Cortona: a religious itinerary

Le celle, Cortona

Countless monumental churches, the Franciscan spirituality and the mystic and peaceable landscape contribute to making Cortona the ideal destination for those in search of spiritual stimuli and quiet meditation-spots. Cortona is intimately bound with the early stages of the Franciscan movement. The Celle hermitage was, in fact, the first convent St.Francis built upon arriving into town in 1211. This convent, perched on the slope of mount St. Egidio , gave shelter, other than to St. Francis, to brother Elia Coppi, St. Bonaventura and St.Anthony of Padua. Work on the church of St.Francis was commenced in 1245 by brother Elia Coppi, a faithful companion of St.Francis’ and the second general of the Order. Built in plain Gothic style, with a large rose-window on the façade and svelte double-lancet windows on the side walls and in the apse, the church houses Pietro Berrettini’s (Pietro da Cortona) very last work, remarkable paintings and frescoes by other artists and brother Elia Coppi’s bones.

Standing stately on top of the Cortona hill, the Basilica of Santa Margherita, sheltering the body of St.Margherita, enclosed in a precious silver urn (created in 1646 based on designs by Pietro da Cortona), can be reached climbing a stunningly panoramic slope lined with Gino Severini’s mosaic Stations of the Cross. Standing on the Basilica’s square you may enjoy a staggering view of the Valdichiana, skirted by the Trasimeno Lake, the Amiata and Cetona mountains and the side-valley opening out towards Siena to the west and towards Arezzo to the north-east. The Basilica/Sanctuary was consecrated to St.Margherita (1247-1297), a woman celebrated for her unflinching life and faith, her dramatic conversion and the generous humanitarian deeds she performed for the poor and the ill. The church was built on the site of a previous oratory in the 13th century; in the late 1800’s the church was completely remodelled and only the Giovanni Pisano rosette over the main portal, the bell-tower and a portion of the choir walls were retained from the original.

Santa Margherita Nuova Church, Cortona

The church of San Niccolò, charmingly located in a cypress-tree lined garden, harbours a standard painted by Luca Signorelli and a panel, painted on both sides, depicting the Madonna and Child-Jesus with St.Peter and St.Paul, also by Signorelli. Set in a sheltered and quiet location, from which the eye can sweep miles over the valley and mount Sant’Egidio, the Cathedral of Santa Maria was built in 1456 on the site of the previous 11th century Romanesque parish church; the bell-tower was built in 1556 by Francesco Laparelli. The interior houses remarkable paintings by Ludovico Cardi, Andrea Commodi, Alessandro Allori and Pietro da Cortona. Especially valuable are the candelabra, chalices and sacred furnishings displayed in the vestry. Innumerable other churches, some of them stately and compelling and others tucked away amongst buildings and palaces, contribute to Cortona’s charm in the continuous intertwining of secular and religious life of a town interspersed with tabernacles and religious statues.

San Niccolò church, Cortona

Right outside the city walls, nestled on the hillside, stands lone and imposing the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio, built in 1485 by architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini in bricks and local sandstone. As a result of the extreme friability of these materials, the passing of time has partly worn away exterior decorations and trimmings, a common phenomenon with many of the town’s oldest monuments.
Outside the Porta Colonia gate, a steep track descends down the hillside onto a natural terrace where the church of Santa Maria Nuova, stands in its majesty. This well-proportioned and impressive church topped by a hemispherical dome, was built in 1550 by architect Giovan Battista Infregliati and later modified and completed by Giorgio Vasari. A variety of no less interesting churches coming in all sizes and styles are to be easily found all over the Cortona territory, thanks to a very good road-sign system.

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