Orvieto, Umbria, Italy – April 2015

I returned to Rome this Spring for a week+ of casual hanging out and visiting new and old sights. Things have changed a lot since my last visit; nowadays one can buy a sight visit pass and make reservations on line for a whole host of new and improved Ancient Roman excavations and tours. I also saw my Roman friends and visited the Tuscan hill town of Orvieto. My trusty Canon 6D came along for the ride and never let me down.

Orvieto, Umbria

Orvieto is a classic Italian medieval hill town but it is a mere 90 minutes from Rome. It has Etruscan roots, was a Roman settlement and then a center of medieval Italian education. It was part of the Papal Territories until Italian Unification. It sits on a nearly impregnable throne of volcanic tufa 300 meters above the valley floor a few minutes’ drive off the Autostrada del Sole. Orvieto’s main attraction is the Duomo, a 13th century masterpiece of Sienese school architecture. It was built in that typical style; with alternating white and dark gray/black marble layers, similar to the duomo in Siena and contains a chapel decorated with breath-taking frescoes by Fra Angelico (the ceiling) and Luca Signorelli (the walls and lunettes). It has a beautiful façade as well and truly is a masterpiece of medieval architecture and construction.

The Façade

The Duomo of Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

Construction started in 1290 and lasted 40 years. The façade was started in 1310 and continued for nearly 300 years, finally completed in its current form in 1609.

The Madonna of San Brizio Chapel

As masterful and beautiful the facade is, though, the real treasure is inside in the San Brizio Chapel. The chapel is covered with incredibly beautiful frescoes. The ceiling was created by Fra Angelico in 1447, the walls 50 years later by Luca Signorelli. Signorelli then painted the lunette frescoes from 1500 to 1503.

The ceiling has two themes – “Christ in Judgement” and “Angels and Prophets.” Signorelli’s walls’ themes are scenes are of the Choir of the Apostles, of the Doctors, of the Martyrs, Virgins and Patriarchs. But the lunette frescoes are the true masterworks here; considered to be among Singorelli’s best work, the lunettes display a riot of color and of human figures in all sorts of poses, contorted and otherwise.

Signorelli’s fresco “The Antichrist Preaches” in the San Brizio Chapel in Orvieto, Italy’s Duomo.

Every square inch of wall, ceiling and lunette surface is covered with these gorgeous works, truly stunning, and the amazing thing is you can get right up to them.

The Organ

Above the entrance of the Chapel of the Corporal and directly opposite the entrance of the San Brizio chapel stands the organ. It contains 5,585 pipes and was originally designed by Ippolito Scalza and Bernardino Benvenuti in the fifteenth century.

The 14th century organ in the Orvieto, Umbria, Italy Duomo

The Maurizio Tower and Clock

In the Piazza Duomo, the square next to the duomo, is a building with this fantastic clock, complete with a 1.7 m tall bronze automaton “Maurizio” that rings the bell every hour. Built in 1347, this was the time clock for the workers of the duomo. It was a true innovation; medieval timekeeping and even sense of time itself was very fluid; having a clock mandate start and stop times was revolutionary and very practical; the workers were paid by the hour, so the necessity of a clock to track each worker’s time is obvious.

A clock tower next to the Orvieto Duomo built in 1347 to provide time for the shifts of workers building the duomo. The figure shown there is 1.7 meters tall (nearly 6 feet).

Rome, Lazio

Of course, my days in Rome were spent walking around my second home, the city I most feel at home in when I am not here. I visited my favorite spots, sat at my favorite cafes and saw my favorite Roman people. I am always struck by how strong my ties are to the Eternal City and to my friends there. Even when I feel blasé about the trip at my departure, inevitably I feel happy and excited when I land.

I almost always come to Rome these days with a specific photographic agenda. A few trips ago I was interested in working at night or early morning. One trip I was focused on the apse mosaics in the early Christian churches. This time I decided to look for the unusual, or at least the lesser seen.

Rome, Italy’s Pantheon viewed from an unusual perspective

I visited the stadium superstructure ruins at the north end of Piazza Navona (Piazza Navona is built on the foundations of Domitian’s Stadium); for years all I could do was gaze longingly from the sidewalk down to the exposed ruins in front of the bank building that was built around them, but now they are open for close examination. At the Colosseum, I was excited to see that the third floor (as we Americans would say, the second level above ground level) is now open. That has always been a goal for me because until recently that level was off limits. There is also an excavated palace near Trajan’s Forum that is supposed to be very good as well. But I was unable to get into any of these because I had failed to make reservations weeks in advance. :-/ So, next time, I swear.

