When I am in the Umbrian hilltop town of Orvieto, what I like to do best is to wander through the backstreets, all the way to the viewpoints on the far outskirts, in front of the pretty little church of San Giovenale (Saint Juvenal).
This spot is a jewel for many reasons: firstly you can admire the exterior of the church, which dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries, then inside you can study a range of more than 100 frescoes from the 13th-18th centuries, and finally you can enjoy the lovely views over the surrounding hills and plains.
According to some records, the church here was built on an Etruscan site where there used to be a temple to Jupiter, the chief deity of classical religions. His name is Giove in Italian, which may have encouraged the locals to dedicate the Christian church to the similarly-named San Giovenale.
When you first arrive, above the side door you will see this 15th century image of San Giovenale himself, inside a shell.
Considered the first bishop of Narni in the fourth century, San Giovenale was widely venerated in Umbria during the Middle Ages. There are few historical records about his life, but some accounts point to him being from Africa. Existing records also suggest he was ordained by Pope Damasus I, and that he was buried on the ancient Via Flaminia Roman road.
Walking around to the front of the church, you can have a look at its old facade, which dates back to a 12th century Romanesque revamp of the building.
Then you can take a wander inside the church, and spend some time studying the frescoes covering the walls, which stem from varying phases between the 13th and 18th centuries. Following are a few that I particularly liked, to give you an idea of the style. Here is Saint Christopher holding the Baby Jesus, a fresco dating from the second phase of painting, completed around the 13th and 14th century.
This is the Madonna of Graces and Saints, also from the second phase of painting, which can be traced back to the workshop of the Master of the Madonna of San Brizio. He is an unknown old master linked to a panel of the Madonna and Child in Orvieto Cathedral.
Here’s one of San Giovenale himself, dating from the fourth phase of painting in the 14th and 15 centuries. He is depicted on a throne.
There are many portrayals of Mary. I liked these two, both of the Madonna with two saints.
The church’s arches and painted pillars are particularly beautiful.
There are some other interesting details to observe. This inscription, for example, is written in 13th century Orvieto dialect, and reminds the faithful of the 10 commandments: “Non adorare Dii haltrui. Non recetare lu nome sancto invano de Dio tuo. Fare aricordamento de ariposare lu sabato”.
Before you head back into town, take a moment to look over at the beautiful surroundings of Orvieto, including lush green fields and vineyards.
As you walk towards the centre, there is another gem worth seeing. This is the courtyard of the 15th century Palazzo Filippeschi-Simoncelli. It’s entered through a big door which is usually left half-open, so it feels like you are stumbling on a secret garden. It is a lovely and romantic place, with beautiful roses and flowers blooming in the spring and summer time.
Hope you also have a chance to visit this beautiful courtyard, and to discover the wonderful church of San Giovenale!