HISTORY OF CORTONA
Cortona, originally an Umbrian city, was conquered and expanded by the Etruscans, who referred to it as Curtun. It became a member of the Etruscan League during the 600s BC. Later, it became a Roman colony and was named Corito. The ancient history and origin legends of Cortona are described in detail by George Dennis. In the latter stages of the Gothic War (535–554), the city was sacked and destroyed. During the 13th century, Cortona became a Ghibellinian city state, with its own currency. The Ranieri-Casali family ruled the town successfully from 1325 to 1409. Afterwards, it was conquered by Ladislaus of Naples in 1409 and sold to the Medici in 1411. In 1737, the senior branch of the Medici line went extinct and Cortona came under the authority of the House of Lorraine. After the Italian Wars of Independence, Tuscany and Cortona became part of the Kingdom of Italy
Cortona Foundation Legend
The origins of Cortona are shrouded in legends dating back to classical times and were further developed, particularly during the late Renaissance period under Cosimo I de’ Medici. According to the 17th-century guidebook written by Giacomo Lauro, which was based on the writings of Annio da Viterbo, 108 years after the Great Flood, Noah entered the Valdichiana region through the Tiber and Paglia rivers. He found this place to be the most fertile and decided to settle there for thirty years. One of his descendants, Crano, his son, built the city of Cortona on a hilltop 273 years after the Great Flood, due to his appreciation of the high elevation, beautiful countryside and the serene air.
Cortona boasts a unique blend of medieval and Renaissance architecture, with its steep, narrow streets perched on a hillside at an elevation of 600 metres (2,000 feet) offering panoramic views of the Valdichiana region. From Piazza Garibaldi (also known as Piazza Carbonaia by locals), one can admire the stunning view of Lake Trasimeno, the site of Hannibal’s famous ambush of the Roman army in 217 BC (Battle of Lake Trasimene). Visitors can still see parts of the Etruscan city wall, which forms the foundation of the present wall. The main street, via Nazionale, is the only street in the town that is level, and is still known as Ruga Piana by locals. Inside the Palazzo Casali, visitors can explore the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca, which houses a diverse collection of artifacts from Etruscan, Roman, and Egyptian civilizations, as well as art and artifacts from the Medieval and Renaissance eras. The Etruscan Academy Museum was established in 1727 with the collections and library of Onofrio Baldelli. One of its most famous ancient artifacts is the bronze lampadario or Etruscan hanging lamp, which was discovered in Fratta near Cortona in 1840 and was acquired by the Academy for a large sum of 1600 Florentine scudi. The lampadario’s iconography includes figures of Silenus playing panpipes or double flutes and sirens or harpies under the 16 burners.
Etruscan hanging lamp
Between each burner is a modeled horned head of Achelous. It is believed that the lampadario originated from a significant north Etruscan religious shrine dating back to the second half of the fourth century BC. A later inscription from the 2nd century BC shows that it was rededicated for votive purposes by the Musni family at that time. The Museum also contains several other important Etruscan bronzes.
Etruscan chamber-tombs can be found in the surrounding area of Cortona, including the Tanella di Pitagora, which is located halfway up the hill from Camucia. The fine masonry of the tomb is exposed, but it was originally covered by an earth mound. Other chamber-tombs can be found at the foot of the hillside at Il Sodo, and in Camucia itself. Il Sodo I, also known as the “Grotta Sergardi” or “Il Melone”, features a passage leading to parallel passages and square inner chambers, within a mound that measures 640 feet (200 meters) in circumference. The chambers are paved with slabs of masonry, while the walls are constructed of roughly-formed rock bricks. This tomb is open for visitors. Il Sodo II contains a large stone-stepped altar platform with carved sphinxes devouring warriors..
Cortona is home to several notable artistic treasures, including two panels by Fra Angelico, which can be found in the Diocesan Museum. These panels, an Annunciation and a Madonna and Child with Saints, were painted during his stay in Cortona in 1436. Another surviving work by the same artist is the fresco above the entrance to the church of San Domenico. The Diocesan Museum also houses a group of work by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, known as Lo Spagnuolo, called Ecstasy of Saint Margaret. The Academy Museum features the well-known painting Maternità by Cortonese artist Gino Severini, as well as works by Pietro da Cortona.
The Church of Santa Maria Nuova and the Church of Santa Maria della Pieve in Cortona are prime examples of two different principles of Renaissance construction. The Church of Santa Maria Nuova, built by Giorgio Vasari in 1554, is a central square-plan Renaissance church with a Greek cross plan. The church is surmounted by a main dome, which was only completed during the 17th century, making it an excellent example of a centralized design. Inside, four large columns support the lantern of the dome. The four arms of the cross branch out and are covered with barrel-vaults, while four small domes arise in the spaces of the angles. The church houses several works of art, including the Nativity by Alessandro Allori, San Carlo Borromeo who brings Communion to the plague-stricken by Baccio Ciarpi, and the Annunciation by Empoli. The church is currently in poor condition and is not open for sightseeing or inspection.
The Fortress of Girifalco, built in the 16th century, rises above the Church of Santa Margherita. It was constructed by Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I de’ Medici for defense on top of ruins of ancient Etruscan, Roman, and Medieval fortifications. The trapezoidal-shaped building has four bulwarks. Recently restored, it now serves as a venue for exhibitions and as the home of the “Centro Studi e Documentazioni sulla Civiltà Contadina della Valdichiana e del Trasimeno” (Documentation center on the Rural Civilization in Valdichiana and around Lake Trasimene).
Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio, built between 1484-1515 by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, was constructed in connection with an alleged miracle-performing image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the “Madonna del Calcinaio”. This image was originally painted on the timbers of a lime-vat, hence the name. In cases like this, where the Renaissance ideal of centralized building design is applied to a nave-construction, the eastern part of the building is usually developed into a centralized form, crowned with a large dome, foreshadowing the Cathedral in Florence. The restored interior features unusually high arches.