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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Get ready to discover the Etruscan heart of Cortona with our private excursion from Florence!