MAITANI, Lorenzo
(b. ca. 1255, Siena, d. 1330, Orvieto)

View of the Cathedral

Duomo, Orvieto

History of the Cathedral

In 1263/4 a Bohemian priest - a certain Peter of Prague - who did not believe in the transubstantiation of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Host and Wine, went on a pilgrimage to Rome to ask on St. Peter's tomb that his faith might be strenghtened. On his way back from Rome, he stopped in Bolsena, where, while he was saying Mass in the Crypt of St. Christine, he saw blood come out of the Host, so much so that the Corporal got completely wet. Pope Urban IV, who was in Orvieto at that time, struck by such an extraordinary event, ordered the Sacred Cloth to be brought there. The clergy and the people thought that the Relic should have a decorous seat. On November 13, 1290 pope Nicholas IV laid solemnly the first stone of the new Church (in correspondence with the 4th pillar of the façade, on which Hell is sculptured). The place chosen for this building was that where the church of St. Constance and that dedicated to S. Prisca or of St. Britius once existed.

The works for the construction of the Cathedral lasted about three centuries. The first architect was probably Arnolfo di Cambio. The project of the monocusped façade, kept in the Museum of the Works Department of the Cathedral, has been attributed to him. It seems, however, that the first builder was Fra' Bevignate of Perugia. who built the nave and the two aisles. The works were carried on by a local builder, a certain Giovanni Uguccione, who followed the Gothic style in the transept and apse. The main structures of the Cathedral, however, were so unstable that it was necessary to ask for the advice of an expert, namely the Sienese architect and sculptor Lorenzo Maitani. He strengtened the building by means of rampant arches.

Trained in Siena where he worked on the city's Cathedral until 1308, the sculptor/architect Lorenzo Maitani became the "universalis caput magister" of the Cathedral at Orvieto in 1310. He retained the post until his death. Later he also supervised the sculpture of the lower facade, although he is recorded as executing only one of the four large bronze symbols of the Evangelists, the eagle of John. The four massive piers of the facade, richly decorated in low relief, are also believed to have been executed under his supervision.

Under the direction of Nino di Andrea Pisano, who, as it seems, was at that time the head of the Works Department of the Cathedral, the works began on the northern side of the Cathedral in connection with the rampant arches made by Maitani to strenghten the main structures of the Church. During the period from 1355 to 1356 the Chapel was covered with cross-vaults, later modified.

View the ground plan of the existing Orvieto Cathedral.

The façade

The façade consists of four polygonal towers, two lower and broader ones on its sides (42,80 metres), and two higher ones (51,30 metres) in the centre. They divide the surface into the three corresponding inside naves.

The four pillars at its base have a marble covering with delicate and fine low-reliefs, made by artists, whose identity is not absolutely certain. Some think that the low-reliefs of the inside pillars are older than the others. The best reliefs are usually attributed to Maitani. They represent the origin of man, the mistery of Redemption and his final destiny. The low-reliefs occupy 112 square metres of the whole area.

The unusual placement of the reliefs relates to a local tradition, but lurking in the background is the source for their continuous narrative - Roman columns like those of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. The piers narrate from left to right: scenes from the Genesis; the Tree of Jesse and Prophecies of Redemption; prophets and Life of Christ; and the Last Judgment and Paradise.