History of Orvieto


See Orvieto guide for highlights and historic monuments

Orvieto is a very ancient city, in an area that has been inhabited since the Iron Age, then dominated by the Etruscans with the name “Velzna”.

The antiquity of the city is well attested by its name of medieval origin, "Urbs Vetus," or "Old Town", which is referring to the old “Velzna”, a town that was was located in an virtually inaccessible area and equipped with powerful fortifications. Ancient "Velzna" was a rich city, due to the fact that it controlled the river communications between Etruria and Rome.

Many Latin writers referred to the power and wealth of Velzna, such as Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), who called it "Oppidum Tuscorum opulentissimum" (“Rich fortified city of the Etruscans”), and Valerius Maximus (first century AD), who considered “Volsinii Veteres” to be “Caput Etruriae” (“Capital of Etruria”).

Orvieto, before the Roman conquest, offered a courageous resistance and in fact it was the last of the Etruscan cities to give in to the Romans, who destroyed it and deported all the inhabitants to a colony near the Lake of Bolsena.

Origins of the name Velzna

According to most reliable studies, the etymology of “Velzna” (Latinized as “Volsinii”),  has its roots in the Etruscan “Vels”, and refers to a noble - it means “belonging to Vels” - and hence the name refers to the possessions belonging to this Etruscan family [1].

According to Massimo Pallottino (1909-1990), one of the greatest scholars of Etruscology, the ancient root "Vel" returns

"[...] with constancy both in peoples names and in place-names; for instance, 'vel', 'Velthur' (peoples -names ) 'veltha', ‘velthune’ (God)  ‘Velca’ , ‘Velzna’ , ‘Velathri’, names of cities [...]" [2].

Orvieto in medieval times

In medieval times there was a new flowering of the city, which became, between the 11th and 14th centuries, one of the most powerful Italian cities, and had strong expansionist ambitions which led the city to struggle very hard against the neighbouring towns, such as Siena, Viterbo and Perugia.

Orvieto chose to maintain a firm alliance with the powerful Florence, and this increased its prestige and well-being, becoming the favourite residence, especially in the 14th century, of the Popes and the Papal Court.

Like many Italian cities, in the 14th and 15th centuries, Orvieto was in the middle of bloody battles among the powerful families of the city, particularly between the Family of Filippeschi and the Monaldeschi, though eventually it became part of the Church State, under the rule of which it remained until the unification of Italy in 1861.

Orvieto today

Today the economic development of Orvieto is based almost exclusively on tourism, based around the city's artistic heritage, both Etruscan and for the art treasures of the cathedral, dedicated to the Assumption, to which the best artists of Italy participated in constructing.

See the Orvieto travel guide.

References

1. See M. Cristofani, “Siena: le Origini. Testimonianze e miti archeologici” [“Siena: Origins. Some Evidences and archaeological myths”], Olschki, 1979, p. 4

2. See Massimo Pallottino, “Saggi di Antichità” [“Some essays about the Antiquity”], 1979, p. 494