San Gimignano’s skyline looks like a Medieval Metropolis, complete with early grattacieli (grat•tah•chee•EH•lee = skyscrapers). It was known as San Gimignano delle belle Torri -San Gimignano of the beautiful towers. The site was an Etruscan settlement, then a castello called Silvia with a walled village built around it. Silvia was renamed San Gimignano in 450 after the Bishop of Modena, who spared it from Attila the Hun’s troops.
San Gimignano became an independent town in 1199. It was prosperous, being a stopping point on La Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Roma, via France. San Gimignano also traded in local zafferano (zaf•fer•RAN•noh = saffron) and wine from the white Vernaccia grape. The earliest mention of Vernaccia di San Gimignano is in the archives of 1276! In 1966, 690 years later, it was the first Italian vino bianco to receive DOC recognition.
The 13 and 14th Centuries saw San Gimignano caught in the Guelph/Ghibelline conflicts. Read about this in Dante’s post. Wealthy San Gimignanesi built tower houses as symbols of power and wealth, as well as for protection. The height of these torri kept increasing, up to 70m high, to keep up with the neighbors. There were originally 72 torri and 14 still stand today.
Waves of plague and famine hit San Gimignano in the mid 1300’s. The ‘black death’ claimed almost half the population, and San Gimignano was now under the rule of Firenze. Fiorentino control prevented any urban development that happened in other towns. As a result, San Gimignano was preserved in a medieval ‘time warp’, retaining its original atmosphere and appearance. Little changed until the 19th century when it became a tourism destination. Today the population is 7800 and it does have 1 traffic light! To protect San Gimignano from the effects of mass tourism, strict rules prevent modification to the appearance or intended use of buildings.
In 1990, the Historic Center of San Gimignano became a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its outstanding examples of medieval architecture and original urban layout.
The Cattedrale know as La Collegiata, has Masterpieces of 14th and 15th Century art. Inside the front façade is the Fresco of Last Judgement, Heaven and Hell by Taddeo di Bartolo (1393). The Cappella di Santa Fina with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1475) was featured in the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli film ‘Tea with Mussolini’.
In the Palazzo Comunale is the Sala di Dante where Dante Alighieri spoke as an ambassador for the Guelphs in May 1300. The Pinacoteca has treasures by Filippino Lippi, among others. Climb the 218 steps of the adjacent 54m Torre Grossa for views of San Gimignano and the Val d’Elsa. Admission is €6.
Piazza della Cisterna is triangular with a well on an octagonal pedestal in the center, surrounded by medieval buildings. It is named for the underground cistern built in 1287 which was the main source of water for the San Gimignanesi. Piazza della Cisterna is the meeting point of the Via Francigena and the road from Pisa to Siena, so it was a happening place in medieval times.
San Gimignano is an easy daytrip on the bus from Firenze, Siena or Poggibonsi. There is no direct train. The train route is to change trains at Empoli to Poggibonsi and then bus from there. It’s also nice to be there in the evening or overnight when all of the daytrippers have left.
Like Alberobello, no matter how many hordes of tourists it is overrun with, San Gimignano is incantevole (een•can•teh•VOH•leh = enchanting) and definitely worth a visit. I need to go back to do ‘research’, since I have a drawer full of unfinished sketches, monotypes and etchings!
Buon Viaggio, Cristina