According to George Dennis, Cortona has a long and colourful history and has been known by many different names in the past.
Originally part of Umbria, in the latter stages of the Gothic War (535-554), Cortona was ransacked and destroyed. However, in the 600s BC, the Etruscans won it in battle, enlarged it, and renamed it Curtun. In later years, the Romans colonised Cortona and referred to it as Corito. In the 13th century, Cortona became a Ghibellinian city-state with its own currency. It was ruled by the Ranieri-Casali family between 1325 and 1409; however, it was later sold to the Medici in 1411 having being conquered by Ladislaus of Naples. In 1737, the Medicis lost their power and Cortona exchanged hands once again, this time falling under the authority of the House of Lorraine. It wasn’t until the Italian Wars of Independence that Cortona became part of Tuscany and the Kingdom of Italy.
The Legends of the Foundation of Cortona
Cortona’s foundation remains somewhat unknown and is surrounded by myth and legend. The classical legends that described the formation of Cortona were later revised and a new series of events was outlined. According to the Guide of Giacomo Lauro, which was published in the 17th century and represented a major rework of the writings of Annio da Viterbo, Noah entered the Valdichiana via the Tiber and Paglia rivers 108 years after the Great Flood. Noah chose this place over the many other areas of Italy he had previously encountered because of its highly fertile lands, and he remained here for the next 30 years. Crano, a descendant of Noah, climbed to one of the hilltop locations of modern-day Tuscany and, appreciating the view and elevated position, built the first incarnation of the City of Cortona.
Architecture and Historical Attractions
Today, the architecture of Cortona is distinctly medieval, and the city is characterised by narrow winding streets. Sitting in an elevated position 600 metres above sea level, visitors to this fascinating area enjoy mesmerising views of the entire Valdichiana. One vista that is certainly worth seeking out is that of Lake Trasimeno, the place at which Hannibal ambushed the Roman army in 217 BC during the Battle of Lake Trasimene. While Cortona has undergone many transformations in its long history, remnants of its Etruscan past can still be found in parts of the city way.
The main street, or Ruga Piana as the locals call it, is accessed via Nazionale and is the only level street in Cortona. Visitors who venture into the Palazzo Casali will find the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca (Etruscan Academy Museum), which contains a wealth of historical artefacts from throughout the town’s history, spanning Etruscan, Roman, and Egyptian civilizations, and Medieval and Renaissance eras. Founded in 1727, the museum houses many famous collections and artefacts, including the library of Onofrio Baldelli and many ancient Etruscan bronzes. One particular exhibit that attracts a lot of attention is that of the bronze lampadario (Etruscan hanging lamp), which was discovered at Fratta near Cortona in 1840 before being purchased by the Academy for the princely sum of 1600 Florentine scudi. The fascinating iconography that features on this lamp includes figures of Silenus playing panpipes or double flutes, sirens, harpies, dolphins, and ferocious sea creatures with gorgon-like facial features. Each of the lamp’s 16 burners is flanked by the horned head of Achelous. It is believed that the lampadario originally adorned a north Etruscan religious shrine during the second half of the fourth century BC. An inscription that was added at a later date (2nd century BC) indicates that is was later used by the Musni family for votive purposes.
A number of notable Etruscan chamber-tombs can be found dotted throughout Cortona. Of these, the Tanella di Pitagora, which is positioned half way up the hill from Camucia, is well worth a visit. While the exquisite masonry of the tomb is now exposed to the elements, it was once covered by a mound of earth. Two further tombs that attract many visitors are those at Il Sodo, which is positioned at the foot of the hillside. Il Sodo I, the ‘Grotta Sergardi’, which is more commonly referred to as ‘Il Melone’, contains a fascinating series of parallel passages that lead visitors into square inner chambers with a 640 feet mound. The walls of the chambers are paved with slabs of masonry that cover thick, roughly cut bricks. The main attraction is the large stone-stepped altar platform, which is carved with intricate motifs and images of sphinxes devouring warriors.
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