Head outdoors to explore the unknown side of Cortina d’Ampezzo, the lovely mountain resort, famous for the beauty of the Dolomites UNESCO World Heritage site. With its many activities in every season, its cultural appointments, its wealth of culinary specialities and its lifestyle, the location also has a less familiar side which is well worth discovering.
Did you know that the clock in the town centre of Cortina celebrates the name day of Empress Elisabeth of Wittelsbach, (“Sissi”) and plays the chimes of London’s Big Ben? That there is a bank in the high Street, Corso Italia, that hosts some mysterious Sybils? And that a wonderful house hosts Dante, Goethe and Shakespeare frescoes? And if you prefer an adventurous one-day trip you can try the wonderful canyons and the incredible waterfalls of the Queen of the Dolomites.
1 – The treasures of the Basilica
The “journey” through Cortina’s secrets begins at its heart, Corso Italia. This is the location of the church Basilica dei Santi Filippo e Giacomo (Basilica of Saints Philip and James). Built from 1769 to 1775 and restored in 1975, inside it preserves some artistic treasures of notable value: the late-Baroque High Altar by Johanes Müssack with a painting by Antonio Zanchi; the Madonna del Carmine (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) altar in carved, painted and gilded wood, attributed to the Belluno artist Antonio Lazzarini, and the Madonna del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary) altar with tabernacle, attributed to the school of Andrea Brustolon in Belluno. In addition, there are frescoes by Franz Anton Zeiler and Giuseppe Ghedina, the latter a versatile artist from the Ampezzo valley active in the Veneto and Friuli regions in the 19th century.
There are some curiosities regarding the bell tower: inaugurated in 1858 (the preceding tower dated back to the 12th century and was demolished in 1849), it has a height of 65.80 metres, and in order to gild the sphere at the top, the considerable sum of 60 gold ducats were melted in Innsbruck. The bells are also from Innsbruck, and they were rung for the first time on 19 November 1858 to celebrate the name day of Empress Elisabeth of Wittelsbach, “Sissi”. The clock dates to the 1960s, and it plays the chimes of London’s Big Ben.
2 – The mystery of the fifth Sibyl
A few metres from the church, on the other side of Corso Italia, a bank preserves a treasure, but it is not locked in the strong-room. To see it, you just have to enter the ground floor of the bank Cassa Rurale ed Artigiana di Cortina d’Ampezzo, in a building that once hosted the famous inn Stella d’Oro. This is the location of the fresco of the Sibyls dating back to the first half of the 15th century, rediscovered by chance in the late 19th century during restoration work. The work depicts five female figures, with a mystery: the first is thought to be the Valuensis Sibyl (Justice), the second is the Nicaulia or Tiburtine Sibyl, the third is the Portuensis or Libyan Sibyl, and the fourth is the Erythraean Sibyl. But the identity of the fifth, who is wearing an unusual crown and, unlike her companions, is looking outwards, remains an enigma.
3 – A house like a painting
If you follow Corso Italia northwards, you will see a wonderful house, covered by frescoes. It is named Ciàsa de i Pùpe, and it was once an annexe of the Aquila Nera hotel owned by Gaetano Ghedina Tomàš. His sons, Luigi, Giuseppe and Angelo, decided to become painters instead of following in their father’s footsteps, and they left the community this small, brightly-coloured jewel in the heart of Cortina. On the walls, there are the faces of some great personalities: Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Dürer, Titian, Michelangelo, Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare and – surprisingly –Gaetano Ghedina Tomàš himself. In addition, there are figures depicting the Arts and Sciences, the four ages of man, and scenes from life in the Ampezzo valley. A particularly attractive touch is a white “panel”: a challenge that the Ghedina brothers launched to anyone who had the courage of competing with their talent.
4 – The “disputed” castle
Exploring the area around Cortina, many other locations are worth a visit. Such as Castello De Zanna, a castle commissioned by the nobleman Gianmaria De Zanna in the late 17th century. Resembling a miniature fortress, it did not meet the approval of the population, and its construction was blocked in 1696 because it did not comply with the principles of the local constitution. In 1809 it was burnt and bombarded by the French. Today, at the castle you can see two towers, part of the curtain walls, and the church dedicated to the Trinity, in which there is a painting traditionally attributed to Palma il Giovane, but is possibly by Agostino Ridolfi.
