San Gimignano rises on a hill (334m high) dominating the Elsa Valley with its towers. Once the seat of a small Etruscan village of the Hellenistic period (200-300 BC) it began its life as a town in the 10th century taking its name from the Holy Bishop of Modena, St. Gimignano, who is said to have saved the village from the barbarian hordes. The town increased in wealth and developed greatly during the Middle Ages thanks to the "Via Francigena" the trading and pilgrim's route that crossed it. Such prosperity lead to the flourishing of works of art to adorn the churches and monasteries. In 1199 it became a free municipality and fought against the Bishops of Volterra and the surrounding municipalities. Due to internal power struggles it eventually divided into two factions one headed by the Ardinghelli family (Guelphs) and the other by the Salvucci family (Ghibelline). On the 8th May 1300 Dante Alighieri came to San Gimignano as the Ambassador of the Guelph League in Tuscany.
It's pleasantly fresh here high above, the air is clean. Citadel-like, ungainly threatening towers with loophole windows. In fog- and rainy weather the town has to be bloodcurdling - or just simply unarrested romantic, just as of the psyche of the watcher. But also with sunshine you will meet in those narrow alleys, where the houses are clashing above you, the shadow of your own frights: Hired assassins at the entrance to a back yard. Iron rattles in a duel. Hot pitch splashes upon the street. A pointed cry from the devil's tower: a lost soul goes to hell.
The rooms in those towers were small and had to be shared with grocery's supply and animals. They were connected with outside-ladders which could be pulled in when danger was near. The quarrels and fights between the parties of the Guelphs and the Ghibelline were heavy here in San Gimignano. Pope contra Emperor. The adherants of both tried to erase each other. When one party had gained a victory, the tower of the enemy would destroyed.
Through the narrow mean street rolls the stream of tourists. Upon it once pilgrims, travellers and merchants drove until Florence. Tiny shops, over boarding with displays accompanied our way. Everywhere basket makers, Majolica works, richly decorated mirrors, kitsch and art close together. There are yards, flanked with pergolas, with drinking water springs and planted with buckets of exotic plants.
And then a broad place opened up: the place of the cistern well. Each palazzo looks different, brown natural stone and brick stone, dainty, Pisan arcs, Arabic-steep windows, Florentine overhang-roofs. Palazzo Lupi with its devil's tower is towering above each of them. There they held prisoners in dungeons. Amid the place a stone cistern, over 700 years old. I don't know if there's still water in it for it's locked with a plate.
Just a few meters away from these sun flooded places is the loggia where old men meet for a Saturday's chat. We arrived here at the place of the cathedral. Actually it's not a cathedral because the town isn't a bishop's place anymore so the people call the church collegiata. It has a plain, Romanic, red facade and inside spreads a magic mood under a blue-golden star's firmament. If you want to see the freschi you have to make illuminazione (that's usually a small automat where you put money in it) and soon you'll see again a fibula of pictures for the ones unable to read (which was of course common for the middle ages). Everything's there: God, the creator, Adam and Eve, the snake, archangel Gabriel, Moses, Noah, Mary and Joseph, the massacre of the innocents... and so further and so forth. But one tale strikes me really, the tale of Job, who was really proven by God. Told is about the enormous grief that came over poor Job: the loss of his whole possession, then of his children and family, at least he's getting ill. Job - always lead a godfearing life - doesn't understand the reason for his pain. All his friend's pious words and attempts to explain don't help. He contacted God himself with complaint and accusation, cries for help and anger, asking and suppliant. Finally Job realizes his own sinfulness and God's brilliant creative power, who has marked as lord of history-life the life of humankind. He doesn't receive an answer to his fervent question "Why?", but in the end he acknowledged despite all or just because this that God is the Lord and Job gets everything new.
You see, as the century progressed the rivalries between the town's noble families became bitterer, and the economy gradually soured. The great plague of 1348 killed close to 75 % of San Gimignano's 13.000 inhabitants and the town collapsed; left without any other options the town Council begged to enter under Florence's wing.
