If you came directly to this page you may wish to see a page with an introduction to this section and a map of Val di Chiana first.
Traveller, thou art approaching Cortona! Dost thou reverence age - that fulness of years which, as Pliny says, "in man is venerable, in cities sacred"? Here is that which demands thy reverence. Here is that, which when the druidical marvels of thine own land were newly raised, was of hoary antiquity - that, compared to which Rome is but of yesterday - to which most other cities of ancient renown are fresh and green. Thou mayst have wandered far and wide through Italy - nothing hast thou seen more venerable than Cortona. Ere the days of Hector and Achilles, ere Troy itself arose - Cortona was. On that bare and lofty height, whose towered crest holds communion with the cloud, dwelt the heaven-born Dardanus, ere he left Italy to found the Trojan race; and on that mount reigned his father Corythus, and there he was laid in the tomb. Such is the ancient legend, and wherefore gainsay it. Away with doubts! - pay thy full tribute of homage! Hast thou respect to fallen greatness! - Yon solemn city was once the proudest and mightiest in the land, the metropolis of Etruria.
George Dennis - The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria - 1848
Views of Cortona from the south-west (above) and from the north-west (below)
Fifteen miles from Montepulciano eastward after passing a fine plain you come to Cortona, a town belonging to the dukedom of Tuscany. This is one of the twelve municipia of Tuscany by the antients called Corytum and Cirtonium, pleasantly situated on a mountain planted with vines and fruit trees near the confines of Umbria.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
On entering the Tuscan territory from the banks of Lake Trasymenus we were stopped for a minute by an officer of the customs, the most polite and most disinterested of the profession; and then we proceeded rapidly to Camoscia. It was now dusk, and we could barely distinguish at a little distance on our right the city of Cortona, rising in a majestic situation on the side of a mountain. This city, supposed to be the most ancient in Italy, and once the capital of Etruria, still retains (..) some remnant of its walls, the only vestige of its early magnificence.
J. C. Eustace - Classical Tour of Italy in 1802 (publ. 1813)
The origin of Cortona, it has been said, is very ancient - so remote indeed that it is necessarily involved in obscurity. The legend that makes it the city of Dardanus and elder sister of Troy has already been mentioned. Tradition asserts that long ere the establishment of the Etruscan State, Cortona was "great and flourishing" - "a memorable city of the Umbrians". (..) Subsequently, with the rest of the land, it fell to the Etruscans, and under them it appears to have been a second metropolis - to have been to the interior and mountainous part of the land what Tarquinia was to the coast. (..) That she was included in the great Etruscan Confederation, and one of the Twelve chief cities, is unquestionable. Livy describes her as one of the "heads of Etruria," in the year of Rome 444, when with Perusia and Arretium she was forced to sue for peace. It is singular that this is the only record we find of Cortona during the days of Etruscan independence. (..) Cortona is a city of great interest. Its very high antiquity - the mystery hanging over its origin, lost in the dim perspective of remote ages - the fables connected with its early history - the problem of its mighty walls - the paucity of tombs discovered around them, and the singular character of those that stand open, - all combine to cast a charm over Cortona, a charm of mystery, which can only be fully appreciated by those who have visited the site. Dennis
On entering the Val di Chiana, we passed through a peasantry more civil and industrious than their Aretine neighbours. (..) The knights of St. Stephen (a military order founded in 1561 by Cosimo I de' Medici) have conquered a large part of this vale from the river Chiana which, being subject to floods, had formed here an immense morass. The method which they employed is called a colmata (fill-up), and seems to have been known in the Antonine reigns. It consisted here of an enclosure of stupendous dikes, which received the inundations, and confined them for a while on the morass. When the river had fallen, this water was sluiced off into its channel; but, during its stagnation on the surface enclosed, it had left there a deposite of excellent earth; and a succession of such deposites has given solidity to the bog, raised it above the level of ordinary floods, and converted it into the richest arable. By this enterprize has the Religion of St. Stephen deservedly become the first proprietor of the plain; while the lands immediately round Cortona count more masters than any township in Tuscany. Cortona, rising amidst its vineyards, on the acclivity of a steep hill (..) commands a magnificent prospect of (..) the wide, variegated vale of Chiana, skirted with vine-covered hills, and beautifully strewed with white cottages, white fattorias, white villas, and convents of sober grey. This is a favourite seat of "Bacco in Toscana"*: for good table-wine costs here but a penny the large flask.