Link to the photo gallery

The History of Rome – The Trevi Fountain

.The Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain’s location at the junction of three roads (tre vie) marks the traditional point where an ancient Roman aqueduct called the Aqua Virgo – the Virgin Water – made a hard right turn to get to the ancient city center after flowing south for many miles. Legend has it that a young woman showed some thirsty Roman soldiers a spring.

This spring, located approximately at the 8th milestone on the Via Collatina from the city’s 0 milestone in the Roman Forum became the source for the aqueduct. The aqueduct supplied a major bath complex. Marcus Agrippa financed both the aqueduct and the bath in 19 BCE. The source was only 8 miles (15 km) away but the run length of the aqueduct was over 20 km. It’s end-to-end drop was only 4 meters.

The Goth invaders cut the aqueduct in of 537/538 AD. Late Antiquity Rome’s citizens lost their last fresh water supply for 1 000 years. Pope Nicholas V repaired the aqueduct in 1453 and built a small simple basin at it’s terminus.

Commission and Construction

Pope Clement XII held a competition in 1730 for a fountain design to cover the entire back wall of the Palazzo Poli. Roman citizen Nicola Salvi won the competition and work commenced in 1732. It is in the Baroque style. The very last touches were applied to the fountain 30 years later with the installation of the statue of Oceanus (the god of all water) in the central niche.


The fountain is 20 meters (65 feet) wide and 26 meters (85 feet) high at it’s highest point. It is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome.


The central niche contains a statue of Oceanus.

The left niche has a statue of Abundance pouring water from her urn

and the right niche a statue of Salubrity with a snake drinking from her cup.

The bas relief panel above the right side niche shows the young girl (the virgin of the spring) showing the Roman soldiers the spring.

Tossing the Coins

Various stories about tossing the coins in the fountain exist. The most common one is that one tosses a coin to ensure another visit to Rome. Extensions of that say 2 coins means one will fall in love and 3 coins means one will marry in Rome. Approximately 3 000 Euros are tossed into the fountain every day. The city of Rome collects the coins and gives them to various charities.

If you are planning a visit to Italy soon I have written 2 walking tour guide books to Rome that you can purchase here or at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

I have an album of photos from Rome and other places in Italy in my photo gallery.

The History of Rome: Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere

Another article in a series on the history of Rome, Italy.

Rome’s Trastevere District

Trastevere is a district of Rome to the west, officially Rione XIII. “Trastevere” (trahs TAY veh ray) means “Across the Tevere.” “Tevere” is the Italian name for the Tiber, the large river that flows through Rome. It is an ancient and medieval district full of narrow lanes and twisting alleyways. It is also home to two interesting very early Christian churches, Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Santa Cecilia

The church is dedicated to St Cecilia, a 2nd century Roman martyr and patron of musicians. The Italian pronunciation is “chay CHEE lee ah.”

The first church on the site was built in the either 3rd or the 5th century, during excavation work its baptistery was discovered beneath the present Chapel of Relics.

The church was rebuilt in the early 9th century and St Cecilia’s remains were brought from the catacombs of St Calixtus to the church. It was rebuilt-remodeled again in the 18th century.


The front façade was designed in 1725; enter through the monumental entry and into the courtyard. In front of the church building proper is a garden courtyard with an ancient water vessel adapted as a fountain.

The campanile is from the 12th or 13th century.

The 24 Corinthian columns are from the first church.

Stefano Maderno’s beautiful sculpture of Cecilia is in front of the sanctuary. The discovery of her body by Pope Paschal in a catacomb in the 9th century is depicted in a 12th or 13th century fresco at the end of the aisle. Her body was brought to the church and re-interred after the discovery. Her tomb was reopened in 1599 and her body was apparently found intact and incorrupt. Maderno made a sculpture of her; his inscription can still be seen on the floor, testifying that she was depicted just as he saw her.


The Gothic canopy was made, and signed, by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1292. It is supported by four columns of black and white marble and has Cosmatesque decoration.

The Byzantine style apse mosaic dates from 820 and depicts Christ in Roman clothes being crowned by the Hand of God. He is wearing lati clavi, which was a sign of high rank in Roman society. He is flanked by from left to right; St Paul, St Cecilia, Pope Paschal I, St Peter, St Valerian and St Agatha. Below them on the band 12 lambs surrounding the Lamb of God are seen leaving Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The church’s upper gallery was originally a women’s gallery and is now the nun’s choir


Santa Cecilia is built upon an Imperial Era house. You can see the excavations; the ticket office is at the rear of the church on the left side as you enter.

