Italy: San Gimignano, Medieval Time Warp
Twelve kilometers away from Poggibonsi, the medieval fortress town of San Gimignano stands regally on a hill, preserved through the centuries. Its historic towers, dating from the 1200s, can be seen from a distance. Walk through its gates and walk into another world, another time.
Originally a small Etruscan village (200-300 BC) named Castel di Salva, San Gimignano was renamed after Bishop Geminianus sometime after the 6th century. One story reports that the bishop, outfitted in shining golden armor, came riding into town out of the thick and swirling valley mists, terrifying the Goth invaders who took off without a fight. For saving their town from these evil ruffians, the people adopted his name and his patronage. They were to call on him in prayer and penance years later during many more bad times.
Medieval times were hard times. Not only did the people have to worry about those Goth and Lombard invaders from the North, their own internal struggles kept them in disarray. Warring factions, the Guelphs (who supported the Pope in Rome), and the Ghibellines (who supported the Holy Roman Emperor), competed for power. This serious religious/political rivalry started in 1215 and took centuries to resolve.
Powerful families in San Gimignano, the Adringhelli (Guelph loyalists), and the Salyucci Family (Ghibelline devotees) built towers, not only for defense against outside invaders, but also from each other. The towers also served as repositories of their great wealth and as symbols of their political power.
A great wall surrounds the entire town, and tall gates at the Porta San Giovanni guard the entrance.
San Gimignano was conveniently located on the ancient Via Francigena, the route faithful pilgrims followed when traveling from France to Rome to pay homage to the Pope. San Gimignano became an important respite for the travelers from thieves and other troublemakers who roamed the countryside. Exhausted pilgrims and traveling merchant-traders spent the night inside the safety of the town’s walls before continuing their journeys the next morning.
The city was prosperous until a series of plagues in 1348, 1464, and 1631 repeatedly decimated its population. San Gimignano fell into further economic decline when the route to Rome bypassed the city, a result of neighboring Florence’s punishing powerplay.
Travel mate, Christine (right), checks a cistern which collects rainwater drained from the rooftops. We can imagine the daily gathering of people at the cistern, gossiping and trading news about the latest events. They probably talked about the ongoing rivalry between the Pope and the Emperor and wondered when it would all end.
The steps of the church in the Piazza Del Duomo invite people to sit and rest for a while and people-watch. The Cappela di Santa Fina is located inside the Duomo, dedicated to a fifteen-year-old girl.
For the religious faithful, San Gimignano had its patron saints. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, author of Italian Days (1989), tells of Fina del Ciardi (1238-1253), a girl born of noble parents who became a patron saint and was venerated in this walled fortress city.
One story goes that Fina, at the tender age of ten, accepted an orange from a young man, and guilt-ridden, she fell ill and didn’t move for five years, praying continuously. Another report says that she was stricken with a serious illness, possibly tuberculosis/osteomyelitis, that paralyzed her.
At her death at age 15, yellow pansies suddenly bloomed profusely and angels rang the church bells. Reports of miraculous healing attributed to Fina occurred, ensuring that she would be remembered and venerated for a long time. To this day, an annual celebration occurs on March 12, the anniversary of her death, and the day yellow pansies bloom.
Two frescoed panels by Florentine Renaissance master Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1475, in the Cappella di Santa Fina depict her story
From these same church steps, The Palazzo del Popolo, the town hall (1238-1323), can be seen on the right.
Dante Alighieri (1261-1321) poet, author of the Divine Comedy, and a Guelph, visited here and encouraged the people to support the the Pope in his struggle against the Roman Emperor. Alighieri was trapped on the wrong side of a Guelph internal power struggle and was exiled from Florence in 1302. He wrote Comedia (later named the Divine Comedy) describing afterlife in hell, purgatory, and paradise. Are you surprised to hear that Dante depicted his enemies suffering excruciating pain in hell?
At the highest point in San Gimignano, we find the Rocca, the remains of the city’s medieval fortress and its one surviving tower. Cosimo De’ Medici, the well-known politician (bully) of Florence, had other towers dismantled in the 16th century. Now the Rocco is a lovely public park with fig and olive trees, cobbled walks, quiet places to sit, and spectaular views.
Today, San Gimignano is a bustling town with locals selling wine (Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a white wine), olive oil, colorful ceramics, souvenirs, and ubiquitous postcards. Tourists fill the streets, crowding the alleys and craning their necks to view the remaining towers.
Inger-Anne (below) ponders whether her stash of Norwegian chocolate will really last for the whole week. Maybe we should get a little Italian chocolate to tide us over?
Tourists pack the street during the day but depart for their buses in the early evening, leaving our foursome to wander the alleys in relative quiet.
Restaurants can be found in every piazza or alley and even along the outside city walls.
And don’t forget the gelato. You can find a gelateria in every piazza.
San Gimignano has served as the setting for both novels and movies. E. M. Forster wrote Where Angels Fear to Tread set in the village Monteriano, loosely based on San Gimignano. John Grisham used San Gimignano as the setting for The Broker. In 1999, the film, Tea with Mussolini, in which a group of women saved valuable San Gimignanian frescoes from destruction by the German has scenes from this area. Ann Cornelisen also describes Tuscany hill scenes in her hilarious novel, Any Four Women Could Rob the Bank of Italy.
And now, it’s been a long day. So let’s have some gelato ourselves.
Stop by and visit San Gimignano with Rick Steves.