It was the Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli, Cortona’s most famous son, that first brought us to the town...

For over 30 years the painter Val Archer, my ever-knowledgeable and talented wife, guided me on journeys of discovery in Italy from Venice to Naples, Milan to Mantua, to Florence, Ravenna, Perugia and Palermo and, inevitably, to Rome. Every year we planned an intricate journey that sought out the works of great Italian artists that could still be seen in the buildings for which they were created.
We invariably focused on the work of a single artist - Piero della Francesca one year, Signorelli the next, Perugino another, then Lotto, Pontormo, the Crivelli brothers, Caravaggio and others.
We tracked down rarely visited houses, chapels and palazzi, bribed custodians to open forgotten churches. It was nothing to drive miles to see a painting and then to find that it was in restauro, being restored elsewhere.
We immersed ourselves in the lives and works of scores of artists, but we always seemed to end our travels to the south and south-east of Florence or further south in Umbria, a relatively small area but an amazingly fertile one for Renaissance artists.
Yet we had never taken a summer holiday in Italy and had never once dallied with the idea of buying a house there. Val loved her studio in London where she worked day and night preparing for exhibition after exhibition of her work. I was similarly focused, running a communications company.
It was the Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli, Cortona’s most famous son, that first brought us to the town in the 1980s. Some 10 years later we were invited to stay locally with a painter and sculptor on the occasion of a major exhibition of their work in Siena in the city’s Palazzo Pubblico.
We sat on the terrace of their house in the hills above Cortona under a starlit sky, I was seduced by the peace, smells and sounds of the Tuscan countryside. This is how life should be, I thought, how it could be if I dared.  But there was another voice, too. The voice of reality kept pricking me, telling me I was just dreaming The Tuscan Dream, just as millions of visitors probably do every summer.
Back in London, I was as surprised as anyone when I ditched the romantic vision and worked on how I could turn the dreaming impossibility into possible reality. I convinced myself with little effort that I needed a fresh challenge, something to take my mind off work and something that would take me into uncharted waters.
Eventually we settled in the same hills as our friends to the east of Cortona which sit high above the Val di Chiana, the famed Tuscan plain. Our first sight was of a group of dilapidated buildings on a hillside that skulked in a few hectares of a chestnut forest and overgrown, terraced land. Finding it had not been easy, but now each time we drive to or from Cortona we are entranced, beguiled and seduced all over again.
Two years after buying the property we moved into a rebuilt farmhouse and were using another of the wrecked buildings as a terrace with a deposito, storeroom, below it. Two years further on another wreck was transformed into a studio for Val, with a separate floor that provides pleasant accommodation for guests. Our very own Tuscan casa had been brought back to life.
During those years before we moved in, we became fascinated in the history of Cortona and the surrounding area.
Our interest in Luca Signorelli took us on a journey of discovery from the town’s tiny Museo Diocesano, one of the most important art museums of its kind in Tuscany, to climbing the streets that lead up to the highest point of Cortona and a medieval neighbourhood where the tiny church of San Niccolò conceals two superb Signorelli artworks.
Also, the church of San Francesco where Signorelli is buried and the most idiosyncratic main piazza in Tuscany, the town’s irregularly shaped Piazza della Repubblica, and the 13th century Palazzo Comunale with its adjoining clock tower which was added while Luca Signorelli was a town councillor.
A walk outside the Etruscan walls of the town took us to the striking Renaissance church of Santa Maria del Calcinaio which Signorelli had a hand in commissioning from the Sienese architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini.
By the time Signorelli was in his 40s, his reputation was high enough for him to be called by Pope Sixtus IV to work with Michelangelo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli and Perugino on the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.  Well, that’s what the famous chronicler of those times, Giorgio Vasari, writes. Others say Signorelli was called to Rome only after the other artists walked off the job because the Pope hadn’t paid them.
Whatever the circumstances, Signorelli completed the scheme with distinction, but it is generally acknowledged that his finest work is to be found in Orvieto’s duomo, about an hour’s drive south of Cortona. Here he painted a magnificent series of six frescoes illustrating the Last Judgement and the end of the world. He laboured on these grand and dramatic scenes for five years, from 1499 to 1504, taking inspiration from Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy.
