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San Gimignano, Italy: A gem shining on the rolling hills
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
San Gimignano is a small walled medieval hill town in the province of Siena, Tuscany. Known as the Town of Fine Towers, San Gimignano is famous for its medieval architecture, unique in the preservation of about a dozen of its tower houses. Its hilltop setting and encircling walls form a unique skyline.
The charm of the rolling hills of Tuscany brought us to this ancient little town. From Florence, we were scheduled to drive to San Margherita Ligure directly which was up north. And the region of Tuscany was towards south! Well, we were prepared for the diversion from our original plan simply because we did not want to miss the world’s most famous wine-producing region. The area is known for its rolling hills with grape and olive plantations all around.
San Gimignano was about an hour’s drive from Florence. We found a parking space about a km from the walled town. From there it was a comfortable climb uphill.
Within the walls of San Gimignano, the well-preserved buildings include notable examples of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture, with outstanding examples of secular buildings as well as churches. The Palazzo Comunale, the Collegiate Church and Church of Saint Agostino contain frescos, including cycles dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. The town is also known for the white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, produced from the ancient variety of Vernaccia grape which is grown on the sandstone hillsides of the area.
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance era, it was a stopping point for Catholic pilgrims on their way to Rome and the Vatican, as it sits on the medieval Via Francigena. The city's development was also improved by the trade of agricultural products from the fertile neighbouring hills, in particular saffron, used in both cooking and dyeing cloth and Vernaccia wine.
In 1199, the city made itself independent from the bishops of Volterra and established a podesta, and set about enriching the commune, with churches and public buildings. However, the peace of the town was disturbed for the next two centuries by conflict between Guelphs and Ghibellines, and family rivalries. This resulted in families building tower houses of increasing height. Towards the end of the medieval period they were 72 in number and up to 70 metres tall. The rivalry was finally restrained when it was ordained by the council that no tower was to be taller than that adjacent to the Palazzo Comunale.
The city flourished until 1348, when it was struck by the Black Death that affected all of Europe, and about half the townsfolk died. The town submitted to the rule of Florence. Initially, some Gothic palazzo were built in the Florentine style, and many of the towers were reduced to the height of the houses. There was little subsequent development, and San Gimignano remained preserved in its medieval state until the 19th century, when its status as a touristic and artistic resort began to be recognised.
The city is on the ridge of a hill with its main axis being north - south. It is encircled by three walls and has at its highest point, to the west, the ruins of a fortress dismantled in the 16th century. There are eight entrances into the city, set into the second wall, which dates from the 12th and 13th centuries. The main gates are Porta San Giovanni on the ridge extending south, Porta San Matteo to the north west and Porta San Jacopo to the north east. The main streets are Via San Matteo and Via San Giovanni, which cross the city from north to south. At the heart of the town are four squares: the Piazza Duomo, on which stands the Collegiate Church; the Piazza della Cisterna, the Piazza Pecori and the Piazza delle Erbe. To the north of the town is another significant square, Piazza Agostino, on which stands the Church of Saint Agostino. The locations of the Collegiate Church and Saint Agostino's and their piazzas effectively divide the town into two regions.
This piazza, entered from Via San Giovanni, is the main square of the town. It is triangular in shape and is surrounded by medieval houses of different dates, among them some fine examples of Romanesque and Gothic palazzos. At the centre of the piazza stands a well which was the main source of water for the town's residents.
Piazza Duomo is to the north of Piazza della Cistern and is connected by a passage adjacent to an open loggia. To the west, at the top of the square, stands the Collegiate Church, reached by a broad flight of steps. The name of the square would seem to imply that this church was at one time a cathedral, but although it was perhaps planned, this was not the case. Other important buildings on the square include the Palazzo Comunale and the Palazzo Podesta, the house of the mayor. The Palazzo Podesta is distinguished by its huge arched loggia.
At Piazza Duomo we had gelatos from Gelateria Dondoli, the store that had the sign “Gelato World Champion”. I recommend you have one too. Licking at the cones, we walked back on the cobbled streets with detours on side lanes offering panoramic views from up above.
We began our drive towards the Italian Riviera exploring the countryside encouraging us to take a few picture stops on the way.
San Gimignano Image Gallery Photo viewer
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