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The origin of the name Orvieto is unresolved. The city stands on a huge mass of tufa rock delimited by vertical cliffs, a geomorphology that would have made it irresistible as a site for fortification to the earliest inhabitants of the territory. It is near the rivers Paglia and Chiana, the swamps of which were drained by Pope Sixtus V. Orvieto could be the ancient Hebanum or Oropitum, or it could have been the ancient port (therefore Urbs vetus, or old city) of the Etruscan city of Volsinii, which was destroyed by the Romans at some stage and rebuilt on the site of the present Bolsena. In the countryside around Orvieto there are many Etruscan tombs and Orvieto itself is the site of numerous Etruscan works. The name of Urbs Vetus appears for the first time in Procopius, corrupted into Urbebentum. It is also found in the writings of St. Gregory the Great.

Orvieto was the seat of Fanum Voltumnae, the most important shrine of the Etruscan federation, and various Etruscan elements are still extant, providing clues about the structure of the ancient city, Velzna. What remains of the Temple of Belvedere, near the well of San Patrizio, comes closer than any other to the canonical Etruscan temple as described by Vitruvius.

Abbey of Saints Severus and Martyrius

The Abbey of Saints Severus and Martyrius
(La Badia dei SS. Severo e Martirio)

La Badia dei SS. Severo e Martirio

Early History of Orvieto

Orvieto was annexed by Rome in the 3rd century BC. After the collapse of the Roman Empire its defensible site gained new importance: the episcopal see was transferred from Bolsena, and the city was held by Goths and by Lombards before its self-governing commune was established in the 10th century, in which consuls governed under a feudal oath of fealty to the bishop. Orvieto's relationship to the papacy has been a close one; in the tenth century Pope Benedict VII visited the city of Orvieto with his nephew, Filippo Alberici, who later settled there and became Consul of the city state in 1016.

Orvieto in the middles ages

In the mediaeval period, the beautiful public buildings such as the Palazzo Comunale, the Palazzo del Popolo, the Cathedral and the Palazzo dei Sette rose beside the older churches such as San Giovenale, Sant'Andrea, and the convents of San Domenico, San Francesco, Sant'Agostino and Santa Maria dei Servi, the complex of the Papal Palace, and the private palaces and tower houses of the aristocracy.

During the Gothic War, Orvieto was defended by the Goths for a long time but eventually fell into the hands of the Lombards (606). From the latter end of the 10 C, the city was governed by consuls, who, however, took an oath of fealty to the Bishop. But from 1201, it governed itself through a podestą (in that year, the Bishop Richard) and a captain of the people. On account of its position, Orvieto was often chosen by the popes as a place of refuge and Adrian IV fortified it. A "Studium Generale" was granted to the city by Gregory XI in 1337. In the middle of the 13 C, bitter feuds arose between the Filipeschi and the Monaldeschi families, that were not quelled until the city came under the rule of Ermanno Monaldeschi, whom Cardinal Albornoz reduced to obedience to the Holy See. One of the first convents of the Dominican Order was built at Orvieto (1220) and in 1288 a monastery of Armenian monks was founded in the town . In 1199 the martyrdom of St. Pietro Parenzo took place at Orvieto. He was a Roman whom Innocent III had sent to govern that city with a view to suppressing the Patarian movement that Ermanno of Parma and Gottardo of Marsi had roused in the town.

Orvieto and the Church

The first known Bishop of Orvieto was John (about 590), and in 591 appears a Bishop Candidus; among its other prelates were Constantino Medici, O.P., sent by Alexander IV in 1255 to Greece, where he died; Francesco Monaldeschi (1280), who did much for the construction of the cathedral. In 1528 Clement VII sought refuge at Orvieto, and while there ordered the construction of the "Pozzo di San Patrizio" (the well of St. Patrick), by Sangallo.

Bishop Sebastiano Vanzi (1562) distinguished himself at the Council of Trent and built the seminary, which was enlarged afterwards by Cardinal Fausto Polo (1645) and by Giacomo Silvestri, the latter of whom gave to it the college and other property of the Jesuits (1773); Cardinal Paolo Antamori (1780) caused the history of the cathedral of Orvieto to be written by Guglielmo della Valle; and lastly G.B. Lambruschini (1807).

With the See of Orvieto has been united from time immemorial that of Bolsena (the ancient Volsinii), of the ruins of which there are still the remnants of the temple of Nortia, of the "Thermę", or hot baths, of Sejanus, of the mausoleum of L. Canuelius, etc. According to Pliny, 2000 statues were taken to Rome from Volsinii, when the latter was destroyed in 254 B.C. In the Middle Ages, Bolsena had much to suffer from the neighbouring lords (Vico, Bisenzo, Cerbara, etc.), and from the Orvietans, who claimed dominion over it; while, in 1377, the town was sacked by the adventurer Hawkwood (Acuto). On the Island of Martana, in the lake near by, Amalasunta, daughter of Theodoricus and wife of Theodatus, was strangled. To this island, in the sixth century, was transferred the body of St. Christina, a virgin and martyr of Bolsena (297?), but it was later returned to the city; the church of this saint contains a reclining statue of her by Luca della Robbia; annexed to the church is an ancient Christian cemetery, and ancient Christian inscriptions are numerous at Bolsena. Three bishops of Volsinii are known: Gaudentius (499), Candidus (601), who, it appears, is not the Bishop of Orvieto of that name, and Agnellus (680).

The Miracle of Bolsena

The Miracle of Bolsena is not supported by strong historical evidence, and its tradition is not altogether consistent, for in the first place Urban IV makes no mention of it in the Bull by which he established the feast of Corpus Christi, although the miracle is said to have taken place in his day and to have determined him in his purpose of establishing the feast. Likewise, the two biographers of Pope Urban impugn the truth of this tradition by their silence, i.e., Muratori, "Rerum Italicarum scriptores", III, pt. l, 400 sq.; and especially Thierricus Vallicoloris, who, in his life of the pope in Latin verse, describes in detail all the acts of the pontiff during the latter's stay at Orvieto, referring elsewhere also to the devotion of Urban in celebrating the Mass, and to the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi, without at any time making allusion to the miracle at Bolsena. The latter is related in the inscription on a slab of red marble in the church of St. Christina, and is of later date than the canonisation of St. Thomas Aquinas (1328). The oldest historical record of the miracle is contained in the enamel "histories" that adorn the front of the reliquary (1337-39). It is to be noted that in the narratives of the miracle cited by Fumi (Il Santuario, 73) the reliquary only is called "tabernaculum D.N.J.C.", or "tab . . . pro D.N.J.C." or, again, "tabernacolo del Corpo di Xpo."

In 1344 Clement VI, referring to this matter in a Brief, uses only the words "propter miraculum aliquod" (Pennazzi, 367); Gregory XI, in a Brief of 25 June, 1337, gives a short account of the miracle; and abundant reference to it is found later on (1435), in the sermons of the Dominican preacher Leonardo Mattei of Udine ("In festo Corp. Christi", xiv, ed. Venice, 1652, 59) and by St. Antoninus of Florence ("Chronica", III, 19, xiii, 1), the latter, however, does not say (as the local legend recites) that the priest doubted the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, but, merely that a few drops from the chalice fell upon the corporal. For the rest, a similar legend of the "blood-stained corporal" is quite frequent in the legendaries of even earlier date than the fourteenth century, and coincides with the great Eucharistic polemics of the ninth to the twelfth centuries. The reddish spots on the corporal of Bolsena, upon close observation, show the profile of a face of the type by which the Saviour is traditionally represented.


Lake of Bolsena Lago di Bolsena

Lake of Bolsena

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