My husband has great memories of San Gimignano, a medieval village on the Tuscan hills. He has been here three times, on the second time in the early years 2000 he went with some friends for a long weekend stay. Initially chosen for its convenient location halfway between Siena and the magical Florence, San Gimignano turned out to be a pleasant surprise. He admits “It is a real gem, tranquil, and relaxing, a typical medieval village. I would recommend a holiday there because it includes all kinds of Italian beauties: tradition, history, good food and handicrafts. It has everything a tourist would expect from Italy”. His best memory: the views from the narrow lanes of the village and the panorama that opens onto the Tuscan countryside. My husband says he would definitely go back to get lost again walking in the village.
San Gimignano is located about halfway between Florence and Siena, respectively at about 60 and 45 km from each and is easily reached by car and bus. Today the Commune of San Gimignano numbers 8.000 inhabitants and lives on agriculture, thanks to a prestigious production of D.O.C.G. Vernaccia wine, and a flourishing activity of agritourism. Every year the historical centre, registered in UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage, attract millions of tourists from all over the world, who come to admire the intact medieval atmosphere preserved by centuries and decay and protected today by national law and strict local rules.
The high ground on which the city stands, so strategic for controlling the valley and offering defence against its enemies, was already inhabited in ancient times. According to archaeological findings (mostly in tombs), the Etruscans had already settled here by the 3rd century B.C. Later, the Romans arrived and named the city Silvia.
Saint Geminianus, who gave his name to the city, was the holy bishop of Modena from the 4th century. According to the traditional accounts, he freed the small town from the Huns.
The city achieved its greatest prosperity in the Middle Ages. According to legend, Desiderio, the king of the Lombards, lived here, and Charlemagne also stayed in this wondrous place. San Gimignano was mentioned for the first time in a written document in 929, in a contract relating to the donation of some land to the bishop of Volterra.
The true good fortune of the city was the Via Francigena that passed through it. Sigerico, the Archbishop of Canterbury, walked along this road from 990 to 994 while heading from Rome to Canterbury (England). San Gimignano was a stop on his journey. In subsequent centuries, Francigena was the road used by thousands of pilgrims travelling to Rome to visit the tombs of martyrs. Road taverns and shelters sprang up to provide lodging for them, bringing increased wealth and well being to the area. In 998 San Gimignano became a walled city for the first time. In 1150 it was a well-known centre, both from the expansionist as well as the commercial point of view.
Below: San Gimignano and sheaf of wheat
A few years later, in 1199, the city became a comune (municipality), reaching its maximum prosperity and winning independence from the bishops of Volterra, but it was not immune to the strife between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines inevitable given its central position in regards to the two great rivals, Florence and Siena (the first sided with the Guelphs, the second with the Ghibellines). The 12th century turned out to be its period of highest splendor.
Among the famous figures who spent time there was Dante Alighieri, who served as ambassador to the Guelf League of Tuscany.
The crisis of the 14th century didn’t spare San Gimignano. The black plague arrived in 1348, together with famine that decimated the population. The terrible consequence was that the city voluntarily gave up its autonomy to Florence. San Gimignano continued to be visited by artists from Siena and Florence, mostly summoned by the religious orders to decorate and beautify their buildings.
Over time the city began to play an increasingly marginal role, and the irreversible decline truly began when it was occupied by Spain’s Charles V and then by Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1500. The latter, the lord of Tuscany, forbade any spending that might serve to enlarge or improve the city. This moratorium on improvements had the unintended benefit of preventing the destruction of old houses and towers and the conversion of churches into baroque monuments. So it was that San Gimignano’s ancient appearance became frozen in time, allowing it to become the amazing glimpse into the Middle Ages that it is today.
San Gimignano today is with a doubt one of Tuscany’s greatest small treasures. The “city of the beautiful towers”, as it is often called.
The tower as a symbol of power:
San Gimignano rises on top of a hill 334m above sea level, clearly visible in the distance San Gimignano announces itself from above with its famous towers. Today 13 towers remain of the 72 towers of the fourteenth century, when every well off family built a tower to show its economical power.
In medieval times the tower was the higher symbol of power, mainly because the building process was not simple or cheap at all. Only the richest families of merchants and moneylenders could afford the works of construction.
The house occupied just part of the tower. The ground floor consisted of workshops, the first floor of bedrooms, and the higher level of the kitchen.
During the twelfth century the changes in the buildings were mainly directed to improve the daily life. The need of larger inside spaces and of wider openings brought to new building models, which mainly involved the towers.
From the end of the twelfth century, the towers built according the same model were sided by other buildings of lower height that may be already defined palazzi. From the second half of the twelfth century, bricks appeared, and they were used in total or in part to erect buildings. Since the first half of the thirteenth century towers were not built anymore, whilst palaces were built according to the most up-to-date and fashionable trends of that time.
Below: San Gimignano – Podestà palace and courtyard
Amongst the famous San Gimignano sightseeing there are: Cisterna Square, Podestà Palace and courtyard, Loggia civic museum, Loggia of the Judge, Twin towers, Duomo square and Cloister, Tower of the Devil, Medieval fountains, Church of Saint Agostino, Church of San Francesco, Porta san Giovanni, porta san matteo, Cugnanesi tower.
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