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Piazza della Repubblica, Cortona

View from Cortona

Museum courtyard, Cortona

Welcome to Cortona
from Jesse's Journeys in Italy

Population:  22,046 (2001)
Official website: Cortona
Wikipedia: Cortona

Cortona is another ancient, walled Tuscan city that merits the attention of travelers.  Its grey and ochre coloured buildings cascade down a flank of Monte Sant'Egidio in southern Tuscany close to the western border of Umbria, offering astounding views of the broad Val di Chiana, the Siena Mountains to the west, and the blue expanse of Lake Trasimeno to the south.  Around the city, on terraced mountain slopes, ranks of silver-green olive trees are rooted in a stony soil, where Cortonese farmers have harvested them for centuries.

Cortona is thought to have been founded by the Umbri people, as long ago as 1000 BC but, sometime during the 8th or 7th century BC, as the Umbrians got pushed to the east side of the Tiber River, the town found itself in Etruscan hands.  Indeed, Cortona was one of the twelve principal cities of Etruria's Dodecapolis.

Sections of Cortona's formidable walls, built by the Etruscans with huge quadrangular boulders, still stand today, and archaeologists have found Etruscan tombs in the valley below the town.  A beautiful - and valuable - collection of Etruscan artifacts, including a bronze lamp dating from the 5th century BC, is now on display in Cortona's  Museo dell'Accademia (Palazzo Casali).

In 310 BC, the Etruscans were defeated in battle by the Romans, who took Perugia and began incrementally to dominate and absorb the Etruscan (and Umbrian) civilizations.  During the long period of Rome's decline in the 3rd and 4th century AD, Cortona, like other cities suffered at the hands of the barbarian forces.  During the 6th century, the city was virtually destroyed by the Longobards, but it was rebuilt during the middle and late middle ages, ultimately finding itself, by the 16th century, firmly within the Grand Duchy of Tuscan where it remained until  Italian unification in 1860.

The current walls of Cortona, about two thirds of which are built on the old Etruscan walls, run for approximately 3 kilometers, enclosing a well-preserved and evocative medieval town which, after a few centuries of decline, is experiencing an economic resurgence as a result of a dramatic increase in tourism.  This  rise in tourism was triggered largely by the publication of the book "Under the Tuscan Sun" by American writer Frances Mayes (see sidebar) and the later release of a movie of the same name.  Remarkably, as a Tuscan tourist destination, Cortona now falls just behind Florence, Siena, Pisa and the Chianti region.

One of the best ways to approach a visit to the city - and save your legs - is to start above the city, at the Basilica of Santa Margherita, dedicated to a famous Cortonese concubine who dedicated herself to the church after the death of her nobleman lover was killed.  Her marble sarcophagus can be found in the church.  Above the city you will also find the sanctuary of Convente delle Celle, founded by Saint Francis in 1211There are many paths in and around the forests surrounding the sanctuary where you can wander and wonder.

Further down the hill stands the formidable Fortezza Medicea, also known as the Fortezza del Girifalco, built in 1556 on a rock promontory by the Medici's to protect Florentine interests.  The views of the valley and lake from the fort are not to be missed.

Once you arrive in the city proper, you can orient yourself on the via Nazionale (also known as the Rugapiana), a relatively flat and straight avenue that leads into the Piazza della Repubblica.  The dominating building on the Piazza is the Palazzo Casali, now housing the Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca  (Etruscan Museum).

Across the city is the Duomo - or cathedral - built in the Romanesque style in the 13th century.  Beside it is the Diocesan museum and gallery where you will find works by the artist Luca Signorelli, who was born in Cortona, and by Fra Beato Angelico whose paintings of the Annunciation and The Madonna (1436) are said to be among his best.  Angelico also did the fresco above the portal to the Chiesa San Domenico (also 1436).

Behind San Domenico there is a lovely little garden, the Parterre, where, a small film festival takes place every summer.

There are a number of other piazzas, palazzos, churches and public buildings in Cortona, some of them of the Romanesque style, many of those with Gothic features overlaid on top, some pure Gothic and a few with a Renaissance flourish.

During your visit to Cortona, take time to wander its winding medieval streets, which in places feature staircases (some very steep) cut into the stone of the mountain.  Afterwards, enjoy an espresso con biscotti at one of many good cafes in and around Cortona's piazzas, or perhaps partake of a full Tuscan lunch at one of its many good restaurants.    Believe us when we say that much can be made of tomatoes, basil, onion, local cheeses, and of course, the olive oils produced nearby.

During the two summer months, Cortona is jammed with tourists, so if you can, travel in the shoulder season before July or after August.

by Vian Andrews, January 4th, 2006

Region of Tuscany

Alt: 494 meters
4316′N 1159′E


Arezzo - 29 km;
Montepulciano - 40 km;
Perugia - 54 km;
Siena - 80 km;
Florence - 102 km;
Pisa - 160 km;
Rome - 190 km


Tourist Office
via Nazionale 42
Tel: 0575-630-352


Osteria del Teatro and Caffe del Teatro - Via Maffei 2 - warm welcome, meat dishes, pastas

Taverna Pane e Vino - Via Piazza Signorelli 27 - light dishes, good prices

Tonino - Piazza Garibaldi - great view, good food

Caffe La Saletta - Via Nazionale -  up-scale, excellent crepes, good wine list - pricey

Route 66 - Via Nazionale 78 - happening place for young folks

Gonfalone, Cortona


Rooftops of Cortona

Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan sun lives in a villa near Cortona and writes extensively about the town in that and other books she has written.  The book was made into a movie, and many scenes were shot in the town.
Roberto Benigni, who wrote, directed and acted in the 2004 Academy Award-winning film, Life is Beautiful, shot many scenes in Cortona.
The pre-Renaissance painter, Luca Signorelli and the 17th century painter-architect, Pietro da Cortona, and the futurist painter, Gino Severini, were born in Cortona.
The Cortona  Antiquaria antiques fair is housed in the 18th century halls of Palazzo Vagnotti and Palazzo Casali from the last Saturday in August to the second Sunday in September.
Over 200 students from the University of Georgia in the US, attend an art study program at Cortona.  The program has been operating since 1969.  More info.
Tell us about your trip to Cortona. What were your favorite places to visit, stay, and dine?
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