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Orte Underground


Underground fountain

The Underground Fountain, probably excavated in the Roman period in an area were many other structures were built to embellish the city, is the end point of the ancient aqueduct, with the main tunnel usually said to date from between the 6th and 5th century BC. It was long the only source of public water supply and storage in the city.

The stone slabs around the edges of the basin have evident indentations due to the centuries of use by the women who went there to fill their water jars. The municipal statutes provided for severe punishments for anyone who dirtied the water.

A custodian, appointed by the city administrators, was required to clean the fountain and safeguard the keys to the gate, which he alone was allowed to open. The current layout of the fountain is due to the work undertaken in the early 17th century.


The tunnels

The main tunnel was designed between the 6th and 5th century BC as a system to collect rainwater filtering through the tufa rock and the water and the water from the springs on the nearby Grazie hill, and convey it to the town fountains and cisterns.

The main conduit of the network is about 1,600 m long, and leads from the Underground Fountain in Piazza della Libertà to the Rocca area on the other end of the town. The tunnels show many signs of the construction process and of the worksites used for the excavation.

There is a series of vertical shafts for the removal of the excavation material, the false ceilings showing signs of river reeds and small twigs used to install them, and the lateral openings for draining off any excess water flow.

The tour currently starts from the Underground Fountain and, after a route about 280 m, ends at the underground chamber near the “Arco del Vascellaro” (Potter’s Arch).


Fratini cistern

In his work, the 16th century local historian Leoncini wrote: “In the Bishop’s Palace there was a well near the street which lead to the church of San Lorenzo” [currently occupied by the Town Music School]; moreover, “at the place where the door is located there was a street with an entrance into the church of San Lorenzo through a small door, this is where the water well was located.”

The description full y reflects the characteristics of the cloister located in Piazza Fratini and which forms one of the entrances to the underground complex. This complex has two levels. A steep stairway leads to a square chamber used as a cellar, and another stairway leads down to the lower level. Here we find a network of tunnels.

The central tunnel leads to the cistern (on the left) and to the main central aqueduct tunnel (on the right). The Piazza Fratini Cistern is about 30 m from the Underground Fountain. Following a short stretch of square-shaped tunnel, we find the remains of two other tunnels interrupted by and obliterated by the central one; this enables us to say beyond all doubt that the interrupted tunnels are older than the square tunnel. The stretch of tunnel connecting the cistern with the main central tunnel is framed by two fine columns carved into the rock.


Roman earthenware cistern

These chambers, with access from a lateral passageway in the main tunnel, have no connection with the aqueduct system. The Earthenware Cistern” is a round room with a diameter of about 4 metres, and has been in continuous use from at least the 1st century BC up to recent times.

The original round cistern, with the waterproof earthenware floor and a rectangular shaft, acquired a second shaft in medieval times (13th century on the basis of the building technique). Lined by small tufa stones, it was not designed for water storage but as a granary. The conversion of the chamber into a granary altered the original layout of the Roman cistern, with the squaring off of the circular walls.

Direct physical contact with the main tunnel occurred unintentionally when a cellar was excavated, connecting the aqueduct on one side to the cistern on the other. The construction of the cellar marked the final conversion of the complex into a storage area, with the cistern chamber being equipped with a stairway.

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Vascellaro chamber

Near the “Arco del Vascellaro” (Potter’s Arch) and the former Church San Gregorio, we can find the underground chamber that perhaps best represents the continuity of the life and utilization of underground areas in Orte. It was excavated on the cliff face, removing the entire western wall of the main conduit, thus altering its function.

The chamber, roughly rectangular (6 X 3 m) contains a vat for pressing grapes. On the eastern side a low wall marks the vat, paved with tiles and linked with a tube to a smaller vat below, excavated in the tufa rock.

After the grapes were crushed in the paved area, the juice probably flowed into the stone vat where the production process started.


Underground dovecotes

Underground dovecotes (“colombaie”) are widespread in Southern Etruria; these chambers are excavated around the upper edge of tufa plateaus, often near or below existing settlements.

Their walls a almost entirely covered by small niches on various rows, and with windows, though these have not always been preserved. In Roman times, pigeon breeding seems to have been highly remunerative: Varro quotes the value of a pair of fine pigeons, sold on the Rome market, as being 200 nummi and sometimes as much as 1,000.

Going down a stairway leading from Piazza Solferino along the northern face of the hill, we come to an underground complex, and going down another long stairway we come to two chambers with windows overlooking the River Tiber.

Dating from the 13th century, the dovecotes underwent considerable changes in subsequent periods, due to climatic changes inducing the pigeons to nest on the other side of the hill. The chambers were first of all converted into textile and carpentry workshops, and later into cellars.


Snow well

A “Snow Well” is a structure for holding snow with the function of today’s refrigerators. Located in the cellars of the old Orte Hospital, the well and the related chamber reflect the history of the hospital.

The set of underground rooms and passageways, where the Snow Well is located, dates from different periods.

A network of tunnels, apparently branches of the main aqueduct and equipped with sluice gates to temporarily divert the water flow in order to do maintenance work on the tunnels, probably dates back to Roman times.

The area comes within the medieval Raccomandati Hospital, with an underground chamber interrupting and altering the earlier aqueduct tunnels. Here, the water was subdivided to supply the large cistern (branch to the right) and the adjacent washing room (branch to the left).

The stairway leading to the Snow Well, with its ramp for lowering barrels, probably dates from the 19th century.

The chamber, built in 1891, is a rarity since it is one of the few structures of this type to preserve an engraved inscription indicating the contracting party, date of construction, type of use and the name of the builder.

The snow was brought from the nearby Cimini Mountains, with compact blocks wrapped in straw, and deposited in the well, thus cooling the entire chamber.

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