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Following the sack of Rome in 1527 by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII left plague-ridden Rome and took refuge in Orvieto. Worried, however, of the city’s lack of water in the event of a siege, he ordered that a well be dug from atop Orvieto’s already very high tufo bluff.
Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, papal architect and engineer who supervised the construction of St.Peter’s Basilica among others, was charged with the project. In order to prevent passage issues for the horse drawn carts that would bring water up from the bottom of the 175 foot deep well, Sangallo devised an intelligent system. It consisted of two separate entrances leading to two distinct one-way ramps. One ramp was to descend, and it ended at a small bridge at the bottom of the well, at water level.
Crossing this small bridge, the carts would then access an identical spiral ramp that led back up to the surface. Essentially the two matching ramps were coiled in parallel, at 180 degrees to one another, a double helix very much like the structure of a DNA molecule. Soluzione molto elegante.
Worth a visit next time you are in Orvieto, especially if travelling with kids. Given its supposedly just as equally frightful depth, the Pozzo di San Patrizio is named after St.Patrick’s Purgatory, a cave on Station Island in Ireland that legend holds was shown to Ireland’s Patron Saint by Christ in a dream as the entrance to Purgatory.
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