- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

CORTONA, Italy — This hilltop city, the home of the Tuscan Sun Festival, is one of the loveliest places on earth. Less crowded than most cities by Tuscan standards, and sublime by any measure, it claims to be “the mother of Troy and the grandmother of Rome,” a nearly hidden city of art and a giddy cauldron of life.

It is a place of spiritual respite from the usual tourist mobs, but also an ideal place to discover or rediscover nature’s blessings on Tuscany and the Tuscans’ blessings on the world.

The town looks like a fortress and sits on a spur of Mount Sant’Egidio at an elevation of 2,200 feet, overlooking the patchwork of vineyards and flowers of the vast Val de Chiana. At the hilly edges, not just atop the imposing Medici Fortress, the views are breathtaking: The mountains of Siena, the Amiata and the Cetona, appear like open arms offering the immense expanse of Lake Trasimeno.

Cortona’s medieval walls are built on fortifications that were erected by the Etruscans millenniums ago. Myth and history mingle. Virgil credited Cortona’s foundation to the legendary Dardanus, and visible evidence is hard to ignore even today of what must have been an already impressive ancient Umbrian fortress before it became a landmark of Etruscan civilization in the eighth century B.C.

It subsequently, of course, became Roman, flourishing later still during the time of the Rabieri-Casali, sold to the Florentines in A.D. 1411, then jealously hidden for centuries as the rest of Tuscany became a center of pilgrimage for lovers of art, for lovers of wine, for lovers of the well-known splendors of the Tuscan sun.

Some of those lovers have kissed and told, but we should be thankful for their indiscretions. They are each other’s friends, as it turns out. Frances Mayes created a best-seller, a movie and a cult with her love letter to her adopted hometown of Cortona, “Under the Tuscan Sun,” which can be found in several languages not just in airports everywhere but, handily, in Cortona’s little bookshops.

Her neighbors, the cellist Nina Kotova and her husband, Barrett Wissman, a powerful arts impresario whose own musical studies were completed in nearby Siena, came together with Mrs. Mayes and her husband, Ed, to found the Tuscan Sun Festival. They turned it overnight into one of Europe’s most prestigious and exclusive arts events. It is also, like Cortona, unique.

The Tuscan Sun Festival (Aug. 5 through 21, www.tuscansunfestival.com) is an intimate feast for the five senses, offering up not only an embarrassment of musical riches, but also food for thought and just plain delicious food. Internationally celebrated chefs gather here for culinary demonstrations and vie for time on the daytime schedule with lectures on everything from Plato and Dante to classical ballet and film.

For the 2005 edition of the festival, soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, play orchestral concerts alongside the Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra of Milan. Outdoor concerts on the Piazza Signorelli are the musical bookends for the festivities; they promise Beethoven’s Ninth rubbing shoulders with the cutting-edge Cuban salsa sounds of the exile band Tiempo Libre.

The chamber and vocal recitals are starry affairs, and small receptions with artists such as the baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the pianist Lang Lang and the violinist Midori — as well as with artistic director and cellist Kotova — alternate with pampering sessions at Ponteverde, one of Tuscany’s premier spas.

Contemporary art exhibits, including works commissioned for the festival, emerge alongside the centuries-old treasures that are Cortona’s everyday marvels. The Cortona Wines Consortium is hosting a wine festival at the hilltop Fortalezza Girifalco. All this and time for breezy naps, too.

“We are creating a multifaceted, multisensory event that unites the world’s best classical music with intimate experiences of the pleasures of life in Tuscany,” Mr. Wissman says. “Great artistry is inspired by the variety and depth of one’s life experiences. This festival is designed to celebrate the art of life.”

“Living in Cortona is such a pleasure,” says his fellow founder, Mrs. Mayes. “Those of us who love this city are delighted to help create a tradition that will honor its heritage and celebrate its future.”

The first tantalizing glimpse of Cortona usually comes from the air, flying into Florence, in Tuscan visions of hills and valleys in a kaleidoscope of greenery, olive groves and flowers displayed as if by divine design.

Close up, it only grows more dazzling, yet the modesty of Cortona’s size effectively wards off not just the hordes of art lovers and other tourists who take over so much of Tuscany each summer, but also that dreaded Stendhal syndrome that can afflict the best-intentioned.

The Tuscan Sun Festival, too, has managed to avoid the multiplexing effect that afflicts too many cultural feasts. The quality is high, but the scale remains small, from the adorable horseshoe jewel box that is the Teatro Signorelli to even the outdoor stage on the piazza outside the theater, where the town’s natural slope provides enviable sightlines for everyone. Tuscany is undoubtedly too much. The exquisite Cortona is just enough. In this part of the world, that can be wonderful.

Less than an hour’s drive from Florence (the hourly trains cost about $15 round trip), Cortona can be visited as a day trip. Staying is better, though, not only for the festival’s many delights, but for those of the town itself.