The Florentines accepted the offer the following year and San Gimignano's long decline began. Several panels of the Old Testament fresco cycle painted in the cathedral in 1361 show Job stoically watching his house collapse on his sons and daughters while the Devil kills his flocks; they undoubtedly reflect the unhappiness of the people with their lot. Not much had changed by 1391, when Taddeo di Bartolo painted a Last Judgment in which the horrifying torments of the sinners in hell contrast oddly with a subdued, joyless vision of paradise.
On the right side is situated the praised chapel of the Saint Fina. It's freshly restored and can be watched after small entrance fee. Completely painted with freschi by Domenico Ghirlandaio (a Florentine painter in whose workshop Michelangelo got his first education) it's a real little gem (1470). Saint Fina btw, is the town's saint on whose day of death the violets started to bloom on each tower. She was the daughter of poor people who hadn't themselves got enough to eat but she was always giving from it to the poor. She suffered sickness and pain and lead a monastic life until she died aged only (or perhaps 'after') 15 years. Her last place she found in this chapel.
When you're out of the Collegiata turn sharply right and enter the gangway to the yard of the town hall. Also here's a cistern, and each afternoon will play a harp-player who sings medieval songs because the sound is brilliant here. There's a hidden fresco on one wall, it's Ghirlandaio's "Annunciation", and under it a baptismal font. If you look at it closer you'll see the very modern interior of Mary's room. The bookshelf and the standard lamp will be familiar. Both are protected by iron fence. But on the backside of this yard opens a way to another yard which is called today the "chapel of the judge man". The freschi are by Sodoma, showing how Saint Ivone administers justice, who ignores the rich and noble people trying to bribe him. The inscription says: "Humans have to atone for their crimes. You, truth, bring lie to silence." From this yard, painted with the coat of arms of the Tuscany Union leads a beautiful, covered staircase up to the museum of the Town Hall. There are works from Tuscan masters and some funny and very surprising erotic tales (well, for straights) directly in the chamber of the podesta.
If you examine the facade of the Town Hall closely you'll detect plates and things are missing. Napoleon's troops have broken out coat of arms and hung them into their own museums. San Gimignano tries until today to get back those pieces, in vain.
The church of Sant Agostino shouldn't be missed for its splendid freschi and for the really beautiful cloister. You can go through the former Franciscan monastery which is today an Enoteca where you can test and buy wine (mostly the very good Vernaccia that grows around this town), but you're also allowed to go further through the shop and look from a terrace into the country. You'll also have a fine view onto the towers of the town.
Or you can visit one of the many shops for alabaster-handiwork. Or enter one of the many butcher's that eludes us with stuffed wild boar in front of their doors. It means that they are selling sausages from boar (a really well-tasting speciality).
You could eat them somewhere outside the town, between the hills, next to an old farmer's house with ancient olive trees, overlooking a last time the town. Perched on a hill with its towers thrown into sharp relief by the deep green mountains behind it, San Gimignano looks like a town plucked from a fairy tale and set into the Tuscan countryside.
Silence. Cicada's chirp and bird's twittering. You breathe and look. Melancholy lies over the country. It's a perfect symbiosis of human and nature, this time a nature made from human's hand.
In the car again we drove through Colle Val d'Elsa, a valley the little
river Elsa is passing, above it the medieval walls of this town,
birthplace of Arnolfo di Cambio (architect of the Florentine Cathedral).
Over steep serpentines we drove amid the area of the Chianti, the Gallo
Nero. My eyes losing itself in the soft, silver-green landscape, here
and there towered over with gloomy cypresses.
Vineyards over vineyards, Tavernas, Enotecas, villas, apple plantings. Famous places passing by, finally Greve. It's Flower's market today. The merchants unloaded hundreds of bowls, nameless for me. Orange- and lemon trees, laurel and palms. Either you stay here for some time or drive along until you'll reach Arezzo.