Orvieto: Rocca dell’Albornoz and Pozzo di San Patrizio

The Pozzo di San Patrizio.

The posts on this website often cover museums, churches and convents. Castles and ruins are also frequently discussed. If It is very special, I will dedicate a post to a square in a city. However, this must be the very first time that a post is all about a water well, and I suspect it will be the only time I dedicate a post to such a well. But then again, the sixteenth century Pozzo di San Patrizio in Orvieto is a remarkable monument. The well is situated just a stone’s throw from a former citadel, the Rocca dell’Albornoz, which is now a park with a panoramic view. As the history of the well and that of the citadel are somewhat intertwined, I will discuss both in one post. I will start with the Rocca dell’Albornoz, for the simple reason that this fortress was constructed first. Let us therefore travel back in time to Italy in the fourteenth century.

The Rocca dell’Albornoz

The citadel of Orvieto is named after the Spanish cardinal Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz (1310-1367). The cardinal was not just a man of the Church, he was also the war-horse employed by two popes, Innocentius VI (1352-1362) and Urbanus V (1362-1370). Both were so-called Avignon popes, the papacy having been moved to this city by Pope Clemens V (1305-1314) – a Frenchman – in 1309. Innocentius VI desired to move it back to Rome, but the problem was that much of Italy, including the Eternal City, was no longer under papal control. If Innocentius wanted to reforge the Papal States, he needed supporters who could win back much of the territories that had been lost during the “Babylonian Captivity” in Avignon. In 1353 cardinal Albornoz was appointed ‘ambassador to Italy’, a euphemism for an office that was basically military in nature. Albornoz proved to be a competent general and diplomat, who combined brute force with clever diplomacy and occasional bribery. During the remainder of Innocentius’ pontificate and the first years of that of his successor, Urbanus V, the cardinal reclaimed numerous cities and towns, including Orvieto.

View of the part of Orvieto that lies in the valley. The walls of the Rocca dell’Albornoz can be seen on the right.

Remains of the Rocca dell’Albornoz.

Construction of a new citadel in Orvieto started in 1364, and the complex must have been completed around 1370. Its subsequent history is anything but a happy story, and that had much to do with the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), during which there were popes in both Rome and Avignon. Orvieto changed hands on several occasions and suffered from serious internal unrest as well. In about 1435 the Rocca dell’Albornoz was demolished by the citizens, but in 1450 Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) commissioned the architect Bernardo Rossellino (1409-1464) to build a new fortress, which was completed by 1470. After the sack of Rome by Charles V’s troops, Pope Clemens VII (1523-1534) fled the Eternal City and travelled to Orvieto, which was considered highly defensible. When Clemens chose Orvieto as a place of refuge, he must have thought about the new citadel. However, there was a problem with the water supply of the fortress: the cisterns were all dry. The Pope was therefore forced to look for a new source of water. And that is where the story of the Pozzo di San Patrizio starts.

The Pozzo di San Patrizio

The Pope charged the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546) from Florence with finding an alternative source of water on the tuff plateau on which Orvieto was built. There he was to construct a well. The architect quickly found a new source, but given the depth of the stream, building a well was a much greater challenge. It has been reported that 30,000 bricks were needed to get the job done. Da Sangallo designed a well that is a little over 53 metres deep and 13 metres wide. My travel guide even claims the well is 62 metres deep, but although I have not measured it myself this claim appears to be incorrect.

Interior of the Pozzo di San Patrizio.

The most impressive technical feat of the Pozzo di San Patrizio is its helix-shaped double staircase. One staircase was used by the donkeys fetching water to go down. Once there, they crossed a little bridge and went up again using the other staircase. In other words, the animals never has to pass each other, which would have created a risk of collisions and congestion. Both staircases have 248 steps (or 250 according to a reliable source). Natural light comes in from above and the two staircases are well-lit thanks to 72 windows. The Pozzo di San Patrizio was completed in 1537. According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, Antonio da Sangallo needed the help of Simone Mosca (1492-1554) in order to finish the well. The story is not implausible, as the two men also worked together on an altar in the Duomo of Orvieto.

The name Pozzo di San Patrizio was first used in the nineteenth century. Before that, the well probably did not even have a name, and it was certainly not dedicated to Saint Patrick, the ‘Apostle of the Irish’. In the northwest of Ireland there is a lake called Lough Derg and in that lake we find the tiny island of Station Island. According to tradition it was there that, in the fifth century, Jesus Christ himself had shown the aforementioned Saint Patrick one of the entrances to Purgatory. Starting in the seventh century the island became a destination for pilgrims (Saint Patrick’s Purgatory), and a descent into the cave there to get close to Purgatory was seen as “the most knightly of pilgrimages”.[1] Italian pilgrims must have made the long journey to Station Island too. They probably shared the stories about it in their own country. Apparently at one point people started comparing the descent to Purgatory in Ireland to the descent into a water well in Orvieto. And that is how the Pozzo di San Patrizio got its name. It is a roaring name, but whether the donkeys fetching the water were much impressed can very much be doubted.


[1] “De meest ridderlijke pelgrimstocht van alle”, according to Frits van Oostrom, Nobel streven, p. 79.

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