Key to Umbria: Orvieto

Duomo (begun in 1290)

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Cappella del Corporale     Cappella Nuova     Crypt

Duomo, with the Convento di San Francesco to the left

Santa Maria Prisca (11th century)

The first cathedral of Orvieto was formally dedicated as Santa Maria Episcopatus, but it was more generally known as  Santa Maria Prisca.  It had a secondary dedication as San Brizio (St Brictius).  Although Santa Maria Prisca was formally the bishop's church, its day to day running was in the hands of the canons of the Cathedral Chapter.

The canons also had their own church of San Costanzo (dedicated to the Perugian bishop, of St Constantius), the foundations of which were discovered under the nave of the present Duomo in 1955-6.  The precise location of Santa Maria Prisca in Piazza del Duomo is unknown, but it was probably to slightly to the north of San Costanzo.

By the late 11th century, Santa Maria Prisca was in a dilapidated state, and important religious services were held instead at Sant' Andrea.  This role then passed to:

  1. San Domenico, consecrated by Pope Urban IV in 1264; and

  2. San Francesco, consecrated by Pope Clement IV in 1265.

In 1284, the bishop and canons agreed on the concept of a new cathedral, but it was to be six more years before they agreed on the financial implications of the settlement (see below).  Construction of the new Duomo probably began  in 1290 and Santa Maria Prisca seems to have been demolished in 1297.  (Some authorities believe that this structure stood on the site  of what is now Palazzo Soliano).

New Cathedral

The need for a new cathedral must have become pressing as a succession of popes established and enlarged the nearby Palazzi Papali over the period 1262-84.  Thus, as noted above, the city authorities decided to build the present church.  The negotiations with the canons on the terms of their compensation for the demolition of San Costanzo and other property that belonged to the were difficult and needed the help of Pope Nicholas IV to bring them to completion in 1289. 

The papal document that recorded the agreed terms for settling the dispute between Bishop Francesco Monaldeschi and the canons noted:

Quod ipsa Ecclesia … nobilis et solemnis ad instar S. Marie Maiores de Urbe construatur

“This church will be built nobly and solemnly, like Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome”

Santa Maria Maggiore was the favourite church of Nicholas IV and the site of a papal residence. He might well have viewed the new Duomo in Orvieto, set beside the Palazzi Papali,  as a new papal church.  He laid its foundation stone on the feast of St Brictius in 1290 and granted indulgences for those helping towards the cost of construction. 

Bishop Francesco Monaldeschi took the project forward until 1295, when Pope Boniface VIII laid Orvieto under interdict and he was transferred to Florence.  After  peace was restored in 1297, Boniface VIII made a substantial donation towards the cost of the Duomo.  Nevertheless, the Duomo had become a civic commission, and the city authorities raised an enormous amount in taxes in the city and throughout the contado to finance the construction. 

Stages of Construction

The early evolution of the management framework of the project is reasonably well documented:

  1. A document of 1310 (see below) records that the construction of the Duomo had previously begun at the apse.

  2. Fra’ Bevignate is documented in Orvieto in 1291, although the nature of his work here is unspecified.  However, since this was only a year after Nicholas IV had laid the foundation stone of the new Duomo, it seems likely that Fra. Bevignate had been called to the city to initiate the construction project.  He had certainly acted as "operarius” (probably overall supervisor or project manager) on the project before 1295, the year in which he was reconfirmed in this post.  The apse, the transept and the first two side chapels seem to belong to a first phase of the design.  Boniface VIII celebrated the first mass in the Duomo in 1297 on the seventh anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone, by which time the first phase of construction was probably complete.

  3. Later in 1297 (as noted above), Santa Maria Prisca was demolished so that work could proceed towards the facade. 

  4. The design of the capitals of the three pairs of columns in the nave nearest the tribune differs from those in the crossing, and it is likely that this central part of the nave constituted a distinct second phase that ended in ca. 1300.  This was presumably the moment that doubts arose over the stability of the work done in phase I.

  5. Fra. Bevignate was confirmed as "operarius” in 1300, but was soon called back to Perugia to begin the reconstruction of the Duomo there.  Later, that year, the Signori Sette formally instituted the Opera del Duomo, a group of representatives of the citizens that was charged with the administration of the project and its financial control. 

  6. The document of 1310 (see below) also records that Lorenzo Maitani had been called from his native Siena to Orvieto to address a crisis of confidence in the stability of the vaulted apse and crossing, and that he had solved the problem by erecting three pairs of buttresses:

  7. one pair flanked the apse; and

  8. the other two supported the ends of the transept.

  9. In this document of 1310, the Signori Sette named Lorenzo Maitani as “universalis capud magister”.  They also awarded him citizenship of Orvieto and exempted him from taxation.  From this point until his death twenty years later, he had operational control of the project.

  10. This document also records that work was about to begin on the wooden roof of the nave and on the facade. The design of the capitals of last two pairs of columns is different again, but it is close to that of the (slightly later) reliefs on the façade.  These columns probably belonged to this final phase of construction, after which the same team of stonemasons turned their attention to the façade. 

  11. Construction was probably largely complete by 1325, when work was in progress on the stained glass windows of the apse.

The spaces between the three pairs of buttresses mentioned above were subsequently incorporated into the floor plan:

  1. Lorenzo Maitani built the new rectangular tribune between the apse buttresses in 1328.

  2. The Cappella del Corporale was built between the left hand buttresses in 1350-6.

  3. The Cappella Nuova was built between the right hand buttresses in 1406-25, after the demolition of the old sacristy and the side chapel here (which had belonged to the Monaldeschi family). 

Throughout the 14th century, the ecclesiastical authorities had frequently interfered in the affairs of the Opera del Duomo.  However, when Pope Martin V regained papal control of Orvieto in 1420, he agreed to a request of the Commune that they should henceforward be protected from interference.  This renewed autonomy was captured in the first formal statutes of the Opera del Duomo, which were published in 1421.

Read more:

A. Satolli, "Il Duomo Mascherato: Ovvero l' Antica Cattedrale di Orvieto", (2010) Terni discusses the “phantom” of Orvieto’s first cathedral

Return to Monuments of Orvieto.

Continue to: Exterior;    Interior;    16th Century Remodelling;

Cappella del Corporale;    Cappella Nuova;     Crypt.

Return to Walk I.