San Gimignano, Italy: city of towers
San Gimignano is a small Italian town with a medieval center in the province of Siena in Tuscany. In addition to “City of Towers”, San Gimignano is often referred to as “Medieval Manhattan” because the city has an impressive skyline thanks to its towers. It is therefore not surprising that it is one of the most visited Tuscan cities alongside Pisa, Florence and Siena.
San Gimignano is located on the Via Francigena and sits enthroned on a hill that offers an impressive view of the Elsa Valley. The small town extends over 138 km² and includes the districts of Castel San Gimignano, Badia a Elmi, Santa Lucia, Pancole and Ulignano, the largest of them with around six hundred and ninety inhabitants.
The medieval city center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. The greatest peculiarity of San Gimignano is the preservation of some medieval family towers, which in most other cities have only been preserved as stumps. They were built by the patrician families and are a testimony to the competition of the mighty, who tried to surpass each other in the height of their tower – even though there was no life in them suitable for the nobility. Today fifteen of the seventy-two towers in San Gimignano have been preserved, of which the Torre Grossa at fifty-four and the Torre della Rognosa at fifty-one meters are among the highest.
The history of the city goes back to pre-Christian times. It is said to have been settled by the Etruscans between three hundred and two hundred BC. As a city, San Gimignano has existed since the tenth century. It got its name from San Gimignano, the holy bishop of Modena. It owes its existence to the Frankenstrasse, the Via Francigena, which was a medieval main traffic route. It was frequented by both pilgrims and traders, which led to San Gimignano’s emergence as a market place. Because the small Italian town was never a bishopric, it was not granted city rights. Nevertheless, their development was similar to that of the major Italian cities. In 1348 the city was severely weakened by the plague. In addition, war losses and bloody family feuds troubled people. In 1352 the city came under the protection of Florence. Its heyday, during which it gained prosperity through the cultivation of saffron, lasted for a hundred and sixty years. In the late Middle Ages, the Via Francigena finally lost its importance to such an extent that the city, which a few years earlier had had to enact laws against excessive luxury, became more and more impoverished. Today it seems as if time has stood still in San Gimignano 1563. The Renaissance and Baroque left almost no traces. The city now lives from the countless tourists who want to admire its picturesque sights.
Culture and sights
Saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, and the famous Vernaccia, a renowned white wine that has been cultivated since 1200, are still among the specialties today. The inhabitants of San Gimignano not only live from tourism, but also from handicrafts and antiques. Both in and outside the city there are countless hotels and holiday apartments that attract numerous visitors every year.
Of particular importance is the cathedral square, which has a large number of architectural gems:
- the Romanesque cathedral, the old Palazzo del Podestà with its tower, which served as a prison in the Middle Ages and now houses the theater
- the Palazzo Comunale, which served as the residence of the mayor
- the art gallery with its works from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries.
Also not to be missed is the ascent of the already mentioned Torre Grossa, which offers a breathtaking view over the Elsa Valley to the Apuan Alps and the mountains of Pistoia.
The Palace of the Propositura between the Duomo and the Palazzo Comunale is known for works such as the Loggia of the Annunciation.
The Piazza della Cisterna owes its name to the octagonal cistern in its center. It is also surrounded by numerous impressive towers and buildings.