Roman houses from the 2nd and 3rd century have been excavated. One of them is supposedly St Cecilia’s. Evidence of Republican period buildings have also been found. Back then this area was a commercial district; the brick basins uncovered indicates that it was owned by a craftsman; possibly a tanner.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

Some sources say this is the first church where Mass was celebrated openly. Legend surrounds this church’s founding; some information puts its construction at 221, although mid 4th century is more likely. It was rebuilt in the mid 12th century and again in the mid 19th century. Santa Maria in Trastevere contains an odd mixture of Ancient Roman artifacts and construction and early, medieval and relatively new Christian art and architecture.


The façade was rebuilt in 1702; the four Baroque statues above the portal depict Sts Calixtus, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius. The mosaics are 12th century. They depict the parable of the wise and the unwise maidens. The Blessed Virgin is in the center. The right side maidens are crownless and have allowed their lamps to extinguish.

The door has recycled Imperial Rome stone cornices and the narthex contains a collection of pagan and early Christian inscriptions (3rd century) on the wall and fragments of 9th century sculpture and medieval paintings. The sarcophagi are from the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The campanile is 12th century.

Apse and Arch Mosaics

The spectacular main apse mosaic is also from the 13th century remodel project and is attributed to Pietro Cavallini. Christ and St Mary are enthroned and flanked by saints and popes. The mosaic’s left side shows Pope Innocent II holding a model of the church, St Lawrence and Pope St Callixtus. On the right side are Peter and Pope St Cornelius, Pope St Julius and St Calepodius.

The panels between the windows are also mosaics and are late 12th century. They show scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin. From the left they are: The Birth of Our Lady, The Annunciation, Nativity, Epiphany, Presentation in the Temple and The Falling Asleep of Mary. The last one shows the soul of Mary in the arms of Our Lord.

The triumphal arch’s frescoes are 19th century, the episcopal throne in the apse is ancient.

Weird Stuff

And now for some of the oddness that is Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Inside the church in various places are the Latin words “Fons Olei (oil spring).” Legend has it that a crude oil spring bubbled up here during Augustus’ rule. The local Jewish community interpreted it as a sign that God’s grace would soon flow into the world. Later, because of this interpretation, this location became a meeting spot for the first Roman converts to Christianity.

Another oddness; at the steps at the end of the right aisle you can see some black marble weights. These are ancient standard weights, which the Romans first kept in the temples and later in the churches.

The History of Rome: Papal Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore

Another article in an occasional series on the history of Rome.

Founding and Construction

, Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major) built in the 5th century AD. One of the four Papal basilicas in Rome. Its ceiling is covered with gold brought back from the New World.

Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major) is one of 4 papal basilicas in Rome. The others are:

San Giovanni in Laterano (St John in the Lateran)

San Paolo Fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Wall)

San Pietro in Vaticano (St Peter in the Vatican)

It is one of the 4 churches the Pope holds Mass in and each church’s plot of land is a little piece of the Vatican.


Built in 8 years from 432 to 440, Santa Maria Maggiore sits on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, on a place that legend says was the location of an August snowstorm in 358. A childless couple was visited by the Virgin during their sleep and were told to build a church on the spot where snow fell the next morning. This led to the church first being called Santa Maria della Neve (St Mary of the Snow). Every year in August the legend is re-enacted by Rome Catholics who drop white flower petals from the dome during the feast day festival.

Over the centuries the church was expanded and remodeled but its interior remains true to its original construction; its layout looks very much like a 1st century Roman basilica, which for them was not a church but in fact a shopping mall/civic center building. It has a long tall nave, two aisles (one on either side) and a semi-hemispherical dome at the far end. Its overall length is 92 m, its overall width is 80 m and the nave is 30 m wide. It’s 75 m high. The ceiling is said to be gilded with gold brought back from the New World. The columns inside are recycled from an older Roman temple.

Mosaics and Art

Interior apse mosaic in the basilica Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Italy. Mosiac depicts Mary and Christ and dates from the 9th century AD.


The mosaics in this church are nothing less than spectacular and should be the main focus of a visit. The dominant work of art in Santa Maria Maggiore is doubtlessly the apse mosaic. Created in 1295, it features Jesus and Mary surrounded by representations of the Tree of Life, the Apostles and other liturgical symbols. A truly stunning work, it set the standard for representations of Mary in Catholic art for centuries.

Interior of Rome, Italy’s Santa Maria Maggiore basilica with the baldachino and mosaics.

