If you have the luxury of choosing from a range of Tuscany toursmake sure that the hilltop town of San Gimignano is firmly on the itinerary. The Towers of San Gimignano make this historic settlement impossible to miss, standing tall in the skyline as a fitting tribute to Tuscany’s magnificent architectural and artistic tradition. |
The early history of San Gimignano is vibrant and steeped in legend. Folklore traces the foundation of the town back to 63BC when two patrician brothers, fleeing their implication in the Catiline conspiracy in Rome, set up shelter in Valdelsa. Meanwhile, upon the collapse of the Roman Empire and during the subsequent barbarian invasions, St Gimignano is said to have miraculously appeared on the city walls to repel the attacking hordes.
The First Mention
The first recorded mention of San Gimignano in historical documents comes in the year 929. At this time the settlement was still a village along the Via Francigena and politically fell under the domain of the bishop of Volterra, who resided in the nearby castle at Poggio della Torre.
Given its enviable location on one of the most important pilgrimage routes of the medieval era, it is no surprise that the town flourished during this period. Via Francigena had originally been traced by the Lombards and became a key route via which pilgrims travelling from France visited Rome. (You can consider tracing some of the footsteps of these medieval pilgrims by joining any Tuscany tours that incorporate this historic town.)
Enriched by a steady stream of visitors, San Gimignano took off during the first three centuries, its newfound wealth and fame impacting the town’s inhabitants in a way that would come to define its architectural evolution.
Reach for the Sky
Encouraged by the audience, the competing families of San Gimignano strove to outdo each other with bigger and better displays of wealth, notably via their residences and palaces. Due to the tight confines of the town walls, the best way to do this, however, was to express one’s power by building high, triggering an informal contest as to who could build the tallest and most magnificent tower. Constrained only by a law that prevented building any higher than the town’s main communal tower, Rognosa, these medieval skyscrapers quickly began to spring up across the town, with no less than 72 in existence at the peak of the craze.
The first towers housed narrows rooms with few openings and thick walls, and typically comprised living quarters on the upper levels and a workshop on the ground floor. During the subsequent centuries, the towers evolved primarily to improve the quality of living, with larger indoor spaces and wider openings and balconies favoured.
Rising Above the Plague
The plague in 1348 would bring an unfortunate end to San Gimignano’s era of prosperity until the 19th century, when it became revitalised as a tourist attraction. Today’s historic centre of the town is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and 14 of the town’s towers remain, the most impressive of which is the Torre Grossa. If you’ve chosen one of the Tuscany toursthat includes a stop in San Gimignano, make sure to pay it a visit and enjoy its breath-taking views.
Rose Magers is an Australian-born Italophile and the founder of ArtViva. With an international reputation for excellence and creativity, ArtViva are at the forefront of escorted day tours in Italy. Rose has indulged her own passion for history and the arts by designing an innovative range of exceptional small group Tuscany tours and experiences, from hiking and biking through the Tuscan countryside to unforgettable villa visits.
Related Articles -