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Diocese in Central Italy. The city stands on a rugged mass of tufa, near the rivers Paglia and Chiana, the swamps of which were drained by Sixtus V. Some believe this town to be the ancient Hebanum or Oropitum; others, e.g., Müller and Gamurrini, hold that it was the primitive port (therefore Urbs vetus, or old city) of the Etruscan city of Volsinii, destroyed by the Romans at an uncertain date, and rebuilt on the site of the present Bolsena which gives its name to the largest lake of the Italian peninsula. In the country around Orvieto there are many Etruscan tombs. The name of Urbs Vetus appears for the first time in Procopius, corrupted into Urbebentum; it is also found in the writings of St. Gregory the Great.

During the Gothic War, Orvieto was defended by the Goths for a long time. Later, it fell into the hands of the Lombards (606). From the latter end of the tenth century the city was governed by consuls, who, however, took the oath of fealty to the bishop; but from 1201 it governed itself through a podestà (in that year, the Bishop Richard) and a captain of the people. On account of its position, Orvieto was often chosen by the popes as a place of refuge and Adrian IV fortified it. A "Studium Generale" was granted to the city by Gregory XI in 1337. In the middle of the thirteenth century, bitter feuds arose between the Filipeschi and the Monaldeschi families, and were not quelled until the city came under the rule of Ermanno Monaldeschi, whom Cardinal Albornoz reduced to obedience to the Holy See. One of the first convents of the Dominican Order was built at Orvieto (1220); and in 1288 there was founded in the town a monastery of Armenian monks. In 1199 the martyrdom of St. Pietro Parenzo took place at Orvieto; he was a Roman whom Innocent III had sent to govern that city with a view to suppressing the Patarian movement that Ermanno of Parma and Gottardo of Marsi had roused in the town.

The cathedral of Orvieto is one of the most beautiful churches in Italy; it was begun in 1285, and is of the Gothic style, with three naves; its tripartite façade was a conception of Lorenzo Maitani, and is embellished in its lower portion with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and in its upper part with mosaics and statues of the Blessed Virgin, the Prophets, and the Apostles. The walls in the interior of the edifice are built of layers of Travertine marble and of basalt; the choir is adorned with frescoes, illustrating the life of the Blessed Virgin; they are by Ugolino di Prete Ilario, Peter di Puccio, and Anthony of Viterbo; the stalls of the choir are of inlaid work. The chapel on the right, called Our Lady of San Brizio, was painted by the Blessed Angelico of Fiesole ("Christ Glorified", "Last Judgment", and "The Prophets", done in 1447) and by Luca Signorelli ("Fall of Antichrist", "Resurrection of the Dead", "Damned and Blessed", etc.); Michelangelo took inspiration from these paintings for his "Last Judgment" of the Sistine Chapel; there is, also by Signorelli, the "Burial of Jesus", and there are several sculptures by Scalza (1572), among them the group of the Pietà, chiselled from a single block of marble. The chapel on the opposite side, called "of the Corporal", contains the large reliquary in which is preserved the corporal of the miracle of Bolsena (see below). This receptacle was made by order of Bishop Bertrand dei Monaldeschi, by the Sienese Ugolino di Mæstro Vieri (1337); it is of silver, adorned with enamellings that represent the Passion of Jesus and the miracle; the frescoes of the walls, by Ugolino (1357-64), also represent the miracle. In the palace of the popes, built by Boniface VIII, is the civic museum, which contains Etruscan antiquities and works of art that are, for the greater part, from the cathedral. Among the other notable churches of Orvieto are San Giovenale, which contains remnants of ancient frescoes, and San Andrea, which has a dodecagon tower; in 1220 Pierre d'Artois was consecrated King of Jerusalem by Honorius III in this church.

The first known Bishop of Orvieto was John (about 590), and in 591 appears a Bishop Candidus; among its other prelates were Constantino Medici, O.P., sent by Alexander IV in 1255 to Greece, where he died; Francesco Monaldeschi (1280), who did much for the construction of the cathedral. In 1528 Clement VII sought refuge at Orvieto, and while there ordered the construction of the "Pozzo di San Patrizio" (the well of St. Patrick), by Sangallo. Bishop Sebastiano Vanzi (1562) distinguished himself at the Council of Trent and built the seminary, which was enlarged afterwards by Cardinal Fausto Polo (1645) and by Giacomo Silvestri, the latter of whom gave to it the college and other property of the Jesuits (1773); Cardinal Paolo Antamori (1780) caused the history of the cathedral of Orvieto to be written by Guglielmo della Valle; and lastly G.B. Lambruschini (1807).

