Cortona cuore etrusco

Cortona Etruscan heart

The history of Cortona is more ancient than that of Rome and its heart lies in the Etruscan world.
Cortona is a small village of about 22,000 inhabitants that has dominated the Valdichiana for about 3000 years.
This small town keeps intact its authentic charm and the traditional spirit of Tuscany.

Due to its position, Cortona is the ideal destination for anyone wishing to take a day trip off the beaten track.
The stone architecture of medieval origin offers the visitor unique sights.

Cortona also enjoys an excellent position:

  • it is about an hour from Assisi, Siena or Arezzo
  • an hour and a half from Florence
  • only 45 minutes from Perugia
  • about 30 minutes from Montepulciano and Val d’Orcia.

Due to its location, Cortona is the ideal destination for a day trip or as an overnight base from which to start various tours.
Let’s see in this article the main attractions of Cortona:

History

Ancient history

The origins of Cortona date back to the Etruscan period.
The Etruscans were an important population that lived in the territory that corresponds to the territory of present-day Tuscany and northern Lazio.
Already between the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. it is a lucumònia, one of the main Etruscan cities.
The set of the 12 most important lucumonies, each independent from the others, formed the so-called “dodecapolis“.
Its hilly location provided the city with a major strategic defensive advantage and control of the underlying areas. A large part of the ancient wall of the 4th century BC is still visible today.

At the end of the 4th century BC, along with many other Etruscan cities, it fell under the rule of Rome.
At the end of the Western Roman Empire it was occupied by the Goths in 450 AD

Medieval and modern history

Around the thirteenth century. Cortona became a free commune, often in conflict with its neighbors from Arezzo.
These clashes lasted for many decades, sometimes with the support of larger cities such as Florence and Siena.

In the Renaissance period and throughout the seventeenth century there are many artists who live and work in this city, leaving splendid testimonies. Among the main ones, Beato Angelico, Luca Signorelli, Francesco Laparelli or Pietro da Cortona.

During the period of the Grand Duchy of the Medici family, efforts were made to enhance the prestige of the city also thanks to the study of the classics of Latin literature. In this context legends are born with the aim of ennobling their origins.
Thus, some see in the name of Corythus, indicated in the Aeneid as the birthplace of Dardano, founder of Troy, a reference to Cortona. [Aeneid III, 167; VII, 209]

Following the passage from the Medici to the Habsburg-Lorraine family, agronomic development began due to the introduction of modern machinery. This will give a powerful new impetus to the economy of this area.

Today, the city of Cortona still retains an authentic character with an archaic flavor in all aspects, from architecture to cuisine.

What to see in town

Piazza della Repubblica

The cornerstone of the city, today as in the past, is certainly Piazza della Repubblica. Everything comes together here, as if attracted by the force of gravity.
The square opens up to the tables of the cafés, the shops of the artisans and the arcades of the noble palaces.
Today, as in the ancient times, Piazza della Repubblica is the heart of Cortona. Here, in fact, the two most important city streets of the city, the Cardo and the Decumano, intersected at the time of the Romans.
The majestic Palazzo Comunale with its staircase, built in the 12th century has been the seat of the public administration ever since.
Inside, you can admire the Sala del Consiglio, the city council hall, with its beautiful wooden benches, medieval frescoes and a stone fireplace.

Ruga piana

Via Nazionale, the main street in town, is still often referred to with its ancient name, Ruga Piana
It crosses it from west to east, up to Piazza Garibaldi and beyond, towards the Parterre, and it is practically the only flat road in the entire town
This is where the main shops are located and it is here that the locals love to stroll on holidays.
Various side streets also start from here, offering the most curious visitor some truly unique views of medieval architecture.

The Cathedral

It was originally built on the ruins of an ancient pagan temple, and around the 11th century became a town parish.
Santa Maria Assunta, this is the name of the church, became a cathedral only in 1507 at the behest of the pope.
The interior, thanks to changes in the 14th and 16th centuries, took on a more Renaissance character with references to Brunelleschi.
It consists of three naves divided by elegant columns and a beautiful barrel vault.
The works found there are a collection that spans the centuries up to the first half of the 1900s.
The church overlooks a small square that rests directly on the city walls, from which you can admire a splendid view of the valley.

Diocesan Museum

Right in front of the Cathedral, there is the beautiful Diocesan museum. It collects some of the most important works from the churches in the area.
Here you can admire works by Pietro Lorenzetti, a Sienese painter of the fourth century, who worked in Cortona. There are also several works by Luca Signorelli from Cortona, a precursor of mannerism. It is an artist who anticipated Michelangelo Buonarroti’s interest in anatomy.
But undoubtedly the masterpiece that makes this small museum so important is the marvelous Annunciazione by Beato Angelico, complete with predella, dated around 1430.

