CORTONA was founded by the Etruscans and, after the Roman Empire, in the year 450 it was conquered by the Goths. Subsequently, in the 12th and 13th centuries, it became a free commune but was sacked by the forces of Arezzo in the mid-13th century, and almost the entire population was forced into exile. The inhabitants were not allowed back until 1261. After continuing vicissitudes, Cortona became a dominion of Florence in 1411, and from the time of Pope Clement VII the town’s fortunes were those of the Duchy and of the Medici family. You should first make your way to the Palazzo Comunale which was built and rebuilt in the course of the 13th century, but which was heavily restored in the 19th century.
In the adjacent Piazza Signorelli, you will find Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo which once housed the town administrator. It was built during the 13th century but transformed in the course of the 16th century to become the residence of Cardinal Silvio Passerini. Looking on to the same piazza is the Palazzo Casali built by the Casali family during the 13th century. It became an official residence when, between 1325 and 1409, the offspring of this family commanded the regiment of Cortona but, after 1411 when the town passed into Florentine hands, the building became the residence of the “capitani” sent from Florence. During the 18th century, it became the seat of the Accademia Etrusca, an important institution which conserves historical Archives, possesses a richly endowed Library, and houses a Museum. The nucleus of the collection in the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca was a donation made in 1727 by the Abbot Onofrio Baldelli, from Cortona. Other bequests and donations were subsequently added. There is a collection of Etruscan, Roman and Egyptian art, including an enormously significant Etruscan lamp holder from the 4th century BC and an Egyptian wooden funeral barge. There is also an art collection ranging from the 13th to the 19th centuries, including works by Luca Signorelli, Matteo Lappoli, Cristofano Allori and one of the most important exponents of 17th-century painting, Pietro Berettini, more commonly known as Pietro da Cortona who was born here in 1596.
From Piazza Signorelli, you can walk to the Duomo which Giuliano da Sangallo, or more probably one of his imitators, built on the remains of a Romanesque pieve, of which some traces remain on the façade. The interior with its nave and two aisles was remade during the 17th century. You can see a Crucifixion and Doubting Thomas by the school of Luca Signorelli. This artist was born in Cortona around 1445 and, although he learnt his art in Florence, he remained deeply attached to his birthplace and created many works of art for the town. Also in the Cathedral there are works by Papacello, Andrea Commodi and Francesco Morandini who was known as “il Poppi”. The nearby ex-Chiesa del Gesù, built between 1498 and 1505, houses the Museo Diocesano del Capitolo in which you will find a good many art-works, especially the Annunciation by Frà Angelico and a Crucifix by Pietro Lorenzetti from 1315-1320, both masterpieces in their own right. Frà Angelico also did a Madonna and Child and four Saints from 1435 with Episodes in the Life of St Dominic in the predella, while Lorenzetti painted a Madonna and Child and Angels. Among the other works, there are some by Luca Signorelli, including Lament for the Dead Christ from 1502 and the Community of the Apostles from 1512. The Assumption, which dates from the 1570s, is ascribed to Bartolomeo della Gatta, who was a friend of Signorelli. There are also many examples of the goldsmith’s art and numerous sacred objects in the Museum’ possession.
Works by such Florentine artists as Alessandro Alllori and Jacopo Chimenti known as L’Empoli, of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, are conserved in the late-Renaissance Chiesa di San Maria Nuova. The Gothic Chiesa di San Francesco, was begun in 1245 by Friar Elia, the founder of the Basilica of Assisi, but was remade between the 16th and 17th centuries. The church possesses notable art works, frescoes and canvasses of the schools of both Florence and Siena. On the high altar of the 15th-century Chiesa di San Nicolò there is the “gonfalone”, or banner, of the Society of San Nicolò, made by Luca Signorelli, depicting Christ Deposed from the Cross with Saints and Angels on one side and, on the other, the Madonna with St Peter and St Paul. From the circle of the same artist, and close to the church’s entrance, there is a fresco of the Madonna and Child with Saints. From this part of the town, you go up to the Sanctuary dedicated to Santa Margherita da Cortona. Situated on a hilltop from which you can enjoy a wonderful view of the valley below, the Sanctuary was built in 1859. Inside, in addition to art-works of interest, there is the tomb of Santa Margherita made in a Gothic style in 1362.
Your visit to Cortona finishes with a visit to the Fortezza Medicea, also known as the Fortezza del Girifalco, which Cosimo I de’ Medici ordered to be constructed in 1556, and the Chiesa di San Domenico dating from the early 15th century. Adjacent to the church there used to be a monastery, now destroyed, in which Frà Angelico was a guest when he painted the Annunciation, now in the Diocesan Museum. The artist was a Dominican friar and he also painted the fresco in the lunette of the entrance portal depicting the Madonna and Child between two Dominicans. Inside the church, you will find a detached fresco depicting St Roch and Episodes from his Life by Bartolomeo della Gatta, a Madonna and Child with Saints by Luca Signorelli from 1515 and, at the high altar, a large polyptych by Lorenzo di Niccolò Gerini, signed and dated 1402.
From Cortona, you can also visit the nearby Chiesa della Madonna del Calcinaio built to a centralised plan in 1485-1513 and designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini. Inside, you find some stained- glass windows made by Guillaume de Marcillat and by his pupils, as well as paintings by Papacello and by the school of Luca Signorelli.