Although doubted for many centuries, archaeological excavations (and linguistic experts) have now shown definitively that Cortona is of Etruscan origin. Cortona is believed to have been a rich and powerful Etruscan town, as demonstrated by the cyclopean walls surrounding the city that are still visible in some parts today, the walls are made of huge slabs of superimposed stone. Beside them are the tombs, a magnificent example of which is the so-called ‘Cave of Pythagoras’ (570 ca.-495 BC) – some of the finds from this cave are now housed in the renovated Etruscan Museum of Cortona.
Entering into the Roman empire from the late 4th century BC, Cortona remained faithful to the Romans during the war against Hannibal (247-182 BC) and its inhabitants were given the rank of “socii” (allies) of Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the Lombard domination, Cortona was administered as a largely independent Municipality until the struggles against Arezzo. The struggles against Arezzo were a very difficult time for Cortona which involved a long siege and partial destruction of the city.
A period of substantial economic recovery and building came after the expulsion of Arezzo and the establishment in the city of the Lords of the Casali family, which began with Uguccio Casali (XIV century) and then continued until 1409, when Cortona, after its conquest by the King of Naples, Ladislaus (1386-1414), was sold by him to the Republic of Florence. The period of Florentine rule had positive developments for Cortona, especially in terms of construction. This included the building of the Cathedral (1456) and the Girifalco Fortress (1549). Even the 16th century was an important period for Cortona: note the presence in the city of artists such as Luca Signorelli (1445-1523), Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501) and Giorgio Vasari [1511-1574] (1554), who built the Sanctuary of Santa Maria Nuova. This building activity continued in later centuries.
In the 17th century Filippo Berrettini (XVII century) completely redid the façade of the Praetorian Palace (1608), and in the 18th century, under Grand Duke Leopold (1747-1792), the reclamation of the surrounding area began and several mansions were built such as the Palazzo Ferretti (1730). In the 19th century the city had even more construction, such as the Sanctuary of “Santa Margherita”, and also an upgrading of its architectural heritage, with numerous renovations and rebuilding projects, plenty of which continued even in the 20th century. Many of these ‘recent’ transformations took place around the periphery of Cortona, leaving the history of the centre largely intact and perfectly preserved.
The Roman name for the place, Curtonium, perhaps derived from the Etruscan ‘Curies-Tolena’ (via “Curtolena” and “Curton-Cortona”), while other scholars believe it came from “Coryto”, and yet others from “Cotile” or “Cotilia’. For all this uncertainty, there are no doubts about the Etruscan origin of Cortona since Wilhelm Schulze, a German scholar, showed that names with the suffix-“-ona”, such as “Ver-ona”, are of Etruscan origin (the Etruscan “-un” becoming the Latin “-on”). Thus, from the ancient Etruscan name “Curth-un” we find the Italian “Cort-ona”.Even more recently the Italian Giovanni Semenano researched Cortona and concluded that “Cortona” means “land”, and is derived from the Etruscan “kurtun”.