San Gimignano, about 50 kilometers southwest of Florence, owes its nearly pristine medieval appearance to a combination of location and neglect. At the height of the Middle Ages, the Via Francigena, which passes through San Gimignano, was the main route of pilgrims traveling to Rome. It was also the main trade route, useful for transporting the local saffron to profitable markets. As faster routes developed, San Gimignano refused, the new building stopped, and the inhabitants could do anything to prevent the collapse of old ones. So structures remained virtually unchanged until the recent restorations promoted by UNESCO to preserve them. But despite its dwindling fortunes, San Gimignano still attracted important later Renaissance artists such as Domenico Ghirlandaio, Benozzo Gozzoli and Benedetto da Maiano, whose works you will see in the churches. The town’s main draw for tourists are the 13 towers remaining from the original 70, giving San Gimignano its distinctive skyline.
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1 Historic Center en Towers
There is no doubt that the main attraction of San Gimignano is its medieval center, the Old Town, full of square towers that were both fortified homes and status symbols for the rival families who built them. In the heart of this old center there is little Cistern Square, the city’s triangular central square, where you’ll find a cluster of: the stump of a tower on Casa Razzi, the remains of another on Palazzo Tortoli, the tall Torre del Diávolo (Devil’s Tower) on Palazzo dei Cortesi, and the two Torri Ardinghelli on the west side. The patinated brick pavement of the square leads to Via del Castello, where you will find more noble houses and towers. Overlooking Piazza del Duomo are the two Torri Salvucci, allegedly built with the aim of circumventing the Municipal Bylaws of 1255 that limited towers to the height of the Podestà Tower. To show their superiority (and annoy their rivals, the equally powerful Ardinghelli family) the Salvuccis would probably have built two whose combined heights exceeded the Podestà.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Gimignano
2 Santa Maria Assunta
The Romanesque church of Santa Maria Assunta was originally built in the 12th century, but in 1457 it was enlarged by Giuliano da Maiano, who added a transept and side chapels. The starkly simple facade stands for the misleading name Cathedral square; this is not a cathedral and there has never been one in San Gimignano. Inside the church are several excellent fresco cycles. On the entrance wall is a 15th-century fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli and two wooden statues of the Annunciation from the same period, by Iácopo della Quercia. In the right aisle is a monumental 14th-century cycle by Barna da Siena, with three groups of New Testament scenes. Its counterpart in the left aisle is a series of highly restored Old Testament scenes by Bártolo di Fredi. The Renaissance Cappella di Santa Fina, by Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano (1468) honors the patron saint of San Gimignano, highly revered for miracles. The altar, also by Benedetto da Maiano, has a tabernacle with relief decoration and the remains of St. Fina. In the arcades on either side of the altar are frescoes by Doménico Ghirlandaio (1475) depicting the life and death of St. Fina.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, San Gimignano
3 St. Augustine
At the northern tip of the old town near Porta San Matteo is the Church of Sant’Agostino, an aisleless brick church built between 1280 and 1298 in simple Gothic style. However, the interior is far from simple. Immediately to the right of the entrance is the Chapel of San Bártolo, with an elaborate marble altar made by Benedetto da Maiano in 1494 and with the remains of San Bártolo. But the main reason to go to this church is the beautiful cycle of fifteenth century frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli in the choir. Beautifully painted in a vibrant narrative style, they depict in 19 scenes the life of St. Augustine, from his childhood in North Africa to his vision of St. Jerome and his death. More frescoes are in the nave by Benozzo Gozzoli, Lippo Memmi and others. Through the sacristy are the 15th century cloister and chapter house. Sant’Agostino square is one of the most interesting squares of San Gimignano, with a hexagonal stone well and the small Church of San Pietroone of the oldest in the city.
Address: Piazza Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano
4 People’s Palace and Civic Museum
Left of Santa Maria Assunta is the Palazzo del Pópolo, begun in 1288 and enlarged in 1323. Since its construction, it has been the seat of the municipal government. The tower, known as the Big Tower (Fat Tower), is the tallest in the city at 54 meters; an early ordinance stipulated that no other tower could be higher. From the top you can see the city and the surrounding countryside all the way to the mountains of Apuan.
Inside is the Museo Civico (Municipal Art Gallery), reached through a picturesque courtyard with a well dating from 1361. The most famous room is the Sala di Dante, named after a visit to the city by the poet in 1300 and furnished by a collection of medieval court frescoes. Highlights of the collection of artwork from the 13th to 17th centuries include a 13th-century painted crucifix by Coppo di Marcovaldo, Lippo Memmi’s Madonna Enthronedtwo circular paintings of the Annunciation by Filippino Lippi, and an altarpiece painted by Pinturicchio in 1511. These three were among the artists who contributed to the renewal of San Gimignano during the Renaissance.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, San Gimignano
Official site: www.sangimignanomusei.it
5 City walls and gates
You can walk along San Gimignano’s 13th-century walls Old Town – historical centre. The views are beautiful and there are interesting gates, some original and others built by the Medici, who ruled the city in the 15th and 16th centuries. The sooner Porta San Giovannibuilt in the 13th century, has an unusual segmented arch supporting a waiting room; Porta San Matteo dates from the 12th century; and Gate of the Sources on the east side leads to an atmospheric public fountain whose arches hide an earlier Lombard stone fountain from the ninth century.
6 Santa Chiara Museum (Archaeological Museum and Herbarium)
The former Conservatorio di Santa Chiara houses the Archaeological Museum and the Herbarium of Santa Fina. The latter is one of the most unusual museums in Tuscany, with more than 100 pieces of ceramics and glass from the 14th-century herbal pharmacy and Herbarium of the Spedale di Santa Fina. These are shown in the setting of a reproduced pharmacy, where herbal remedies were prepared, and the shop where they were sold. Along with the containers are examples of the spices used.
The adjoining Archaeological Museum displays Etruscan, Roman and medieval finds from the area, with descriptions of the techniques used in glass and pottery making in different periods. The Etruscan collection comes from local necropolises and settlements from the seventh to the first century BC. It’s upstairs Modern and contemporary art gallerywhere temporary art exhibitions are held.
Address: Via Folgore, San Gimignano
Built against the city walls on the highest point of the hill is the rocca (castle), built by the Florentines in 1353 but demolished in 1555 by order of Cosimo I. Only a tower and fragments of the walls survive, and from the top are a beautiful views of the town and surrounding countryside. Every year on the third weekend of June, a tournament, La Giostra dei Bastoni, is held here as part of the Ferie delle Messi, a medieval festival.
8 San Iacopo
Near the northern city gate of Porta San Iacopo and surrounded by olive groves, the small Romanesque church of San Iacopo is believed to have been built by the Knights Templar in the 13th century on their return from the First Crusade. The facade, part brick and part travertine marble, has a beautiful rose-red window and a Pisan-style doorway, the arched lintel of which is a coat of arms of the Knights Templar. The interior is aisleless, with groined vaulting, and contains a fine fresco of the Crucifixion by Memmo di Filippuccio, from the early 14th century. Like several other San Gimignano churches, San Iacopo had a workhouse for the poor and for pilgrims traveling to and from Rome on the Via Francigena. The unusual enclosed space above the city gate was a passageway for nuns to reach the church privately.
Address: Via Folgore, San Gimignano
Day trips from San Gimignano
Parish of Cèllole
Standing on a hill and surrounded by cypresses, the Pieve – Parish Church – of the village of Cèllole was probably built at the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century. The front facade is simple, but the exterior of the apse has rich figurative carving. Inside is a beautiful baptismal font in travertine and 14th-century frescoes.