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Orvieto’s Duomo is one of the top three cathedrals in Central Italy; the other two belonged to those bitter rivals who long tried to dominate each other and, in fact, the whole Mediterranean: Siena and Florence. But Orvieto? Not only did it lack the power of its rival Tuscan cities, it also needed to import many of the artisans who worked on its iconic cathedral. Typically Orvieto’s Duomo was often built with Sienese hands.The answer to why Orvieto though, is as simple as the cathedral is complex. The answer is the pope.A few decades before work started on the Duomo, Pope Urban IV had made Orvieto his residence.When Pope Nicholas IV blessed the new foundation in 1290 as both religious and secular ruler of the town as he was Orvieto’s podestà
- the rough equivalent of its head of state (or city). Some of the cathedral’s funding came from the papacy as well. Nicholas IV’s immediate successors also served as podesta - and funded Duomo construction as well. Both pope and town wanted a cathedral suitable for a pope. They got a stately cathedral, but not the seat of the papacy as that institution was about to start its most traumatic period, moving to Southern France before the Duomo had exterior walls. By the early 15th century, the cathedral had its walls and perhaps the most magnificent Gothic facade in the world. But three men each claimed to be Pope — and none of them were interested in Orvieto.
As a work in progress over parts of five centuries, Orvieto’s Duomo survived a succession of master architects, some who knew a lot more about art than construction. Arnolfo di Cambio started in 1290 with a Romanesque layout. (He also served as the chief architect of Florence’s cathedral which started about the same time).Lorenzo Maitani took over around 1310 for better (the façade) and worse (adding useless buttresses that later were expanded into brilliantly frescoed transept chapels). Maitani’s sons took over at his death and they were followed by members of the Pisano family and then by Andrea Orcagna who designed the magnificent rose window. Several others followed and the façade was not completed until early in the 17th century.Over 300 years in the making including parts of 5 centuries.But Orvieto’s Duomo does more than display fine craftsmanship from the late middle ages through the Renaissance; it boasts an even finer paper trail through much of its long construction: Of great interest to scholars are the substantial archives of the cathedral, a tribute to the record keeping of the elected cathedral board of works that built and ran the place. These provide the foundation for research into the methods and organization of the medieval craftsmen who came together to build this specific cathedral as well as suggesting how other medieval buildings may have been constructed. While sketchy during the first 3 decades, after 1321 the record is rich in detail regarding the contacts binding the artists, artisans and the materials purchased.
Masterpiece in Mosaic and Marble: Orvieto’s Duomo is the earliest Italian architectural masterpiece for which a master plan is available. In fact, two such plans remain and components from each were implemented. The first showed the influence of the French Gothic, especially that of Paris’s Notre Dame built about a century earlier (although it was still incomplete when Orvieto started its build). The second plan was thought to be by the Duomo’s second capomaestro (chief architect), Lorenzo Maitani, and reflects much of the work done during his two decade tenure.Maitani’s plan also suggests the golden ratio or “root of two” ratio stretching all the way back to Pythagoras and the Greeks. (And stretching forward into the works of Frank Lloyd Wright and other modern architects.)Despite any classic ratios, Orvieto’s façade is quite Gothic. And Tuscan. Orvieto was too small of a town to have an abundance of craftsmen; it imported its designers and craftsmen from Florence and Siena. Furthermore, Orvieto wanted to catch up with those Tuscan neighbors as their cathedrals underwent façade construction first in Siena and then in Florence.As was the case through most of history, technology didn’t transfer unless the technologists moved first. These Tuscan (primarily Siennan) artisans relocated to Orvieto — and sometimes went back and forth to Sienna and Florence as well. In fact, Siena’s cathedral nave continued to rise; so many of these craftsmen must have returned to that city to add a second story to its facade, one bearing a strong resemblance to Orvieto’s mosaic front. So many carvings, so little time.
No expense was spared here. Mosaics cost about 4 times what murals do.The façade gables highlight many crucial scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary in stunning symmetry with her assumption into heaven and coronation between the slender spires that frame the cathedral’s center.
A first impression of the Duomo is a bit overwhelming, primarily due to the glittering mosaics on the façade: A golden Gothic face on a Romanesque body. As in most of Europe’s great cathedrals, visitors see mostly reproductions on the exterior with the sculpture and other art long moved indoors to preserve it. But unlike many of these cathedrals, the restorations here are typically not mere copies of what came before, although they appear to depict the same Christian legends. Instead, restorers viewed themselves as artists in their own right and created new images. However, it appears that with the exception of the topmost gable, the overall subject matter reflects the original framework of Marian lore created by Siena architect Lorenzo Maitani around 1310. It took most of the last half of the 14th century to complete these mosaics, starting around 1350 and mostly ending around 1390, and even then the capstone Coronation at the very top gable had yet to finish. The first Restoration started about 100 years later in 1484. Today only part of one mosaic contains original stone.Mostly what we see are “imaginative” reconstructions (actually more like reinterpretations) from the 17th through 19th centuries.
Catherine Harding of the University of Victoria has researched the cathedral’s archives in order to reconstruct the social organization and methods needed to sustain the significant mosaic project necessary to create this key component of this magnificent façade. A well documented and preserved paper trail from 1321 through 1390 allows her to describe a well organized and hierarchical workshop which allowed apprentices to spend their whole working lives creating this façade. They would rise literally on a career ladder (scaffold) from laborer in the on-site factory to apprentice to glass cutter to master glass artisan. Some such as Fra Giovanni Leonardelli would begin their careers at Orvieto as glassmakers and later work on murals in the inner chapels.And no one got kicked upstairs: Andrea Orcagna created one of the façade mosaics and designed its rose window — after he became the master builder of the entire cathedral in 1359.
In many ways, the Orvieto mosaics show the technical transition from Byzantine to the Renaissance practice. Much as in the old way, the Orvieto artisans cut the glass and embedded it in the mortar with their own hands. The vision and the hand were one. But as time passed, they began to rely more on external drawings and/or drawings on the mortar, allowing lesser skilled craftsmen to cut and embed the tesserae. This is similar to how the Renaissance masters Titian or Tintoretto created cartoons for others to implement on Saint Mark’s in Venice.