Key to Umbria: Orvieto

Medieval Gates of Orvieto 

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The historian Procopius described the war in which the Byzantine general, Belisarius besieged the Goths at “Urbiventus” (almost certainly Urbs Vetus, Orvieto) in 539: "The city occupies a lone hill that springs from low-lying ground, being on the top level smooth but precipitous at the base.  … Upon this hill men of old built the city and they neither placed walls around it nor constructed defences of any kind since the place seemed to them to be impregnable by nature.  For there is only one approach to the city through the rocks …   (History of the Wars, VI:20).  It is reasonable to suppose that this single approach was along the present Via della Cava, which has been created by excavating a passage through the surrounding tufa.

An important stretch of  wall was found in a house in Via della Cava in 1965, when a torrential storm caused subsidence.  Further excavation revealed eight courses of tufa blocks that had been used to build it against the natural rock without the use of mortar.  It seems likely that this stretch of wall, which pre-dated the Romans, was in fact part of the fortified entrance to the ancient city.  Its orientation in relation to Via della Cava suggests that there may well have been a gate here:  indeed, Procopius added to the account above that: "the Romans of old built a short piece of wall across [the single entrance to the city].  And there is a gate in it ….” (History of the Wars, VI:20). 

Although the cliff itself provided the main defense for the city, a parapet of tufa blocks was erected along its edge, probably in the 13th century.  These defenses and the gates themselves were reinforced in the aftermath of the sack of Rome in 1527, when the papacy had a renewed interest in Orvieto as a refuge.

Porta Maggiore (13th century)


Via della Cava leads to Porta Maggiore, which was the main entrance to Orvieto from the time of its construction until the 19th century.  At this point, Via Cassia Nuova was built outside it to take traffic to the new entrance to the east.

Pope Urban VIII ordered the construction of defensive structures to protect Porta Maggiore during the War of Castro (1641-4).  This required the demolition of the nearby church of Santa Maria della Fonte (outside the gate and to the left).  A stretch of these fortifications survives: these include a bastion, with traces the fountain for which the church was named to the left of it.

Statue of Pope Boniface VIII (ca. 1300) 

The Commune commissioned a statue of Pope Boniface VIII in 1297 for a niche on the outer wall of Porta Maggiore (see below).

Porta Postierla (13th century)


                                                                Outer wall                             Inner wall

This double-arched gate was once the most important entrance to the city after Porta Maggiore (below).  It was originally called Porta Soliano, because it is to the east (where the sun rises).  The gate was later bricked up and incorporated between the inner and outer curtain walls of Rocca del Albornoz.  The level of the approach was lowered and a smaller pedestrian  entrance (postierla) was opened in it.

Statue of Pope Boniface VIII (ca. 1300) 

In 1297, the Commune commissioned a statue of Pope Boniface VIII (see below) for this niche on the inner wall of Porta Postierla.

Porta Santa Maria (13th century ?)

A road led from Via Soliana to a gate named for the nearby Duomo as Porta Santa Maria, from which a steep narrow path was cut into the rock.   This gate closed and then reopened in the 14th century.  It was not heavily used by the 16th century, and the Commune allowed the nuns of the Monastero di San Bernardino to close it, this time definitively, in 1562.  [An access point to the Anello della Rupe (ring around the cliff) ...]

Porta Vivaria (13th century ?)

Porta Vivaria opened onto a steep and narrow path cut into the cliff that was used in times of war.   An access point to the Anello della Rupe (ring around the cliff) from Via del Popolo leads to a new path that passes the vestiges of the gate and then continues down to the necropolis of Crocifisso del Tufo.

Porta Romana (1822)


This was the site of Porta Pertusa (12th century).  The inscription on the architrave of the present gate bears the name of Pope Pius VII and the date 1822.  The gate, which is decorated with statues of an eagle and a goose, two of the four symbols of Orvieto, was a precursor to the construction of Via Cassia Nuova. 

The space to the left of the gate as you enter Orvieto (to the right in this photograph) is named Piazza dei Cacciatori del Tevere.  This commemorates the volunteers under Luigi Masi known as the  “Cacciatori del Tevere” (literally huntsmen of the Tiber region) who expelled the papal garrison from Orvieto in 1860.  More specifically, under a negotiated settlement, the papal garrison withdrew through Porta Romana at 7 pm on 11th September, and the volunteers entered the city by Porta Postierla (above) at the same time.  Orvieto thus became part of the new Kingdom of Italy. 

Statues of Pope Boniface VIII (ca. 1300)


                                        Figure from Porta Maggiore       Figure from Porta Postierla

When the Commune wanted to honour Pope Boniface VIII in 1297, it commissioned these marble statues (now in the left aisle) for the niches in two of the city gates:

  1. the one from Porta Maggiore is attributed to Ramo di Paganello; and

  2. the other from Porta Postierla is attributed to his presumed associate, Rubeus

These figures, which were removed in 1860, are both badly damaged.  The former, however, still retains its head and arms: the right arm is raised in blessing and the left hand holds a book that has been identified as the Liber Sextus delle Decretali (1298).  The form of headgear is that adopted by Boniface VIII after he had inaugurated the first Jubilee Year in 1300.  The figures are now in San Francesco.

Return to Monuments of Orvieto.

Return to:  Walk I: Porta Santa Maria;

Walk II: Porta Romana;

Walk III: Porta Vivaria;  Porta Postierla;

Walk IV: Porta Maggiore; Porta Postierla.