Key to Umbria: Orvieto

History of Orvieto

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Ancient History

Etruscan Velzna

Destruction of Velzna (264 BC)

Volsinii (Bolsena) in:

  1. the Republican Period;

  2. the Triumviral Period (44 - 27 BC;

  3. the Early Empire;   

  4. the Imperial Period;    

  5. the Late Empire;    

  6. Rescript of Constantine at Hispellum (ca. 335 AD)


The site of modern Orvieto seems to have been reoccupied by the reign of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric (493-526). 

Nearby Bolsena had reached the status of a diocese by 494 AD, when Pope Gelasius I wrote to Secundino, whom he addressed as “ep. Vulsinien” (bishop of Volsinii).

In 535, as the threat of a Byzantine invasion mounted, the Ostrogoth King Theodahad deposed his joint ruler, Theodoric’s daughter Amalasuntha and imprisoned her on an island in Lake Bolsena, where she was strangled.  This provided the excuse for the Byzantines under General Belisarius to invade.  The invasion stalled in 538 when the troops of Witiges, the Ostrogoth general laid siege to Rome.  When Belisarius broke out of Rome in 538, the Goths took advantage of the natural defences of Orvieto to halt the rout.  However, they were badly prepared and succumbed to starvation in 539.  This was the last time that Orvieto fell to an attacker in the absence of treachery from within. 

Witiges’ successor, Totila temporarily reoccupied the city before the final defeat of the Goths in 554, when it passed once more into nominal Byzantine control.

See the page Urbs Vetus


The first known bishop of “Urbe vetere”  was Bishop Giovanni, who received a stern letter from Pope Gregory I in ca. 590 (Epistle XII):

  1. “Agapitus, abbot of the monastery of San Giorgio, informs us that he endures many grievances from your Holiness; and not only in things that might be of service to the monastery in time of need, but that you even prohibit the celebration of masses in the said monastery, and also that you interdict burial of the dead there.  If this is so, we exhort you to desist from such inhumanity and allow the dead to be buried and masses to be celebrated there without any further opposition, lest the aforesaid venerable Agapitus should be compelled to complain again concerning these matters”.

Candidus appears in the papal registers shortly thereafter:

  1. as bishop of “Urbe vetere” in 591.

  2. as bishop of “civitas Bulsinensis”  in 595; and

  3. as bishop of “Urbe veteri maior” in 596.

It seems therefore that the originally separate dioceses merged at about this time. 

In 596 AD, the Lombard King Agilulf (590-616) took advantage of the papal weakness and incorporated Orvieto into his kingdom as part of the Duchy of Tuscany.

In 606, Orvieto was granted its own counts. 

Bishop Agnellus (Agnellus s. eccl. Vulsiniensis) participated in the Third Council of Constantinople in 680.

Bolsena lost its (joint) episcopal status in ca. 700, and what had been the combined diocese now became the diocese of Orvieto.  The new diocese does not seem to have had particular veneration for St Christina, who had been martyred at Bolsena.  Instead, it adopted the rather shadowy SS Severus e Martirius as patrons.  It appears that first church on the site of the Abbazia di SS Severo e Martirio outside Orvieto was built at about this time.

Orvieto supplemented the protection offered by SS Severus e Martirius by borrowing a number of saints from elsewhere in Umbria. 

  1. The original Duomo was dedicated to the Virgin (Santa Maria Prisca) and St Britius of Spoleto

  2. It stood next to another dedicated to St Constantius of  Perugia. 

  3. The present church of San Giovenale in Orvieto replaced an older church that dated back to perhaps the 7th century and was also dedicated to St Juvenal of Narni. 

  4. San Giovenale once housed the skull of St Sabinus of Canossa

Bishop Gregorius attended the council that Pope Zacharias held in Rome in 743.

See the page Urbs Vetus

Carolingians and Ottonians

Orvieto was not included in the donation that King Pepin made to Pope Stephen II in 755, but remained part of “Tuscia Langobardorum” (Lombard Tuscany).

The Emperor Charlemagne incorporated Orvieto into the Carolingian province of “Tuscia Romana” (Roman Tuscany).

Orvieto was recognised as a papal possession in the Imperial donation by the Emperor Louis I in 817.

Bishop Pietro I attended a the synod in Rome convened by Leo IV in 853.

When Saracen invaders threatened Rome in 916, Pope John X seems to have taken refuge in Orvieto.

Local historians sometimes record that Pope Benedict VII (974-83) visited Orvieto and commissioned the building of Palazzo del Vescovado, next to the Duomo (Santa Maria Prisca) in 977.  He is said to have been accompanied by his nephew, Filippo Alberici, who later settled here and became a Consul  in 1016.  Any evidence for this no longer survives.

The status of Orvieto was recognised as a papal possession was confirmed in the Imperial donations of:

  1. 962 (by the Emperor Otto I); and

  2. 1020 (by the Emperor Henry I). 

