The town with the unmistakable skyline… and the hardest pronunciation for foreigners: San Gimignano! Known as the “Manhattan of the middle Age”, this unique village is a coffer of Art, Food and Great Wines
A glorious past
Like lots of Tuscan towns, this was originally an Etruscan village and was named after the bishop of Modena, San Gimignano, who is said to have saved the city from Attila the Hun. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance era, it was an important stopping point for Catholic pilgrims on their way to Rome and the Vatican as it sits on the medieval Via Francigena route.
In 1199, the town declared itself a Free Commune. For decades, building a tower taller than their neighbors’ became a popular way for wealthy families to show their power. At the most, there were 72 towers. Despite the bitter political dispute between the Guelfs, who supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, who supported the emperor, the Commune prospered in agricultural activities in particular thanks to the production of saffron and Vernaccia and to the commerce of wool.
The plague of 1348 decimated two thirds of the population, and San Gimignano subsequently saw a long period of decline leading to its submission to Florence. Drastic depopulation and economical decline together with the loss of political autonomy produced a clear breakdown: many buildings were damaged, towers fell down (only 13 are still standing) or they were brought down.
What to see
San Gimignano remained preserved in its medieval state until the 19th century when its status as a touristic and artistic destination began to be recognised. It is mostly thanks to the excellent conservation and the beautiful examples of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture that the Historic Centre of San Gimignano is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Actually, Piazza del Duomo, Piazza della Cisterna, and the towers around them are just stunning! The Cathedral (Duomo in Italian) is a pleasant surprise. The simplicity of the facade is not imposing but inside there are stunning masterpieces of Italian art. Particularly impressive is the Chapel of Santa Fina. After the death of her mother, she lived through her illness by praying while lying on a wooden table until her death. Ghirlandaio, an important Italian painter of the Renaissanceand official portrait painter of the Florentine high society, recounts her life in unbelievably beautiful frescoes.
From Piazza Duomo enter the Palazzo Comunale where it is possible to climb to the top of the Torre Grossa. All other towers of San Gimignano have always been private property except for this one, which continues to be part of the town hall.
The Civic Museums of San Gimignano are divided into two main sites the first of which is the Palazzo Comunale with its Torre Grossa. The Palazzo Comunale itself houses two important frescoed rooms. The first is the Sala di Dante (named in honor of the famous poet, who was housed in this room when he came to visit San Gimignano as an ambassador of Florence to negotiate a peace treaty) where you can see the beautiful Madonna and Child by Lippo Memmi and other frescoes.
The next floor houses the personal room of the Podestà, a sort of mayor of the 13th century, with beautiful scenes of courtly love by Memmo di Filippuccio painted between 1303 and 1310. An extraordinary and unique way to visit these two frescoed rooms is to stop at the small shop at the entrance of the museum and ask for the ArtGlass. With the innovative technology of virtual reality, you can see the frescoes interactively as if they were coming to life. In essence, it is a pair of glasses with special sensors, screen, and earphones that will take you on a virtual journey to discover the Middle Ages!
Opposite this room there is the Pinacoteca, the city-owned collection of panels painted by Sienese and Florentine artists from the 13th to the 15th century who came to work in San Gimignano. From here you can reach the top of Torre Grossa, which is the tallest tower in the city at 54 meters. A bit of training before starting the climb would be a good idea… Be prepared to climb 218 steps but rest assured that the view from the top of the tower is really worth all the hard work!
Vernaccia di San Gimignano Wine
But this amazing place is not only known for its artistic and architectural beauties. The Vernaccia di San Gimignano is the flagship of this area, an exquisite white wine with a really long history. Even the famous poet Dante Alighieri wrote about this fine wine in The Divine Comedy. Winewise, Vernaccia di San Gimignano is the only important white wine in Tuscany, a real gem especially considering how much of a red wine region this region is.
San Gimignano is also known for its saffron, the yellow gold, that has repeatedly saved San Gimignano as it was often used as a currency to pay off the debts incurred during the centuries-old wars with Siena and Florence. The value of this delicacy is understood considering the quantity of flowers needed to make a single kilo of saffron: 150.000!
The town is, of course, full of traditional restaurants and Osteria, but if you want to enjoy a slightly different experience you should try Cum Quibus or San Martino 26, both excellent and a perfect combination of tradition and innovation. Oops, we almost forgot! If you love ice cream, you really can’t miss out on the Gelateria Dondoli in Piazza della Cisterna. It is no coincidence that their gelato has received numerous prizes and awards – it is just delicious!
While here, you could also consider the possibility of going to Volterra, by car or on foot along scenic forest and countryside paths.