Giornale Adriatico-Mediterraneo: Orvieto's Unconscious

06/23/2015 08:49 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016


Pasolini famously shot The Gospel According to St. Matthew in the Matera caves (the Sassi di Matera) of Southern Italy, which have been inhabited since prehistoric times. Orvieto is another city with storied caves, in this case going back to the Etruscan era between the 7th and 2nd centuries BC. Orvieto was struck by a volcano over 100,000 years ago. Tufa, the rock produced by volcanic ash, can be particularly malleable yet strong. It's estimated there still are over 1200 caves lying under Orvieto today. The Etruscans used caves for their cisterns but they were also the site of tombs and necropoli. It was only after the middle ages that caves started to be employed for more mercantile uses like making olive oil, wine and also raising pigeons which nested in dovecotes. Pigeon shit was an industry until a papal decree forbade the openings through which the pigeons flew and which were being used by people who wanted to sneak into the city without paying taxes. Rope making from hemp and pottery soon supplanted pigeons. In a kinder world, Terry Malloy, the character Marlon Brando played in On the Waterfront, who found peace raising pigeons on his tenement roof, might have retired to a pigeon coop or co-op in Orvieto. Even though Orvieto like Siena and Rome was a so-called Citta Aperta (and hence protected from bombing during World War II), there were caves that were used by the local hospital as bomb shelters. Orvieto is a resplendent medieval city built high above surrounding vineyards and the caves constitute a kind of hidden world that's far more extensive than the basement or cellar you find under a typical home. Orvieto's caves are like an unconscious, a massive dark and hidden place that's the repository of the long history lying under the veneer of everyday life.

watercolor of dovecotes by Hallie Cohen

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}