Orvieto -- brief history:

The walled city of Orvieto stands halfway between Rome and Florence on a volcanic tufa plateau that rises 635 feet above the surrounding erosion valley at the junction of the Paglia and Chiana rivers in Terni province in Umbria. The plateau is riddled with artificial cavities -- tunnels, galleries, cisterns, wells, quarries, cellars (wine and food), and mines (especially for sharp volcanic sand or pozzolana). Although it is now south of the Umbria/Tuscany border, in ancient times it was inside Etruria, the ancient predecessor of Tuscany -- the border simply moved northward in the intervening centuries.

The plateau has been inhabited continuously since at least the middle of the 9th century BC. By 700 BC a prosperous town named Velzna, which was clearly Etruscan, occupied the entire plateau. The town had two industries, bronze and ceramics -- it controlled local tin mines (needed for bronze) and ceramic-quality clay deposits at the base of the plateau. Eventually the town was fortified by the Etruscans to protect it from Roman incursions.

For a long time, Velzna was at the forefront (both geographically and politically) of Etruscan resistance to Roman expansionism, and it was a leading city in the Etruscan League. The Etruscan league was defeated in 264 BC, but Velzna was able to hold out for a few more years because of its easily defensible position. In 254 BC, four years after the start of the first "Punic War", the Romans finally captured and then completely leveled Velzna, which the Romans had started to call Volsini. (The town was Volsini and the people were the Volsinii.) When the city was destroyed, a portion of the Etruscan population escaped to the hills around a nearby lake that the Romans then started to call Lake Volsinii. The Romans soon established a town on the top of the plateau, which they called Volsinii Vettere, but the locals always referred to it as Urbs Vetus. The Urbs Vetus name eventually was corrupted to the present name, Orvieto. Meanwhile the Romans established another town on the shore of Lake Bolsena called Volsini Nova and allowed the Velzna refugees to settle there. Eventually the town on the lake was called simply Volsini. The names of the lake and the town eventually were corrupted to the modern names, Lake Bolsena and Bolsena. Volsini and "Urbs Vetus" remained in the orbit of Rome throughout the Republic and the Empire, and that's why they are not part of the modern region of Tuscany. Italy's modern regions are based largely on the regions of ancient Rome.

Urbs Vetus remained a sleepy little Roman dependency until the sixth century AD when it became an important way station for Gothic barbarians moving toward Rome. It became a staging point for both Alaric and Odovacar (sometimes called Odoacer by later historians). The Gothic general Vitige refortified it when the Byzantines finally came to the rescue of Rome. The Byzantine General Belisarius (sent by Justinian, the Eastern Roman Emperor of the day) captured the plateau in the mid 530's AD, but another Gothic General, Totila retook it shortly thereafter from the garrison that Belisarius had left behind. Belisarius quickly returned and established permanent Byzantine control. Permanent, that is, until 596 when the Longobards (Lombards), another barbarian group, were invited in by both the local aristocracy and by the Pope, all of whom, by 596 were fed up with Byzantine dominance.

The Longobards were at least nominally Christian and soon Urbs Vetus had its own Bishop and church sanctioned nobility. The first Count of Urbs Vetus claimed authority in 606 AD and a Catholic Lombard feudal state grew up, centered on the plateau (although the Lombard identity was soon absorbed). Abbeys, monasteries, and public institutions started to be established, and the system lasted for about four centuries.

The feudal state was succeeded by an independent comune during the 11th and 12th centuries. First, families built fortified towers and then they started to embed the towers in Palazzos. The documentary history of the comune of Orvieto begins in 1137, but the first documents picture an already established system.

Like other parts of Italy north of Rome, Orvieto became a bone of contention between the Guelph and Ghibelline factions. The Guelphs, for the sake of simplicity are identified as favoring Papal authority while the Ghibellines favored the emerging "Holy Roman Empire" centered north of the Alps. In reality, local noblemen and military commanders simply allied themselves with the Pope or the Emperor in the hopes of riding their coat tails to local power. By 1157 local Guelphs led by the Monaldeschi family controlled Orvieto, but there was still a strong Ghibelline minority led by the Filippeschi family. Forces of the Emperors Frederick I and Henry VI occasionally intervened on the side of the Ghibellines, but never with enough force to end Guelph dominance. The Filippeschi Ghibellines were finally expelled from the city in 1313. You would think that would have ended the civil unrest, but the victorious Monaldeschi faction immediately split into the Beffati and the Malcorini, and civil strife continued.

Civil unrest, it should be noted, while it did lead to some violence in town and the surrounding countryside, wasn't necessarily a bad thing for the common people. In order to get popular support, contending parties had to impress and mollify the people -- big buildings and patronage were the way they did it. During the struggles, the contending families built the big churches that we still see -- San Lorenzo degli Arari, San Francesco (Franciscan), San Domenico (Dominican -- home to Thomas Aquinas), Santa Maria dei Servi were all built during the troubles -- and the Duomo was begun (still technically under construction today). Civic buildings, like the Comunal Palace and the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, were also built, as was the Papal Palace (but the Pope brought in lots of unpopular Frenchmen at this time.) This meant, not incidentally, that everyone had a job and an income, and that there was general prosperity within the strife. Life was risky but pretty good.

In 1354, a Papal Army led by Cardinal Albornoz finally intervened with sufficient force to establish urban peace -- under direct Papal rule. Local institutions were allowed to survive, but Orvieto was absorbed as the 5th and northernmost province of the Papal States (another reason it is in Umbria rather than Tuscany.) Big new projects no longer came Orvieto's way, but the town still prospered as an agricultural center and as a major producer of fine pottery. (Some scholars think Spanish and Italian Majolica originated in Orvieto, and it certainly seems possible since many of the shapes, decorative schemes and color combinations can be traced all the way back to early Etruscan pottery made in the area, and Orvieto still mines the light colored clays that underlie the tin slip Majolica.)

In 1527, Pope Clement VII was resident in Orvieto when he rejected Henry VIII petition for divorce from Catherine of Aragon -- a momentous decision in Western Civilization since it arguably started the Protestant Reformation, at least on a state level.

Finally, Orvieto was annexed to the "Kingdom of Italy" in 1860, ten years before Italian unification. The Pope said the barbarians had returned.