Cortona, a special town
A local saying goes: “Cortona: mother of Troy and grandmother of Rome”. According to tradition, Dardanus, the founder of the city of Troy, was born here. And as classical literature teaches us, his heir Aeneas was the ancestor of Romulus, the founder of Rome. How much is true in this story, it is not for me to say, what is certain is that we are talking about an ancient city inhabited by the Etruscans several centuries before the birth of Christ. In Etruscan times the city was very rich and powerful but then underwent expansionism in Rome first and then barbarian invasions.
In medieval times the city established itself as a free commune from the thirteenth century and was involved in the bitter struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines until, in the fifteenth century, it became part of the Florentine Republic. This new situation guaranteed a century of peace (finally!) but then was involved in the war between Florence and Spain.
During the domination of the Lorraine, Cortona experienced a period of development despite having to face the Napoleonic invasion at the end of the XVIII century. Back in the Grand Duchy, Cortona actively participated in the Italian Risorgimento uprisings that led to the unification of Italy.
Today Cortona is one of the most popular and well-known destinations in all of Tuscany thanks also to the fame deriving from the film “Under the Tuscan Sun” taken from the book of the same name. This fame is absolutely deserved, Cortona is truly one of the most interesting cities to visit in the region, with a first-rate historical, artistic and archaeological heritage and an infinity of things to see.
What to do in Cortona
Places to visit:
- Piazza della Repubblica
- Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e della città di Cortona
- Museo Diocesano
- Chiesa di San Francesco
- Basilica di Santa Margherita
- Fortezza del Girifalco
Our visit to Cortona starts from Piazzale del Mercato, southern area of the town, one of the largest parking that you’ll find outside the city walls. Passing through Porta Sant’Agostino, you access via Guelfa. This road leads us to one of the main squares of Cortona: Piazza della Repubblica.
Piazza della Repubblica
In this beautiful square, the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo and the Palazzo Comunale are facing each other. The second one, rebuilt several times between the thirteenth and nineteenth century, stands atop a staircase and is characterized by a sixteenth-century tower present on the facade.
Now, proceed on the right of Palazzo Comunale to reach Piazza Signorelli.
Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e della città di Cortona
The square, named after Luca Signorelli renaissance painter born in Cortona, is dominated by the magnificent Palazzo Casali. Palazzo Casali was built in 13th century and it’s the house of the Municipal library, the historical archives and especially of the Accademia Etrusca.
The Museum of the Accademia Etrusca was founded in 1727 starting from the abbot Onofrio Baldelli’s collection. Since then the Academy has been enriched thanks to numerous donations and legacies. The museum displays many archaeological and art work dated between the 13th and the 19th century.
Among the most important archaeological findings of the museum there are two etruscan artifacts, a chandelier and an inscription. The chandelier (fourth or fifth century B.C.) is a big bronze artifact with a complex decoration inspired by mythical subjects as the mermaids. The inscription we were talking about is the famous Tabula Cortonensis. It is a bronze table (7 fragments) representing the third longest Etruscan language inscription ever found. Needless to emphasize the importance of a find like this from an archaeological point of view!
Among the other works, we mention the Madonna col Bambino e i santi Protettori di Cortona (beginning 16th century) attributed to Luca Signorelli and the Maternità (1916) by Gino Severini.
For information on opening hours and tickets, I refer you to the official website of the museum.
Get back to our walk in the city centre of Cortona continuing on the right of the Museum until you reach piazza del Duomo. On the square there are, facing each other, the Concattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta and the Museo Diocesano. The background of the square is not occupied by other buildings but by a spectacular view over the valley.
The cathedral is a Renaissance building constructed just before the city walls in the late 15th century. In front, on the right side of the portal, there are some traces of a previous parish church dedicated to Santa Maria. Inside you can admire several works such as the Adoration of the shepherds by Pietro da Cortona, Communion of Maria by Salvi Castellucci, the Transfiguration by Raffaello Vanni and the Madonna del Pianto, a terracotta work painted by an unknown artist (13th century).
