The Medieval Sky Scrapers of Italy! - San Gimignano - With Captions
Welcome to San Gimignano. This square lies to the south just outside the historic center of town. San Gimignano is located in the province of Siena in the region of Tuscany. San Gimignano is a medieval hill town and the historic center is surrounded by ancient walls. The historic center is encircled by three walls, and the gate of San Giovanni provides an entrance through a section of walls dating from 1251-1262.
There are eight entrances set into the 13th-century walls. The town sits high on an outcrop of rock with main streets like Via San Giovanni running on a north to south axis. Walking around San Gimignano feels like being transported back into the medieval period. Much of the architecture and town layout dates from the 12th-14th centuries as though frozen in time. Here are the remains of the Romanesque church of St Francis, for example. The “Historic Center of San Gimignano” is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although San Gimignano is now medieval in appearance, there was an Etruscan village on the site in the 3rd century BC. In the 1st century, a patrician man fleeing the Roman Republic established a castle on the site. The castle was originally named Silvia but in 450 AD the name was changed to San Gimignano. This changed occurred in homage to Bishop Geminianus who appeared miraculously and saved the castle from destruction by supporters of Attila the Hun. Following the Bishop’s intervention and protection, a church was built in his honor and throughout the 6th and 7th centuries a hamlet gradually grew up around it.
The fortification, walled town and church became known as the Castle of San Gimignano. This tower is one of 14 medieval towers remaining in the city. Once, at the end of the medieval period, there were as many as 72 towers in San Gimignano.
The remaining towers have become symbols of the city and San Gimignano is often referred to as the town of “beautiful towers”. In 1199, San Gimignano freed itself of rule by the bishops of Volterra, who had been in charge since 929. However, peace was not easy to establish as rival families began fighting between themselves. One method by which families demonstrated power was by building increasingly taller towers, trying to outdo one another.
Some of the towers measured up to 230 ft (70 m) tall. The towers could have reached even greater heights, but the town council finally halted the competition by decreeing that no tower could be taller than the one attached to the town hall. This triangular-shaped square is one of four piazzas in the town center. The square is surrounded by medieval houses. The square got its name from a 13th-century cistern beneath the pavement. Above, is this travertine well built in 1346. These towers are named after the most important Ghibelline family in San Gimignano.
The Ghibellines were a faction that supported the Holy Roman Emperor during the medieval period and were rivalled with the Guelphs who supported the Pope. These fighting factions were found in several city-states across central and northern Italy. On 8 May 1300, poet Dante Alighieri came to San Gimignano as the ambassador of the Guelphs in Tuscany. This year is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.
The reason for San Gimignano’s seemingly ‘frozen in time’ image is thanks to the Black Death. The city had been wealthy and prosperous until 1348 when the plague hit. Around half of the town’s inhabitants died. The town subsequently came under Florentine rule. At this time, some palaces and buildings were built in a Gothic Florentine style. Under Florentine rule, the city put an end to the construction of the medieval skyscrapers.
The city authorities built the 177 foot (54 meter) tall Grossa Tower and proclaimed no other tower could be taller. Many towers had to be reduced in height. However, after this building and development ceased and the town remained preserved as a medieval settlement. Most of San Gimignano’s architecture is Romanesque or Gothic in style.
Romanesque can be identified by the rounded arches while Gothic uses pointed arches. Torre Grossa is San Gimignano’s tallest tower measuring 54 meters in height. The tower was built in 1310. Here you can visit the Town Hall (Palazzo Comunale) and the art gallery and museum. You can also climb the Torre Grossa. The courtyard on the ground floor, built in 1323, is painted with family coats of arms of those who once held public office in the town hall.
This is a 14th-century fresco of the Virgin and Child by Taddeo di Bartolo. This 16th-century fresco depicts the judgment of Truth and Lie and is by the school of Sodoma. Although the square and the church bear the name “Duomo”, meaning cathedral, the building is actually a collegiate church and minor basilica. It’s possible the church was once a cathedral, however. A single ticket is required to enter several of the buildings here in San Gimignano, including the duomo. As San Gimignano lies on an important pilgrimage route to Rome, called the Via Francigena, the church was an important site and grew steadily during the 12th century.