J. Forsyth - Remarks on Antiquities, Arts and Letters in Italy - 1803 (publ. 1813)
* A poem praising the wines of Tuscany which was written in 1685 by Francesco Redi, a physician and entomologist from Arezzo.
Between Perugia and Cortona lies the large weedy water
of Lake Thrasymene, turned into a witching word for ever
by Hannibal's recorded victory over Rome. Dim as such
records have become to us and remote such realities, he
is yet a passionless pilgrim who doesn't, as he passes, of a
heavy summer's day, feel the air and the light and the very
faintness of the breeze all charged and haunted with them,
all interfused as with the wasted ache of experience and
with the vague historic gaze. Processions of indistinguishable ghosts bore me company to Cortona itself, most sturdily
ancient of Italian towns. It must have been a seat of ancient
knowledge even when Hannibal and Flaminius came to the
shock of battle, and have looked down afar from its grey
ramparts on the contending swarm with something of a philosophic composure.
Henry James - A Chain of Italian Cities - 1874
From Montepulciano they descended on to Lake Trasimene. 'Wasn't there a battle here, or something?' asked Irene, when she saw the name on the map. Lord Hovenden seemed to remember that there had indeed been something of the kind in this neighbourhood. 'But it doesn't make much difference, does it?' Irene nodded; it certainly didn't seem to make much difference. (..) They rushed on, the gale blew steadily in their faces. The road forked; Lord Hovenden turned the nose of his machine along the leftward branch. They lost sight of the blue water. 'Good-bye, Trasimene,' said Irene regretfully. It was a lovely lake; she wished she could remember what had happened there.
A. L. Huxley - Those Barren Leaves - 1925
Palazzo della Corgna at Castiglione del Lago: the Battle of Lake Trasimeno by unknown painter
We passed through the village of Ossaia, said, to take its name from the slaughter of the battle, and from the bones dug up by the peasantry in the neighboring fields. An inscription over the door of a house announces the origin of the name in the following lines, not very classical but intelligible enough.
"Nomen habet locus hie Ossaia, ab ossibus illis Quae dolus Annibalis fudit et hasta simul". (From heaps of bones, which Hannibal of yore. At once by treach'ry and the dint of sword, Spread o'er our fields, Ossaia takes its name). Eustace
Leaving Camuscia, we soon reach the Tuscan frontier village of Ossaja, the custom-house station, where in returning from Rome baggage and passports are examined.
John Murray - Handbook for travellers in central Italy - 1853
I leave the traveller to his tutelar deities, the Guide-books to steer him safely among the churches, the paintings, and the sarcophagus in the Cathedral - said to be that of the Consul Flaminius, who lost his life by "the reedy Thrasymene" - on which inexperience and credulity have so often run aground. Dennis
The most remarkable sepulchral monument preserved here is the great Sarcophagus, which the local antiquaries, eager to identify everything with Hannibal's invasion, have honored by calling it the tomb of the consul Flaminius. The good bas-relief on it, representing the combat of the Centaurs and Lapiths, is clearly referable to a later period of Roman art, so that there can be no authority for the tradition which regards the sarcophagus as that of the unfortunate consul. Murray
The original walls of Cortona still appear round the city as foundations to the modern, which were built in the thirteenth century. Those Etruscan works are the most entire towards the north. Their huge, uncemented blocks have resisted, on that side, the storms of near three thousand winters; while, on the south, they have yielded to the silent erosion of the Sirocco. None of the stones run parallel; most of them are faced in the form of trapezia; some are indented and inserted in each other like dove-tail. (..) No part of these walls remains fortified. The French army which lately laid Arezzo open (in October 1800), has also demolished the few defences of Cortona.
