Underground Orvieto with Chambers Architects

 In Blog

Above: Orvieto is located on a tuffaceous (tuff volcanic rock) outcropping called “The Rupe.” Twelve hundred caves were carved underneath the city by the Etruscans for wells, cisterns, mangers, workspace for olive oil production and dovecotes for pigeons to roost.

Orvieto’s Cathedral (Duomo) became the Papal Palace in the early 13th-14th century when popes moved there to escape conflict in Rome between the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires.

Italy is one of Dallas residential architect, Steve Chambers’, favorite travel destination, because of its concentration of well-preserved architecture from many periods of history. Central Italy’s topography and climate are akin to what we experience in the Texas Hill Country. The Caves of Orvieto are such an unusual experience that we feel our architectural blog readers will want to make this city on a volcanic tuff a future travel destination.

Orvieto, an Italian city in Umbria with a fairy tale atmosphere, was built on the flat summit of a large butte of volcanic tuff called The Rupe. It was founded by the Etruscans in the 9th century B.C. Rising above vertical-faced cliffs with defensive walls fabricated in the same stone, the city’s site is one of the most dramatic in Europe. How this hilltop city managed to endure on such a precarious site is a story of creative ingenuity. Its particular constellation of geological features causes landslides that impact the cliff’s perimeter. Mass movements over time have wrought a slow but unalterable degradation, progressively reducing the size of the historic village.

Orvieto’s Myth

At the end of the 1970s, an immense landslide took a huge bite out of Orvieto’s Rupe, not far from its famous Duomo. The landslide from the Rupe alarmed the world that the city, the Duomo (one of Italy’s most important pieces of Gothic architecture) and its works of art might not survive. But, the disaster intrigued a small and experienced group of local cave experts. In the city’s urban legend, Orvieto was mythicized to be hollow beneath its Rupe. The landslide exposed mysterious gaps, windows with regular contours, in some of its high projecting walls. Like black holes in space, these “empty and dark eyes hinted at an inexplicable and unexplored world”(1) became an irresistible attraction for cave specialists.

The More Surprising Truth

The discovery of an incredible underground reality began when the elevated holes appeared. After securing ropes to trees in the gardens that ring the majority of the city’s upper perimeter, speleologists scaled down the many-sided butte. Thrills awaited them inside the rupestrian grottos. Square rooms were linked together by galleries illuminated by the small windows to the outside. Room after room followed in succession by means of overlapping levels joined by short wells and chutes. In the more internal walls were narrow tunnels leading to the heart of the Rupe. One person could navigate the tunnels on all fours or lying down.

Rectangular dovecotes (center) provided pigeon roosts when the town was under siege. The town’s inhabitants always had a continuous supply of fresh meat. The window to the outside (left) is one discovered by cave experts (speleologists) following the landslide.

Why Did the Etruscans Need Caves in Orvieto?

Orvieto was a well-known major center of Etruscan civilization. Why did they construct such an intricate warren of tunneled chutes and ladders? The city captivates many visitors to Italy, but few are aware that twelve hundred caves lie below the volcanic tuff.

At the time of founding on the high plateau, the ancient civilization called the town Velzna. It had great protection from enemies, but unfortunately no water. The Etruscans dug deep slender rectangular wells in search of underground springs. The longest walls of the wells have regular intervals of small notches, pedarole (foot holds), which made movement within the vertical channels possible. The Etruscans also created cisterns for holding rainwater as well as an extended network of tunnels for its conveyance. The caves allowed them self-sufficiency, as well as protection. They could live within them for months on end without the worry of provisions. Velzna finally fell to the Romans in 264 B.C., but only after withstanding a lengthy two-year siege. Over successive centuries the digging continued.

View of valley floor and fields where pigeons ate as seen from one of the Rupe openings used by the birds to enter the underground roosts. Pigeon (Palombo) is a Umbrian delicacy.

Four hundred of the caves have been used for millennia by the citizenry for wells, refrigeration, and, during Roman and barbarian sieges, as dovecotes to encourage the Umbrian specialty, Palombo (pigeon), to roost in the caves. The birds provided access to fresh meat without leaving the city walls. (2) The caves also sheltered the township from bombs that were dropped on the valley below during WWII.

During recent excavations, the subsurface of the city revealed enormous pits from which tons of volcanic ash were extracted, wells and cisterns of all ages and sizes, galleries, cellars, shelters, litter wells that still provide fragmentary samples of refined medieval and Renaissance ceramics.

Chambers Architects’ Journey Through the Caves

Arriving by sharp turns off the main road from Viterbo, Orvieto has an intriguing appearance from afar. At the southern end, The Rupe stands out in the landscape like an isolated ship. The block appears to have been dropped from space.

We happened on the caves by accident. After a tour of the breathtaking Duomo, we stopped for a lunch of pizza and wine on the patio of a taverna across from its steps. We spotted a sign that offered tickets to “Underground Orvieto.” Having visited the city several times, we’d never seen the signs offering this opportunity. Rushing over to the biglietteria, we discovered the next tour was leaving in thirty minutes. We ordered slices and cups to go, hitched up our backpacks and headed to the meeting place, a gate near a narrow walkway around the city. Upon entrance into the first cave, our eyes adjusted to the dark in the vast underground world that had been dug, used and forgotten. A dark labyrinth had been rendered and subdivided into a thousand grottoes, tunnels, wells and reservoirs, created by the scrapes of men over three millenniums. The trek won’t disappoint those seeking an out-of-the-ordinary understanding of the origin of Italy’s profoundly creative culture.

A Most Fascinating Discovery Near Orvieto’s Duomo

The most fascinating discovery was made in a cavity near Piazza Duomo. A medieval oil press for olives was found, complete with millstones, press, furnace, mangers for the animals working the grindstones, water mains and cisterns. The big system of vaults calls to mind the patterns of many hypogea (underground cellars and tombs) of the Etruscan era. One of the “not to miss places” of historical and archaeological interest that allows us a touch of the past. In fact, every day, starting with the offices of the Tourist Promotion Company in Piazza Duomo, qualified staff accompany visitors on an easy route for about an hour called “Orvieto Underground”, which unwinds through two of the biggest and most important grottoes hidden in the Rupe. Here, in search of ancient secrets preserved by the silent darkness of the grottoes, everyone can discover, to his surprise, engagement with 9th century ingenuity in this underground wonder.

In the late middle-ages, as the city began to stabilize and prosper, these underground caverns were expanded and converted to also house workshops for the local ceramic production (cooling cisterns and the remains of a kiln can still be found) and quarries to excavate the soft stone to mix as cement (which continued into the early 20th century). One of the biggest caverns was most recently used as an olive oil press, and the massive millstones and presses still on view make it easy to imagine the room crowded with pickers and workers pressing out one of Umbria’s most prized product each fall.

Grindstone found in one of the excavated caves around which animals walked to power the mill. The animals were kept in mangers in the caves.

One Thing to Remember When Parking the Car

There’s one caveat to travel in Italy’s cities built in antiquity: parking is frustrating. It becomes humorous after recalling the incident later with a bottle of wine. Central parking garages near the centro antico require you to pay immediately after parking your car. The exit meters do not take credit cards or cash. You’ll need the ticket to exit the garage and the old town. Good luck trying to get out of the garage without a pre-stamped bigliette! It took us at least an hour to explain our dilemma to the carabinieri and get the car out of the parking garage. Italian police non capisco greenhorns!

All Photo Credits: Stephanie and Steve Chambers, Chambers Architects, Dallas, Texas

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