about san gimignano

Information on the area San Gimignano


She’s young but frumpily dressed in ankle socks, lace-up shoes and a knee-length A-line skirt. Not a good look for her, I decide, and very un-Italian. Trucks arrive and sandbags in hemp wrappers are unloaded in the square; more hemp wrappers are hoisted over electric signs and it dawns on me that I’m on a movie set, with a front row seat. I rush off to fetch my kids and we return to find Franco Zeffirelli himself sitting in a fold-out director’s chair not 10 feet away. For the next hour or so we watch the victorious Allies arriving in San Gimignano seven times, greeted with cheers and bouquets of (plastic) flowers. We pick one up and it’s squashed into a photo album of the tripsomewhere in our attic.Tea with Mussolini is a wonderful film, even if we didn’t make it into the final cut.

A stage setting is precisely what San Gimignano is today, but it does the job extremely well. Its towers, often called the world’s first sky-scrapers, were apparently medieval status symbols: one built the tallest tower one could afford. In the town’s heyday as a prosperous independent republic there were 70 towers, of which thirteen have survived (or 14 or 15, depending how you define ‘tower’), effectively a financial bar chart in stone. Another theory gives the towers a role in defending the San Gimignano, which is patently absurd as many of their window openings face into the town and few of the towers are positioned against outer walls. I heard the most logical explanation only recently, that the towers were vertical dyeing sheds. In the Middle Ages San Gimignano was famous for fabrics coloured in a beautiful shade of yellow that was made from locally grown saffron. To fix the colour, textiles had to be dried away from dust and light, and the longer the piece of cloth the higher the price it fetched. So a tall, windowless structure would have been just the thing. Saffron made San Gimignano wealthy but another contributing factor was its position along the Via Francigena, the great trade and pilgrimage route between Rome and northern Europe.

To cater to the travellers the town offered several monasteries, ‘hospitals’ (as much hostel as hospital) and pilgrims’ shelters, as well as public baths and a brothel. All this came to an abrupt end in 1348, however, when the Black Death - a bubonic plague - struck, killing well over half the town’s 15,000 inhabitants within 6 months. By 1353, unable to defend itself, San Gimignano had sworn an oath of allegiance to Florence. The town seemed cursed when further bouts of the plague occurred, and was all but abandoned. The buildings were left to crumble and the towers to topple until the 20C when revenues from wine and tourism paid for its restoration. The heart of San Gimignano is the Piazza della Cisterna, which is dominated by an enormous well. The well is fed not by a spring but a system of pipes that has been collecting rainwater from the roofs of the surrounding buildings since 1273. At six or so in the evening, when the tourist buses have gone back to Florence, the square becomes a meeting place for the locals and a lovely spot for a pre-dinner aperitivo. Try the Vernaccia!

San Minitato

November is the time to visit San Miniato, during the Mostra Mercato Nazionale del Tartufo Bianco di San Miniato, the national white truffle fair, which takes place over three weekends in the old, hilltop part of town. A more pungent event there is not. While you’re there, climb to the top of the Rocca, or fortress, for fantastic views of the hill towns to the south.

Vaglia

Certaldo is another town in two parts. The one visible for miles around is, of course, the old one. Getting up there in summer, when cars are barred, involves a stiff walk up a steep road - although there is a funicular for the faint-hearted. You’ll be rewarded with (more) gorgeous views and, if you’re set for a splurge, lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant set in the cloister of a 13C monastery.

Certaldo’s most famous son was Giovanni Boccaccio, a highly respected 14C writer and poet who, early in his career, wrote a book he came to regret deeply; ironically, it’s the one for which he is known today. The Decameron is a collection of frequently bawdy tales narrated by ten young Florentines, men and women, who have taken refuge at a villa outside the city while the bubonic plague rages within. The book was published two years after the Black Death had subsided, mentions a number of people by name and mocks the Catholic church as well as religious faith in general. It was a scandalous best-seller for an audience that badly needed entertainment. Boccaccio turned to the church later in life and died in Certaldo, having evidently redeemed himself as his grave was given a place of honour at the centre of the church of San Michele e Jacopo. His story doesn’t end with his death, however. When in 1783 a papal bull was issued disallowing burials in churches, Boccaccio’s tomb was opened and his ashes removed. Whether from greed or a lingering disapproval of the famous book, the workers of the time went further, selling the tombstone to a collector and condemning a marble likeness of the poet that had stood near it into a dusty corner.

