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So many things happen by chance, coincidence. Little did I think that when a friend insisted that I accompany him to meet a former school teacher in a village about 15 minutes from Orvieto that I would end up marrying him and moving there. But also that there was a lovely young woman who was finishing up her university studies in English and that I would help her and become involved in her thesis on the Grand Tour.
The Grand Tour. It was all the rage in the 17th century and even up to now one might say. In a sense that is what my Orvieto as it was – and is comes down to. Visitors now stop in this Umbrian town by chance or on the recommendation of friends. Yet when one comes to the edge of the plateau and sees the cathedral gleaming gold across the valley, surely these early 15th century pilgrims on their way to Rome must have seen it as a vision of paradise.
Initially it was considered an indispensable stage in the education of young 17th and 18th century Englishmen, as they came accompanied by their tutors. Traveling certainly wasn’t easy, going over the Alps along narrow trails with steep chasms falling down sheer on either side. One might consider some, cultural pilgrims, attracted by the Roman past of Italy, rather than the Gothic or Medieval periods or even the Renaissance. They often came along the coast on their way to Rome but some did take the route that passed through Orvieto. Travel in those days was not for the faint-hearted. You had to be willing to suffer bedbugs and poor food. Charles Dickens in 1846 knew how to adapt and writes of his dinner in a hosteria, which included “a bit of roast beef, the size of a small French roll. There are a scrap of Parmesan cheese, and five little withered apples, all huddled together on a small plate, and crowding one upon the other, as if each were trying to save itself from the chance of being eaten. Then there is coffee; and then there is bed. You don’t mind brick floors; you don’t mind yawning doors, nor banging windows; you don’t mind your own horses being stabled under the bed: and so close, that every time a horse coughs or sneezes, he wakes you. If you are good-humoured to the people about you, and speak pleasantly, and look cheerful, take my word for it you may be well entertained in the very worst Italian Inn, and always in the most obliging manner, and may go from one end of the country to the other (despite all stories to the contrary) without any great trial of your patience anywhere. Especially, when you get such wine in flasks, as the Orvieto, and the Monte Pulciano. “ (Pictures from Italy, 1846)
Most of these Grand Tour travelers were searching for the true cradle of Western civilization and at the time, before cameras, before highways and planes, what they wanted was not just a picturesque Italian town where they could make sketches and take home recollections that would be the envy of their stay-at-home friends.
There was William Turner (1828) and his View of Orvieto now in the Tate. There were travelers like Goethe and George Dennis.
There was Thomas Trollope with his acute and hilarious comments in his Travels in Central Italy on a Lenten Journey from Florence to Camerino…. 1862.
“Generation after generation the thousands come every year, and all tread with the utmost exactitude in the footsteps of their predecessors. The French and Russians do not look to the right or the left as they pass on their way to the great capitals. The English and the Americans do look out to right and left as they journey along the beaten track, and see as much as can be seen by such means. But they very rarely do much more than this. …But the mere force of routine, and the sheep-like tendency men have to follow, nose to tail, their path through the gap made by those who have gone before them, has perhaps contributed still more to the result. And the habit of course tends to perpetuate itself. The more wheels pass in the same ruts, the deeper the ruts become, and the deeper the ruts, the more difficult is it, and the more decided the effort required, to pull the coach out of them and find a new track.
Englishmen, it is true, have for some years past been, with more or less success, rebelling against these prescriptions and vested interests. And perhaps as much may be said of the increasing crowd of American travellers. The Russians are exclusively persons of rank and wealth, who come to drive handsome carriages and horses in fashionable malls, to give and frequent balls, and be seen in opera-boxes. The French, of whatever class, seem to care for nothing but the large cities….As for the Germans, they contribute very few to the yearly crowd of travellers; and those few are for the most part men with some special object in view, – very generally men of science or of learning, bound on some errand of inquiry or investigation. And your German bent on such an object is not the man to be stopped by any want of horses or fear of bad inns, or other minor inconveniences. If there be in some remote and very inaccessible mountain townlet among the Apennines any neglected and almost unknown vestige of antiquity or memorial illustrative of any one of the bygone centuries, it is probable that the only extant account of it may be found in a monograph, printed on whitey-brown paper at the 1000th page of the 99th volume of the memoirs of some third-class German university city. …”
In 1874 Olave Potter’s view of Orvieto in A Little Pilgrimage in Italy was, to say the least, disastrous. “The grim Porta Maggiore, (now the favorite refuge of pigeons) where Boniface VIII in his twofold tiara, keeps watch from his niche above the gateway . . . Through this gate hastened the Popes, fleeing from wrath to come, and in their footsteps we toiled up the steep street between the same houses of yellow volcanic tufa gone black. Through dark alleys we could see the gloomy depths of caves, hollowed out of the living rock behind them: in the low bassi the citizens of this broken city toiled silently, and outside their doors sat hooded owls on poles driven into the stony ground . . . There are some streets in Orvieto which look as though war had stalked through them only yesterday; as though the terror-stricken Ghibellines still cowered within doors, while the Monaldeschi rang bells in triumph, as they did on that fateful day in the year of grace 1312, when the Filippeschi had tried in vain to open the gate of the city to Henry VII of Luxemburg.”
Authors of the travel guides of the time, like Lady Elizabeth Hamilton-Gray (1840) and Augustus Hare (died 1903), were fascinated by Orvieto. John Addington Symonds associated the town with Jerusalem (ca. 1880). “We could fancy ourselves to be standing on Mount Olivet, with the valley of Jehoshaphat between us and the Sacred City. As we approach the town, the difficulty of scaling its crags seems insurmountable. The road, though carried skillfully along each easy slope or ledge of quarried rock, still winds so much that nearly an hour is spent in the ascent. Those who can walk should take a footpath, and enter Orvieto by the mediæval road, up which many a Pope, flying from rebellious subjects or foreign enemies, has hurried on his mule.”
Orvieto was part of the Italy of the Grand Tour thanks to its unique position “high and strange,” and its jewel of a cathedral with Signorelli’s vision of the future.
In 1877 the rather indifferent Henry James was not greatly impressed by the Cliff and the Cathedral, and continued on his way. By this time, travel was by train.
For some, Orvieto was the cliff overlooking the valley. For Freud, Orvieto was Signorelli (1897). The hotel where he lived, at the time called Albergo delle Arti, is now the Palazzo Bisenzio on Corso Cavour. For the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (1926), it was one of his Cities of Silence, the only sound the angelic trumpets of Signorelli’s Apocalypse.
Closer to our times, Coates in his Beyond the Alps (1961) had thought to stay but a few days in Orvieto and ended up by putting his car in a garage.
Even now Orvieto is part of a personal Grand Tour for those who discover this magic city. Yet to understand what Orvieto really is, also means understanding its ties with the past. Times may have changed, but perhaps what we see now reflects the centuries-long story of this teller of tales, this many-layered city. Orvieto as it was – and is can offer the modern visitor a peek into that past and into what Orvieto is today.