Cortona – The New Year Under the Tuscan Snow December 31st, 2014 Cortona has its roots in Etruscan times but today it is likely most widely known as having been the location for the filming of “Under the Tuscan Sun”, loosely based on the bestseller by Frances Mayes. Today we wake up to freshly fallen snow. So I have taken the liberty of giving the title of “Under the Tuscan Snow” to this post. The first part of the drive from Poppi to Cortona is slow going as the drivers are taking the snow-covered roads cautiously. But by the time we reach Arezzo the roads are clear. Despite the blowing snow the landscape is clearly evocative of all the pictures we have all seen of rolling Tuscan hills, farm roads lined with Cyprus trees and the grey green of olive trees, and the long stretches of vineyards. Cortona sits on a hilltop above the Val di Chiana. The Val di Chiana was extensively settled by the Etruscans and Romans. The deforestation combined with the already low river gradient valley of the Chiana River slowly created an extensive marshy area. Malarial infestation began in Etruscan times and became seriously hazardous during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This was one of the reasons that the area has so many hilltop towns where the air was cleaner. It is hard to conceptualize how many centuries people have been living and working the lands here. But for a small frame of reference – the present-day appearance of the Val di Chiana is the result of marsh drainage and reclamation work that was started by the Romans and carried on right through to the 20th century. Cortona is surrounded by a ring of walls that sit atop the original Etruscan wall. We start our visit of the town at one of the Etruscan gates (Porta Bacarelli). You can clearly see that the top part of the wall is not the same stone as the bottom part. The wall is almost a timeline of the history if the town. The lower part of the wall that is Etruscan dates back to the 5th century B.C. It is easily recognizable because the Etruscans used large almost boulder shaped stones as opposed to the small, more uniform stones of Roman and mediaeval work. A recent excavation revealed an Etruscan gateway that was covered over but is now reopened and restored. The guide then takes us to see several remaining medieval houses. The medieval house of the ordinary people was usually a tower house with one room on each of the three floors. She tells us that the houses that were built in the beginning of the 14th century in Cortona are distinctive. The facades, at the level above the ground floor overhangs above the street and, on the ground floor are made of stone. The upper floors are made of brick. The support beams, which are placed above the ground floor, jut out about a meter from the ground floor and become the support for the lighter construction in brick. Our guide had as an objective to show us the evolution of art from the gothic to the renaissance style. She judiciously selected artists and works of art to help us understand this evolution. Cortona’s chief artistic treasures are two panels by Fra Angelico in the Diocesan Museum, an Annunciation and a Madonna and Child with Saints, painted during his stay at Cortona in 1436. Fra Angelico is recognised as creating works that brought a transition in art history. His work is seen as clearly moving art from the Gothic style to the Renaissance style. Gothic art of icons made heavy use blues and gold leaf, which demonstrated the importance of the patron. Fra Angelico used clear bright pastel colours, careful arrangement of a few significant figures and expressions, motion and gestures that were more life-like- a move towards what is described as a balance of naturalism and idealism. I listened to the guide as she explained that Fra Angelico would pray for hours before painting and treated his work as a spiritual creation. Michelangelo was said to have been influenced by his style. Always in these pieces there is something else happening in the background and in this Annunciation high up in one corner Adam and Eve are being expelled from paradise. The guide explained a lot of other aspects of the Annunciation as well but for me the lasting impression was the brightness of the colors and perhaps the simplicity of the two dominant figures of Mary and the Angel. The Diocesan Museum displays some of the most important works of the Cortonese painter Luca Signorelli, from the years when he ran a prolific workshop in Cortona (1512-23). He studied the human form and in his work you can see that the figures are lifelike. His frescoes of “The End of the World” and the “Last Judgment” (1499–1502), in Orvieto greatly influenced Michelangelo, and are crowded with powerful nudes painted in many postures that accentuate their musculature. One of the paintings in Cortona is of the crucifixion. It is said that he used as a model the body of his son who died after having contracted the plague. Again what struck me most were the bright, vivid colors. The museum also houses a famous Roman sarcophagus found in the fields underneath the city walls depicting the Struggle of Dionisus and the Amazons. It was so celebrated in the 15 century that Donatello (sculptor) and Brunelleschi (architect of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore that is the symbol of Firenze), made a journey from Firenze to Cortona to see it. Like Michelangelo, they were very much influenced by the classical works of antiquity in Rome. This is a tiny bit of renaissance art history that the guide shared with us. Then some time to wander and enjoy the architecture and the streets of Cortona. . But there was quite a brisk breeze blowing a dry snow around. So through these huge wooden doors, past a small farmers market and into a hosteria for a warm cup of coffee. And then back on the bus and lunch in Arezzo!