MAEC: the etruscan heart of Cortona

Palazzo Casali, behind the town hall, has housed the Etruscan Academy of Cortona since its foundation in 1727.
This prestigious cultural club was created with the aim of pursuing archaeological and historical studies and carry on the discussion of antiques culture, especially in relation to this territory.
This goal is achieved by collecting and cataloging items and creating opportunities to share the results through many public initiatives.
Perfectly in line with Enlightenment thought, the studies of the members of this institution are multiple and embrace all knowledge in an encyclopedic form.
In the past, illustrious members of the Academy were Charles Montesquieu, Voltaire, Johann J. Winckelmann, Antonio Muratori, Scipione Maffei and many others.
This is where the MAEC (Museum of the Etruscan Academy and of the city of Cortona) was born in 2005.
It is an unmissable collection for lovers of Etruscan culture, which collects artifacts found in the vicinity of Cortona or from private collections. The main pieces of the collection are the precious Etruscan chandelier, the Tabula Cortonensis, one of the most complete texts in the Etruscan language ever found.
This is why Cortona is said to have an Etruscan heart.
To the Egyptian section with valuable artifacts are added other extraordinary works that cross the history of Cortona over the centuries up to the present day.

Franciscan hermitage of “Le Celle”

Few places in the world embody the feeling of peace and harmony with nature like the Franciscan Hermitage of “Le Celle”.
This was the first convent founded by St. Francis of Assisi, around the year 1211, and he lived here even shortly before his death.
It is a corner of a hill surrounded by an enchanting forest, where the hand of man is perfectly integrated into nature.
At the entrance, a handwritten sign invites us to silence to the quiet atmosphere of the monastery.
Crossing the threshold, you will find the gardens of the monks, then a small bridge that crosses a spectacular rocky waterfall.
Inside, an austere cell carved into the rock was all that the Saint needed to live during his isolation.
A unique place of silence and beauty.

Basilica of Santa Margherita

Santa Margherita da Cortona was an extraordinary figure of the Cortonese Middle Ages.
She was a devout and charitable Franciscan nun who lived in the 1200s, also founder of a hospital and a congregation to assist the needy. She lived in a tiny house near today’s church, totally dedicated to good works. For this, Pope Benedict XIII ordained her a saint in 1728.

To her memory is dedicated the homonymous Basilica just outside the city. Her body, intact after several centuries, is displayed in an urn on the high altar.
The basilica is appreciated for its neo-Gothic architecture and its lively paintings, as well as for the secluded position and the panoramic view overlooking the Valdichiana.

Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio

Centuries ago, just outside the city walls, the Guild of Shoemakers used quicklime tubs for the tanning of leather, one of which had a depiction of a Virgin Mary with Child.
On Easter Day 1487 that particular image suddenly began to work miracles.
This event aroused such admiration that devotees and pilgrims from all places flocked to venerate the image. Thus, the Guild of Shoemakers, owner of the place, wanted to erect a church to welcome visitors.
The project was entrusted to Francesco di Giorgio di Martino, one of the greatest Sienese architect and painter of the Renaissance.
Lovers of Renaissance architecture consider this church a very high example of synthesis and management of forms and space.

Cortona in the popular culture: Under The Tuscan Sun

In 1994, Cortona achieved great international visibility thanks to a book that later became a bestseller.
The book was “Under the Tuscan Sun“, written by Francis Mayes, and was a huge sales success.
From this book, a film was made in 2003, starring Diane Lane.
The protagonist of the story moves to Cortona from New York, trying to escape from a terrible disappointment of love. Thus, she begins a new life made up of feelings and moments fully lived at the cottage given to her by a friend: Villa Bramasole.
Together with the famous madonnina that we see in the film, the villa is now visible in the vicinity of the historic center.

Food, wine and olive oil

The Cortona area is particularly suitable for olive cultivation, for the olive oil production.
However, no less important is the production of wine, which here finds its maximum expression with the syrah vines.
Already in the early 1900s, the companies planted this vine from the Rhone valley and today it represents about 80% of the area under vines.
There are many producers that offer visitors the opportunity to see their cellars and taste their products, both in town and in the countryside around town.

How to book your private excursion to Cortona?

In Cortona, you will discover an authentic and ancient Tuscany.
You can choose to visit it together with other areas, such as Arezzo, Montepulciano, Assisi or spend the whole day here.
Click on the button below to discover our classic tour proposal, or to ask for a customized experience.
Get ready to discover the Etruscan heart of Cortona with our private excursion from Florence!