Modern Cortona retains the site of the ancient city, which was of oblong form, and about two miles in circumference. The modern walls are in most parts based on the ancient, though at the higher end of the city the latter made a considerably wider circuit. They may be traced in fragments more or less preserved almost entirely round the city; and are composed of rectangular blocks of gate size, arranged without much regularity, (..) and often joined with great nicety. At the lower part of the city, they stretch for a long distance in an unbroken line beneath the modern fortifications. (..) The masonry is of a grey sandstone, (..) in parts flaky and brittle, but generally very hard and compact; it is sometimes hewn to a smooth surface, at others left with a natural face; in no part is it cemented, though the blocks are often so closely fitted together as to appear so, not admitting even a penknife to be thrust between them. The joints are often diagonal, and small pieces are inserted to fill up deficiencies. (..) That they are as early as the Etruscan domination cannot be doubted; nay, it is probable they are of prior date. Dennis
The present town lies within its ancient circuit;
the modern gates seem to be the
same as the ancient; and the wall,
formed of enormous rectangular blocks
of sandstone, laid together in horizontal
courses without cement, is preserved
for about 2 m., nearly two-thirds of its
original extent. Here and there it
is interrupted by Roman works or
modern repairs, but its magnificent
masonry is generally well preserved
beneath the modern fortifications. Murray
Porta Bifora has retained most of its original Etruscan stonework because it was walled after the Aretines entered Cortona through it in 1258 with the help of traitors. The town was sacked and set on fire.
Uphill streets of Cortona; the last image shows some small houses in Vicolo Iannelli which retain their medieval timber supporting structures
Cortona is not spread over the summit of the mountain, but hangs suspended from its peak, down one of the slopes. Steep, winding, foot-torturing streets, rich in filth, buildings mean and squalid, with hardly a shadow of past magnificence, houses in crumbling ruin, heaps of débris, and tracts of naked rock - such is modern Cortona. Cheerless and melancholy, she seems mourning over the glories of the past. Dennis 1848 Edition
From the railway station it is half an hour's drive to the town, for the ascent is steep and toilsome. Nor when the gates are reached is the labour over. (..) If you would see Cortona, you have still a long climb to the upper end of the town; for Cortona is not spread over the summit of the mountain, but hangs suspended from its peak, down its western slope. Steep, winding, narrow and gloomy streets, sombre rather than shabby houses, here and there even showing traces of medieval grandeur this is Cortona. She has made progress during the past generation, and is no longer to be accused of filthy, ill-paved streets, nor of mean and squalid houses. Dennis 1878 Edition
Cortona is perched on the very pinnacle of a mountain, and I wound and doubled interminably over the face of the great hill, while the jumbled roofs and towers of the arrogant little city still seemed nearer to the sky than to the railway- station. (..) In the afternoon I hustled a while through the crowded little streets, and then strolled forth under the scorching sun. James
(left) Palazzo Comunale (Town Hall) in the western part of the main square (today Piazza della Repubblica); (right) column supporting the Marzocco, the lion of Mars, a symbol of Florence, on the side of Palazzo Comunale (see a better preserved Marzocco at Montepulciano)
Cortona is referred to in the Second Punic War when Hannibal marched beneath her walls and laid waste the land between the city and the Thrasymene. Yet (..) she did not cease to exist, for we find her mentioned as a Roman colony under the Empire. What was her fate in the subsequent convulsions of Italy we know not, for there is a gap of a thousand years in her annals, and the history of modern Cortona commences only with the thirteenth century of our era. Dennis
Around 1150 Cortona was an independent comune. The first municipal statute, dating back to 1250, shows that the town had its own territory, its own mint and autonomous legislation. At that time conflicts between neighbouring towns were very frequent; Perugia, Arezzo and Florence wanted to control the territory of Cortona and this situation led to a long-lasting alliance of the town with Siena.