Triumphal Arch

The Triumphal Arch is also similarly beautiful. It illustrates scenes from Christ’s life and its theme is The Infant Savior. Because these works are older than the Council of Nicea, the Triumphal Arch in this church includes a scene that didn’t make the cut in the official New Testament (Christ as a baby is brought to a temple but His holiness causes the temple statues to crack and fall from their pedestals). Thus Santa Maria Maggiore’s Triumphal Arch mosaic is the only example of Christian art that contains a scene of Christ’s life not in the Bible.


Standing in the back of the nave you can see directly above the columns and architraves and underneath each window mosaics of Old Testament history. Research has dated them to circa 432-440, in the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III. Since the natural light in the church is very low, the best way to see them is to be in the church just prior to a service. They are then lit with artificial light and they absolutely glow! Some of them were heavily restored with paint during the Middle Ages, and some were reconstructed in 1593 and later.

Of the original 42 panels, 27 have survived to today. Fifteen have been lost through the ages; some of those when the Pauline and Sistine Chapels were built (you can see the archways at the end of the nave built for their entrances).


The Sforza Chapel is interesting because Michaelangelo designed it in 1564 (and completed in 1573 by Giacomo della Porta). Because so many of his works are now “off limits” to the general public it is nice to be able to not only walk up to one of his creations but actually walk into one. The original entrance to this chapel was a large arch, but it was demolished in the mid-1700’s.

This church also has a Sistine Chapel, but this Sistine Chapel is nothing like the famous one in the Vatican. Any chapel built by a Pope named Sixtus (there were 5 of them) is named “Sistine.” Laid out in a Greek Cross plan with a magnificent dome capping it, the Sistine Chapel known officially as Blessed Sacrament Chapel is a truly outstanding creation. Domenico Fontana designed it and work began in 1585. It is the burial place of Pope Sixtus V.

The History of Rome: The Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica

 Introduction – The History of Rome: St Peter’s in the Vatican (San Pietro in Vaticano)

St Peter's Square Rome Italy
A panorama of St Peter’s Square in Rome, Italy

The history of Rome is fascinating and is occasionally the subject of posts here such as the history of the Colosseum and the history of the Pantheon. I have been to Rome many times and consider it my second home. The area we call the Vatican was in ancient Roman times a suburban area of Rome and included a Circus (horse chariot racing track). The circus had various names including Circus Vaticanus, the Circus of Nero and the Circus of Caligula and is the site of St Peter’s upside down crucifixion. The church you see today is the second such structure on this spot, sometimes called “New St Peter’s.” It has almost nothing in common with Old St Peter’s, the first church built here (by Constantine’s decree) in 321 CE.

The Ancient Topography and Architecture of the Vatican Area

The Circus

The original structure here, the circus, is now buried well below the current level of Piazza San Pietro – St Peter’s Square – and is the bottom most of three layers. The topmost layer is New St Peter’s, next is Old St Peter’s and the lowest is the aforementioned Circus Vaticanus. The spina (the long narrow center divider) of the Circus lines up a pair of Imperial mausoleums intended for Theodosius from Old St Peter’s  built over or near the traditional spot of Peter’s crucifixion.

His tomb is located in a spot that both churches use(d) as their centerpiece; the high altar. Assuming you approached St Peter’s Square from the typical direction (walking westward from Castel Sant Angelo or southward from the metro station), you are at the eastern edge of Piazza San Pietro, looking at the church façade. What you see in front of you is a vast flat area with the largest church in Christendom as the centerpiece.

Approach to St Peter's Square in Rome, Italy
Approach to St Peter’s Square in Rome, Italy

The Hill

This area did not always look like this; in ancient times the area where the church is now was a hill; the original architects of Old St Peter’s carted off part of the hill to make room for the church. The architects for New St Peter’s carted off more to make room for the bigger project. The spot you are currently standing on marks the corner of the north side of the track and the carcere (car CHAY ray), the starting gates. A slight turn to your left (counter or anti-clockwise) and you face down the northern edge of the track.

The spina, the central divide of the track, began at a point about a third of the way down the straight structure on the left that connects the ellipse with the front of the church. The far end terminated well beyond the back of the current basilica, but the spina ended at a point perpendicular to the current church’s outer apse wall.

The obelisk in the center of the square was originally placed on the center point of the spina in Nero’s time. Peter was crucified upside down on that spina in 64 CE. The legend is that Nero himself rode a chariot around the track as Peter was dying on his inverted crucifix. There’s nothing left of the stadium above ground, but a palazzo to your left apparently has some carcere remnants in it’s basement.

