Underground City

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The Temple of Belvedere, invited sieges, dinner pigeons, consequential instability, mythological seduction, uprisings, earthen unveiling, Dante, mirrored maps & the Etruscan metropolis.


I have always been fond of the Etruscans, probably because they’re the historical underdogs. Nobody makes you learn what was first invented by Etruscans and then co-opted by Romans and all their successors. No one reminds you that some ancient Italian societies were kinder to their women, maybe did not turn them all into harpy wives or maidens ready to be seduced by a god disguised as an animal. Only the brave are willing to mention to their students that the statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf was sculpted before those twins were born. Even in Orvieto—the tiny, ancient Italian city I’ve been inhabiting, built on the stump of an even older volcano—we don’t know much about the people who were equally as smart and advanced and aesthetically sculpted as the Romans, but who happened to lose the battle for history.

What we know is that before Orvieto, there was Velzna, Etruscan metropolis.

Velzna held a famous sanctuary—the Fanum Voltumnae, heart of the Etruscan religion—and a necropolis built onto the side of a cliff, and a temple, the Temple of Belvedere. The neighborhood where I grew up in Massachusetts was sometimes called Belvedere Plains, but I doubt the WASPs who ran it knew what an ancient thing they referenced.


Some of the passages go deeper underneath the city; their stairs descend back and down. The air that comes out of them tastes older.


In Velzna, Etruscan leaders gathered to hold conferences and peace talks and debates. It was a central city with power. Most of all of this is ambiguous, deduced from a few bits of ruin. History is written by the victors.

When the Romans came for Velzna, the Etruscans used the city to defend themselves, retreating into their caves, surviving by the wells they had dug into the rock and managing to hold Caesar off for two years. To defend Orvieto, you don’t really need to do much but shoot at anyone who tries to climb the cliff it’s built on. But after two years of being barricaded in their homes, the Etruscans started to crack. Or, rather, their slaves started to crack. The historical word on the street is that Velzna had been so wealthy for so long that its residents stopped running the city. It was run by someone, but that someone was a slave, many slaves. The Etruscans partied. Their slaves did all the work, manual and also political. It was a system designed to fail.

When times got tough in Velzna—and Roman sieges are known to be exhausting—the slaves thought they saw their chance and revolted. Their masters, having no real sense of how the world worked since they hadn’t participated in it for years, secreted notes to Rome for help. They asked the armies that had been holding their city captive to come inside and settle a domestic dispute. So it was by invitation that Velzna fell to the Romans, that its builders were evacuated out of the city and wandered to Lake Bolsena, homeless. It was with an open door that Velzna lost its name and became another province sending food to Rome. The Romans cleared signs of their predecessors, built on top of Velzna atop a mesa, saw the truth of the original city inside their plateau disappear and become rumor. For centuries, people whispered that Orvieto was all empty, beneath.

Compass Rose

The rock that Velzna and then the Urbs Vetus and then Orvieto were built on is notoriously unstable. Strong, but prone to mudslides and shedding. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when a particularly bad landslide hit the town, that history revealed itself like a secret, a portal to another world opening up. The ground shook and the entrance to the underground city emerged.

People strapped ropes to the trees and secure bits of homes, tied the other end to themselves and slipped down the edge of the plateau into the side of the cliff. They started exploring, began to map out the city underneath the city. The truth is, most people in Orvieto are living on top of a cave. If they dug through their basement, the earth would open up again.

Now, Velzna is the Oriveto Underground, as if it could be summed up so simply.

It’s closed off by a very secure-looking wrought-iron gate covering a hole in the city wall. Only the tour guides have the power to open the old city. The entrance to the underworld, hidden in plain sight, accessible only with the right guide. Dante would be pleased. I descended.


Masons followed the veins in stone they wanted and dug at will, expanded with no plan but to make more, to find more so there could be more.


Just inside the gate, there is a map of the underground city. It looks almost like the maps of the aboveground city, the same contour of the rock and covering the same territory, but the silhouettes are different. There is no Corso, no Duomo, no Piazza del Popolo, no Piazza della Repubblica, nothing to help you get your bearings. The guide stops here to give everyone a moment to find their beds and see how close they come to sleeping on top of a cave. In the sunlight above, my square apartment building looks so sturdy. But even here, with one foot in each world, I don’t want to think about what happens beneath our foundation. Luckily, there is not enough time to find out.

The people in front of me get into an intense debate over which cave lurks under their hotel, blocking the whole north side of the city with their aggressive heads.

As we shift away from the Underground Map, the guide announces that there are around 12,000 identified grottoes inside Orvieto’s rock. People have to check this map before building anything, and even then unmarked caves show up all the time. No one knows all of what used to be anymore. Just because you don’t know it’s there doesn’t mean it isn’t, although it feels better to me to think the other way around: what the sunlight makes me forget exists can’t hurt me.

