The History and Mystery of The Underground Tunnels of Orvieto

Perched on the rocky hills of Umbria, Italy is the small city of Orvieto. The city is known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, the magnificent Cathedral of Orvieto, and the world-class Orvieto Classico wine. In the early centuries of the middle ages, the city even held the honor of being the pope’s residence as evidenced by the  Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo and the military history of the Albornoz fortress. More than the sprawling culture and history of the surface, this small town also has a lot to offer beneath the surface in its series of underground caves called the Orvieto Underground.

The Discovery of the Orvieto Underground

The Orvieto Underground was discovered in the 1970s by a group of speleologists, scientists that study caves. The discovery was brought about by a landslide which caused huge chunks of the Orvieto City’s Rupe to break down near the famous Duomo, the Orvieto Cathedral. The incident concerned the citizens and many other people around the world that worried about the preservation of the cultural legacy of the city.

The Discovery of the Orvieto Underground
The Discovery of the Orvieto Underground

However, the landslide also revealed gaps and contoured windows along the flanks of the Rupe. The group of speleologists took the opportunity to explore these caves and debunked the myth that there was nothing to be found beneath the city of Orvieto. The Orvieto Underground was a series of caves akin to a labyrinth composed of 1,200 grottos, reservoirs, wells, and tunnels.

Historical Significance of the Caves

More than two millennia ago, when the city of Orvieto was still the land of the Etruscans, and the present town was just beginning to form its foundations, the citizens atop the cliff tunneled under their homes into the soft tunnels underneath in search for wells of water. It served the purpose of a place for keeping their pigeons, and rooms or areas conducive for temperature-controlled storage. The walls filled with pockets of holes made for storage can still be seen in the underground today. During the latter part of the medieval period, the small city of Orvieto began to grow rich and prosperous, and the citizens started to find another purpose for the network of caves underneath the city. Many of the caverns in the underground were repurposed to serve as production workshops for the city’s ceramics while some of the materials that they used such as soft stone for making cement were mined in some of the quarries. Other citizens made use of the big caves to produce the region’s prized olive oil.

Historical Significance of the Caves
Historical Significance of the Caves

During World War II, some parts of the Orvieto Underground served as a refuge for the citizens of the city during bombings. Orvieto was declared an Open City at some point in the war which spared it the fate of other towns during air raids. However, the city was very close to the railways, so there was still a lot of conflict in the area between the Germans and members of the Allied forces. At present, many of the citizens still use the underground caves that are located beneath their homes. Although to maintain the stability of the city’s structure, further tunneling into the underground caves has been prohibited.