Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Fra Angelico in Cortona

Cortona is a charming little town south of Florence, about 1 hour and 20 minutes by train from Santa Maria Novella station. It's built on the top of a hill like so many medieval towns were so you need to get a train to Camucia and then a local minibus up the hill to Cortona. The trains seem to be hourly and the minibus arrived shortly after the train to take you the 4km up the hill to Cortona.

The minibus drops you off in a parking area at the top of the hill just outside town from which you walk along what seems to be the only level street in town to get to the centre. It's a small town, very small, and there's no distance at all to worry about. I was in search of the Fra Angelico Cortona altarpiece so, when I got to the centre of town after a few minutes, I followed the signs to the Museo Diocesano opposite the cathedral.

The museum is on two floors, the ground floor dedicated to paintings and the lower floor to religious artefacts, most of which had been removed when I was there for restoration. There's a room dedicated to Luca Signorelli and his school (a local lad made good) and the next room contains the Fra Angelico masterpieces along with other early religious work by other artists.

I went to Cortona expecting to see one altarpiece so imagine my surprise when I found two! I really must do better homework before I visit places. The painting known as the Cortona altarpiece is an Annunciation with Gabriel visiting the Virgin while in the background we see Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden. The design and size is very similar to the altarpiece in the Prado in Madrid. The predella shows scenes from the life of the Virgin.

On the adjacent wall is another Fra Angelico altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with saints Matthew, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Mary Magdelene. The predella shows scenes from the life of Saint Dominic. Two great paintings by Fra Angelico hanging together and they're marvellous to see. I wasn't expecting to see the second altarpiece so I probably spent more time looking at it than at the Annunciation. Above the Virgin and Child, painted on the frame, is a small crucifixion scene with the Virgin and John beneath the cross showing what will happen to the Christ child standing on his mothers' knee and who's halo has a cross inside it, the symbol of  the resurrection.

One of the details I really liked in the Annunciation was seeing that the angel Gabriel is wearing red and gold slippers. I haven't noticed the slippers in other scenes of the annunciation - or on Fra Angelico angels generally - but it's something I'll watch out for. I also liked the labels for both altarpieces that attributed them to Fra Giovanni da Fiesole going on to mention that he is also 'known as' Beato Angelico or Fra Angelico in the English signs. Attributing them to Giovanni, his real name, makes it more human and personal than using his title of Angelico. I liked that.

It was well worth the €5 entry fee for the museum and was nice to see the annunciators angel pictured on the ticket. There's a small gift shop at the entrance with lots of things branded with the Annunciation including a big, glossy hardbacked book in Italian and English that covers both altarpieces by Fra Angelico. Strangely, there was nothing - other than the book - about the Virgin and Child altarpiece, not even a postcard.

Cortona is a nice little town full of old stone buildings, a museum about its Etruscan past and even it's own theatre named after Signorelli. It's full of art and craft shops aimed at the tourist market and the place did seem to full of American tourists doing their version of the grand tour.

After wandering up and down hilly streets for a while I sought a refuge for lunch and settled into La Grotta, a small restaurant off a shady square and tucked into the freshest tomatoes I've had in a long time and some spaghetti, washed down with cold beer of course. This is the view from my table.

Then I wandered back to the car park area for the next bus to the railway station in Camucia. I'd just missed one so waited until the next one (they seem to leave on the hour) with a glorious view out over the Tuscan countryside. The bus ride took about 15-20 minutes and got me to the station early for the train back to Florence. It was a lovely day out with the bonus of seeing two Fra Angelico altarpieces.

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