Ovieto is known for many things; its wine, its well and its Duomo. Located in southwestern Umbria, Italy, Orvieto is situated on a flat summit of a large butte of volcanic tuff. The site of the city is among the most dramatic in Europe. Rising above plains the almost-vertical faces of tuff cliffs are completed by defensive walls built of the same stone overlook vineyards below, which produce a fine dry white wine classified as Orvieto Classico.
The ancient city has been populated since Etruscan times and was a major centre of Etruscan civilization; the Archaeological Museum (Museo Claudio Faina e Museo Civico) houses some of the Etruscan artifacts that have been recovered in the immediate neighbourhood
Orvieto was annexed by Rome in the third century BC. After the collapse of the Roman Empire its defensible site gained new importance to where its population numbered about 30,000 at the end of the 13th century, and be became one of the major cultural attractions of its time when Thomas Aquinas taught at the Studium, a small university, now part of the University of Perugia.
The vast well of Orvieto was commissioned in 1527 to provide the town with a water supply in case of a siege. It was designed with a double helix staircase and drops over 62m, 203 feet and took over 10 years to complete. The double helix design allows one to descend by one route and another to ascend up another, at the same time without meeting. In addition to the well, Orvieto has an extensive labyrinth of caves and tunnels. Dug deep into the volcanic rock, these hidden and secret tunnels have yielded many historical and archeological finds and are open to view through guided tours.
The jewel of Orvieto is its Duomo. The Duomo of Orvieto, was begun in 1290 and took over 300 years to complete and is considered one of the greatest Romanesque-Gothic churches in all of Italy.
On November 15, 1290, Pope Nicholas IV laid the cornerstone for the present building and dedicated it to the Assumption of the Virgin, a feast for which the city has had a long history of special devotion. The design has often been attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, but the prevailing modern opinion is that its master mason was an obscure monk named Fra' Bevignate from Perugia.
The Gothic façade of the Orvieto Cathedral is one of the great masterpieces of the Late Middle Ages. The three-gable design is attributed to Maitani,
The most exciting and eye-catching part is its golden frontage, which is decorated by large bas-reliefs and statues with the symbols of the Evangelists (Angel, Ox, Lion, Eagle) created by Maitani and stand on the cornice above the sculptured panels on the piers. In 1352 Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna added the bronze Lamb of God above the central gable and the bronze statue of Saint Michael on top of the gable of the left entrance.
The bas-reliefs on the piers, also by Maitani, depict biblical stories from the Old and New Testament. They are considered among the most famous of all 14th century sculpture. Above this decorations are glittering mosaics created between 1350 and 1390 after designs by artist Cesare Nebbia and represent major scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
The spandrels around the rose window are decorated with mosaics representing the four Doctors of the Church. The frame of the rose window holds 52 carved heads, while the center of the rose window holds a carved head of the Christ.
The newest part of the decorations are the central three bronze doors which give access to the entrance of the cathedral. These were finished in 1970 by the Sicilian sculptor Emilio Greco and depict mercies from the life of Christ and are surmounted by a sculpture of the Madonna and Child created by Andrea Pisano in 1347.
The cathedral's side walls, in contrast to the brilliant façade, are more simply furnished with alternating layers of local white travertine and blue-grey basalt stone but as still hold a simple elegance of their own.