In the age of the Renaissance, Tuscany was the center of the Western World. Its towns and cities grew insanely wealthy from a dense network of trade routes that spanned the Mediterranean and continental Europe. Florence, Sienna and Pisa are home of some of the most iconic architectural and artistic marvels of Italy. However, many more incredible are hidden away in smaller towns scattered across the region.
San Gimignano, a small walled village about halfway between Florence and Siena, is famous for its fascinating medieval architecture and towers that rise above of all the other buildings offering an impressive view of the city from the surrounding valley.
The city was built atop a hill about 300 meters high and thus enjoys a wonderful view of the entire Elsa Valley that surrounds it. The hill has been inhabited since the Etruscan and Hellenistic period, probably due to is dominant position that allowed a careful watch of the valley below.
Historical records going back to the 10th century mention that the city is named in honor of Saint Geminianus, a bishop from Modena from the 4th century who is said to have saved the city from the invading Huns.
San Gimignano had its most thriving period in Medieval times, due to the fact that it sat along the Via Francigena, an important road and pilgrimage route of the time connecting Rome to Canterbury. The town was a central reference point for many merchants, travelers and, above all, the many faithful that set out on a pilgrimage to Rome and that needed hospitality and often also required assistance.
San Gimignano became a free commune at the end of 1100. The city then became embroiled in the conflict between Guelphs and 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). Despite the struggles, San Gigimignano managed to continue its economic development, particularly in the commerce of local agricultural products such as saffron and wine. The 12th century turned out to be its period of highest splendor. The city was notably richer and comissioned various public works.
In this period, the city had over seventy towers, homes which were built by the many wealthy families in the town as a way to show off their wealth and power. The striking fourteen towers of various heights which have withstood wars and time continue to define the city making its unique skyline its international symbol.
San Gimignano was governed by Ghibellines up until 1255, year in which the Guelphs took over and in which the original city walls were torn down. Once they triumphed in famous Battle of Montaperti of 1260, the Ghibellines returned to control the city, rebuilding and enlarging the city walls.
In 1300, San Gimignano hosted Dante Alighieri in his role as ambassador for the Guelph League. In the middle of the century, San Gimignano was unfortunately hit by the plague and was unable to avoid falling under Florence’s power. The city then began a slow political and economic decline, although it managed to continue flourishing artistically and culturally during the following centuries. Among the most important are the Renaissance frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Santa Fina Chapel, located within the Collegiata, the main church in San Gimignano (once its cathedral).
Despite the passing of the centuries, San Gimignano managed to preserve its Medieval architecture and its charm and today is with no doubt one of Tuscany’s greatest small treasures.
Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990, San Gimignano also offers visitors the chance to step back in time while enjoying its local products including saffron and its white wine, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
While it’s quite a small town, this can be deceiving to the many visitors who arrive, walk uphill to its two main piazzas (Piazza Duomo and Piazza della Cisterna), look around, do some great shopping along its main street and then turn around and leave! But honestly, the real enchantment of this town will truly happen to those who stay a bit longer, whether it’s a complete morning or evening but even better yet an entire day as I have done.
What better way to truly experience the magic of San Gimignano and its amazing landscape than to climb its tallest tower? You can, by heading to Piazza Duomo and into Palazzo Comunale who gives everyone the chance to climb to the top of Torre Grossa, which literally means ,,big tower’’ in Italian. All of the towers in San Gimignano were and remain privately owned and closed to the public except for this one, which continues to be part of city hall (which still houses its public officials today).
The second part of the civic museums is hosted down from Piazza Duomo toward Porta San Matteo, with a right on Via XX Settembre. It’s right by the wall near parking lots 3 and 4. Your ticket includes all of the museums, so if you have the time, head to this other section. There is a great view of the many towers of San Gimignano right at the front door so turn around and enjoy it before entering inside. You’ll get an even better view from the Gallery of Modern Art inside.
If you’re ready for lunch, one of the many options in San Gimignano would be to pick up a panino sandwich or slices of pizza to take away for a picnic. Many wine shops along the way would complete the meal.
If you have more time to spend in San Gimignano, you can also explore the fascinating San Gimignano 1300 museum which has recreated in small scale in clay the entire city of San Gimignano. It shows how the town looked like in 1300 with all of its towers, many which no longer stand, and how they looked back then with their wooden balconies. You can also climb to the top of the town to visit the remains of the old fortress, the Rocca di Montestaffoli and visit the small museum dedicated to San Gimignano local white wine, la Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Another attraction is the Torture Museum which has instruments of torture, not for the light of heart.
Still not sure whether to come there or not? Well, take a look at these photos, I bet you will change your mind afterwards.
sources: discovertuscany, visittuscany