Key to Umbria: Orvieto

Palazzo Comunale (1574-81)

Umbria:  Home   Cities    History    Art    Hagiography    Contact 


Orvieto:  Home    History    Art    Saints    Walks    Monuments    Museums

A commune was in existence in Orvieto by 1137, but its members probably swore allegiance to the bishop.  In 1157, Pope Hadrian IV visited the city and recognised its self-governing status within the papal patrimony.  The secular representatives of the city at this time were two nobles and two consuls: these latter two officials seem to have represented the merchant class.  A Podestà is recorded at Orvieto in 1177, 1181 and 1196.  Consular government gave way to papal control in 1198-1203, but is documented again in 1210-15.  It reappeared intermittently after that until 1242, after which it gave way to a Podestà.

Important civic occasions were held in front of the church of Sant’ Andrea (in Piazza di Sant’ Andrea) during the 12th century.  These included the earliest documented submission to the Commune by one of the local nobles: Count Ranieri di Montoro who owned lands near Bolsena, made his submission here in 1168.  What was probably the first civic palace of Orvieto was built next to Sant’ Andrea in 1216-9.

This palace was destroyed in a fire and rebuilt in 1255-76.  The new building had a loggia of seven arches on the ground floor.  A series of rooms above that had wooden ceilings supported by transverse arches.  A street that passed through the central arch linked Piazza di Sant’ Andrea to Porta Pertusa (later Porta Romana).   The civic fountain was built in the piazza in 1276.

Traces of the 13th century palace and its decoration survive:

  1. Some architectural fragments can be seen embedded in the external walls at the back of the present structure.

  2. The original vaulting and some of the original transverse arches survive in the largest room on the first floor, which was probably the Sala del Consiglio

  3. Traces of the frescoes (1345-7) that were executed when Matteo Orsini took control of the city can be seen in a room on the second floor that today houses the Archivio Storico (city archives).

By 1485, this palace was in such a poor state or repair that the Council held its meetings in the Palazzo Vescovile, a practice that continued until 1580.

The collapse of the adjacent Torre Comunale (later the campanile of Sant’ Andrea) in 1515 led to the decision to rebuild the palace. 

  1. Michele Sanmicheli was commissioned to provide a design in 1515, but no trace of this survives. 

  2. Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane was commissioned to provide a model in 1532.

However, no substantial progress was made.

Present Palace (1573-81)

The project received new life in 1563, when the loggia of the palace facing Sant' Andrea had to be demolished because it threatened to collapse.  In 1573, Ippolito Scalza was finally commissioned to rebuild the palace according to the design by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.  In fact, his design, which survive in the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, seems to have been very much his own. 

Ippolito Scalza intended to re-use the existing fabric of the palace and to extend it, so that the ground floor loggia would comprise the seven original arches and four more to the right.  Work duly started in 1573, but it was abandoned in 1581, before the extension had begun.  This change of plan is obvious from the current appearance of the facade: the second arch from the right, which is distinguished by double columns, was obviously meant to be the central portal of the palace.  The present Via Garibaldi, which was almost certainly intended to be diverted to pass through this arch, in fact still passes through the original central arch, two arches to the left of it.  

Virginio Vespignani designed the neoclassical travertine arch behind and to the side of the palace as a ceremonial entrance to the city from Porta Romana for the entry into Orvieto of Pope Pius IX in 1857.  The gate was originally in two orders, but the upper order, which was decorated with the papal arms, was demolished after Orvieto fell to anti-papal forces in 1860.  The surviving arch has two columns with Corinthian capitals, and a flat entablature at the level of the piano nobile of Palazzo Communale. 

[Three of the windows at street level and all seven on the upper level of the facade were not built until 1889-9, as part of Paolo Zampi's restoration of the palace.]


Take the lift at the far right of the palace to the second floor to see the main meeting rooms.

Gualterio Collection

Many of the paintings in the ex Sala del Consiglio came from Palazzo Gualterio, which had to be sold in the 19th century, when Filippo Antonio Gualterio (died 1874) lost the family fortune by contributing to the campaign for the unification of Italy.   The collection includes an interesting portrait of Pope Paul III (illustrated here).  It seems to be based loosely on Titian's portrait (1545) of Paul III, which is now in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

[Inscription (1725)

This inscription, which presumably also came from Palazzo Gualterio, commemorates a stay by the exiled would-be King James III of England in 1725, when he was a guest of Cardinal  Filippo Antonio Gualterio (died 1728).  See the website "Jacobite Heritage" for the links between James III and the Gualterio family.]

[Where is this now ??]

Art from the Palace

Crucifix  (ca. 1400)

This small altarpiece in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, which is attributed to Spinello Aretino, came from the Cappella di Santa Lucia.  It depicts the dead Christ on the cross with with the Virgin and SS John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalen.  The last of these kneels with her arms around the lower part of the cross. 

The frame, which seems to be largely original, nevertheless has an inscription that is more appropriate for an Annunciation: "Ave Maria Gratia Plena".  The devices of an eagle and a lion to the sides symbolise the Commune.


Return to Monuments of Orvieto.

Return to Walk II.