From a free city to the dynasty of the Casali family

Brother Elias in a print of the 17th century

The Podestà and the Captain of the People owned some palaces that still remain standing today despite the transformations. The religious community, channeled into wealthy and powerful lay organizations which were based in the churches of San Vincenzo, constructed over the tomb of the bishop martyr, now demolished (Via Duomo Vecchio n°3), in the parish church of Santa Maria, the ruins of which are covered by the church of Santa Maria Assunta, and in the old church of San Marco, which has also been demolished (Via San Marco n°39). The three churches divided the city into three neighborhoods: that of San Vincenzo, that of Santa Maria and that of San Marco. These divisions can be traced until the modern times. With the first competition of the "Archidado" two new neighborhoods were added to the three historical ones: Sant'Andrea and Porta Peccioverardi.

At the beginning of the century, with the arrival of Saint Francis in 1211, the city was taken over by the Franciscan charisma. Some of the noble citizens wore the habits of the Franciscans and followed the saint to the hermitage called "le Celle". The names of some of these followers are Guido Vagnottelli, Vito dei Viti and according to Luca Wadding (1588-1657) a French researcher of the Franciscan movement, Brother Elias. Brother Elias would then become the successor of Saint Francis as the General Administrator of the Order. At the end of his term in 1239, due to his friendship with Frederick II, he personally took it upon himself to try and resolve the differences between the Pope and the Emperor. He tried to settle the disputes between Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV. Feeling deceived he retired in Cortona, where upon a land donated to him by the Comune he built a church and a monastery dedicated to Saint Francis, as he had previously done in Assisi. In 1240 even Frederick II stopped in Cortona to nominate the Podestà. On April 22, 1253, Brother Elias died in Cortona with the holy reconciliation with the Pope. His Franciscan brothers buried him under the main altar of the church which he built and where he is still today, in a position similar to the one he chose for the remains of Saint Francis in Assisi.

In contrast to the message for peace of the Franciscan charisma, the century was deeply troubled by internal fights among parties of various social classes and wars with neighbors. It is reported that battles with Perugia endured until the year 1198. Then an alliance with Perugia led confrontations with Arezzo, which in 1232 was pillaged with the help of the Florentines. However, during the night between February 1 and February 2, 1258, the Aretines with the help of the Cortonese Guelphs occupied and destroyed Cortona. People in exile requested asylum from Perugia and settled in Castiglione del Lago. They were reorganized by Uguccio Casali, and went to help the Sienese for the Battle of Monteaperti (September 4, 1260), where the Florentine Guelphs were defeated. In exchange for that they were helped to return to their destructed city on April 25, 1262, the feast day of Saint Mark, who was taken as their patron saint. The coat of arms of the newly liberated Comune portrayed the lion of St. Mark in the place of the previous image of the ancient protector Saint Michael.

Pietro Lorenzetti, drawing of Santa Margherita (Library of Cortona)

After the exiled people, a very beautiful, twenty-five year old woman came to Cortona. She was called Margherita and was born in Laviano (Umbria) near the lake of Montepulciano. She was back from the adventure ended with the killing of a wealthy nobleman with whom she'd been involved. Margherita, who was taken by the Franciscan charisma, worked together with the Casali to restore the destroyed city by assisting the neediest, working for the confraternity she founded, that is the Confraternity of Saint Mary of Mercy. More than a material restoration, Margherita carried out a moral, religious and social change, in the aftermath of fratricidal battles, inspired by brotherly love and peace spread by the charisma of Francis. It is not a light matter that when she died (February 22, 1297) the people immediately considered her as a saint. In the meantime, with the help of the Sienese, the city was reconstructed richer and more beautiful than before, and as they did in the previous century, they left their artistic imprint.