Luxurious hotels dot the valley below Cortona and are just a minutes-long drive or one hardy walk uphill, but staying in town offers a glimpse of gorgeous life in the slow lane. The tourists from Florence leave by late afternoon, locals reclaim the town, and even during the festival, the impression given by strolling to a concert or stopping by a cafe can be akin to eavesdropping on old friends — familiar, surprising.

The hillside Villa Marsili, where breakfast al fresco offers stunning vistas, is an ideal starting point for a perfect day in Cortona. A stroll up the gentle slope to the Piazzale Garibaldi — where local teens hang out on their mopeds — leads to the quaint Via Nazionale, which runs four blocks to the center of town.

Nicknamed the Rugapiana or “flat street” by the locals, Via Nazionale is as close as Cortona gets to something other than a hill. It continues in the opposite direction and opens into an old Roman amphitheater on what is now the Via Francois Mitterrand and a new Cinema Arena Giardino — outdoor movies, a different show every night under the stars.

Getting lost off the Via Nazionale is an option, depending on the time at hand: The side streets are narrow vincoli, and each offers myriad hidden pleasures. The western end of the Via Nazionale offers in quick succession the Piazza della Repubblica and the Piazza Signorelli, site of the festival. Here are the finest restaurants and even the sweetest ice-cream parlor, the Gelateria Snoopy, where a couple of dollars will get you a fine snack during intermission across from the Teatro Signorelli, the festival’s main venue.

The Palazzo Casali on the piazza hosts the Museo Etrusco, with enigmatic booty from several tombs discovered in the surrounding valley and other archaeological treasures, including the famed Etruscan lamp from the fourth century B.C. Other works here span the centuries, as they do in all of Cortona’s museums, and perhaps the most exciting are just steps above the Piazza Signorelli, where the Duomo and the Diocesan Museum face each other perched on the hillside.

One of the Diocesan Museum’s most famous paintings is Fra Angelico’s masterful “Annunciation,” tempera on panel, painted about 1433. Admittedly, Cortona is not Florence. Still, what is considered minor art for Tuscany is frankly not just major, but amazing by normal human standards. To the right of the high-Renaissance Duomo’s main altar is a piece not found in the guidebooks, the “Madonna del Pianto,” alone worth the trip. It is an impossibly beautiful terra-cotta figure, anonymous, circa 1200, depicting the familiar scene of Pieta, the Virgin Mary holding her son in her arms after the crucifixion.

The uncharacteristic Bavarian intensity of the woman’s face suggests a later period of art history. The finality of her loss, the clarity of her feelings and the devastating effect of her stillness add up to a timeless message. It is beautiful, just one of Cortona’s hidden treasures. There are others, not least “The Death of Saint Joseph” by native son Lorenzo Berrettini as well as Andrea del Sarto’s “Assumption.”

Across from the Duomo is a deconsecrated church now devoted to the Diocesan Museum, a veritable treasure trove of the works of Cortona’s favorite son, the great Luca Signorelli (about 1445-1523). This is also a touching destination of spiritual pilgrimage for those who visit the nearby sanctuary of Santa Margherita da Cortona, who is portrayed in holiest ecstasy by Giuseppe Maria Crespi. The painting rates a place of honor at the Diocesan Museum.

Back in the sunlight, perhaps nearing lunchtime, it is soothing to head back downhill to the Piazza della Repubblica and find a good table in Cortona’s coolest restaurant — the locals’ favorite as well as the best terrace for people-watching in the piazza just below — La Locanda nel Loggiato, across from City Hall.

The dishes here are simple, the strong wines siesta-inducing, and it makes one positively giddy to taste how even the humble fungo porcino occasions culinary epiphanies when touched by the alchemy of genuine Tuscan cuisine.

One can linger and ponder the next move over a double espresso: a festival concert or just an outdoor movie after dusk, maybe yoga classes at St. Augustine Monastery or browsing local ceramics in L’Etruria.

The variety of the shopping possibilities, from handmade books and paper to jewelry and silks, can surprise. A shop window on the Piazza Signorelli, for example, recently boasted an exhilarating confusion of post-mod vox pop: two shiny gym shorts side by side, one with a likeness of Benito Mussolini, the other with that of El Che.

Cocktail-time suggestions from a sidewalk bartender likely will include the Americano, that icy mix of Martini rosso and Campari with a generous orange slice.

A perfect day in this perfect place need not be unique: There are days and days like this in Cortona. Frances Mayes was right; the temptation to stay is strong. The promise of music, or art, or life never seems to disappoint. And that quintessentially Italian art of dolce far niente — an ineffably sweet way of simply doing nothing — takes on a chic, delicious allure in this little jewel of a town.

Octavio Roca, former music and dance critic of The Washington Times, teaches philosophy at the University of Miami.


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