When you close your eyes and think of Tuscany you’re probably thinking of San Gimignano. Perched up on the crest of a hill and surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, the town with its 14 towers (once were 72) reminds the visitor of a medieval Manhattan.
Like many hilltop towns in Italy, San Gimignano was once an Etruscan town and according to legend was founded by two brothers, Muzio and Silvio, in 63 B.C. who were fleeing Rome after being implicated in a conspiracy. The town’s name, more than likely, derives from the former Bishop of Modena who appeared on the towns walls and saved the city from Attila and his Huns in the 4th century.
The town became a commune and eventually became ruled by a Podestà, who for political reasons was changed every 6 months. The town prospered because of its production of saffron, trade in Greek wine, and Vernaccia (a white wine typical to the area), wool, and also to money lending. It’s during this period that the towns famous towers were built along with most of its major attractions.
By the 14th century the town had more than 13,000 inhabitants and the city became enclosed in a 2nd set of walls. Disaster came in 1348 with the plague with two-thirds of the population dying thus beginning a long period of decline and subsequently falling into the shadow Florence. All of San Gimignano’s monuments where built before the outbreak of the plague, leaving us a window to look at Tuscany some 700 years ago
Today San Gimignano thrives on tourism having become a UNESCO World Heritage City and the trade in its beloved Vernaccia de San Gimignano wine.
Porta San Giovanni
Built in the 13th century, the gate leads up the picturesque via San Giovanni, lined with its medieval houses, churches and stores.
Piazza della Cisterna
Taking its name from the well (cisterna in Italian), the square was once the home of the noble and wealthy families of San Gimignano. Today it is also home to what many believe to be…the world best ice cream. Sergio Dondoli’s, owner of Gelateria di Piazza, has been a member of the Italian team that have won the last two Ice Cream World Championship.
Case Torre (Tower-Houses)
The Tower-Houses were all built from the 12th century through to the plague of 1348. Designed like castle “keeps” they became a symbol of prosperity and prestige and for this reason, the higher the better. The holes to be seen in the walls once supported beams that were used as footbridges linking the houses of allied families who could gather together quickly should danger threaten.
The towers are also a product of San Gimignano’s textile industry. One of San Gimignano’s secrets was its ability to create a saffron yellow dye which made textiles almost waterproof. In order to fix the dye, the cloth had to be kept away from dust and sunshine. As the price of the dyed-textiles rose, manufactures needed more space and because the city walls stopped any horizontal building, they were forced to build vertically. Thus the holes on the outside were also used for the supports for external staircases which were created to avoid using up space in the interior.
But whatever you do in San Gimignano, just don’t forget the ice cream
A guided visit of San Gimignano is included on:
FLO17: San Gimignano & Pisa Excursion