Cortona, Frances Mayes’ Town Under the Tuscan Sun Has Very Interesting Etruscan History:
Cortona is one of the oldest hill-towns in Tuscany and its history can be traced back to the time of the Etruscans. In the past many writers have written about Cortona, but in more recent times, it was Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun” that highlighted the beauty, colours and scents of Tuscany to the world and put Cortona on the international tourist map.
Cortona is situated north-west of Lake Trasimeno and our drive from Perugia took us along this lake where Hannibal famously ambushed the Romans in the Battle of Lake Trasimeno. When Cortona was actually founded is unclear, but there is evidence that the Etruscans were here more than 2,700 years ago. Before visiting the historic centre of Cortona, we stopped at an Etruscan tomb (Melone I and II) just outside of town to learn a little about the town’s interesting Etruscan history.
Our visit of Cortona started at the Piazza Garribaldi where we were set down by our coach. There is a Garribaldi monument here, but locals still call this Piazza Carbonaia and they gather here for social chats or just to chill out and enjoy the breathtaking views of Lake Trasimeno and the Chiana valley.
A Walk to Cortona Historic Centre
From Piazza Garribaldi, we took an easy stroll up along Via Nazionale, the main street in Cortona, which locals refer to as Ruga Piana. Via Nazaionale is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants and it’s hard not to be distracted by the nice foods in the delicatessens. This pedestrian street leads to Piazza della Repubblica where the 13th century Town Hall (Palazzo Comunale) dominates the square. In front of the Town Hall is the 14th-century Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, which was partly expanded in the sixteenth century and used as the residence of Cardinal Passerini. Piazza della Reppubblica is also the start of many of museums, galleries and theatres that this ancient city offers.
Adjacent to Piazza della Repubblica is Piazza Signorelli, the second of the two main squares in Cortona. The Palazzo Casali, otherwise known as the Praetorian Palace, is in this square and just to the right of the Palazzo Casali is the Sigorelli Theatre. Inside the Palazzo Casali is the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca. Despite the name the museum covers not just Etruscan art, but everything from ancient Egyptian artefacts to paintings of the 15th century. Also on display are books, period furniture and sculptures.
Walking along the stretch of road between Palazzo Casali and the Teatro Signorelli, we arrived in Piazza del Duomo, where the town’s Renaissance cathedral is located. Inside the cathedral are paintings by artists like Andrea Comfortable, Papacello, Poppi and Luca Signorelli. Next to the cathedral is the Vagnotti Palace, once the seat of the Episcopal Seminary, now the traditional home of the annual Antique Fair. There’s also a National Market of Ancient Furniture held in the Piazza Grande during the last two weeks of August.
In front of the cathedral, in Piazza del Duomo, is the Museo Diocesano (Diocesan Museum), the main museum in Cortona. Housed in the building that was once the Church of Jesus (1498-1505), the Diocesan Museum, is certainly worth a visit to see the two famous panels by Fra Angelico, an Annunciation and a Madonna and Child with Saints. It also holds works by artists such as Luca Signorelli, Pietro Lorenzetti, Bartolomeo della Gatta and Sassetta.
There is much more to explore and see in Cortona, but for our brief visit in this town, the sights around Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza Signorelli gave us a good feel of the attractions that medieval Cortona has to offer.
On our way back to Piazza Garribaldi, we walked past those nice cafes and trattorias along via Nazionale again, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to sample any of the food in Cortona. However, Marco, one of our readers provided this tip: “Pizza at Croce della Travaglia is great. Fumo pasta at Trattoria Toscano is not to be missed.”
And if you’re visiting Cortona, you may also want to make a side trip to see Bramasole, Frances Mayes’ house in Tuscany.
The Hotel San Luca at Piazza Garribaldi offers panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. On Via Nazionale are two hotels – the Appartamenti Ermenegilda is set in a 16th-century building and the Rugapianavacanze. Further along the Hotel San Michele is strategically located right in the heart of town. This fabulous hotel is located inside the ancient Baldelli Palace, one of the oldest buildings of Cortona. For the complete list of Cortona hotels, see Here.
Getting to Cortona
Cortona can be reached by rail – the closest station is Camucia-Cortona about three kilometres away. From the station, there are buses and taxis to Cortona. There are direct trains from Florence, Rome, and Foligno (via Perugia).