Monte Oliveto Maggiore is a couple of hours’ drive away in a beautiful, isolated position south of the broken, jumbled hills of Asciano. It is one of the most important monasteries in Tuscany and its great cloister has two storeys of loggias displaying 36 frescoes of scenes from the life of St Benedict. Most are by Sodoma, a little-remembered artist, but the first nine are by Signorelli who worked here before doing his better-known Orvieto frescoes.
Cortona is just a 20-minute drive to the west of our house. It is here that we shop, meet friends in restaurants and bars, enjoy concerts in squares, streets and buildings that Signorelli and other 16th century artists would recognise.
I tell visitors that the most rewarding way to appreciate Cortona is to walk through an arched porta, or gateway, in its ancient walls and then to head for the main piazza.  Their prizes are cobbled, crooked and narrow streets, most of which are challengingly steep to all but the Cortonese, who stride confidently up and down with bulging shopping bags. Perhaps because many visitors are not as fit as the locals, most favour Via Nazionale, the town’s only flat street, nicknamed rugapiana which means precisely that, a flat level place.
Piazza della Repubblica connects with a further misshapen square, Piazza Signorelli, which is dominated by Palazzo Casali, the impressive home of the town’s ruling family in the 13th century who seemed to have spent most of the 100 years they were in power murdering one another. In 1727 a learned society dedicated to historical and archaeological research was established at Palazzo Casali, and it’s now home to Cortona’s museum of Etruscan and Roman antiquities plus an eclectic collection of precious works of art from all periods.
Subsequent governors of Cortona made sure they were remembered by having their coats of arms mounted onto the exterior of the palazzo. These are best appreciated over a glass of prosecco taken on the terrace of the adjoining 19th century theatre, the intimate Teatro Signorelli.
As you will now be aware after reading this the name Signorelli is everywhere in Cortona!
He was born here in 1441 and was still actively painting at the age of 82 when he died in the town in 1523. The joy for us is that his life is reasonably well documented, and much of his output still exists exactly where it was painted. Local tax receipts from 1427 describe his father, Egidio Signorelli, as a sellaio di cavalli, a harness maker, while other documents show the painter holding different official posts here from his late 30s up to the time of his death.
Signorelli is buried in Cortona, but there’s intriguing speculation about how and where he died locally… but that is another story!
Here are three Italian inspired paintings:
Cortona Quinces on Busatti Cloth by Val Archer: oil, 76.20cm x 55.88cm
Cortona Quinces on Busatti Cloth … our quinces on a Tuscan fabric made by the region’s famous fabric family, the Busatti’s, who have been weaving in the cellars of Palazzo Morgalanti in Anghiari since 1842.
Neptune & Titan by Val Archer: oil, 55.25cm x 112.00cm
Neptune & Titan is influenced by the mosaics in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Four Lives of a Tuscan Zucca by Val Archer: oil, 152.40cm x 111.76cm
The Four Lives of a Tuscan Zucca is a quadriptych - four paintings that make one 
To view more of Val Archer's paintings visit:
Cortona's Piazza Signorelli
The Church of San Niccolò where one can find two superb examples of Signorelli's work
One of Cortona's gateways - Porta Colonia
Roger Jupe, 29/07/2020 10:41:46

Receive news from Cortona each month

Sign up to our newsletter

Local news - useful info

- lifestyle - events - new listings...

I accept the processing of my presonal data, as described in your privacy policy
Other articles that might interest you
I arrived in the UK on the 18th of February. The day of the tempest. Blowing into Gatwick was 'an experience'. Arriving ...[continue]
Photographs of a festive season: wandering through Cortona since the festive lights were lit on the 27th November is a ...[continue]
Autumn in Tuscany: Nicola Burazzi often spends weekends visiting Cortona’s nearby towns and places of historical interest (often one and ...[continue]
For those who might be feeling a little nostalgic, for those who are missing their annual spring break to Cortona and ...[continue]
NO MUD, NO LOTUS FLOWER. My reflection during Covid. Years ago, I attended a retreat to participate in a week ...[continue]


Send us your posts, viewpoints
and/or personal experiences



Have a story or an anecdote to recount? Someone interesting you’d like to profile? A place you’ve visited that you’d like to recommend? Whether it’s useful, funny or informative, why not share it on My Cortona blog and add your name to our list of regular contributors? We’d love to hear from you.


Price: €.850.000


Price: €.460.000


Price: €.750.000