5 – The castle in an enchanting location
It takes just ten minutes by car from the centre of Cortina, following the Strada Statale 51 di Alemagna (State Road 51), to reach the location of what was once Botestàgno Castle. Today, only a few remains can be seen of that majestic construction, but the location is well worth a visit not just for its historic value, but also for the beauty of the views that you get from here. In fact, you can see down the Ampezzo valley along the course of the river Boite, with undulating grasslands and the profiles of the Dolomites, also known as the “Pale Mountains”. As regards the origins of the castle, historians have proposed dates between the 9th and 10th centuries, or even the 12th century. It changed hands repeatedly over the years, and its owners included the Patriarch of Aquileia, the Republic of San Marco, Maximilian I of the House of Habsburg, and lastly, the Ampezzo population. Today the area is part of the Natural Park of the Ampezzo Dolomites.
6 – The legend of Ponte Alto (High Bridge)
There is a legend connected to Botestàgno Castle, which brings us to the next step in the journey, the bridge Ponte Alto on Rio Travenanzes, along the path that leads to the Fanes waterfall. The story goes that in the early 15th century, the knight Brack, famous for his heroic feats, lived in the Marebbe valley. The knight often went to Cortina to visit his prospective spouse who lived in Botestàgno Castle, provoking the aversion of the Ampezzo population and the owners of the pastures that he rode across. The locals decided to sabotage the bridge that he had to cross in order to reach his sweetheart, but Brack, having noticed the trap, spurred on his steed, which, with a prodigious leap, jumped the gap. (As for any respectable tale, there is another version in which the bridge was carried away by a storm, and the knight, pursued by his enemies, got away in the nick of time thanks to the horse’s incredible jump). Today, from the Ponte Alto bridge, you can see the spectacular canyon eroded by the rivers Travenanzes and Fanes, and visualise the amazing feat with the help of a reproduction of a painting that was visible near the bridge during the 1930s, commemorating a story “suspended” between legend and reality.
7 – The Devil in chains
The 20th-century Church of the Beata Vergine di Lourdes (Our Lady of Lourdes), the largest of the Ampezzo valley’s village churches, is sited in a panoramic position in the hamlet Grava. It has a single nave, and just one altar, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but the visitor’s attention is drawn above all by the two sculptures in painted wood by Corrado Pitscheider, on either side: on the right, Saint Lucy is holding a dish on which there are the eyes gouged out by her executioner; on the left, Saint Michael the Archangel is shown vanquishing a terrifying Devil in chains.
8 – The house of time
Right at the start of Via della Difesa, which was previously the Via Regia, we can see one of Cortina’s most distinctive buildings. A large clock on the wall shows the time and recalls the trade of its original owners: in fact, here there was once a workshop for the repair and construction of wall clocks. The lettering “Corazza Ampezzo” that can still be seen on the wall is a reference to the nickname of the Dibetto family from Ampezzo, who were initially specialised in forging armour (“corazza” means “cuirass”), later becoming blacksmiths and then clockmakers. The house’s balcony has a small wooden hand at the end, pointing in a direction that introduces an element of ambiguity: towards the nearby church of San Francesco (Saint Francis), or the more distant cemetery?
9 – A plunge into the 14th century
Alongside the Corazza house, Cortina has another small and very old treasure: the Church of San Francesco (Saint Francis). The earliest written documentation regarding this church, which was owned by the Costantini family, dates back to 1396. Inside you can see a fine 18th-century wooden altar, and on the wall of the choir, an enchanting late 14th-century fresco depicting three Saints: the first on the right is Saint Bartholomew, and the other two are harder to identify. Many scholars believe that the figures are three of the Twelve Apostles.
10 – The “Armed Virgin Mary”
The itinerary ends with one of the locations best loved by the Ampezzo population. It was built as a vote of thanks to the Virgin Mary who, it is said, did not hesitate to intervene in order to halt the advance of Sigismund of Luxembourg’s imperial troops at Cimabanche in 1412. This episode – which is often considered together with the Madonna’s legendary intervention against the Goths many centuries earlier – gave rise to the cult of the Madonna della Difesa, celebrated in Cortina every 19 January, and the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Difesa (dating to the second half of the 15th century). In 1743 the church was rebuilt, and it was consecrated eighteen years later. It is a location well worth visiting, in particular for its valuable paintings, icons and magnificent decorations inside. On the ceiling there is a complex 18th-century composition depicting the intervention by the Virgin, armed with a sword. On the main altar, there is a superb late 15th-century wooden statue dedicated to the Madonna.
Preview photo by www.bandion.it
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