On November 11, 1289, Bishop Guglielmino degli Ubertini died in a ferocious battle at Campaldino. Together with others he had commanded the Ghibelline army, which opposed the expansion of the Florentine territory. Guglielmino had been reprimanded by Margherita for his excessive attentions to worldly matters, instead of the spiritual care of the souls which he had been entrusted with. If not the master mind he had been one of the instigators of the sack of Cortona in 1228. The defeat at Campaldino brought less political autonomy for the free Comune of Arezzo which was gone under the realm of the Republic of Florence, whose goals were to turn to the conqueror of the southern part of Etruria where Cortona and Siena were located. Cortona would hold out for more than 100 years after the defeat of Campaldino, and Siena even longer. It was conquered in 1559 under Cosimo I who became the master of Tuscany and then the Grand Duke. To the three mother churches of the Terzieri, two memorial churches to Saint Francis were added in the 13th century. The first was the opera of Brother Elias built in the first half of the century on the site of a former Roman manufacturing complex, which had been donated to Elias by the Comune. The second was the new church of San Basilio built by Giovanni Pisano on the top of the hill at the end of the century, right after Margherita’s death, where later in 1330, the body of Santa Margherita was deposited. The latter was constructed next to the little church of the Camaldolesi monks which had been restored by Margherita.

The reconstruction of the city also gave stability to the free institutions which became increasingly supportive to the idea of an empire sustained by the Ghibelline faction. In 1240 Cortona had in fact received Frederick II before they were sacked by Arezzo. Frederick instituted a judiciary order in the person of Filippo Iacobi from Spoleto, of whom we have notice in the documentation of the donation made to Brother Elias. Iacobi received Henry VII of Luxembourg in 1312, pledging allegiance to him, acknowledging him as the direct Signore of the city and the territory and presented him with a tribute of one thousand florins. The 14th century was characterized by two very important events in the life of the city. On June 19, 1325, a bull from Avignon written by Pope Giovanni XXII restored or installed the diocese of Cortona within the borders of its communal territory. This same bull named Bishop Ranieri Ubertini, Buoso’s brother, the bishop of Arezzo and uplifted the momentarily interrupted institutions of the dioceses, bringing the church built on the tomb of San Vincenzo to the level of cathedral. This is further evidence of how deeply rooted in the Cortonese people of that time was the devotion to that saint. In the same year Ranieri Casali became the Signore of Cortona. His descendants, Bartolomeo, Francesco Nicolò, Giovanni, Uguccio, Francesco Senese and Aloigi had in turn the post of Signore until the year 1409. The Casali dynasty was marked by these Signori's political skills, especially those of Ranieri (1325-1351) and Francesco Nicolò (1363-1375). A skill which enabled them to maintain for more than a century after the defeat of the Ghibellines at Campaldino the independence of Cortona, by using sharp political skills to keep a balance in the relationship with Florence and Siena. The Casali constructed their palace in the city center where the forum of the Roman city had stood at the crossroads of the Cardo (the north-south axis road of Roman times) and the Decumano (the main east-west Roman road) on the ruins of old Roman buildings. Today only the supporting walls of the building remain after the restorations of Filippo Berrettini in the 1600's. In the countryside along the road which leads to Perugia the imposing Rocca di Pierle was constructed. The policy of friendship with the Sienese brought many Sienese artists to Cortona. They made contributions to the enrichment of the Cortonese artistic endowment and inspired the local artists. The atrocious family battles, in particular the ferocity of the last Casali Aloigi (1384-1409), who killed his uncle Francesco, wise and well-loved by the people, to take over the Signoria, brought about a spirit of rebellion in the Cortonese population. The occasion to oust the Casali family came in 1409. In order to assist the legitimate Pope Gregory XII during the Western split, Ladislao, the King of Naples of the Angioini-Durazzo dynasty moved against the anti-pope Giovanni XXIII, who was living under the protection of the Florentine Republic. Ladislao conquered a part of Tuscany and, with the consent of the Cortonese people, he conquered Cortona, placing an end to the Casali dynasty.