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Dominating the Val di Chiana, Cortona stands on an olive-clad hill at about six hundred and fifty metres above sea level. Its origins are lost in the nights of time, said to pre-date both Rome and Troy. Extensive traces of its Etruscan past emerge to document its role as one of the twelve cities of the Etruscan Confederation
A good three kilometres of the walls built by the Etruscans surround the city, surmounted by the mediaeval walls with their ancient gates offering access to the town. Cortona can with reason be considered an open-air museum, with its Mediaeval and Renaissance palazzos, its churches big and small, its convents and monasteries, and its narrow roads which all converge on its two squares and the only flat road, known by the locals as the "rugapiana".
Cortona is also a lively city, proud of its great past, facing the present with intelligence. The visit to this vast open-air museum is a tour through the best that the Mediaeval and the Renaissance have to offer.
Further on we come to the Cathedral and the Church of Gesù, housing the Museo Diocesano. In the upper part of the town we find the Church of San Francesco, begun by Padre Elia and, following Via Santa Margherita with the Via Crucis mosaics by Gino Severini, the Church of San Niccolò with paintings by Luca Signorelli, and the Basilica di Santa Margherita, which preserves the mummified body of the patron saint of the city, dominated by the Medici fortress of Girifalco at the highest point of the town within the ancient walls.
From here we can admire the extraordinary landscape which surrounds Cortona. A luxuriance of olives, vines, cypresses and ilexes, hills and mountains encircle it to the north, while to the south is a verdant valley and Lake Trasimene, so close as almost to reflect it. Returning downhill, emotionally charged, we visit the fifteenth-century Church of San Domenico with works by Beato Angelico and Luca Signorelli.
But the treasures of Cortona are not confined within its walls. Beyond is the Convent of Capuccini delle Celle, which developed around the cell of St Francis, and a highly mystic spot, the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, with an elegant fifteenth-century design by Pier Giorgio Martini. Etruscan remains are scattered all over the territory; the chamber tombs of Camucia and Sodo are worth visiting, as is the so-called Tanella di Pitagora, a vaulted Etruscan hypogeum.
The Museo dell Accademia Etrusca is housed on the first floor of Palazzo Casali. On display are many Etruscan antiquities and works of art from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Among the archaeological exhibits is the elaborate Etruscan lamp, found near Cortona in 1840, an example of the finest bronze production of central-northern Etruria, as well as Etruscan, Roman and Italian bronzes found locally. Among the ceramics is the Attic amphora showing the struggle of Hercules with the Lion, and the entire tomb furnishings discovered at Melone Due at Sodo are also on display.
The museum also houses paintings of the Tuscan school by Pietro da Cortona, Bicci, Allori, and Commodi and an important collection which Gino Severini, an important futurist artist, donated to his native town. The Museo Diocesano is among the most important in Tuscany for the wealth of art on show, including several masterpieces of fourteenth and fifteenth-century Italian painting.
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