 

 

 

 

 

Val d'Orcia Pienza ciudad ideal

Tuscany and Val d’Orcia: Pienza, the ideal city

Tuscany and Val d’Orcia: Pienza, the ideal city In Tuscany, in the heart of the Val d’Orcia, is Pienza, built to be the ideal city. And a glance is enough to understand that it is! When Enea Silvio Piccolomini, son of an important Sienese family, was born here in 1402, the village was in a […]

San Gimignano and its medieval towers

San Gimignano and its medieval towers

San Gimignano and its medieval towers

San Gimignano still retains 13 medieval towers, but it seems that in 1300 it had as many as 72. It is for this reason that it took on the nickname of “Manhattan of the middle ages”.
It is a city of about 7,000 inhabitants south-west of Florence, in the province of Siena.
Always a destination for pilgrims, wayfarers and travelers, the city of San Gimignano fascinates with its architecture that has remained almost intact over the centuries.
Crossing Porta San Giovani, the impression is that of entering a time machine. Everything has remained in place for almost a thousand years.

The city walls and the Via Francigena

With its 2,176 meters, today the city walls enclose all the villages of the medieval city which develops, for the most part, along the north / south axis from San Matteo to San Giovanni.
This is due to the fact that the city of San Gimignano is located along the route of the Via Francigena, which is the main road that connected northern Europe to Rome. The road was built in the tenth century, after the bishop of Canterbury, Sigeric, embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome, crossing France and northern Italy.
For centuries this remained the most important way of communication with France and still today it is possible to follow it, not only for pilgrimage, but also to take a walk along the most evocative landscapes and places of Tuscany.

For more information this is the link to the official page where you can also find information on the Via Francigena card.

The towers

Due to the rapid economic development that in about three centuries brought San Gimignano, in 1200, to become one of the most important cemmercial centers in Tuscany, there was also a demographic increase. For this reason, the houses that were inside the walls developed vertically.

But they didn’t build the towers just for the demographic increase. Another reason was also the growing rivalry that snaked between aristocratic and bourgeois families, mainly due to economic, but also political reasons.
In fact, a struggle raged between the Guelphs, supporters of the pope’s power, and the Ghibellines who instead favored the emperor.

The tower therefore played a dual role in relation to the family it housed.
First, it was a defense against attacks from other families.
Secondly, it was a way of showing the wealth of the family that lived there: the higher the house, the richer and more important the family it belonged to.

Also interesting is the fact that at the time almost no tower had an entrance or a door at street level and in order to access it you had to use a staircase that was promptly removed.
So how did they get through the city and get around? Easy. They used wooden bridges between tower and tower.
Walking through San Gimignano you will notice that on the side of the towers, 30 or 40 meters above the ground, you will find a door. That door was probably located at a bridge that connected it to a nearby tower.

Piazza della Cisterna

This is the main square of San Gimignano and owes its name to the well that is located in the center of the square and is surrounded by very high medieval towers.

Still today a weekly market takes place in this square.

The Cathedral

The Collegiata Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta is the city’s Cathedral.
It is a large Romanesque-style building in the center of the city, right in front of the Palazzo del Comune.

Due to its architecture and internal walls completely frescoed by some of the greatest Florentine and Sienese painters of the 1400s, it is considered one of the greatest examples of Romanesque church.

Inside, the cycle of frescoes of San Sebastiano by Benozzo Gozzoli and the Stories of Santa Fina by Domenico del Ghirlandaio. The presence of frescoes by such important authors demonstrates the economic wealth of the city.

The Fortress of Montestaffoli

Following the road that passes along the right side of the Collegiata, salkendo, you reach the Rocca di Montestaffoli.
This small fortress consists of a wall and small ramparts from which you can admire an incredible 360 ​​degree view over the Tuscan countryside.
The church of Sant’Agostino

One of the most important churches in the city is located not far from the north gate, San Matteo, and is the church of Sant’Agostino. Built in 1200, it houses some frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli and Piero del Pollaiolo.

The church is located in a splendid and quiet little square with a well in the center.

The church of Sant’Agostino

One of the most important churches in the city is located not far from the north gate, San Matteo, and is the church of Sant’Agostino. Built in 1200, it houses some frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli and Piero del Pollaiolo.

The church is located in a splendid and quiet little square with a well in the center.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano

In addition to the medieval towers, San Gimignano is famous for another product: Vernaccia.

