San Gimignano and Its History
San Gimignano, founded in Medieval times, is a hill town in the heart of Tuscany, midway between Florence and Siena.
It has a very characteristic, spectacular skyline, due to its walls and towers: 14 of its original 72 towers remain.
The towers of San Gimignano were built in the 12th and 13th centuries by rival noble families. They create one of the most distinctive and beautiful urban profiles in the world, looking from a distance like a castle in the sky.
The Duomo (cathedral) is also noteworthy.
The town is visible from a long distance, and it commands far-ranging views itself.
San Gimignano, although an important tourist centre, is a small town, with a population of about 7,000 people.
San Gimignano has been declared by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, part of the World’s Architectural Heritage.
Originally called “City of Silva”, it later took its present name from the Bishop of Modena, who liberated the town from a barbarian invasion. An independent republic in the Middle Ages, San Gimignano was dominated by two powerful, continually feuding families, the Ardinghelli (Guelf) and the Salvucci (Ghibelline). In 1352, with the exhaustion of its finances, the city placed itself under the rule of Florence.
SAN GIMIGNANO IN NUMBERS
Altitude: 324 metres
Telephone code: +39 0577
San Gimignano Art and Attractions
San Gimignano is rich in Gothic architecture and is one of the best-preserved Italian medieval towns. Its famous towers were built by leading families vying with each other for prestige. Most of the towers fell because of insecure foundations.
The town’s most notable monuments are the Palazzo del Popolo (1288-1323), containing the civic museum and picture gallery; the Collegiata (the former cathedral, consecrated in 1148), decorated with numerous frescoes; and the Church of Sant’Agostino (1280-98), containing in its choir frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting a cycle of 17 scenes from the life of St. Augustine, dating back to 1463-1465.
San Gimignano’s most beautiful squares are Piazza del Duomo (the Cathedral square) and Piazza della Cisterna, both in the heart of the town, forming the cornerstone of the medieval city. Whereas the former was the political as well as religious centre, being home to buildings like the Collegiata and the two Podesta’ (head of the city government) palaces, the latter was used as a marketplace and hosted public performances, tournaments, festivals, competitions.
Piazza della Cisterna, surrounded by nobility palaces and medieval towers, is at the junction of the medieval town’s two main arteries: the Via Francigena road on the north-south axis and the Pisa-Siena road on the east-west axis.
Its current layout, dating back to the 1200s, has a triangular shape, with a natural slope, and is connected to nearby Piazza del Duomo by an open passageway.
The name Piazza della Cisterna derives from a 1287 water cistern in the centre of the square, surmounted by an imposing octagonal travertine wellhead.
Piazza della Cisterna is home to many beautiful buildings, including the Torri dei Becci and Torri dei Cugnanesi, Arco dei Becci, ancient gate in the medieval city wall, Palazzo Razzi, Casa Salvestrini, Palazzo Tortoli, Palazzo dei Cortesi, Torre del Diavolo (Devil’s Tower), Case dei Cattani, the twin towers of Ardinghelli and of Palazzo Pellari.
The square leads into the narrow alley named Vicolo dell’Oro after the goldsmiths and specialized craftsmen who would hammer gold into extremely thin sheets for use in paintings of the saints decorating church altars, who used to have workshops there.
The historical centre of San Gimignano, surrounded by a circle of city walls, has remained intact throughout the centuries with its towers, gates, walls, frescoes and other art treasures.
San Gimignano Wines
The hilly countryside surrounding San Gimignano produces some of the world’s most famous, appreciated and noble wines: from Chianti Classico to Brunello di Montalcino to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. San Gimignano itself is renowned for its wine, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
In the countryside near San Gimignano lies Villa Strozzi, where the former British prime minister Tony Blair has spent some of his holidays.
Walking in the Country around San Gimignano
The town’s surrounding area is of such outstanding beauty that a closer contact is highly rewarding. Walking is the best way to savour this countryside, created by nature but perfected by man’s art.
The Tuscan countryside’s Renaissance landscapes come to life during a hike or a stroll. The rolling, hilly scenic views, familiar backdrops of the Great Masters’ paintings, are covered with vineyard, olive groves, pine trees. Among them are cherry and peach orchards, fields of wheat and barley, plots of tomatoes, zucchini (courgettes), onions, beans.
Farmhouses are hidden behind gates, at the end of dusty roads lined by long rows of cypress trees.
Medieval towns, unchanged for centuries, dominate the view from their hilltops, where they were built to be impervious to armies and predators.
Nowhere else in the world has man so beautifully blended into the natural scenery.
You can walk to many places you like, because much of the land in Italy is open to the public. There are lots of trails and footpaths. You can choose a company or a tour operator that either organizes group walks, or (if you want to go alone and be an independent walker) provides you with maps and instructions.
If you take an escorted walk with a travel company, you’ll stop to sleep at various places: from converted castles, palaces and convents to rooms in private houses. Some guided walks also include wine cellars in the region.
The climbing isn’t hard, because the hills are gentle, and not steep. In the summer, it can obviously be quite hot. The ideal months, especially for people who are used to Northern climates, are the mild half-season ones: May, June, September and October. Bring with you something to eat and drink.