It is difficult to decide which are the not-to-be-missed attractions among the range of monuments of Cortona. There is really something for everyone. One of the must-visit attractions is certainly Piazza della Repubblica, the square defined “the most romantic square in Italy” by famous Dutch violinist André Rieu! This square is the real heart of the town where sooner or later you end up coming across the inhabitants of Cortona and the people wandering around to visit the town.
It has always been the political, administrative and social core of the town. The Town Hall, clearly recognizable with its clock tower and the magnificent access staircase on the facade, and the imposing Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, now called Palazzo Passerini, tower above the square together with other elegant Renaissance buildings with their bars, shops and lovely loggias.
The Town Hall, originally called Palazzo dei Priori, was developed between the late 12th century and the 16th century, with refurbishment and renovation works still carried out in the 1800s. The remains of double windows and triple windows on the facade onto Piazza Signorelli are the evidence of the Romanesque style of the palace; the vault over Via Roma, the first floor and the first part of the tower were added in the early 1300s, whereas the clock tower and the second floor were added in the 1500s. Over the centuries it underwent several renovation works on the facades and to the access staircase up to the last interventions dating back to 1896. Over the entrance door on top of the picturesque staircase we can see the coat of arms of Cortona representing the Lion of Saint Mark, whereas on the side of the building fronting onto Piazza Signorelli, next to the staircase leading to the Council Hall, there is a Marzocco, the lion used as emblem of the Florentine domination, placed there in the second half of the 16th century. The Council Hall is the most beautiful room of the palace, characterised by 19th century paintings and decorations made by Valentino Dobici and recently restored.
Opposite Palazzo Comunale you can admire Palazzo Passerini, once known as Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, built right after 1250 and used as seat of the new judge, called Capitano del Popolo, whose role was to defend people against the governors’ violence. It was originally a tall and narrow building, with a bell tower, located right over the adjacent Town Hall, it was consistently restored in the 1500s on behalf of Cardinal Silvio Passerini on the occasion of the visit of Pope Leo X: this significant refurbishment and extension of the building gave rise to a real Renaissance palace, with a frescoed facade, a big terrace and stained-glass windows. The current building gives no evidence of the ancient Renaissance palace because it underwent other renovation and refurbishment works both outside and inside. The original medieval architecture was kept on the side facade onto Via Passerini, which shows the remains of the original tower-palace in addition to several little windows that went off their alignment.
Square and Theater Signorelli
From Piazza della Repubblica let’s move to Piazza Signorelli, where you can see the beautiful Palazzo Casali, Palazzo Laparelli, headquarter of the Bank named Cassa di Risparmio, and Theater Signorelli.
Built on an area where the ancient parish church of Sant’Andrea was once located, the construction of Theater Signorelli dates back to the mid 1800s. The need to follow the profile of the square to design the facade obliged architect Gatteschi to locate the theater in a transversal direction in relation to the entrance, preserving a central location of the foyer, which is a completely different design from the current layout of theaters. Today the theater, seat of the Accademia degli Arditi that manages its cultural activities, is a 19th century jewel, very well preserved and boasting special acoustics, with three rows of dais owned by private investors – as it was common practice at the time of its foundation –, a frescoed ceiling and a scenographic crystal chandelier.
Near the theater we see Palazzo Casali, another important palace of the town of Cortona. Until 1409 it was the dwelling of the Casali family, who governed the town, since 1411 it was called Palazzo Pretorio and used as the seat of the Florentine government (the stone coats of arms of the commissioners are displayed on the facades and on the internal courtyard whereas others are frescoed in the Medicean hall on the first floor) and, after significant renovation works in 1613 by architect Filippo Berrettini, Pietro’s nephew, it gained its current appearance. The last important renovation works of this Palace date back to the late 1900s to house a new section of the Museum of the Etruscan Academy and the Town of Cortona (MAEC), which was established here in 1727.
Apart from the museum, the palace is also the seat of the Municipal Historical Archives and the Library of the Etruscan Academy and the Town of Cortona that preserves about 30,000 books, 1,172 parchments, 133 incunabula, 620 parchment and paper codices, entirely listed and available for consultation. Among the rarest and most beautiful codices we find a copy of the Divine Comedy of the 14th century, a copy of Teseida written by Boccaccio at the end of the 14th century, the famous Laudario (lyrics and music) of the 14th century and the so-called Libro Grosso of the Municipality of Cortona.
