pontificate as Pope Pius III lasted just 26 days.

The Libreria Albèri no longer has any books, but its walls are decorated with excellent frescoes. These are attributed to employees of Luca Signorelli (ca. 1450-1523), the painter from Cortona who, between 1499 and 1504, decorated the Cappella di San Brizio in the adjacent Duomo. In the lunettes we see representatives of various disciplines. To give a few examples: Homer and Virgil represent poetry, Claudius Ptolemaeus and Abu Ma’shar (Albumasar) astrology and Galen and Hippocrates medicine. The frescoes are good, but perhaps slightly monochrome. Luca Signorelli himself painted a panel featuring Mary Magdalene. This work was completed in 1504 and contrasts sharply with the frescoes in the Libreria Albèri, for it is very colourful. The detailed decorations on Mary Magdalene’s golden robe are very impressive. The panel painting originally stood in a small chapel inside the Cappella di San Brizio, the so-called Cappellina della Maddalena. Now it can be found in Room IV of the museum.

Madonna and Child – Simone Martini.

Madonna enthroned – Coppo di Marcovaldo.

In the same room we can admire various religious works by medieval painters, including two paintings by Simone Martini (ca. 1284-1344) from Siena. Since I have already discussed his polyptych with a Madonna and Child in a post about the church of San Domenico, I will now focus on another work by Martini: a beautiful Madonna and Child with angels that used to be in the church of San Francesco. In the central cusp above the Madonna and Child we see Christ the Saviour giving his blessing. It is almost certain that the work was originally part of a polyptych, but the other panels have either been lost or are currently waiting in museums or depots until someone links them to Martini’s work in Orvieto. The panel was presumably painted in 1322-1324. In the same room we find a nice Crucifixion by Spinello Aretino (ca. 1350-1410).

Madonna and Child – Andrea Pisano.

A much older work of art has been set up in the adjacent room: a Madonna and Child enthroned with two angels from ca. 1265-1270. The enormous panel, which measures 222 by 134 centimetres and comes from the church of Santa Maria dei Servi, t is tentatively attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo (ca. 1225-1276). His most famous work – if it is indeed his – is the large mosaic of Christ the Judge in the Baptistery of Florence. In the case of the Madonna enthroned the museum has put a question mark behind Coppo’s name, but there can be no doubt that the panel was painted in his style. Although he was a talented painter and in this case produced a highly detailed work, there is no denying that Coppo di Marcovaldo also stuck to the rather rigid and flat Byzantine style that had so long dominated Italian painting.

The museum has a nice collection of sculptural work, which includes a splendid Madonna and Child, made in 1346-1347 by Andrea Pisano (ca. 1290-1348). The statue originally stood somewhere in the Duomo. Also from the Duomo is a sculpture group of Christ and two angels. The figure of Christ is closely connected to the celebration of the Eucharist. He is holding a chalice and must have originally held a sacred host in his right hand. Christ is attributed to Nino Pisano, Andrea’s son. His other son Tommaso presumably sculpted the two angels.

Christ and two angels – Nino and Tommaso Pisano.

I would finally like to mention two sculptures of Saint Michael the Archangel that once adorned the façade of the Duomo. The bronze statue of the archangel with a dragon was made in the mid-fourteenth century (ca. 1356) by Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna. Originally it stood on the gable above the left entrance of the cathedral. Now we find a copy there. The other archangel was made more than two centuries later by Raffaello da Montelupo (ca. 1505-1566). This Michael (ca. 1561) is not made of bronze but of marble, although the statue does have bronze wings. The archangel does not fight a dragon, but has taken a bearded man prisoner. The man is a bit hidden, but we can see his face behind the archangel’s left leg. The statue stood on the gable above the right entrance of the cathedral until 1964. It has been replaced with a replica.

Left and right: Saint Michael the Archangel.

Archaeological museum

The ground floor of the Palazzi Papali houses the Museo Archeologico. Both this museum and the Museo Etrusco “Claudio Faina”, which is situated west of the Duomo, focus on the Etruscans in and around Orvieto. In the third century BCE this city was known to the Roman as Volsinii, Velzna in Etruscan. The city seems to have been a Roman ally, having been defeated in battle some decades previously. However, internal disturbances had broken out between the original citizens of Volsinii and former slaves, who had obtained citizenship and formed a new plebeian class. The situation prompted the Romans to intervene in this power struggle on the side of the autochthonous Volsinians. In 265 BCE, they sent an army north under the command of the consul Quintus Fabius Gurges.

Antefixes of the Tempio del Belvedere.

Gurges defeated the former slaves in open battle and drove them back to Volsinii, but things went horribly wrong when he tried to assault the city itself. Apparently the consul refused to stay safely in the rear: leading his men in storming the city, he was mortally wounded and died a little later. The Romans had to send the second consul of 264 BCE, Marcus Fulvius Flaccus, to replace him and continue the siege. Flaccus starved the city into submission, razed Volsinii to the ground and relocated the original Volsinians and some of their loyal servants to a new site where a new city was founded, on the shores of Lake Bolsena.

In the archaeological museum we can admire, among other things, finds from the necropolis of Crocefisso del Tufo, which is located at the foot of the tuff plateau. It is by the way possible to visit the necropolis itself, but we unfortunately had to skip it because of a lack of time. We can also admire finds from the remains of the Tempio del Belvedere, a temple close to the Pozzo di San Patrizio that dates from the fifth century BCE. The temple was probably destroyed by the Romans in 264 BCE, along with the rest of Volsinii. The museum possesses beautiful terracotta antefixes with the faces of gods that must have once decorated the roof of the temple. South of Orvieto lies another Etruscan necropolis, that of Cannicella. It must have been the site of a sanctuary, as the museum possesses a splendid roof ornament or akroterion. We see a young man dressed as a warrior. He is holding a woman whose throat he has slit. Experts assume that the young man is Orestes. He has been sculpted in the act of murdering his mother Klytaimnestra and is thus avenging his father Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks before Troy, who had been killed by Klytaimnestra and her lover.

Akroterion: Orestes kills his mother.

The most beautiful works of art in the museum are the frescoes from the two Golini tombs. These tombs are part of a third Etruscan necropolis around Orvieto, that of Settecamini. The frescoes date from the fourth century BCE. They were detached in 1950 and taken to the museum. Among other things the frescoes depict a funerary banquet. Unfortunately they are damaged in places, but many fine details are still visible. Note for instance the scene that shows how the banquet is prepared. A half-naked slave appears to be mashing something in a large bowl. He is flanked by a flutist and a female servant.

Fresco from one of the Golini tombs.


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