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Cortona is in the province of Arezzo and is situated at a height of 650 metres (2122 ft) a.s.l., right in the middle of Central Italy, equi-distant from the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic coasts and a few miles from the Umbria-Tuscany border. It is 32 km (20 miles) from Arezzo, 102 km (62.5 miles) from Florence, 54 km (32 miles) from Perugia, 80 km (50 miles) from Siena and 166 km (104 miles) from Rome. It can be reached swiftly and easily, being served by the Autostrada del Sole (Valdichiana exit), State Highway SS 71 and the Milan-Florence-Rome railway. It is built on a buttress of Monte Sant-Egidio and is surrounded by a massive rectangular wall, worn by centuries of wind and weather, in which the ancient city gates open to receive the various roads winding up from the plain below. The road from the plain to the city passes through terraced olive groves divided by dry stone walls, with fine villas surrounded by pines, ilexes and cypresses, farms, monasteries and monumental churches which seem out of place in this isolation, built in pure Renaissance style with domes, windows and belfries all in the light-coloured local stone. The landscape is similar to that of Tuscany; there is the same fusion of art and nature, of new and old, making up a harmonious whole. Looking from the top of the city walls, one can see one of the finest and widest views in Italy, the fertile plain of the Val Chiana, with the mountains of Siena at the far end, Monte Amiata and Monte Cetone standing out, and the great shining expanse of Lake Trasimene. In recent years, Cortona has become well known to English speakers through the best-selling book (on the NY Times list of nonfiction) by Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun.  "Bella Tuscany" followed in April '99 and a new book, "In Tuscany" is due before Christmas 2000.

Vergil declared that Cortona was founded by the mythical Dardano: in fact, it was probably an Umbrian fortress which passed into the hands of the Etruscans in the VIII - VII centuries BC; after this it became an important Lucumonia, as the main centres of Etruria were called. It entered into the Roman alliance at the end of the IV century BC, but the exact date of its occupation is unknown. It received Roman citizenship during the Slave Wars and was made a colony by Sylla. There is no further reliable information after this date until it was taken by the Goths in 490 AD. It reappeared in the Xl century as a free commune, at war with Perugia and the bishops of Arezzo. It had a notable period of splendour in the communal period under democratic institutions which gave it peace and prosperity. The forces of Arezzo sacked it and devastated it in 1258, after occupying it by treachery. Only after three years, with the help of Slena, did it regain its freedom, and rose rapidly to its former prosperity. In 1335 it became a bishopric and a Signoria under the Ranieri Casali family, under whom it was embellished and rendered a flourishing city. In 1409 King Ladislao of NapIes conquered it and sold it to the Florentines. From then on, its fortunes were linked to those of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

One can see that Cortona was a power in Etruscan times by its massive walls, of which many traces remain: the perimeter can be clearly seen and was only just short of two miles long. Many Etruscan tombs have been discovered in the countryside below. The most famous are: the " Tanella di Pitagora" (V century BC) and "Melone" at Sodo. There is a wealth of exhibits in the Etruscan rooms of the Museum in Palazzo Casall, with jewellery and artifacts such as the famous bronze lamp, richly embossed, of the first century BC, which was found in 1840. Cortona is a city of characteristic steep, flagged streets and the general impression given by the architecture is of stone. At the top of the hill stands the ancient Medici fortress. One of the most important of the older buildings is the Palazzo Civico, of the XIII century, with its XVI century tower. The Palazzo Pretorio has a Renaissance facade; it houses the Museum with Etruscan, Roman and Eyptian collections and a picture gallery with works by Pinturicchio and Luca Signorelli. The Etruscan Academy and a valuable library are in the same building. Other fine buildings are: Palazzo Fierli Petrella of the XV century; Palazzo Ferretti of the XVIII century; Palazzi Lovari and Mancini by Brunelleschi; Palazzo Sernini and Villa Passerini, called the "Palazzone", built by G. B. Caporali in about 1515. Churches of note are: Sant'Agostini (late XIII century); San Domenico (XV century); San Francesco, begun by Brothers-Elia in 1245, with Romanesque and Gothic features; the Abbey of Farneta, pre-Romanesque; the Abbey of Sant'Angelo; the Basilica of Santa Margherita was founded by the Saint herself in the XIII century, but it was completely rebuilt in the XIX century, housing the Gothic tomb of the Saint (1362); the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie was begun in 1485 by Francesco di Giorgio Martini; the Renaissance church of Santa Maria Nuova (1550) and the Cathedral which was first built in the XI century, but rebuilt at the end of the XV century. The campanile is dated 1556; the XVI century church of San Niccolo has a fine painted banner by Luca Signorelli and the church of the Gesu houses the Diocesan Museum, with a number of important paintings including Beato Angelico's famous "Annunciation". Nearby is the Capuchin Convent "alle Celle", founded near the cell in which St. Francis of Assisi lived. Cortona was the birthplace of Luca Signorelli and Pietro da Cortona. The Communal Library is world-famous. It contains 22,000 printed volumes, 1172 parchments, 133 Incunabula and 633 manuscripts