This wine, produced only in the territory of San Gimignano, has ancient origins, probably produced as early as the 11th century.
It is a still white wine obtained from the homonymous white berried grape.
It was the first wine in Italy to receive the D.o.c (Controlled Designation of Origin), in 1966. Since 1993 it is also D.O.C.G.

Saffron

Since ancient times, a small purple flower has been cultivated in this area which produces a precious product: saffron.

In fact, it is the pistils of the flower which, when dried, develop an unmistakable color and aroma. In ancient times saffron was used to tan fabrics and give them the characteristic yellow color, today it is mostly used in the kitchen as a spice. Other uses of this precious flower were in medicine and painting.

On this official page you will find very useful information about this product.

The Gelato

In recent years, the city of San Gimignano has also become famous for another typical Italian product: ice cream.

In fact, there are several ice cream parlors that offer, in addition to traditional flavors, also original and delicious recipes that attract a large number of visitors.

Excursions to San Gimignano and its medieval towers

In addition to the excursion to San Gimignano and its surroundings alone, this city can be combined very well with a visit to Siena, Volterra, Certaldo, Chianti or Pisa.

Tuscany - Pisa attractions and monuments

Tuscany – Pisa attractions and monuments

Highlights of Siena

Private excursion to Siena Highlights

Highlights of a Private excursion to Siena

Get ready to discover the highlights of Siena with our private excursion from Florence!

We hope that in this article you will find some useful information on how to get a hold of the beautiful heritage of this unique Tuscan city.

Piazza del Campo

Either if you start your visit here or if you leave it for last, you can not miss the very heart of Siena: Piazza del Campo.

In fact, Siena’s main square spreads like an open fan in front of the magnificent Palazzo Pubblico and it gives access to the streets directed to all the different contrade, the city quarters.

For this reason, Piazza del Campo plays a fundamental role in the city’s life and tradition.

Palio di Siena

In particular, it is the arena for the most important event in Siena: the Palio.

The Palio is a unique horserace that opposes 10 jockeys on a horseback, each one representing a contrada.

It is normally held twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th, respectively for the Feasts of the Madonna di Provenzano and the Madonna Assunta.

It is is an impressive expression of the spirit of competition and simultaneously of aggregation of the different contrade, all distinguished by their colors and symbols.

After a spectacular historical pageant, three laps of a wild bareback horse race around the square decide the winning contrada. Finally, the prize for the winner is the “Palio” which is a painted banner that must include specific iconographic elements, but is always different depending on the style of the author.

Fonte Gaia

Near the center of the square you can see a beautiful a monumental fountain: Fonte Gaia.

A long aqueduct has been carrying water for around 20 kilometers from the Chianti hills to this fountain since the 1300’s.

The sculpted decorative panels nowadays shown in the frame around the basin of the fountain are copies of Jacopo della Quercia’s original ones, which are now exhibited at the Museum of Santa Maria della Scala.

Palazzo Pubblico

The majestic palace that takes up a whole side of Piazza del Campo is the Palazzo Pubblico, also called Palazzo Comunale.

Built between the end of the 1200’s and the following century to become the palace of the government of the city. Still nowadays it is the palace of the municipal administration, but it also houses the civic museum.

Civic museum of Siena

The same building is literally a museum by itself: the walls of most of the major rooms in the town hall are covered with enchanting frescoes that represent very rare examples of secular art from that period. In fact, many of them did not represent religious scenes, instead they had civic educational intents.

For example, in the famous Allegory of Good and Bad Government, Ambrogio Lorenzetti vividly depicts the opposition between a prosperous city run by the virtues and a ruining one run by the vices.

Another great example is the Maestà by Simone Martini, in this case a religious fresco, that represents the Holy Mary and Child. Inspired by the Maestà that Duccio di Buoninsegna made for the altar of the Cathedral, Martini represents the scene in a more laical way due to the public nature of the building the fresco was set in.

Torre del Mangia

The civic tower of Siena, adjacent to the Palazzo Pubblico, is named after il Mangiaguadagni (literally: the Earnings-eater). This was the nickname of Giovanni di Balduccio, the first bell ringer of the tower, probably due to his profligacy or gluttony.

With its 112 meters (367 feet) of height is one of the tallest medieval towers in Italy. It is interesting to know that despite the lower foundations, the altitude of the top is the same of the tower of the Cathedral, symbolizing the equal importance of the two institutions.

Cathedral of Siena

A few blocks away from Piazza del Campo, through Via dei Pellegrini, you can reach the other fundamental place in Siena: the Cathedral.