St Peter's Square Rome Italy at Night
St Peter’s Square Rome Italy at Night

Old St Peter’s in the Vatican

After Peter’s martyrdom, his followers buried him next to the circus, in a tomb set at the time into the bluff of the Vatican Hill. His was not the only tomb there, though. The necropolis was already well established, with a mixture of both pagan and Christian tomb sites. Constantine ordered a large church built on the site to commemorate Peter’s martyrdom and to encourage the growth of the religion. The area was leveled and the church’s altar center built directly over the tomb. Construction started in 321 and completed 8 years later.

The original church’s design included a large atrium in the front surrounded by porticoes. In the center of the atrium was a fountain called the Fountain of Symmachus whose centerpiece was a large bronze pine cone. This pine cone still exists and can be seen in one of the courtyards of the Vatican Museum today. To help orient yourself; the actual entrance to the old church was pretty much in the same location as the entrance to the current church. To get a very good idea of what Old St Peter’s looked like inside, we just need to visit San Paulo Fuori le Mura, a large basilica built next to the Ostiense Road south of the city. The layout and the style were very similar; both are and were five nave churches.

New St Peter’s in the Vatican

The New Church

Eventually Old St Peter’s began to feel its age; the walls were threatening to collapse inward and destroy the church. A new church was decreed by Pope Julius II in 1505, construction began the next year and the project completed in 1626, 120 years and 19 Popes later. Pope Julius II held a design competition and the winner was Donatello Bramante. Many of the entries can still be seen at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Michelangelo was given the title of capomaestro (literally “headmaster”) in 1547 and was able to ensure the completion of the project with his vision of the design nearly intact. It was during his time that the dome was begun to his design, an ovoid shape with two shells, an inner one and an outer one.

Giacomo della Porta completed the dome in 1590. Standing above the altar under the dome is the 4 story high bronze baldacchino, created from the confiscation and melting of the bronze roofing tiles from the Pantheon. Designed by Bernini, the construction of this huge free-standing bronze altar cover and free-standing piece started in 1623 and completed in 1634.

St Peter Rome Italy Baldachino
St Peter Rome Italy Baldachino

Final Work

The final work in the area was to create the space of St Peter’s Square. The colonnade that surrounds the square emulates the welcoming arms of the Church, with a trapezoidal area near the building that gives the illusion of the church being closer than it is, and the second area further out, ellipsoidal in shape and surrounded by the almost but not quite enclosing colonnade.

The History of Rome: The Colosseum

 Rome was founded in 753 BC and eventually grew to be an ancient city of 2 million people. The Colosseum as we call it but called by the ancient Roman people as The Flavian Amphitheater was built over a period of between 8 and 10 years and completed in 80 AD. It was used continuously for nearly 5 centuries thereafter.


Built by Vespasian, first of the Flavian Emperors (and who came to power after the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, Nero, committed suicide). The Colosseum was both a huge public work and a propaganda piece. It was financed by the spoils of the war that resulted in what we call the Diaspora, the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Israel and the scattering of the Jewish peoples from the Holy Land.

Vespasian built it on land that under Nero had been the site of his private palace. The architectural design was carefully considered. It mirrors the architecture of a building nearby called the Theater of Marcellus, built by Augustus 80 years earlier. So, by demolishing the hated Nero’s lavish palace and grounds and giving the land back to the people by building this grand amphitheater and by designing it to look like a building by Augustus, Vespasian was making two political statements:

1) The old ways and the old dynasty are no more and

2) the new emperor wants to emulate the first and greatest of all the emperors, Augustus, and will return the Roman people to those times.


It is a favorite place of mine and I have photographed it many times. This photo of the Roman Colosseum at dusk was taken right after sunset in October, 2003.

Rome, Italy’s Colosseum at twilight. Built by Vespasian and dedicated in 80 AD, the Colosseum has been a symbol of Rome for 2 000 years. Gladiators fought animals and themselves, sometimes to the death, for over 300 years in this arena.

I used my then-brand new Canon PowerShot G3 and a small tripod set on the banister next to the sidewalk of Via Colosseo, which runs along the front edge of the Oppian Hill, directly across from the Colosseum itself.

This image of the Roman Colosseum at night is a three image panorama done at the same time and location as the one above.

Rome, Italy’s Colosseum at night. Built by Vespasian and dedicated in 80 AD, the Colosseum has been a symbol of Rome for 2 000 years. Gladiators fought animals and themselves, sometimes to the death, for over 300 years in this arena.

This interior shot of the Roman Colosseum is a multi-image panorama as well.

Rome, Italy’s Colosseum interior panorama. Built by Vespasian and dedicated in 80 AD, the Colosseum has been a symbol of Rome for 2 000 years. Gladiators fought animals and themselves, sometimes to the death, for over 300 years in this arena.