During the 13th-15th centuries, the church was adorned with rich fresco decorations and sculptures. The artwork includes important fresco cycles by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Benozzo Gozzoli, Taddeo di Bartolo, Lippo Memmi and Bartolo di Fredi. The church also houses the relics of Saint Geminianus, patron saint of San Gimignano. The two twin towers on the left are the Towers of the Salvucci. Both had to be reduced in height when the town came under Florentine rule.
We will go to the top of one of the towers later in the tour. Medieval towers were not unique to San Gimignano. The skylines of many Italian cities were once studded with towers, but most were subsequently destroyed by wars, natural disasters or urban development. This makes San Gimignano’s 14 preserved towers particularly noteworthy. The cistern or well in the center of Piazza Cisterna was originally the main source of water for the town’s inhabitants. The is the Palazzo del Podestà, once the seat of the mayor. It is recognizable for its vast vaulted loggia with a Madonna with Child at the end, painted by Sodoma.
The facade of the Palazzo Comunale dates from the 14th century, with the lower section in stone and the upper in brick. The tower above the Palazzo del Podestò is called the Torre Rognosa. According to a statute of 1255 it was forbidden for anyone to build a tower taller than the Rognosa. Torre Rognosa is around 51 meters high, second in height only to the Torre Grossa.
Towers became such a powerful status symbol in the medieval period because their construction was difficult and costly. The ground floor of the tower usually housed workshops, the first floor the bedrooms and above that the kitchen. The kitchen was located on the highest floor as a fire safety precaution. The style and models of towers changed over the years including expanding the inside spaces and widening openings. Now we are heading up to the Parco della Rocca, the site of the Fortress of Montestaffoli.
The fortress, or the Rocca di Montestaffoli, was built in the 14th century. It was the seat of the Bishop of Volterra at the time when San Gimignano was under his rule. The fortress fell into ruin in the 16th century during the years of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and now all that remains are sections of the walls. The space is now used for summer events and exhibitions.....and it is also a good place to fly your drone. :) From the panoramic viewing platform you can look out across the Tuscan countryside and over the distinctive skyline of San Gimignano. San Gimignano sits at 334 meters above sea level.
We are now going to walk back towards the Piazza Duomo and go on top of one of the twin towers. If you are looking for a memorable and unusual experience, it is possible to stay in one of the Salvucci Towers. The apartment is spread out over 11 floors and 143 steps. Each floor has its own separate living space such as a bedroom, study, and kitchen. I filmed the walk up the steps but the video was kind of dizzying to watch because of spiraling staircase leading to the top. I decided to cut it out.
We are now at the top of one of the Torri dei Salvucci, a pair of towers that overlook the Piazza del Duomo. Here you can see where the top section of the second tower has been removed. The Salvucci were another of San Gimignano’s richest families and were rivals of the Ardinghelli family. This tower and that adjacent were actually built in defiance of the height rule in 1255. They are taller than the Torre Rognosa. As such, the rival Ardinghelli family built two towers (which we saw previously) that also exceeded the height limit.
The tower adjacent to the Palazzo del Podestà is Torre Chigi, built in 1280. You can see on the first floor there is an arched doorway. This was once the entrance, accessed using a ladder that was pulled up at night for security. Via San Matteo is another of San Gimignano’s main streets that runs north to south. This arch is pointed implying the building was built in the Gothic style. On the right, you can see a particular feature of architecture in the Siena area. The arched doorway is composed of two arches, rather than just one, with one lower than the other. Porta San Matteo is another of the ancient gates into the city set in the 13th-century walls.
This is another important square and church that dominates this part of the town while the Piazza del Duomo and Collegiate Church dominate the other. This is San Gimignano’s second-largest church after the Collegiate Church. Around the high altar is a seventeen-panel fresco cycle of The Life of St Augustine painted by Benozzo Gozzoli between 1463 and 1467.
