St Patrick’s Well
St. Patrick’s Well in Orvieto is an amazing masterpiece of hydraulic engineering originally named Pozzo della Rocca, the fortress well.
The cylindrical hole is enormous: it is 54 metres deep and has a diameter of 13 metres.
The ingenious design of the well uses two opposite doors that lead to spiralling staircases down to the water, for a total of 248 steps. The architectural solution of a double helicoidal staircase is very interesting: planned for easier transportation of water, it was built in such a way that those descending with their mules or donkeys would never meet those ascending in the opposite direction.
A wooden bridge, on the bottom, allows the crossing of the well. The water level is kept constant through an emissary that drains the water in excess.
The well is ventilated and illuminated by seventy-two arc windows that take light from a skylight at the top. The swirling fenestration sequence adds mystery and magic to the monument.
From the outside, St Patrick‘s well appears as a wide and low cylindrical building, showing two openings diametrically opposite to each other, one for people to go down, the other for them to come back up.
An inscription on the well states QUOD NATURA MUNIMENTO INVIDERAT INDUSTRIA ADIECIT (what nature stinted for provision, application has supplied), a celebration to the power of human intelligence over the deficiencies of nature.
Built in 1527 and completed in 1537, it was commissioned by Pope Clement VII who, after the sack of Rome, took refuge in Orvieto and feared that the city’s water supply wouldn’t be sufficient in the event of a siege. The well was designed by his trusted friend Antonio da Sangallo Il Giovane, a brilliant Florentine architect.
In the eighteenth century, the well was named after St. Patrick for its alleged similarity with the cave the saint used as a retreat for penitence and prayer.
According to a medieval legend, Jesus showed St. Patrick a cave on Station Island (sometimes described as a “pit” or “well”, of which there are a few shallow ones remaining), in Lough Derg (Ireland), in which the saint received visions of the punishments of hell and was subsequently able to use the site as proof of a Christian afterlife for his wavering followers. This ancient pilgrimage site, the St. Patrick’s Purgatory, dates from the fifth century and its importance in medieval times is clear from the fact that it is mentioned in texts dated 1185 and shown on maps from all over Europe in the fifteenth century. It is the only Irish site designated on Martin Behaim’s world map of 1492.
Unlike the Irish legend, the St. Patrick’s Well in Orvieto doesn’t deal with personalities but narrates it to be a place where to retire and pray and, for those who ventured to its bottom, remission of sins and access to heaven were granted.
It is said that in the 1940’s, Orvieto and St Patrick’s Well had been visited by the Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, an English molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist, most noted for being a co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953 with James Watson.
Intriguingly, the double staircase has a geometrical similarity with the double helix structure of DNA discovered about 420 years after the construction of the well.
Furthermore, the double staircase produces a perspective visual game: those who go down see directly in front of them the people who are coming up while the ones who are just a few steps ahead of them, appear to be distant.
Due to the sacred and magical aura that accompanies the deep cavity of St Patrick’s Well or for pure cinematographic imitation, modern tourists will throw coins into the well’s water to make sure they will come back to Orvieto.