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Europe's most beautiful church? : Italian GOTHIC : Orvieto is known for fine wines and lively ceramics, but its masterpiece is its exquisite cathedral

February 04, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

And the work didn't end in the 16th century. My favorite part of the building, the brilliant mosaic work on the upper facade, is actually a replacement, added in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to cover for earlier mosaics apparently removed by agents of Rome. The bronze doors are even more recent, the product of work from 1964-1970.

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The original architect is unknown, but great credit is usually heaped upon Lorenzo Maitani of Siena, who took over in 1310 and spent about 30 years guiding construction--including the detail work on the four pillars that dominate the church facade--as ongoing redesign transformed the plan from Romanesque to Gothic.

In the Duomo's chapel lies the church's greatest interior treasure and, unfortunately, one recently obscured from public view. There, restorers are working on a cycle of frescoes by Luca Signorelli that is widely considered to be one of the crowning artistic achievements of the Italian Renaissance. The cycle includes a Last Judgment that was painted from 1499-1504 and is said to have heavily influenced the execution of another judgment scene about 40 years later--Michelangelo's, in the Sistine Chapel. (Signorelli painted himself as a bystander at the Sermon of the Anti christ, and elsewhere is said to have included the face of his unfaithful girlfriend on the body of a prostitute writhing in hell.) Other frescoes are the work of Fra Angelico and various others, mostly from the 15th century.

There is more to Orvieto than the church, of course. The Church of San Giovenale looks down onto orchards from its rock base. On the edge of town lie Etruscan tombs. I missed the market held in the Piazza del Popolo on Thursdays and Saturdays, but the narrow, stony streets around it are full of medieval character.

Near the Piazza Cahen, on the way up the hill into the highest and oldest quarter of town, lies the Pozzo di San Patricio, a 16th century well that is about 200 feet deep and wide enough to accommodate two spiral staircases. Pressed for time, I decided I could live without seeing that or paying the fee of about $4.

Instead, I wandered around the pleasant (and free) public gardens on the site of an ancient fortress, still rimmed by ancient walls and surrounded by a commanding view of the checkerboard farmland below. It was near here that erosion and landslides threatened the hilltop town's stability in the late 1970s. Italian leaders in the last 15 years have waged a costly campaign to shore up the hilltop.

The town also has several museums, including the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo and the Museo Claudio Faina--but many of their galleries have been closed for years for reorganization or upgrading, and those that are open are not the most arresting in Italy, or even in Umbria. It would be nice to spend a night in town and make time for lingering in such places, but the truth is, most travelers in Rome could make Orvieto a day trip without much guilt.

That's roughly what I did, but in two installments: Four days after my first visit, when I paused for a few hours on my way from Rome to deeper Umbria, I was back again. This time I was returning to Rome, but I'd set aside a few more hours for Orvieto. I pulled off the autostrada, parked, took the funicular and bus up the hill and hoped for mercy from the clouds gathering above.

There was no mercy. A crackling thunderstorm arrived at uptown Orvieto the same moment that I did, but the scene had, as they say, a silver lining. Under the massing gray clouds, while rain pelted the Duomo, lightning flashes lighted its ageless facade and thunder rumbled nearby.

Glory-of-God architecture under wrath-of-God weather: a combination not soon forgotten.

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GUIDEBOOK: Oratory on Orvieto

Getting there: Alitalia flies direct from LAX to Rome, stopping in Milan; Delta, Continental, TWA, Swissair, KLM and British Airways make connections through various European cities. Lowest round-trip advance-purchase fare is $921. From Rome, Oriveto is about 60 miles north. It lies just off the A1 superhighway, a toll road, between Rome and Florence, and is also connected to those cities by rail.

Where to stay: Hotel Virgilio (Piazza del Duomo 5-6; telephone 011-39-763-41-882, fax 011-39-763-43-797) neighbors the Duomo with just 13 rooms, some of which offer views of the church. (Be sure to ask for the view.) The Italian government rating system gives it three stars--comfortable but not luxurious. Double rooms: about $87 nightly.

The Villa Ciconia (Via dei Tigli 69; tel. 011-39-763-92-982, fax 011-39-763-90-677), a four-star lodging, sits below town near the base of the funicular--convenient if you're leaving a rental car at the bottom of the hill. Double rooms: about $107-$120.

La Badia (Via La Badia 8; tel. 011-39-763-90-359, fax 011-39-763-92-796), also just outside town, is a renovated 12th century abbey with frescoes, cloisters, large rooms, a pool and a good restaurant. Double rooms are about $140-$170.

(Note: Some hotels close during winter months.)

Where to eat: Trattoria Etrusca (Via Maitani 10; local tel. 44-016) is a popular lunch spot with the town's prosperous businessmen, and makes wonderful crostini and ravioli with truffles. Entrees: Up to about $14. For ice cream, baked goods and snacks, il Sant' Andrea (Piazza della Repubblica 26; local tel. 43-285) is a good place to stop, with pleasant sidewalk seating. Most items under $7.

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles 90025; (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357.

--C.R.

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