Earthquakes, miracles and frescoes



We travelled north towards the Lake of Bolsena, the largest volcanic lake in Europe and the town where the miracle of Corpus Christi took place in 1263. Bolsena is on the Roman Via Cassia, often called Via Francigena (the road of the Franks) or Via Romea, the route for the pilgrims from the north on their way to Rome. A priest from Prague stopped to celebrate mass in the small wayside church of Saint Christina, an early Christian martyr. As he celebrated, he began to doubt the miracle of the Eucharist, and blood began flowing from the host on to the altar cloth. He rushed to the Pope who happened to be in nearby Orvieto, and Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated on the first Sunday in June after the Feast of the Trinity.

One of the many joys of having Viterbo as our centre is that none of our destinations involve a long journey but each covers a distinct landscape. It is dramatic around Bolsena, and Bagnoregio in mistsparticularly at Civita di Bagnoregio. In the early Middle Ages it developed under the Lombards into a town with two boroughs. After the 1695 earthquake, the borough of Civita was damaged and the bishop’s seat transferred to Rota, now Bagnoregio. The 1764 earthquake separated the two boroughs and caused the connecting road to collapse. The two boroughs were now divided by a chasm and Bagnoregio was abandoned until the modern bridge was built in 1965. The scenery is dramatic. We reached Bagnoregio after a walk over the bridge suspended above cavernous cliffs. When I first visited it many years ago it was only inhabited by artists who found inexpensive places to live. Now much of it is restored and the church is a place of pilgrimage. St. Bonaventure was born in Rota in 1221, five years before St. Francis died, and studied in Lyons where an Englishman, Alexander of Hales, persuaded him to become a Franciscan monk. He became a great theologian, like his contemporary St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican, and together they defended their two recently founded mendicant orders. St. Bonaventure wrote a biography of St. Francis while St. Thomas Aquinas was asked to write a mass to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi. An interesting detail is that in 1265 Bonaventure declined the Archbishopric of York. The repopulated borough feels like a special place, one of pilgrimage. Just imagine what the two devastating earthquakes must have meant to the inhabitants of the two boroughs!

The miracle of Corpus Christi is closely linked to the foundation of the cathedral of Orvieto, that was the Etruscan city of Velzna and later the Roman one of Volsinii. It is perched on a volcanic outcrop, strategically placed in the Tiber valley at the meeting of important trade routes. In 264 BC noble families invited the Roman army to enter and protect them from attacks from the lower classes, but instead the army destroyed Volsinii and transported its inhabitants to Volsinii Novi, or Bolsena. Volsinii was abandoned. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s, Bolsena was Orvieto Cathedral tourism destinationsdestroyed by frequent incursions along the Via Cassia and from the late 5th century a town was re-established where the original Volsinii was and renamed Urbs Vetus, old city, or Orvieto. I wonder how much of the previous Etruscan and Roman city remained. It became a vital city state ruling over the vast territory once controlled by the Etruscans until the mid-14th century, when it became part of the Papal States.


Pope Urban IV was sheltering in the city when the miracle of Corpus Christi took place in 1263, and in 1290 it was decided to build a new cathedral on the site of an earlier one. The first architect was the Florentine Arnolfo di Cambio, who designed Florence cathedral about the same time. Orvieto cathedral was enlarged by Lorenzo Maitani who also did the striking reliefs on the façade. I think this cathedral is very special with its spacious interior and its alabaster windows giving the interior a glowing golden light. The cloth stained with the blood from the host before the disbelieving Bohemian priest is kept in an ornate reliquary in the Chapel of the Corporal, which is frescoed by artists in the late 1300s, influenced by Giotto.  There is so much to ponder over in this cathedral, but most visitors only rush to the chapel built in the early 1400s to balance the Chapel of the Corporal. The vault frescoes there were started by Fra Angelico, until he was called away by Pope Nicholas IV to decorate a chapel, an early

Inside the Chapel of San Brizio

Inside the Chapel of San Brizio

commission to enhance the Vatican. Years passed. Then Perugino was commissioned to continue the vault, but he was too busy in the Sistine Chapel. Finally, towards the end of the 15th century, Signorelli from Cortona was called in to complete Fra Angelico’s vault frescoes – one could hardly imagine two such different styles! He so impressed the cathedral authorities that he was asked to fresco the chapel walls, in the process producing what most consider to be his masterpiece. Michelangelo is on record as having admired its dramatic muscular strength. Signorelli’s fresco of The Last Judgement may have influenced Michelangelo’s on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel..

On our return journey we stopped at a country house set in its own vineyards and, after an idiosyncratic and highly amusing introduction by the owner, she took us on a tour of the cellars. Our visit ended with a wine tasting with cheese and lightly toasted bread and a lively introduction to each of the white and red wines. Not having serious luggage restrictions on our return flight, many gave into temptation and bought bottles of mine. I asked the feisty proprietor to sign mine – she had never been asked this before!


If you enjoy my writing, please recommend it to others by clicking on the sharing buttons above.

My latest book, Mastering The Sun, is available from Amazon…

Share This