Monument to Christianity provides lasting beauty Orvieto: Sometime this year, workers in the Italian city are due to complete the restoration of the cathedral's spectacular interior frescoes.

April 07, 1996|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

It would be asking for trouble to come right out and call the cathedral of Orvieto, Italy, 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.

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 visitors. Sometime 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.

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.

Orvieto, in the westernmost region of Umbria as it gives way to Tuscany, was an Etruscan town from about the 7th century to the 3rd century B.C., 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.

Miracle celebrated

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.

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