Inside the oratory of the former church of Jesus, the Museo Diocesano hosts many masterpieces made by masters like Pietro Lorenzetti, Beato Angelico, Sassetta, Luca Signorelli and several sacred furnishings. The main works are the Annunciation of Cortona and the Triptych of Cortona by Beato Angelico, the Maestà of Cortona and a crucifix by Pietro Lorenzetti, the Polyptych of San Domenico in Cortona by Sassetta, the Lamentation over the Dead Christ and the Communion of the Apostles by Luca Signorelli.
Chiesa di San Francesco
After visiting the Cathedral, we return to piazza della Repubblica and we walk along via Santucci until we reach the Chiesa di San Francesco. The church, on the top of a staircase, was built during the thirteenth century but then it was largely modified between the 16th and the 17th century. From the original building there are only few elements such as the portal and the rose window.
Inside there is a fragment of the Holy Cross that Friar Elia brought to Cortona from Constantinople and some important works such as the Nativity by Raffaello Vanni, the Annunciation by Pietro da Cortona and the Miracle of the walls of Cigoli. In the adjacent convent there are some relics of San Francesco d’Assisi.
Basilica di Santa Margherita
Frome the Chiesa di San Francesco take via Berrettini and, after Piazza della Pescaia, take via Santa Margherita. The road leads off from the core of the village snaking through the trees until we reach a beautiful panoramic position where is located the Basilica di Santa Margherita. The church was built in 1304 a few years after the death of Santa Margherita da Cortona but in the 19th century it was completely rebuilt. The interiors are very colorful and retain some works of sure interest besides the funeral monument of Santa Margherita which is preserved in the left transept.
Fortezza del Girifalco
Enjoys an even better overview the Fortezza Medicea also known as the Fortezza del Girifalco that from the top of the hill (651 meters above the sea level) dominates the entire city. The fortress was built in 1556 by Cosimo I in place of a previous medieval fort which in turn had replaced an ancient etruscan structure.
From its walls you can enjoy a magnificent 360 ° panoramic view of Cortona and the surrounding area!
For more information on timetables, tickets and especially on the events that are organized at the fortress, I recommend you visit the official website.
The walls of Cortona
The walls of Cortona have an ancient origin. The first wall were built by the Etruscans in the late 5th century B.C. Then the wall were rebuilt on serveral occasions during the Roman era before, during the middle age and also during the Granducato di Toscana. Each of these phases has left visible traces in the masonry.
Today the walls measure just less than three kilometres and are opened by some city gates, related to the various construction phases, as the estruscan Porta Bifora, those created by Romans (Porta Santa Maria, Porta San Domenico, Porta Sant’Agostino and Porta Colonia), the medieval Porta Montanina, Porta Berarda and Porta San Giorgio and, in the end, the nineteenth-century Porta Santa Margherita.
What to see around Cortona
In the surroundings of Cortona there are many interesting places to visit. The first one I want to talk about is the Eremo “Le Celle”, a Franciscan convent founded by San Francesco in 1211. The complex is located in a suggestive position in a valley just north of Cortona (about 3 km). A place of spirituality and silence immersed in the green of the woods in close contact with nature. The second place that I recommend to visit is the Abbazia di Farneta, a complex rich in history that was founded in the eighth century by the monks of San Colombano. In the vicinity I also point out the Rocca di Pierle, an imposing medieval fortress which, although reduced to the state of ruin, still retains much of its walls and the remains of some towers.
How to get to Cortona
Cortona is about 30 Km south from Arezzo.
From Arezzo (40 minutes): strada regionale 71 then strada provinciale 34
From Florence (120Km, 1H30′): hughway A1 until the exit Valdichiana, then continue on the raccordo autostradale Bettolle-Perugia until the exit for Cortona, finally strada provinciale 10 (SP10/B).
By train: The closest train station is that one of Camucia (only 2Km)
By bus: from Arezzo Line L6S Tiemme.