Years ago, when I was living in a village 15 minutes from Orvieto, that inimitable city on a cliff in Umbria, some friends of mine said: “Why don’t you write about Orvieto? You’ve been here so long and could do a sort of Grand Tour, a guide to the city, and how it has changed since you came here 60 years ago.” Since I had been helping a young woman writing her thesis on the Grand Tour, it occurred to me that Orvieto, often included in the itinerary of the Grand Tour travelers, was an ideal point of departure from which to try and understand the history and culture of past centuries and of now, a single place that, in a sense, exemplified what the Grand Tour was all about when Italy was considered the cradle of true culture. A single city, but with roots in the historical past, a city I had been introduced to when I was doing my own version of an Italian Grand Tour back in 1955. The time I came to be part of reverberated with messages from centuries past, which had left their mark on the city that had become my home.
A tour, though, is not done for oneself alone, but involves sharing your experiences and discoveries with someone else. And that is what the eighteenth and nineteenth century guidebooks aimed to do. So here is Orvieto as it was . . . and is, written thanks to friends, who were convinced that I had something to say and that I knew how to say it. The book is an updated memoir/guide that takes the reader by the hand and leads him/her through the streets and centuries of a town in central Italy, typical of so many others yet unique in its own way. This small book is my offering to the city and to those who will find delight in perusing these pages, written with love and devoted to my home of over sixty years where I have raised my children and made many friends.
Orvieto as it was . . . and is will give us an opportunity to time travel to the sixth century before Christ and to let Larth, the Etruscan, give us an idea of his times, or hop to the year 1846 or thereabouts and follow in the footsteps of George Dennis, that English diplomat in love with the Etruscans. He has invited us to accompany him on one of his excursions. It is November and has been raining steadily. It has no intention of letting up and our donkeys have no intention of going faster. They should not complain for the route from Viterbo has been easy as they keep plodding along. But then . . . , we finally reach the edge of the plateau, and before us rises, in the words of Dennis, “one of the most imposing sights in Italy. From the midst of the wide and deep valley at our feet, rises, about two miles distant, an isolated height, like a truncated cone, crowned with the towers of Orvieto. The sky is overcast, the atmosphere dense and misty, and the brilliant hues of sunshine are wanting; yet the grand features of the scene are visible as in an engraving. Picturesque convent-towers stand embosomed in groves on the slopes in the foreground, further on there is the Paglia spanned by its bridges snaking through the valley and there is the city itself, looming through vapour and cloud, bristling from its broad cliff-bound rock, with the mountains in the background.”