With the See of Orvieto has been united from time immemorial that of Bolsena (the ancient Volsinii), of the ruins of which there are still the remnants of the temple of Nortia, of the "Thermæ", or hot baths, of Sejanus, of the mausoleum of L. Canuelius, etc. According to Pliny, 2000 statues were taken to Rome from Volsinii, when the latter was destroyed in 254 B.C. In the Middle Ages, Bolsena had much to suffer from the neighbouring lords (Vico, Bisenzo, Cerbara, etc.), and from the Orvietans, who claimed dominion over it; while, in 1377, the town was sacked by the adventurer Hawkwood (Acuto). On the Island of Martana, in the lake near by, Amalasunta, daughter of Theodoricus and wife of Theodatus, was strangled. To this island, in the sixth century, was transferred the body of St. Christina, a virgin and martyr of Bolsena (297?), but it was later returned to the city; the church of this saint contains a reclining statue of her by Luca della Robbia; annexed to the church is an ancient Christian cemetery, and ancient Christian inscriptions are numerous at Bolsena. Three bishops of Volsinii are known: Gaudentius (499), Candidus (601), who, it appears, is not the Bishop of Orvieto of that name, and Agnellus (680).

The miracle of Bolsena

The Miracle of Bolsena is not supported by strong historical evidence, and its tradition is not altogether consistent; for in the first place Urban IV makes no mention of it in the Bull by which he established the feast of Corpus Christi, although the miracle is said to have taken place in his day and to have determined him in his purpose of establishing the feast; likewise, the two biographers of Pope Urban impugn the truth of this tradition by their silence, i.e., Muratori, "Rerum Italicarum scriptores", III, pt. l, 400 sq.; and especially Thierricus Vallicoloris, who, in his life of the pope in Latin verse, describes in detail all the acts of the pontiff during the latter's stay at Orvieto, referring elsewhere also to the devotion of Urban in celebrating the Mass, and to the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi, without at any time making allusion to the miracle at Bolsena. The latter is related in the inscription on a slab of red marble in the church of St. Christina, and is of later date than the canonization of St. Thomas Aquinas (1328). The oldest historical record of the miracle is contained in the enamel "histories" that adorn the front of the reliquary (1337-39). It is to be noted that in the narratives of the miracle cited by Fumi (Il Santuario, 73) the reliquary only is called "tabernaculum D.N.J.C.", or "tab . . . pro D.N.J.C." or, again, "tabernacolo del Corpo di Xpo."

In 1344 Clement VI, referring to this matter in a Brief, uses only the words "propter miraculum aliquod" (Pennazzi, 367); Gregory XI, in a Brief of 25 June, 1337, gives a short account of the miracle; and abundant reference to it is found later on (1435), in the sermons of the Dominican preacher Leonardo Mattei of Udine ("In festo Corp. Christi", xiv, ed. Venice, 1652, 59) and by St. Antoninus of Florence ("Chronica", III, 19, xiii, 1), the latter, however, does not say (as the local legend recites) that the priest doubted the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, but, merely that a few drops from the chalice fell upon the corporal. For the rest, a similar legend of the "blood-stained corporal" is quite frequent in the legendaries of even earlier date than the fourteenth century, and coincides with the great Eucharistic polemics of the ninth to the twelfth centuries. The reddish spots on the corporal of Bolsena, upon close observation, show the profile of a face of the type by which the Saviour is traditionally represented.


FUMI, Codice diplom. della città di Orvieto (Florence, 1884); Orvieto, note storiche (Città di Castello, 1891); Il duomo di Orvieto (Rome, 1891); Il Santuario del SS. Corporale nel duomo di Orvieto (Rome, 1896); CAPPELLETTI, Le Chiese d'Italia, V; ADAMI, Storia di Volseno (3 vols., 1737); PENNAZZI, Storia dell' Ostia e del Corporale, etc. (Montefiascone, 1731).

About this page

APA citation. Benigni, U. (1911). Orvieto. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Benigni, Umberto. "Orvieto." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Gerald Rossi.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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