The guide—a forty-year-old Italian woman wearing head-to-toe black and carrying a binder she will never open—turns from the gated entrance and heads deeper inside, down a set of narrow stairs and hallways and a series of caves and rooms and grottoes. Everything is monolithic, carved into the same piece of stone, made out of the same sandy, porous volcanic rock the city sits on and in. It’s blonde and pocked. Some of the rooms open into the edge of the plateau; I can look straight out of them and see sunlight and countryside and smell the air, pretend there is no modern city directly above my head, pretend that I’m not standing in a cave on the side of a cliff but in some sort of pre-ancient time warp, staring across the hills. A car goes by.


The Etruscans partied. Their slaves did all the work, manual and also political.


Some of the passages go deeper underneath the city; their stairs descend back and down. The air that comes out of them tastes older.

Whoever is behind this operation has wired a few lights to keep these rooms from becoming too dark, too much like unknowable caverns. Lights, so people can see the columns and high ceilings and simple walls that the Etruscans built into the rocks. No one tells us how they got electricity down here.

The guide leads us into a small room with walls sliced in rows of inset rectangles. Everything is carved into the rock, not out of it, so the lines of boxes are a part of the walls. In the back is a set of stairs, also in rock, ascending to somewhere. It looks like the P.O. box side of a post office: no blank space, just wall-to-wall inverted open mailboxes. The tour guide orders everyone into this room, which is tricky because we are not allowed to come into contact with most of it. There is a rope directing and limiting our path.

“Now,” she says, drawing out the word to give us all time for one more fidget. “Who can guess what this room was used for?” She asks in the way that makes it clear she already knows the answer.


The Romans cleared signs of their predecessors, built on top of Velana atop a mesa, saw the truth of the original city inside their plateau disappear and become rumor.


The couple who got into the argument over their hotel starts to whisper loudly. The man breaks away from his wife, looks up at the guide and states, “Storage.”

“No, not quite.” She looks around at everyone else, expectant.

“Food?” the wife counters.

“Not quite.”

The guide is tired of waiting. The people who owned this room were wealthy—in pigeons. Pigeons. Apparently, pigeons were the thing to have if you were Etruscan. It would not have been so homogeneous in this room back then, she explains. The color of the solid rock would be splotched with runny white and blue-grey poop, smudged on the floor and in the roosting boxes with lost feathers and pigeon footprints, mixed with unfinished foods and eggshells from the hatched. She makes us guess what the pigeons were used for. This one is easy: Homing pigeons! To send love notes and battle proclamations and pizza orders. Everybody knows that.

She’s answering her own question again: eating. The ancients loved tender pigeon meat for dinner.

The guide keeps walking us along. We go through some more pigeon rooms, some hallways, look out some narrow slits in the rock. She points out the perfectly measured shafts in the stone, dug to search for water, dug with handholds in their walls for people to climb down. Anyone who descends the shafts today would have to take the exact same steps the Etruscans carved, movements choreographed for them by a long-dead builder. They are barely large enough for a modern man to fit through. I could fit if it wasn’t so dark all the way down, if I had a head lamp, a bit more courage and no one watching. She does not offer for us to try. After all, tufa is very impressionable.


The truth is, most people in Orvieto are living on top of a cave. If they dug through their basement, the earth would open up again.


Farther back into the lightless labyrinth, we stop at what looks like a mill. The giant circular stone, carved of the same rock as the caves, is still there, still here, has been here since the caves were lost in not-battle. There are water channels carved into the floor, and bathtub-like troughs where she says they think the olives were stored before processing. She gestures to another corner of the room, where the animals that helped run the equipment ate their brown-bag lunches, another area where they think there were kilns to make pottery to hold the olive oil pressed here. They’ve been testing the rocks for what used to be on them.

She tells us we can come get married in this room. The city has issued a permit for people to come make important life decisions in an olive-press lounge of the ancients.

The guide keeps us walking, now into a series of rooms that make no sense. There are no ordered pigeon breeding holes in the walls, no steps, no wheels, no remnants of industry. Unlike everything else we’ve seen so far, the rooms are not symmetrical or ordered. The walls are irregular; they open and close on each other at will, have no uniformity in height or angle.

This was a quarry, she turns and announces. The Etruscans pulled stone out of the plateau they lived in and on to make more things to live in and with. Masons followed the veins in stone they wanted and dug at will, expanded with no plan but to make more, to find more so there could be more.

It could have destabilized everything, brought the sky down on their heads, might have if they hadn’t been conquered first.

It’s dangerous, trying to make something from the ground you’re standing on, the elements your life is built on. Sure, you can extract all those raw materials, try to make something meaningful and useful and beautiful from them, but what happens when your plans go awry? What happens when you miscalculate—accidentally excavate too much stone because you need it for that statue, that everlasting piece of art—and then your home, your life, everything else you love falls into the earth?

You have dug your own grave.

This is the end of the tour.

Feel free to show yourselves out.


Lydia C. Buchanan has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Her work has previously appeared in Entropy, Talking Writing and neutrons/protons. She currently lives in Boston.

Lead image: Daniel Burka

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