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Duomo di Orvieto

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Orvieto’s Duomo is an undisputed masterpiece of late medieval-Gothic architecture. The variety of decorative elements – all perfectly integrated into each other despite being the work of many different artists – and the majesty of the structural forms makes this building unique in Italian architecture. As a symbol of the city, its bulk towers over and dominates the entire plateau on which it stands. Some of the most eminent master builders of the Italian Middle Ages contributed to its construction over a period of more than three centuries, from the 13th to the 17th century.

The first stone is said to have been placed in 1290 in a joint decision between the Church, in the person of Pope Urban IV, and the Commune. In fact, two needs had to be met: on the one hand the substitution of two small, dilapidated churches of S. Maria (episcopal) and of S. Costanzo (Parochial) in the town square, of the on the other, that of giving a worthy resting place to the holy relic of the famous ‘Miracle of the Blood’ of Bolsena. According to tradition, during a Mass, in the church of S. Cristina in 1263, the consecrated host began to bleed in the hands of a priest who did not fully believe in the dogma of transubstantiation. The drops of blood trickled down and stained the altar cloth, the sacred Corporal, which is still preserved in the chapel of the same name and carried in procession for the feast of Corpus Domini.

The first building project included a Romanesque basilica, but it was modified to a purely Gothic structure when Giovanni di Uguccione replaced Fra Bevignate in directing the works. The sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani was entrusted with the continuation of the work in 1309, which he accomplished spectacularly, creating a rectangular apse, a four-lancet window behind the altar, the beautiful relief decorations of the four pillars at the bottom of the facade, and four beautiful bronze sculptures symbolizing the evangelists. On his death, the Duomo was entrusted to the fine skills of Andrea Pisano, who was already working at the Duomo in Florence and, from 1359, to the mastery of Andrea di Cione, known as Orcagna, who created the marvellous mosaic  decorations and the rose window on the facade.

Over subsequent years, direction of the works passed to illustrious figures such as Michele Sanmicheli and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, up to the final interventions carried out in 1970, when the original wooden doors were replaced by majestic bronze portals, with scenes dedicated to ‘Works of Mercy’, created by the Sicilian sculptor Emilio Greco.

The facade of the Duomo overlooks the square and captivates observers with the richness of its decorative elements and the grandeur of its architecture as it rises majestically upwards: the brilliance of the golden mosaics, which illustrate scenes from the life of the Our Lady of the Assumption to whom the Cathedral is dedicated, provides a background to the magnificent central rose window, composed of a double row of columns with crossed arches, framed on all four sides by the mosaics of the Christian Fathers: Sant’Agostino, San Gregorio Magno, San Girolamo and Sant’Ambrogio and by the sculptures of the Apostles and the Prophets.

The much more sober side walls are instead characterized by the alternation of basalt and travertine rows which give the building the characteristic alternating white-dark green colour. Inside, the Duomo has a Latin cross plan, divided into three spacious and elegant aisles, with trussed roofing and the same decoration with alternate travertine and basalt bands as on the outside. Among the works of art worthy of mention are the Pietà (or Deposition) and the pipe organ by Ippolito Scalza. A number of masterpieces are also preserved in the two side chapels of the transept: the Capella del Corporale houses the sacred relic of the “Miracle of Bolsena” in a very precious reliquary, made between 1337-38 by the Sienese goldsmith Ugolino di Vieri; the Capella della Madonna di San Brizio is decorated with frescoes by illustrious painters of the calibre of Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli and Perugino, and the indescribable masterpiece of the Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment), created between 1500-1503 by Luca Signorelli, imitating Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

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