Fellow poet Byron had not a moment’s doubt about their motives and denounced the tomb’s desecrators as ‘hyena bigots.’ In the 19C the town of Certaldo seems to have decided that a tainted local hero is better than no hero at all, and not only renamed its main street after Boccaccio but erected a statue of him outside the church. The poor man must be turning in his grave as the statue is clutching a copy of - you guessed it -the Decameron. And one wonders if anyone in town has actually read the book as it really is very naughty... Beyond Boccaccio and the church, Certaldo’s other draw, for those who like this sort of thing, are the medieval prison cells of the Palazzo Pretorio, the court house. An inscription on the wall of the main audience room offers good advice to rookie lawyers: Odi l’altra parte e credi poco, or “Listen to the other side but don’t believe them.” The walls of the cells themselves are covered in graffiti almost to the ceiling. Some of the cells can only be accessed by crawling along a low tunnel; in one of these a prisoner has scratched a series of suns on the wall, perhaps one for every day of his sentence.

Volterra

From a distance Volterra looks positively bleak. The Etruscans evidently didn’t think so, for some 25,000 of them are believed to have lived here, 531m/1700 feet up, when Volterra stood as one of the 12 sovereign towns of their Federation (the current population is less than half that). Walk along the surviving segment of the town’s 4th century BC Etruscan walls and you’ll look down into a lush valley where they buried their dead in alabaster urns, still being made here today. Volterra shrank in stages, each stage leaving a residual monument further up the hillside, like so many watermarks. Just inside the Etruscan walls lies a Roman amphitheatre; far above it is a ring of medieval walls dating from the 12th century. And crowning the whole lot is the fortress contributed by the conquering Florentines in the 16th century. There is, of course, a bit of muddling: the Arco Etrusco, a massive, Etruscan-built portal and the town’s pièce de resistance, is partially integrated into the medieval walls. In June 1944, the townspeople learned that the occupying German forces were planning to blow up the portal as a means of halting the Allied advance. In a frantic bid to save it, they tore up the stones paving the road that passes beneath it, and stuffed them into the archway to block it. The Germans relented and a plaque on the Arco marks the event.

On the subject of paving stones, you may notice that many of those in Volterra contain embedded fossil shells from the period, millions of years ago, that this entire area was underwater. Alabaster was important to the Etruscans in Volterra and, as the many shops in town testify, is fairly central to its economy today. It happens that there are several underground deposits of fine-grain gypsum alabaster here, the only other ones in Europe being in Castellina Marittima, south of Pisa, and in England. Alabaster is mined or quarried, so the objects you’re seeing in the shops have actually been carved out of the stuff, not mass-produced. I learned, however - from Volterra’s website, so I’m not speaking out of line - that most of the alabaster for sale here has actually been transported, in blocks, from Castellina because, while the deposits there are of a better quality, no-one can carve it like a Volterran. Another commodity mined here by the Etruscans was salt, transported along a route known as the Via Salaiola to Fiesole, outside Florence. Rock salt is still produced at Saline di Volterra. One final note: there is no factual basis for the claim made, in Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight novels, that Volterra provides a headquarters for a clan of handsome vampires. The association is viewed locally with some ambivalence. While it brought floods of tourists at a time when they were sorely missed elsewhere, Volterrans got heartily fed up with answering questions about vampire habits, one of the reasons the novels were filmed in Montepulciano...

Colle di Val d'Elsa

Colle di Val d’Elsa also comes in two parts, the nice up top one and the new one below. There’s only one thing to see in the latter, a museum that traces local production of glass and crystal, and not a great deal in Colle Alto, either, which consists of three streets on a ridge, although it’s quite pretty. The main street is Via del Castello, lined with 13-15C palazzi where Arnolfo di Cambio, architect of Florence’s Duomo, was born. The village’s own duomo is neoclassical; inside, on the right, is the Cappella del Santo Chiodo, or Chapel of the Holy Nail, which contains one of the 30 nails from the true cross found around Tuscany... From the south-west corner of the Piazza Duomo, the Via delle Volte descends like a tunnel under the houses.

Monteriggioni

Però che, come in su la cerchia tonda
Monteriggion di torri si corona
(for, as upon its round enclosing walls
Monteriggione crowns itself with towers)*

Monteriggioni is clearly proud of its hyperbolic mention in Dante’s Inferno; it’s inscribed on the front gate, and I predict that within ten years that gate will be all you’ll see of this gorgeous but minute medieval stronghold until you’ve bought your ticket. It does not look small from a distance and that, presumably, was the idea. There are 14 towers crowning those round enclosing walls, half of them rebuilt last century. The gate on the north side faces Florence, the one to the south faces Rome and inside a street runs between the two, lined with a few very pretty little buildings. There is a large open area at the entrance, and grassy patches which one is told were once vegetable patches. And there you have it. Perhaps the compound simply served as a temporary encampment for Sienese troops, since it was for years on the front line in their wars with Florence. The walls certainly withstood their share of attacks, but in the end the village was betrayed from within: a Florentine-exile by the name of Giovannino Zeti handed the keys over to the Medici in 1554 in an effort to reingratiate himself.

*Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XXXI; translated by Courtney Langdon (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1918)