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Orvieto, Its Cathedral and Well

Orvieto, Italy

Hill-topping Orvieto has a marvelous cathedral with a colorful facade and Signorelli's frescoes of the apocalypse. The town boasts a deep, double-helix well (allowing two-way traffic), dug in the 16th century to ensure a water supply in case of siege.

Complete Video Script

Orvieto, Umbria's grand hill town, sits majestically high above the valley floor on a big chunk of tufa — a soft and easy-to-cut volcanic stone.

A handy funicular shuttles visitors from Orvieto's train station and big free park and ride lot on the valley floor up to the town.

More and more European towns are dealing with their traffic and parking congestion by making life frustrating and expensive for anyone who insists on driving into the old center. Public transit is designed to reward those who park outside of town.

From the top a bus connects with the funicular and drops people right at the cathedral square. Pedestrian-friendly lanes make exploring the town a joy. Inviting shops show off Orvieto's famous and colorful ceramics.

The cathedral — or duomo, as they say in Italian — gets my vote for Italy's liveliest façade. This gleaming mass of mosaics and sculpture is a circa 1330 class in world history — back when no one dared question "intelligent design": Things start with Creation. Eve is tempted by Satan disguised as a snake, and so on, right up to Judgment Day.

Inside, the striped nave appears longer than it is. That's because the architect designed the nave wider at the back and narrower at the altar. Windows of thin sliced alabaster bathe the interior in a soft light.

Adjacent the altar, the Chapel of St. Brizio is Orvieto's one must-see artistic sight. It features Luca Signorelli's frescoes of the apocalypse. The vivid scenes depict events at the end of the world, but they also reflect the turbulent political and religious atmosphere of Italy in the late 1400s.

The nearby city of Florence had become a theocracy run by the austere and charismatic monk, Savonarola. His ultra conservative teachings polarized Christians, bringing tension to the Church.

In the Sermon of the Antichrist, a crowd gathers around a man preaching from a pedestal. It's the Antichrist — representing Savonarola — who comes posing as Jesus to mislead the faithful. This befuddled Antichrist forgets his lines mid-speech, but the Devil is on hand to whisper what to say next. His words sow wickedness through the world from a corrupt woman taking money… to evil figures running rampant… to mass executions.

Then, on Judgment Day, trumpeting angels blow a wake-up call, and skeletons of the dead climb dreamily out of the earth to be clothed in new bodies. Across the chapel, the saved gather happily in heaven enjoying a holy string quartet. Facing them, the damned experience the horrible mosh pit of Hell. Devils torment sinners in graphic detail, while winged demons control the airspace overhead. A demon turns to tell his frightened passenger exactly what he's got planned for her.

Signorelli's ability to tell stories through human actions and gestures, rather than symbols, inspired his younger contemporary, Michelangelo, who meticulously studied Signorelli's work.

Orvieto, with its natural hilltop fortification, was the pope's place of refuge in the 1500s… he wanted to be sure he had water during a time of siege. So he built an extravagant well.

St. Patrick's Well — 175 feet deep — is designed with a double-helix pattern. The two spiral stairways allow an efficient one-way traffic flow; intriguing now, but critical then. Imagine if donkeys and people, balancing jugs of water, had to go up and down the same stairway.

Digging this was a huge project. Even today, when faced with a difficult task, Italians say, "It's like digging St. Patrick's Well."