Key to Umbria: Orvieto

Pozzo di San Patrizio (1527-37)

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In 1525, when Pope Clement VII must have been contemplating using Orvieto as a source of refuge, he found that the cisterns that supplied water to the fortress no longer functional.  He therefore commissioned Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane to find the nearest alternative source of water and to build a well there.  Antonio di Sangallo discovered the nearby  Sorgente di Santo Serio soon afterwards.  His work on what became known as the Pozzo di San Patrizio seems to have begun soon after Clement VII fled to Orvieto in December 1527, after the sack of Rome.  However, the first record of the project dates to 1530, when Clement VII (now back in Rome) wrote to the governor, Antonio Ricasoli  authorising him to raise a new tax partly to pay for it.  Excavations on this site were complete by early 1532 and the 30,000 bricks needed for the construction arrived in Orvieto in 1534. 

Shortly afterwards, Clement VII commissioned  Benvenuto Cellini to strike a commemorative medal, the obverse of which shows Moses striking a rock in the desert to provide water for the People of Israel.  Cellini recounted in his "Autobiography": 

"It was on a day in April [1534 ... Clement VII and I] talked a little on this subject: he praised my medals, and said they gave him the greatest satisfaction, but that he should like another reverse made according to a fancy of his own ... His Holiness then commissioned me to design the story of Moses when he strikes the rock and water issues from it, with this motto: Ut bibat populus  [in order for the people to drink].

This medal, which is illustrated on a web page by John Paul Adams, is in the British Museum, London. 

The well is over 50 meters deep.  Two concentric spiral staircases of 250 steps allowed for one-way traffic down to the water and back up again, so that the donkeys plodding up and down to bring water to the surface did not need to turn.   The steps were lit and ventilated by 72 windows in the inner wall. 

Construction remained incomplete when Paul III visited the city in 1536.  According to Giorgio Vasari, he “ordained that, the mouth of the well at Orvieto having remained unfinished, Antonio should have charge of it.  Antonio took [Simone Mosca] thither, to the end that he might carry that work to completion, which presented some difficulties, and particularly in the ornamentation of the doors, for the reason that, the curve of the mouth being round, convex without and concave within, those two circles conflicted with each other and caused a difficulty in accommodating the squared doors with the ornaments of stone.  But the virtue of that singular genius of Simone's solved every difficulty, and executed the whole work with such grace and perfection, that no one could see that there had ever been any difficulty. He finished off the mouth and border of the well in grey sandstone, filled in with bricks, together with some very beautiful inscriptions on white stone and other ornaments, making the doors correspond with one another. He also made there in marble the arms of [Paul III], or rather, where they had previously been made of balls for Pope Clement, who had carried out that work, Mosca was forced and he succeeded excellently well to make lilies out of the balls in relief, and thus to change the arms of the Medici into those of the house of Farnese”.

Etruscan artefacts found during the excavations for the well provided the first indication of the existence of the nearby Etruscan temple now known as the Tempio del Belvedere.

In the 19th century, the Servite monks from nearby Santa Maria dei Servi seem to have likened the well to the Purgatorio di San Patrizio (Purgatory of St Patrick).  This was a cave on an island in Loch Derg in Ireland that St Patrick is thought to have discovered, which became a place of pilgrimage where pilgrims sometimes experienced visions of purgatory.

Return to Monuments of Orvieto.

Return to Walk III.