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Europe’s most beautiful church? : Italian GOTHIC : Orvieto is known for fine wines and lively ceramics, but its masterpiece is its exquisite cathedral

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

It would be asking for trouble to come right out and call Orvieto’s cathedral the most beautiful church in Europe. But just look at it.

Sitting as it does in a town of 24,000, in central Italy midway between Rome and Florence, Orvieto’s cathedral, or Duomo, hasn’t got the global profile of St. Peter’s in Rome, the Duomo in Florence, or St. Mark’s in Venice. If the Catholic church ran a marketing survey of North American visitors to Italy, the grandly Gothic Orvieto church might even run behind the cathedrals of Siena and Milan. And if the subject is the Continent’s most beautiful churches, there will always be arguments for Chartres or Notre Dame in France, or maybe even Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, if you’re in the company of modernists.

But if you arrive in Orvieto in early afternoon on a blue-skied day, make your way on foot up the Via Nebbia, then turn the old stone corner with all the tourist signs and cast your gaze skyward, there’s a good chance that you’ll forget about other churches for a while. There stands the Duomo, in considerable glory.

The first time I came face to face with the cathedral of Orvieto, I was startled and humbled, but not quite overcome; it was shortly before noon, and the facade was in the shade. But by the time I had wandered back to the Piazza del Duomo about an hour later, the sun was in optimum position, and the front of the church was ablaze. It didn’t seem real.

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Art historian Jacob Burckhardt called the Duomo “the greatest and richest polychrome monument in the world.” Pope Leo XIII suggested that on Judgment Day, the Duomo’s beauty would carry it right up to Heaven. And soon, the place may make an even bigger impression on modern-day visitors. Some time this year workers are due to complete restoration that has kept the church’s spectacular Signorelli interior frescoes behind scaffolding for more than a year.

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Orvieto sits on a tilted table top, its high end about 1,000 feet above the green valley below. Approaching by train or car, visitors first pass through the modern, homely part of town, known as Orvieto Scalo, at the base of the table. From there, a traveler can either drive up the hill to fight for a rare parking space, park and take a bus, or ride the funicular railway (less than $1 for an adult round trip) to Piazza Cahen, from which buses make the brief run to the Piazza del Duomo.

Uptown, Via Maitani and Via del Duomo lead past souvenir shops and restaurants to the piazza in front of the Duomo. The shops offer Orvieto’s other most popular products: white wine produced on neighboring estates; hand-detailed pottery, often distinguished by green coloring; lace, and ironwork. Beneath those streets and shops, the hilltop is riddled with ancient tunnels and tombs--a cause for worry over the town’s physical stability and a reminder of the settlement’s early human history.

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Orvieto, in the westernmost region of Umbria as it gives way to Tuscany, was an Etruscan town from about the 7th century BC to the 3rd century BC, when Romans forced the Etruscans out. In later centuries, Orvieto fell under control of the Vatican and became a frequent papal retreat. The church’s cornerstone was laid in 1290, on the highest ground for miles around at a site formerly occupied by another church and, before that, an Etruscan temple.

The triptych-like facade of the church, about 150 feet high, is dominated by four pillars, each elaborately sculpted with scenes from the Bible. The doorways are enormous, surrounded by sculpted bas-relief details, with stained-glass windows and glistening mosaics above. Inside and out, the church’s walls are horizontally striped, the stonework alternating between white travertine and gray basalt.

By some accounts, the Duomo project began as a celebration of a reported miracle in the nearby town of Bolsena: A Bavarian priest, on a pilgrimage to grapple with his doubts about the doctrine of transubstantiation (the point in the Catholic Mass at which wine and wafers are said to be transformed into Christ’s blood and body), saw Christ’s blood materialize, in the shape of Christ’s face, on a white linen altar cloth.

Some historians have also theorized, however, that 1290 was an opportune time for the Vatican to raise an intimidating structure to discourage the developing independence of towns in that area of the countryside.

Either way, it was an immense project, and one that the church and town clung to even after the murderous arrival of the Black Death in 1348. The Duomo wasn’t completed until 1580, and by that time, according to one historian’s count, it had become the joint product of 33 architects, 152 sculptors, 68 painters and 90 mosaicists.

And the work didn’t end in the 16th century. My favorite part of the building, the brilliant mosaic work on the upper facade, is actually a replacement, added in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to cover for earlier mosaics apparently removed by agents of Rome. The bronze doors are even more recent, the product of work from 1964-1970.