The altarpiece is the Coronation of the Virgin by Piero del Pollaiuolo painted in 1483. The building complex dates from the 13th century. This altarpiece depicts The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints and was painted by Pier Francesco Fiorentino in 1494. This modest church is a good example of Romanesque architecture in San Gimignano and dates from the 13th century. Before the Black Death decimated the population, San Gimignano was a prosperous town, despite the family rivalries. In the first half of the 14th century, there were around 13,000 inhabitants.
The town was particularly wealthy thanks to the agricultural production of saffron and a white wine produced from the ancient Vernaccia grape. This wine has DOCG status meaning it can only be produced in that particular geographic area. There is a museum dedicated to the wine inside the Rocca di Montestaffoli which we visited earlier. San Gimignano’s lowest point came after the plague of 1631.
The population was reduced to a mere 3,000 inhabitants and it became one of the poorest settlements in the Grand Dukedom of Tuscany. It wasn't until the 19th century that life began to return to the town and agriculture restarted. In the first half of the 19th century, many medieval buildings were restored and renovated.
In 1948, the population was recorded as 10,000. The advent of tourism has had the most powerful influence over San Gimignano’s fortunes. In the 19th century, the town was already becoming popular for its extraordinary intact medieval center and artistic treasures. Tourism now brings millions of visitors a year to San Gimignano. On the 31st of January, the town celebrates its patron saint, San Gimignano.
There are religious ceremonies, processions and a fair. This church dates from 1173 and is built in the Romanesque style, though it has undergone several renovations and restorations. The brick walls are attractive for their varying hues and the traces of architectural modifications. Another important celebration on the town’s calendar of events is Carnival, which takes place in late January or early February. During Carnival, spectacular allegorical carnival floats constructed in papier-mâché parade through the town streets. There is music, confetti and lots of performers in costume.
We are back in the Piazza del Duomo which was once the heart of religious and political life in the city. Piazza Cisterna, on the other hand, where we are now, hosted the market, festivals and sporting competitions. Many of San Gimignano’s important monuments and public spaces are featured in the 2009 video game Assassin's Creed II. These are a couple old millstones.
San Gimignano has a second patron saint, Santa Fina. Her feast day is celebrated on the 12th of March. This is the Torre del Diavolo, or Devil’s tower, another of the 14 remaining medieval towers. The name derives from a legend that recounts how the owner returned from a trip away to find the tower higher than when he left it. The increased height was attributed to an intervention by the Devil.
Leaving the square, we pass beneath the Arco dei Becci, an entrance gate built into an older set of walls dating from the 10th century. The Torre dei Cugnanesi is one of the highest in the city as was part of the defensive structures and wall dating to the 10th century along with Arco dei Becci. At the end of the street is the church of the Quercecchio dating from 1070.
I was going to go in for a closer look, but.... ....I got distracted by this cool old car. :) Over the years, San Gimignano has featured in various books, films and art. An imagined version of the town appears in E. M. Forster's 1905 novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread. The town is named Monteriano.
In the 1999 film Tea with Mussolini, some scenes were shot in San Gimignano. In particular, the frescoes inside the Collegiate Church feature as artworks saved from destruction during the German Army's withdrawal. San Gimignano’s famed towers appear in artist M. C. Escher's 1923 woodcut of the town. To see San Gimignano in all its medieval glory, one of the best times to visit is in mid-June during the Ferie delle Messi. During these celebrations, residents dress up in medieval costumes and perform songs, dances, games and even jousts.
The town is decorated with flags and banners making the event a riot of color and activity. We had already walked down the main street when we entered the city so I thought we should see something different by leaving on this side street. We end the tour by leaving through Porta San Giovanni, where we entered. This gate would have once been used by pilgrims following the Via Francigena from Siena. I had to add some outro music here because the street performer outside the gate was playing a song so well that it caused my video to get a copyright claim against it.
He was playing Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits.