The town’s history
The Classic Age
According to tradition, Cortona is known as “mother of Troy and grand-mother of Rome”: it is said that hero Dardanus left Cortona to found Troy, a place that, a few centuries later, Aeneas left to found Rome… Beyond the historical truth, this proves the presence of an ancient human settlement on the hill where the Etruscan town Curtum was built. In the 4th-5th century B.C. Cortona was one of the twelve Etruscan cities, rich and prosperous, governed by powerful noble families (the so-called principes) and judges whose names are witnessed by the monuments and archaeological finds located on the territory, above all the imposing burial mounds of Sodo and Camucia, whose grave goods are on display in the MAEC museum.
Between the 4th and the 2nd century B.C. the region underwent a Romanization process but also a new monumentalization of the town: the city walls, the tanelle (independent burial structures) and, among the finds, the famous tabula cortonensis, one of the longest documents written in Etruscan that have ever been found, date back to this period.
During the Roman times, Cortona became a municipium then a colony, maintaining its autonomy. According to historical sources, Corito was its name at that time. From the town planning point of view, it developed around the main Cardo and the main Decumanus (which are still recognizable today as Via Nazionale-Via Roma and Via Guelfa-Via Benedetti-Via Dardano). The layout of the Roman villa in Ossaia is also very interesting since it is a prestigious evidence of a productive dwelling of the Roman times (1st – 4th century A.D.).
Main monuments: gateways and Etruscan walls, burial mounds of Sodo and Camucia, Tanella of Pythagoras, Tabula Cortonensis, mosaics of the villa of Ossaia, MAEC museum, MAEC archaeological park.
“You may have traveled far and wide in Italy, but you have certainly never seen anything more venerable than Cortona. Before Troy was founded, before Hector and Achilles fought beneath its city walls, Cortona already existed…”George DennisExplorer and etruscologist
The Middle Ages
The municipal autonomy of the Roman times contributed to maintain the autonomous town setup of Cortona even during the invasions of the Barbarians who occupied the territory between the 5th and the 8th century A.D. and in the Middle Ages. Around 1150 Cortona was an independent commune, but starting from the 13th century the town acquired a growing importance even thanks to several religious orders that decided to establish their convents and churches in Cortona: Franciscans, Augustinians, Dominicans and Servants of Mary, just to mention the most important ones. Culture spread thanks to them and building works increased considerably, transforming the town into a vibrant and expanding place; it is no coincidence that the extraordinary series of procession chants, known as Laudario di Cortona, was written here between the 13th and the 14th century and is now preserved in the Code 91 of the Etruscan Academy and Municipal Library. It should not be forgotten that Saint Francis founded one of his first convents in Cortona and Brother Elias, his successor, was the architect of the Church of San Francesco.
The first municipal statute, dating back to 1250, shows how the town had its own territory, its own mint and autonomous legislation. At that time there were several wars with many of the neighboring states: due to its central location, both Arezzo and Florence wanted to rule over the territory of Cortona and this situation led to a long-lasting and reliable “friendship” with Siena. The most tragic moment of the Middle Ages history was the period between 1258 and 1261 when the town was occupied by the Guelphs of Arezzo and devastated; the runaway Ghibellines, helped by some troops from Siena, who had won the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, finally managed to regain control of the town on 25th April 1261 and to drive out the invaders: this event, known as “Romore di San Marco”, set Cortona free and from that moment on Saint Mark the Evangelist became one of the patron saints of Cortona.
The 1325 Statute showed the transformation of Cortona into a local Signoria governed by the Casali family. Between 1325 and 1409 Cortona was governed by six different lords, who made it flourish from the cultural and artistic points of view. This period was relatively peaceful, although it was also affected by famine and plague. The good relationship with Siena is also proven by the famous wedding between Francesco Senese Casali and Antonia Salimbeni from Siena celebrated in 1397.
However, the last member of the Casali family, Aloigi Battista, ruined its reputation because of his wrongdoing and massacres so that the citizens decided to offer the town to the king of Naples, Ladislaus, who was passing through Valdichiana because of a war with Visconti, but Ladislaus finally sold it to Florence. This happened in 1409 and in 1411 Cortona was already a member of the Florentine Republic; since Cortona decided to become part of the Republic, it wasn’t devastated like Arezzo, for example, but rather the local noble families managed to build alliances with Florentine noble families.
The main monuments: Church of San Francesco, Church of San Domenico, Via Iannelli, Via Rinfrena, Church of San Cristoforo, Hermitage Le Celle
The Modern Era
The fact that Cortona entered into the sphere of influence of Florence marked the end of independence and a complete subjugation to the Florentine Republic and then to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until the Unification of Italy. This ushered a period of peace and wealth for Cortona, which triggered significant civil development and cultural growth.
From the town planning point of view, in 1508 the Church of Santa Maria Assunta became the town Cathedral (replacing thus the previous Cathedral of San Vincenzo located outside the city walls), whereas in 1556 Grand Duke Cosimo I decided to restore the city walls and the Fortress, defining the current layout of the town; the squares were enlarged and many medieval houses were demolished to be replaced by beautiful Renaissance palaces with elegant facades, similar to those built at that time in Florence. The most important Renaissance buildings in Cortona are the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio, designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, and the Church of Santa Maria Nuova, which was designed by Vasari and other architects.
Since the Renaissance, but mostly between the 17th and 18th century, several cultural academies were established in Cortona, such as the Etruscan Academy, still existing today, which became renowned in the most prestigious intellectual environments of Italy and Europe for its spirit of the Enlightenment and its European openness (important figures like Voltaire were members of the Academy). The Church of San Filippo Neri and the Church of San Benedetto were built at that time.
The last building transformations, which gave the town its current layout, were carried out in the 19th century: the so-called “Regio Imperiale Teatro Leopoldo” (now known as Theater Signorelli); the Parterre public gardens and the imposing construction of Viale Cesare Battisti; the complete reconstruction of the Sanctuary of Santa Margherita on the hilltop and finally the monumental Cemetery of Mercy, halfway down the hill.
Among the extraordinary artists who were born or worked in Cortona, we find Fra Angelico (hosted at the Convent of San Domenico), who offered to that Church two masterpieces made between 1434 and 1438 and now displayed in the Diocesan Museum, The Annunciation and the Triptych; Luca Signorelli (1523) who, apart from leaving several important works in the town such as frescoes, paintings and altarpieces, opened a flourishing workshop that continued to operate successfully after his death; Pietro Berrettini (1597-1669), known as Il Cortona, a master of Italian Baroque; Gino Severini (1883-1966), one of the most famous painters of avantgarde movements in the 20th century.
The main monuments: Fortress of Girifalco, Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio, Santa Maria Nuova, San Niccolò, Etruscan Academy, Theater Signorelli, Parterre Gardens, Monumental Cemetery, Mosaic at the Church of San Marco, Way of the Cross
Works of art: Fra Angelico, Luca Signorelli, Pietro Berrettini, Gino Severini
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