Did you know that the so-called underground Orvieto, with its caves, its wells and its tunnels, competes in importance with the visible one? Under the town you can find another city nearly as large. The first caves date back to the Etruscans and its full extension is still unknown.
The “upside down” city of Orvieto.
Up to date, 1200 caves have been explored, many of which are now open to the public. Visitors can admire them in fascinating guided tours.
The first to start excavating the underground city were the Etruscans, helped by the fact that Orvieto is built on tufa and pozzolan. Their aim was to look for water, that was then collected in wells and reservoirs joined together through tunnels to form a true hydraulic underground network. Proof of the architectonic mastery of the Etruscans is the fact that archaeologists have found that all reservoirs where sealed with clay to avoid leaks.
The excavation works continued during the Middle Ages when, in the 13th century, a public aqueduct was built (the remains can still be seen under Palazzo de Popolo). This structure collected the water coming from the Alfina aqueduct and distributed it along the various fountains in Orvieto along a complicated underground hydraulic network.
During the Renaissance, many wells and reservoirs were built along the city. Two magnificent examples thereof are the San Patrizio well and the even more ancient Cava well. Even today, you can still admire monumental water tanks in cloisters and private patios, which make crystal clear that the “upside” and the “downside” are still intimately linked.
Apart from wells and reservoirs, there are also many cellars (some really ancient and still used to preserve wine and food), tool sheds and animal shelters excavated in the tufa and still in perfect state.
The San Patrizio well.
This well is perhaps one of the best-known structures in underground Orvieto. It was built between 1527 and 1537 by Antonio Sangallo and ordered by Pope Clement VII. The latter had witnessed the Pillage of Rome by the Landsknecht and wanted Orvieto to be a safe haven. He wished to ensure that water was always available, especially in case of siege.
The well is 54 metres deep and 13 metres wide: a true engineering masterpiece. The entrance is composed of two spirally-descending ramps, which run parallel and completely independent. This made it possible for two lines of mules to carry water in opposite directions.
The structure has a further 248 steps and 70 big windows. Its name probably originates from the fact that its particular shape reminds the visitors of Dante’s days or of the Irish cave known as “Saint Patrick’s Purgatory”.
Legend has it that one day Christ indicated to the Saint a great cavity present in the rock and ordered him to bring the faithful to show them the pains of Hell. Whoever reached the end would have earned Paradise.
Could you ever imagine that Orvieto had so many hidden secrets? What are you waiting for to come and visit it from a hidden point of view, interesting nonetheless? It holds surprises you would have never dreamed of…