Today was another long day in the field – but so amazing! We met our charter bus at 7h45 this morning, driving (albeit rather slowly) for almost three hours to Orvieto. We took the funicular from Orvieto Scalo to Orvieto proper and proceeded first to the most adorable artisan chocolaterie, then to the cathedral. Il Duomo (1290s-1310) is intense: a solidly Gothic cathedral, constructed from alternating layers of volcanic rock: black basalt and white-gold tufa, looking kind of like a Beetlejuice layer cake. Yeah. Anyway, it is one of few definitively Gothic churches in Italy and is utterly unique at that: the facade is decorated with bas reliefs, unbelievable mosaics, a large rose window with complex tracery and sculpted pilasters and columns inlaid with gold and marble tiles. The facade is most known for the aforementioned mosaics which shine brilliantly (some might argue blindingly) in the afternoon sun, making the cathedral glisten like a beacon on the hilltop.
Inside, the basalt/tufa construction continues, and you come to notice that the lancet windows are not glass (obvious from the outside) but they are not bricked over, either – they are outfitted with paper thin panels of marbled alabaster, which casts a gentle golden light on the side chapels and aisles. The late 16th-early 17th century design campaign, initiated by the Opera dell Duomo (a civic committee of laymen who have been in charge of the cathedral’s design since the 14th century) was a major art historical event, but the products are no longer in situ. The sculptures and altar were removed in the 19th-20th century when the interior was renovated back to its Late Medieval appearance. Thus, the 12 apostles (by various artists), Francesco Mochi’s Annunciation, and the highly architectural tabernacle have all been removed to local museums.
That being said, there is still much to see in the Duomo: the Cappella del Corporale (Chapel of the Corporal) which features the relic from the Miracle at Bolsena (which I am not going to get into, but do read it for yourself), as well as the Cappella Nuova which features frescoes by Luca Signorelli and Fra Angelico. Unfortunately, the Cappella del Corporale is really dark and has a rather odd fresco cycle depicting scenes from both the Miracle at Bolsena and the history of the Eucharist. The Cappella Nuova, from the 16th century, has intense frescoes by Signorelli of the Apocalypse/Book of Revelations, the Last Judgment and scenes of Heaven in the vaults, as well as Fra Angelico’s depiction and Christ with the Apostles over the altar. On the walls proper, there are portraits of poets and humanist scholars (like Dante) and tondos depicting scenes of historical violence and martyrdom, as well as a Lamentation which both quotes the Meleager sarcophagus and a miniature reproduction of the antique itself in the background.
We finished up at the cathedral then walked across town to the museum. Oh my goodness, my inner (okay, outer) art history nerd was in HEAVEN: Francesco Mochi’s Angel and Virgin Annunciate right there, in front of me. AH. I can’t even tell you how unbelievably amazing it is to see two of your favorite sculptures in person, without a huge crowd, not sequestered behind bulletproof glass or ten feet away behind a railing. AH. Okay, so the story of Francesco Mochi’s Annunciation is awesome – basically, the young artist, untried and untested, was suggested to the Opera del Duomo by Alessandro Farnese c. 1600. Now, the Farnese had a pretty big influence in Orvieto and the Opera conceded, granting Mochi the opportunity for his first major commission which produced what I consider to be the first sculpture of the Baroque. Look at the angel! His drapery is twisting, rustling, whirling – as if he is streaking down from heaven like a meteorite, about to crash land on the altar! Erm, ok maybe not, but it does look like he’s still in the process of racing to reach the Virgin. And the technique! The undercutting is so intense and the base so tiny, but the whole work is an unbelievably set of counterweights and the whole thing balances perfectly, but to obtain this, the draper is so thin in places, that if you get down on the floor and look up (which I totally did), you can see the light shining through. AH. Bernini-shermnini! (It’s ok Gian Lorenzo, I still love you).
And the Virgin! Here she is, her profile modeled, first of all, after the sybil a 13th century Tuscan sculptor, Giovanni Pisano (Mochi was all about the Tuscan tradition and saw himself as part of the legacy of Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo). Anyway, the Virgin – this sculpture was super controversial at the time – not that you would ever know it now. The Bishop of Orvieto* refused to allow it to be installed on the high altar because he found it extremely inappropriate – why? Well, two reasons: first of all, he argued that her drapery was too clingy and, albeit not revealing, but evocative – of the wrong sort of idea. Second, he felt that it was not the kind of moment we wanted to represent – here she is, grabbing her dress, and looking totally startled/annoyed/frightened – she stood up from her reading (as the text goes) so quickly that her drapery is tangled on the chair and the chair itself is rocking off the floor – but then, if a speeding angel appeared in your bedroom, bearing news that you were at this very moment conceiving the son of G-d, wouldn’t you freak out too? Anyway, after three years of stonewalling, the Opera won out and the pair was installed.
Okay, okay I’ll stop. After the museum, we wandered around Orvieto for a few hours, souvenir shopping and grabbing lunch before meeting back up, taking the funicular back down the mountain and hailing our charter bus – next stop, Civita di Bagnoregio!
Civita, an hour or so from Orvieto, is a teeny little town in two parts: the more modern part, and across a canyon, the more famous medieval hilltop town. We walked down the mountain, then back up on that teeny little footbridge in the lower right of the picture. Uh huh. But our efforts were rewarded! The most amazing bruschetta (so I was told) with wonderful cheese and house-made olive oil and wine. The family who owns the osteria has been producing olive oil in Civita for 500 years and now also produces red wine and honey – and they’re amazing. The olive oil is light and olive-y and almost garlicky, but delicious. Oh wow.
We left Civita around 19h15 and didn’t get back to Rome until 22h00… yeah, just a little bit later than our professori had anticipated, so they’re cutting us a bit of a break tomorrow, giving us a late start. Thank goodn
* Oh did I mention that this bishop also collected paintings by Caravaggio? Yeah. Triumphant Love is totally cool, but this Virgin is ALL WRONG.
Guitarist performing near il Duomo