One of the most famous attractions in the small, Umbrian town of Orvieto about an hour’s drive north of Rome is St. Patrick’s Well. This incredible 16th century feat of engineering is 72 meters (174.4 feet) deep and 13 meters (43 feet) wide. Two staircases circle the central opening in a double-helix design, meaning that one person (or donkey carrying empty buckets) can travel down the staircase in one direction and never run into another person (or donkey carrying full buckets) coming up in the other direction. Seventy-two arched windows in the interior wall of the staircase filter light through the well and illuminate the brick and mortar used to seal it.
Why does a tiny town on top of a plateau of volcanic rock (or “tufa”) have such a thing? For the same reason it has such a stunning duomo! After the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII was held hostage in Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome’s holy fortress, for six months. He finally escaped dressed as a servant and took refuge in Orvieto. It was the perfect spot with its vantage point over the valley.
It didn’t, however, have a reliable source of water without descending from the plateau, something the Pope feared could be a issue if it were sieged. To solve the problem before it existed, Pope Clement VII commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, a visionary young Italian architect, to create a well that was at that time called “Pozzo della Rocca”, “Well of the Fortress”. Research had already been done to find the most suitable spot for a well and so the design and construction of Pozzo della Roca was begun immediately. It was finished 10 years later in 1537, under the reign of Pope Paul III.
It wasn’t until the 1800′s that the well got its new name, as it reminded some of the “well” or “cave” in Ireland called “St. Patrick’s Purgatory”. Supposedly God showed St. Patrick into this deep well in the earth that would connect with purgatory in order to show the saint’s would-be followers (who were doubtful of the saint’s teachings without “proof”) that he spoke the true word of God.
In order to get to the well, you have to walk all the way to the east edge of the plateau and enter a small park.
At the end of a long lane lined with trees, a squat, circular building sits with only two arched doors: an entrance and an exit. This is how the top of the well looks from the air:
After finding the right door (50/50 chance!) and buying your ticket, you’re left to make you way down, down, down to the bottom of the well. If you look over the edge through one of the windows cut in the stone, you might be able to see a small reflection on a sunny day that shows you your destination. Either way, just keep going…
It all looks quite the same until you suddenly emerge at the bottom, a narrow walkway suspended over a small pool of water. It’s said that if you toss in a coin, you’re guaranteed to return happily to Orvieto at some point in the future.
The real view isn’t down, though, but up!
Yes, I’m a dork and pretended I was falling down the well.
After taking your own dorky picture, there’s nothing left to do but make the climb back up the 248 steps, your way becoming brighter as you approach the other door at the top.
Pope Clement VII’s fears were never realized; he made his peace with Charles V and went back to Rome. The well, in fact, isn’t in use. It remains in Orvieto as it was almost 600 years ago, a peace of history to marvel over and experience for yourself.