Authors, Artists, and Ancient Etruscans, Oh My!

Orvieto, known for its magnificent cathedral, also offers a unique view of a medieval town on top of a number of Etruscan villages.  After admiring the frescoes in the cathedral, climbing up towers and down wells, and marveling at the collections of items discovered primarily in tombs, I began to have a better appreciation for how others have labored to preserve history and art. People have been telling stories in a surprising variety of ways for many millenia. 

I was thrilled to see ancient poets (I could only easily identify Vergil and Dante) in Luca Signorelli’s frescoes in the San Brizio Chapel, even though searching for the scenes was a difficult task. The ribbon that blocks the public begins right at the point where I wanted to get close to the walls. There are scenes from so many different sources on every possible surface, and often it is only the picture you take and later enlarge that brings them into focus. While many visitors were staring in awe at the artistry and religiosity of the vaulted ceiling, I was noticing what a wonderful lesson on the genitive case the Latin inscriptions would make.

Across the transept in the Chapel of the Corporal, I marveled at the multitude of beautifully calligraphed medieval Latin captions accompanying Ugolini’s frescoes. There were too many school groups crowded into the room to spend as much time as would be needed to look at all the details, but I enjoyed seeing the parts that could be easily translated as well as the inventive abbreviations and marks used to allow for more text in smaller spaces.

Across the piazza is the museum that houses Claudio Faina’s collections from Etruscan excavations in the area. Very few people were visiting here, so movement and close inspection were much easier. I loved seeing long Latin inscriptions with helpful transcriptions in the interpretive panels, the incredible coin collection in ingenious cases that allowed you to see the coins up close in obverse and reverse, and a vase collection that explained Etruscan theology.

Trying to interpret all that we see, read, hear, touch, smell, and taste is both a joyful and frustrating task. The communication between centuries of history provides clues, but they are not always clear.  However, when I see Latin used as the language of communication for so many centuries, I wonder again at so many people’s questions of its relevance. Artists today continue to imitate artists of the past, and I found this city to be an absolutely beautiful tribute to many art media, including wood, marble, stone, and clay.  We discovered that Mastro Paolo, one of our favorite ceramicists had died, but his daughter has taken over his shop, and his son is continuing in the same tradition as his father, but in a new shop. They both find beauty in the forms and shapes of Ancient Greek vases. Another artist, appropriately named Michaelangeli, has draped the entire city in his wooden sculptures. Leave yourself time to discover all that this town has to offer.


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