The Palaces on Via Nazionale
Via Nazionale, better known as “Rugapiana”, is full of important and remarkable palaces: at numbers 70-72 you find the magnificent Palazzo Venuti built in the late 1500s (whose facade and some of the internal rooms were modified during the 17th century); this building is a groundscraper; in addition to the ground floor, embellished by bossage doors, there are two floors with six bossage windows on the first floor; at number 45 Palazzo Mancini-Ferretti, one of the most beautiful in Cortona for its majesty and layout, designed by German architect Marco Tuscher, spread over a ground floor, two noble floors and a service floor. The facade, cantilevered as compared to the buildings nearby, has two different types of construction and materials. At number 42 we find the so-called Palazzo del Monte dei Paschi di Siena, formerly known as Palazzo Vagnucci then Palazzo Petrella; at number 33 we see Palazzo Venuti, tall and narrow, very deep towards Via dell’Aurora, reaching the back street called Via dell’Amorino where it has another frescoed facade; near Piazza della Repubblica, at number 6 there is Palazzo Alticozzi, whose medieval structure (when it was known as Palazzo Alfieri) probably raised over Roman ruins. Opposite this palace, on the other side of Via Nazionale, you can admire a lovely loggia, reconstructed like the building to which it pertains and supported by corbels, from where Pope Leo X looked out on 15th November 1515 during his visit. We are back again to Piazza della Repubblica. Let’s walk along the street on the left, significantly named Via Guelfa, in memory of the fratricidal fights between Guelphs and Ghibellines who characterised the 13th century.
At number 4 there is the stunning Palazzo Laparelli, or Mancini Sernini, built in 1533 and designed by architect Battista Sensi known as Il Cristofanello from Cortona; the main facade was originally onto Via Ghibellina, where the remains of a Gothic arched facade are still visible, then it was moved onto Via Guelfa or, rather, onto the square, giving rise to one of the most beautiful palaces of Cortona, which is owned since 1926 by the Banca Popolare di Cortona. It might seem strange that such an important facade is basically hidden behind other buildings located on the other side of the street. It should be pointed out that this palace originally overlooked the public square; it is only after the Orange’s siege in 1529, when large parts of the square were sold to pay off war debts, that several buildings were constructed next to Palazzo Laparelli.
At the end of Via Nazionale we find Piazzale Garibaldi, called by the inhabitants Piazza Carbonaia, a square with a panoramic viewpoint from where one can enjoy a breathtaking view of the whole Valdichiana valley: Lake Trasimene is clearly visible on the left whereas Mount Santafiora and Mount Amiata rise up right in front of the overlook on the horizon.
Via Iannelli and Via del Gesù
We strongly recommend to visit Via Iannelli and Via del Gesù, one of the most evocative places in Cortona. This narrow street is characterised by medieval houses, that are perfectly preserved, partly built directly over the city walls and partly overlooking the area saved for military use in case of enemy attacks, showing a lovely access staircase to the Oratory of Gesù.
However, the well-known feature of Via Iannelli is another one: here you can admire the typical houses of the Middle Ages, mostly with a single room, tall and narrow, with cantilevered facades supported by wooden corbels, one attached to the other, constructed with different materials like bricks, stone and timber.
There are several villas enriching the territory of Cortona, but the majority of them are private dwellings and cannot be visited; for the most part they were built during the 18th century and purchased by noble great families of Cortona.
Villa Passerini called “Il Palazzone”
Built by the will of Cardinal Passerini, who was responsible for innovative works in the whole province of Arezzo and was governor of Florence, this sumptuous medieval villa rises up with its majestic tower with double crenelation; through an internal courtyard embellished by a porch we enter the villa, spread over a ground floor once occupied by stables, and a noble floor consisting of a beautiful hall, a chapel, a billiard room and the Cardinal’s bedroom. Pope Leo X was hosted here during his visit to Cortona in November 1515. The construction works took place between 1521 and 1527 and cost the Cardinal something like 30,000 ecus.
The architectural design was made by Giovan Battista Caporali from Perugia, whereas the painting decorations of the hall were made by Tommaso Bernabei known as Il Papacello, one of Signorelli’s pupils according to tradition; a painting representing The Christening of Jesus by Signorelli can be admired in the chapel.
The rear of the villa, donated in the last century by Earl Lorenzo Passerini to the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, has a lovely Italian-style garden, with an open porch. The villa can be visited only upon request and with the consent of the University.
Villa Tommasi Aliotti in Metelliano
Apart from the villas in town, in 1777 canon Niccolò Tommasi commissioned the construction of a huge villa in Metelliano with rectangular structure, spread onto a ground floor, a noble floor and a service floor, with three gates, simple windows and a central balcony.
In this real estate complex of the 18th century, as shown in a pen drawing of the early 19th century that is preserved in the family’s archives, the villa was located in the center of the property with a lemon conservatory on the right and a chapel on the left. The latter, built and inaugurated in 1772, which means five years before the construction of the villa, was dedicated to Saint John The Evangelist and was enlarged in 1883, whereas the villa was enlarged in 1870 with two new wings on the sides. The original structure of the villa was modified several times by Luigi Tommasi, gaining finally its current appearance. On that occasion, the gardens were modified with a new layout, the large pool in front of the facade was added to the villa and the lemon conservatory was given a new appearance. The inside of the villa is still decorated with neoclassical-style furnishings.
The villa still preserves a significant collection of works of art, among which we find an Immaculate conception with Saint Margaret, Beato Guido Vagnottelli and the souls of Purgatory, originally made for the Church of S. Andrea, by Francesco Capella, one of the most talented pupils of Piazzetta.
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