Eastern part of the main square and Via Nazionale
The net of narrow uphill streets which characterized the medieval town was modified in the XVIth century in order to obtain an almost flat street (Ruga Piana, today Via Nazionale) which crossed Cortona from the east (near S. Domenico), to the west (Porta S. Maria) passing by the Town Hall. With minor modifications the street is still the heart of the town.
Details of palaces of noble families in Via Nazionale, that on the left bears the 1511 coat of arms of Cristoforo Venuti; a member of this family was among the founders of Accademia Etrusca in 1726
Here are more than 40 noble families in a town reduced to 4000 inhabitants. A society, thus balanced between the two orders or Ceti, must be miserably split by that Gothic distinction. Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1765-1790 classed his subjects in too simple a manner for Cortona. When a foreign prince asked him how many Ceti (social classes) there were in his dominions, "Two," replied the philosopher, "men and women." Indeed, quality is here so rigidly maintained, that the heir of the rich Tommasi, having lately married a plebeian, is now shunned by his Ceto, and obliged to take refuge in the crowd of Florence. Neither the lady's accomplishments, nor her husband's high descent could open to her the obstinate Casino de' Nobili. Nobility is every where punctilious in proportion to its poverty; for rank becomes from necessity important to a man who has no other possession. Few of the Tuscan nobility are titled: still fewer represent the old feudal barons. Most of them are descended from ennobled merchants. Forsyth
Palazzo Casali or Pretorio: (left) façade; (right) courtyard with two staircases: the larger leads to MAEC (Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca e della città di Cortona), and the smaller to the Library and offices of Accademia Etrusca
Similar to what occurred in many other Italian comuni, a family prevailed on the others and established a signoria (lordship) which was often endorsed by the Pope or the Emperor. In 1325 a new statute established a local signoria which was ruled by the Casali family. The fact that in that year Cortona became a bishopric see indicates that the Casali could rely on the support of the Popes. Between 1325 and 1409 six members of this family ruled the town and some of them established family bonds with influential families of Siena.
The early XVth century was a period which saw a vacuum of power in Rome because of the Great Western Schism. Ladislaus King of Naples (of the Angevin Durazzo family) occupied parts of the Papal State and threatened to invade Tuscany. In 1409 the citizens of Cortona ousted the last of the Casali and offered the town to Ladislaus, who in 1411 sold it to Florence. He was in bad need of money to finance his military campaigns and Florence was the banking centre of Europe. Since the acquisition of Cortona had not been the result of a war the Florentines decided to maintain the privileges of the local noble families; a policy which was continued by the Medici Grand Dukes and after them by those of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine.
On the 1st of April 1411 the first Florentine envoy set his residence at Palazzo Casali for a period of six months. His official title was Capitano del Popolo, a magistrate which already existed at Cortona and in many other Italian towns. Eventually the Florentine envoys had the title of Commissario and their actual role was more that of an overseer than of a governor. The commissari held their post for a short period in order not to let them establish too close links with the local families. This is evident from the number of coats of arms which still decorate Palazzo Casali. A similar approach was adopted at Castiglion Fiorentino.
Palazzo Casali or Pretorio: interior: (left) entrance to one of the main halls with a grand coat of arms of the Medici between two small lions; (right) 1636 mantelpiece
Palazzo Casali was built by the Casali, but major renovation works, including a new façade probably designed by Filippo Berrettini (uncle of Pietro Berrettini da Cortona), were carried out at the beginning of the XVIIth century. A century later Giangastone de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (the last of his family), gave part of the building to Accademia Etrusca, for its Museum and Library. The palace is also called Pretorio because it housed a tribunal with a jail and some guards, praetor being the Latin term for magistrate.
The image used as background for this page shows a detail of the decoration of a window near Palazzo Casali.
Go to page 2: Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca e della città di Cortona or to page 3: Churches or move to:
Orvieto - Medieval Monuments
Orvieto - Cathedral and Papal Palace
Orvieto - Renaissance Monuments
Orvieto - Museums
Città della Pieve
An Excursion to Chiusi
Castiglione del Lago
An Excursion to Montepulciano
An Excursion to Castiglion Fiorentino