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The original architect is unknown, but great credit is usually heaped upon Lorenzo Maitani of Siena, who took over in 1310 and spent about 30 years guiding construction--including the detail work on the four pillars that dominate the church facade--as ongoing redesign transformed the plan from Romanesque to Gothic.

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In the Duomo’s chapel lies the church’s greatest interior treasure and, unfortunately, one recently obscured from public view. There, restorers are working on a cycle of frescoes by Luca Signorelli that is widely considered to be one of the crowning artistic achievements of the Italian Renaissance. The cycle includes a Last Judgment that was painted from 1499-1504 and is said to have heavily influenced the execution of another judgment scene about 40 years later--Michelangelo’s, in the Sistine Chapel. (Signorelli painted himself as a bystander at the Sermon of the Anti christ, and elsewhere is said to have included the face of his unfaithful girlfriend on the body of a prostitute writhing in hell.) Other frescoes are the work of Fra Angelico and various others, mostly from the 15th century.

There is more to Orvieto than the church, of course. The Church of San Giovenale looks down onto orchards from its rock base. On the edge of town lie Etruscan tombs. I missed the market held in the Piazza del Popolo on Thursdays and Saturdays, but the narrow, stony streets around it are full of medieval character.

Near the Piazza Cahen, on the way up the hill into the highest and oldest quarter of town, lies the Pozzo di San Patricio, a 16th century well that is about 200 feet deep and wide enough to accommodate two spiral staircases. Pressed for time, I decided I could live without seeing that or paying the fee of about $4.

Instead, I wandered around the pleasant (and free) public gardens on the site of an ancient fortress, still rimmed by ancient walls and surrounded by a commanding view of the checkerboard farmland below. It was near here that erosion and landslides threatened the hilltop town’s stability in the late 1970s. Italian leaders in the last 15 years have waged a costly campaign to shore up the hilltop.

The town also has several museums, including the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo and the Museo Claudio Faina--but many of their galleries have been closed for years for reorganization or upgrading, and those that are open are not the most arresting in Italy, or even in Umbria. It would be nice to spend a night in town and make time for lingering in such places, but the truth is, most travelers in Rome could make Orvieto a day trip without much guilt.

That’s roughly what I did, but in two installments: Four days after my first visit, when I paused for a few hours on my way from Rome to deeper Umbria, I was back again. This time I was returning to Rome, but I’d set aside a few more hours for Orvieto. I pulled off the autostrada, parked, took the funicular and bus up the hill and hoped for mercy from the clouds gathering above.

There was no mercy. A crackling thunderstorm arrived at uptown Orvieto the same moment that I did, but the scene had, as they say, a silver lining. Under the massing gray clouds, while rain pelted the Duomo, lightning flashes lighted its ageless facade and thunder rumbled nearby.

Glory-of-God architecture under wrath-of-God weather: a combination not soon forgotten.

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GUIDEBOOK: Oratory on Orvieto

Getting there: Alitalia flies direct from LAX to Rome, stopping in Milan; Delta, Continental, TWA, Swissair, KLM and British Airways make connections through various European cities. Lowest round-trip advance-purchase fare is $921. From Rome, Oriveto is about 60 miles north. It lies just off the A1 superhighway, a toll road, between Rome and Florence, and is also connected to those cities by rail.

Where to stay: Hotel Virgilio (Piazza del Duomo 5-6; telephone 011-39-763-41-882, fax 011-39-763-43-797) neighbors the Duomo with just 13 rooms, some of which offer views of the church. (Be sure to ask for the view.) The Italian government rating system gives it three stars--comfortable but not luxurious. Double rooms: about $87 nightly.

The Villa Ciconia (Via dei Tigli 69; tel. 011-39-763-92-982, fax 011-39-763-90-677), a four-star lodging, sits below town near the base of the funicular--convenient if you’re leaving a rental car at the bottom of the hill. Double rooms: about $107-$120.

La Badia (Via La Badia 8; tel. 011-39-763-90-359, fax 011-39-763-92-796), also just outside town, is a renovated 12th century abbey with frescoes, cloisters, large rooms, a pool and a good restaurant. Double rooms are about $140-$170.

(Note: Some hotels close during winter months.)

Where to eat: Trattoria Etrusca (Via Maitani 10; local tel. 44-016) is a popular lunch spot with the town’s prosperous businessmen, and makes wonderful crostini and ravioli with truffles. Entrees: Up to about $14. For ice cream, baked goods and snacks, il Sant’ Andrea (Piazza della Repubblica 26; local tel. 43-285) is a good place to stop, with pleasant sidewalk seating. Most items under $7.

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles 90025; (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357.

--C.R.


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