Siena’s privileged position along the Via Francigena, the series of routes that connected France and central Europe to Rome, made it an inevitable stop for a huge amount of pilgrims and travellers in general that were directed to the western capital of the Christianity.

Following a common trend of the time, Siena decided to show its majesty to these visitors by building a magnificent Cathedral for its people and its guests.

You can purchase tickets at the office at the corner of the square or online on the official website to have access to the different areas of the monumental complex.
Get ready to discover the highlights of Siena with our private excursion from Florence!

Just by looking at the Cathedral from the outside you can get the idea of the importance that it had in the perception of the people of this city when it was built starting from the 1200’s.

Exterior

The external walls of the Cathedral are covered with white marble with lines of dark green marble, named serpentino. They recall the colors of the coat of arms of the city: white and black.

Then, you find yourself in front of the massive façade. An incredible concentration of statues, columns, arches and the generous use of fine polychrome marbles make this front an authentic study model for the romanesque-gothic art.

Interior

The interior of this church is in no way inferior to the outside. The same alternation of white and black marbles is found inside, on the walls and columns. Ceilings, instead, are decorated in blue with golden stars.

Usually between June and October you have the chance to see the most stunning element in the whole structure, right under your feet: the inlaid marble floor.

The level of detail in these representations, made possible by the finest use of different marbles, make this floor unique in the world.

Also, before the altar you can see an extraordinary octagonal pulpit by Nicola Pisano made in Carrara marble.

On the left nave you find the Piccolomini Altarpiece, that features statues by Michelangelo and Pietro Torregiano. A interesting fact about these very two artists is that their rivalry in their youth had gotten to a point where the latter reacted to Michelangelo’s criticisms by punching him and deforming his nose.

Libreria Piccolomini

Always inside the Cathedral, another marvel is represented by the Libreria Piccolomini.

It was originally meant to store the extensive library collection of Pope Pius II, born Enea Silvio Piccolomini. Then, with its gorgeous frescoes by Pinturicchio it became a monument to the life of the above Pope and the art of the Renaissance.

All around the room are exposed precious illuminated choir books from the collection of the Cathedral.

Baptistery

On the other side of the building you find the Baptistery.

In the middle of its beautiful frescoed hall there is the hexagonal baptismal font. In the past it was used to baptize adults before they could go to mass in the church.

It is surrounded by decorative panels made by some of the most famous sculptors, such as Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Jacopo della Quercia.

Crypt

In 1999 a a hidden underground room was found during some restoration works in the church.

Inside, the restorers found a series of frescoes from the 1200’s in excellent state of conservation.

Built in an earlier phase of the construction of the church, this area was soon filled with construction debris and sealed. For this reason we can still see the original quality of the colors of these ancient wall paintings.

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

Located on a side of the Cathedral, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo holds a collection of artwork belonging to the Cathedral.

Rightaway you see the original statues by Giovanni Pisano that were positioned on the façade, as well as the stunning original stained glass of the apsal oculus (the round window) by Duccio di Buoninsegna.

On the first floor you find the Maestà, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s masterpiece, made for the Cathedral’s altar.

From the top floor you have access to the panoramic viewpoint of the Facciatone, the unfinished facade of the “Duomo Nuovo”. In fact, in the 1300’s the general layout Cathedral was going to change, but the black plague of 1348 and the enormous costs of the project caused the interruption of the works.

Santa Maria della Scala

Also at the same ticket office you can get the pass to visit the museum of Santa Maria della Scala.

The Ospedale was built in the 1200’s to host and give medical attention to the pilgrims and the poor and to nurture orphans and abandoned children.

Via di Città e Piazza Salimbeni

Piazza salimbeni is a small square in the center of the city. It is renowned for hosting, today as then, the offices of the first bank in Europe, called Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded in 1472.
You can admire the buildings with Renaissance architecture; the statue of Sallustio Bandini, an economist priest; and several busts of important figures on the frame of the roof of the building on the right, including Dante Alighieri.

San Domenico

The basilica of San Domenico is one of the most important churches in the city. It is an imposing red brick building, dating back to the 13th century, with a typically Gothic appearance. This church, in addition to works of extraordinary workmanship, preserves the remains of Santa Caterina who lived nearby.

How to book your private excursion to Siena and discover the highlights?

Siena, after Florence, is the most important city in Tuscany from an artistic and landscape point of view.
You can choose whether to visit it together with other areas, such as Chianti or San Gimignano, or spend the whole day here.

Click here to find out about our classic tour proposal, or customize your experience by contacting us here.

Get ready to discover the highlights of Siena with our private excursion from Florence!