8 Top Tourist Attractions in Cortona & Easy Day Trips
Close to the eastern border of Tuscany, the walled hilltop town of Cortona is one of the oldest in Italy. It was one of the twelve cities of the Etruscan League and later became a Roman colony. Like so many other Tuscan towns, it came under the control of Florence at the end of the Middle Ages, and you'll see hints of that in its architecture. Piazza della Repúbblica sits in its historic center, overlooked by the 14th-century Palazzo del Pópolo and the imposing Palazzo Comunale, which was built before 1241. The front of the palazzo is somewhat forbidding, with a long flight of steps and a battlemented clock-tower, both part of 16th-century renovations. Most of Cortona's tourist attractions are within a short walk of this piazza.
1 Madonna del Calcinaio
A twisting road descends the southern slope of the town to the Renaissance church of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio, also called the Madonna del Calcinaio, a beautiful domed building on a cruciform plan by Francesco di Giorgio Martini of Siena. It was built to house a miraculous image of the Virgin, originally on the wall of a limestone quarry (calcinaio), belonging to the local Tanners' Guild and now on the high altar. Built from 1485 to 1513, this is one of the most architecturally important Renaissance churches in Tuscany.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Cortona
2 Museo Diocesano (Diocesan Museum)
The deconsecrated Jesuit church, Chiesa del Gesù, is an unusual structure of two churches, one on top of the other. Originally built between 1498 and 1505, it was altered in the 16th century by Giorgio Vasari and the upper church today houses the Diocesan Museum. Its best-known works are by Fra Angélico: Annunciation, a triptych with the Virgin and Child, and scenes from the life of St. Dominic. Also worth noting are Pietro Lorenzetti's Crucifixion and Madonna, altar-pieces by Luca Signorelli and Sassetta, a Roman sarcophagus from the second century AD, and the 15th-century Vagnucci Reliquary of gilded bronze, silver, and precious stones. The lower church has rich fresco decoration painted or designed by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century and a painted terracotta Descent from the Cross from about 1500.
Address: Piazza del Duomo 1, Cortona
3 Museo dell'Accadémia Etrusca e della Città di Cortona (Archaeology Museum)
The Palazzo Pretorio houses the Accadémia Etrusca museum, containing Roman and Egyptian antiquities as well as Etruscan material. Its greatest treasure is an Etruscan bronze lamp of the fifth century BC. Other priceless Etruscan bronzes include statues of a winged goddess and of Jupiter hurling a thunderbolt, both from the seventh to sixth centuries BC. The Egyptian section of the museum displays a rare funerary boat of painted wood from the 12th Dynasty, about 2000 BC, in addition to several sarcophagi. There are also coins, medals, ceramics, and paintings by Italian masters of the 13th to 17th centuries.
Address: Palazzo Casali, Piazza Signorelli 9, Cortona
4 San Francesco
The church of San Francesco was begun in 1245, making it one of the earliest Franciscan churches. The exterior of this aisleless Gothic church is plain and undecorated; the interior was unfortunately remodeled in the Baroque period. Its greatest treasure, although it's not always visible, is a Reliquary of the True Cross, a Byzantine ivory tablet in a 16th-century frame, brought from Constantinople by Fra Elia da Cortona. Brother Elia succeeded St. Francis as leader of the order and founded this church; his tomb is in the choir. Don't miss the masterpiece by Pietro da Cortona, The Annunciation, in the third altar on the left, considered one of the most beautiful paintings from the 17th century.
Address: Via Berrettini, Cortona
A short distance north of Piazza Signorelli, the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is a Renaissance structure built over an earlier Romanesque church. What you see today is predominantly the work of Giuliano da Sangallo (1445-1516) or his followers, and the beautiful portals are by Cristofanello, whose work can also be seen on the façade of a palazzo at Via Guelfa 4. The interior is divided into three aisles by slender columns whose capitals reflect the style of Brunelleschi, architect of the great dome on the Duomo of Florence. The finely carved altars, done in the mid-1600s, are by Francesco Mazzuoli. The choir contains a number of good paintings, including some by pupils of Luca Signorelli. Adjoining the cathedral is the Bishop's Palace (Palazzo Vescovile), whose present form dates mainly from the late 19th century.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, Cortona
6 San Doménico
The church of San Doménico, outside the town walls to the south, was originally the church of a Dominican friary where the famous painter Fra Angélico lived for a time. This aisleless Gothic church was built in Fra Angélico's time, the early 15th century, in the plain architectural style favored by the Dominicans. The simple façade has a lunette on the portal with a fresco, and you can see traces of pillars that were once part of a porch. The altar has a triptych by Lorenzo Gherini from the14th/15th centuries. In the chapel on the right is the 15th-century Madonna with Angels and Saints by Luca Signorelli, and on the wall of the presbytery is The Assumption by Bartolomeo della Gatta, also from the 15th century.
Address: Largo Beato Angelico 1, Cortona
7 Santuario di Santa Margherita
Set on a hillside, the Sanctuary of Santa Margherita is a pilgrimage church dedicated to St. Margaret of Cortona, who lived in the late 1200s. The present church, in Neo-Byzantine style, was built between 1856 and 1897, but the Saint's tomb dates from 1362; her relics are in a 1646 silver shrine behind the high altar. A chapel on the left aisle is dedicated to Cortona's fallen soldiers. The façade is quite different from other Cortona churches, with intricate stone work and a beautiful rose window. From the square in front of the church there is a magnificent view into the Val di Chiana.
Address: Piazza Santa Margherita, Cortona
8 Etruscan Tombs
At the foot of Cortona's hill are two excellent Etruscan tombs. Melone I, excavated in 1909, yielded some of the fine examples of Etruscan funerary accessories shown in the Etruscan museum. Melone II, which was discovered in 1927, has an unusual terraced altar decorated by splendid decorative sculptures of combat between humans and mythical animals. This tomb is more than 70 meters in diameter. Another fourth-century tomb, south of Cortona, and reached by the road from the Porta Sant'Agostino, has a chamber more than two meters long enclosed by large wedge-shaped blocks.
Day Trips from Cortona
Convento delle Celle
The Convento delle Celle, above a stream on the slopes of Monte Sant'Egidio, is a complex of monks' cells, the first of which were built by St. Francis of Assisi between 1211 and 1221. The saint chose this isolated spot in the woods as one conducive to prayer and contemplation and was soon joined there by followers, including Fra Elia da Cortona, who was to succeed the saint as head of the Franciscan order. You can see the little church, built in 1573, and a number of cells. From here, there is an excellent view of Cortona on its hilltop.
Location: Località Le Celle, Corona