The Tuscan town of San Gimignano has medieval architecture and art, and modern sculpture too.
I had always wanted to visit San Gimignano in Tuscany. Known as “Medieval Manhattan” and “The City of the Beautiful Towers”, it had been on my list of places to visit for a long time.
Now finally I was heading through the Tuscan countryside waiting with bated breath to see the towers appear on the horizon. I had been warned that driving in the narrow streets of San Gimignano was not an experience for the fainthearted so I parked outside the walls and walked into the centre to find my hotel. Apart from looking forward to exploring its narrow, medieval streets I had another good reason to be visiting San Gimignano: I was meeting up with my friend Christine. Her husband, Maurizio, is a sculptor and she had promised to show me his work, which is dotted all around the town.
Originally an Etruscan village, San Gimignano was named after the Bishop of Modena, who, it is said, saved it from Attila the Hun. It became a comune in 1199 and prospered because of its location on the Via Francigena, the pilgrimage path that leads from Canterbury to Rome. It became popular for prominent families to try to outdo their neighbours by building a higher tower in order to prove that they were more wealthy and powerful.
In 1348 plague wiped out a lot of the population and weakened the local economy, leading to the town’s submission to Florence in 1353.
Walking through the narrow streets it was like going back in time. As I turned the corner into Piazza della Cisterna to find my hotel, the sight took my breath away. Here was the location of scenes I had watched many times in my favourite film, Tea with Mussolini.
Once settled I was eager to explore. Piazza della Cisterna, where my hotel was situated, is named after the 13th-century cistern in its centre. The cistern seemed to be a popular focal point of the square with visitors sitting on the steps admiring their surroundings.
In the corner of the piazza I saw a place that I definitely wanted to investigate. The Gelateria Dondoli is owned and run by the former gelato world champion, Sergio Dondoli, a member of the Italian Ice Cream World Championship team. A couple of his specialities are Crema di Santa Fina (saffron ice cream) and Vernaccia sorbet.
Round the corner from Piazza della Cisterna is the Piazza del Duomo, where you can find the Collegiata (the Duomo, which is so-called because of the college of priests that ran it). From the outside it looks very plain, but once you go in you are greeted by a wonderful array of frescoes. Especially beautiful are the ones by Bartolo di Fredi which depict stories from the Old Testament and are like a huge medieval comic strip. The frescoes in the nave by Taddeo di Bartolo are gruesome depictions of the Final Judgement. The Chapel of Santa Fina has some touching frescoes of scenes of the life of a revered saint of San Gimignano who had a serious illness as a girl and chose to spend the rest of her days lying on a wooden board. According to legend, yellow violas blossomed from the board at the moment of her death.
Next to the Collegiata are the Palazzo Comunale and the Torre Grossa. The 12th-century Palazzo Comunale is the home of the Camera del Podesta, which has some slightly risque frescoes of a pair of newlyweds bathing together then climbing into bed. If you are feeling energetic, climb to the top of the Torre Grossa up the 218 steps. I did and it was well worth the effort to get a bird’s eye view of San Gimignano and the countryside surrounding it.