Pope Benedict VIII and Henry I conceded the right to establish a General Studium to Orvieto in 1023.

Within the framework of the religious rebirth imposed by Emperor Otto III, Count Farolfo of Orvieto promoted the establishment of abbeys and monasteries in the surrounding territories.

12th Century

The bishops of Orvieto ruled the city from at least the late 10th century, when its contado probably coincided with the diocese.  However, as episcopal power declined across Italy, secular government came to the fore.  Orvieto had a commune by 1137, albeit that its members probably swore allegiance to the bishop.

In 1157, Pope Hadrian IV visited Orvieto.  He designate the city to be a "roccaforte dei papi" (papal fortress), while recognising its self-governing status within the papal patrimony.  At this point (the start of the city’s documented history) the bishopric was vacant, so the provost, two Consuls and two nobles represented the city.  Orvieto now expanded rapidly by taking control of its neighbours, particularly to the north and west.  For most of the second half of the 12th century, Orvieto co-operated with Siena in their respective attempts to wrest the intervening territory from the Aldobrandini family.  (Orvieto fought at least three wars against Acquapendente in the second half of the 12th century. )

Despite its expansion, the internal stability of Orvieto was badly affected by the papal schism that followed the death of Hadrian IV in 1159.  In particular, an anti-bishop who enjoyed the support of Frederick I threatened the position of Bishop Rustico (1168-76).  Catharism became rooted in Orvieto during this period, and the heretics naturally had strong affinity with the pro-Imperial faction in the city. 

The situation was eased after the Treaty of Venice in 1177 between the Emperor Frederick I and Pope Alexander III, which ended the schism.  (Pepone di Pietro and Ranuccio Farnese represented Orvieto at these negotiations.)  However, the hold of the heretics was not immediately removed.

In 1177, Città delle Pieve submitted to Orvieto, hoping by this means to evade control by Perugia, although Perugia in fact took over control in 1188.

In 1186, when relations between his father and Pope Urban III (1185-7) broke down, Frederick I’s son, the future Emperor Henry VI embarked on an offensive against papal territory.  He routed the Sienese and then laid siege to Orvieto, abetted by her neighbour and enemy, Acquapendente.   He probably made inroads into the contado, but in 1189 he restored all his acquisitions from this offensive to Pope Clement III (1187-91) in return for his coronation(which was effected in 1191).

13th century


For more details, proceed to the page on Orvieto in the 13th Century.

14th century


For more details, proceed to the page on Orvieto in the 14th Century.

15th century


For more details, proceed to the page on Orvieto in the 15th Century.

16th century


For more details, proceed to the page on Orvieto in the 16th Century.

Later History

Cardinal Bishop Giacomo Sannesio (1605-20) revived the seminary in 1614. 

Pietro Paolo Crescenzi , who was appointed as governor of Orvieto in 1601, became a cardinal in 1611 and was appointed as bishop of Orvieto in 1621.  He resigned a few months before his death in 1645.  He and his successor, Cardinal Bishop Fausto Poli (1644-53), enlarged the seminary in 1645. 

Bishop Giacomo Silvestri gave the seminary and other property of the Jesuits in 1773.

Guglielmo della Valle published the "History of the Duomo of Orvieto", a fundamental work for the study of this monument, in 1791.

In 1794 a faction known as i Carissimi (the Beloved) tried to resist the Napoleonic invasion.

In 1798 the people rose against the Jacobins. During the Napoleonic period Orvieto was the capital of the surrounding territory, which was a canton of the Cimino Department in the Roman Republic (1798).  Orvieto was then transferred to the district of Todi in the Trasimeno Department (1809).  It becomes part of the Papal State again in 1816, and in 1831 Pope Gregory XVI nominated it as a seat of the Apostolic Delegation. 

Giambattista Lambruschini, whom Napoleon had driven from his post as papal governor of Genoa in 1800, was appointed as bishop of Orvieto in 1807.  The Napoleonic authorities subsequently deported him to France when he refused to take an oath of allegiance.  He was able to return to Orvieto in 1814 and continued to serve as its bishop until he death in 1826.

Bishop Giuseppe Maria Vespignani was imprisoned during the Roman Republic (1849).

Pope Pius IX visited Orvieto in 1857.

In 1860, just a few days before Piedmontese invasion of the Papal States, troops of volunteers under Luigi Masi known as the “Cacciatori del Tevere” (literally huntsmen of the Tiber region) expelled the papal garrison from Orvieto.  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 Soliano at the same time. 

Viterbo and Montefiascone, which also fell to the volunteers, were soon returned to the papacy under pressure from Napoleon III, who insisted that the Patrimony of St Peter should remain under papal control.  However, Orvieto was able to remain within the Kingdom of Italy, largely due to the case made by Filippo Antonio Gualterio for the proposition that the city (unlike Viterbo and Montefiascone) was not part of the patrimony.

King Umberto I visited Orvieto in 1891.

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