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Top Ten Things to Do

  • The towers alone make a visit to this medieval time capsule worthwhile, but San Gimignano abounds in quirky sights. Make sure to stay after the crowds have gone. As for the museums, note that one combined ticket allows access to them all.


    Web: www.sangimignanomusei.it

  • 1. Exploring the towers of power

    The tower-studded skyline is one of the most spectacular sights in Tuscany. In its heyday, the city had a total of 72 towers, only 14 of which remain. Tower-houses were castle-residences serving as both warehouses and fortresses. These were self-sufficient enclaves symbolising the wealth of the feudal nobles or prosperous merchants and their scorn for civil authority. The arrival of the Black Death in 1348 put an end to these towers of power. It also put an end to prosperity in San Gimignano until the 20th century. The city faded, compounded by a lack of political autonomy as it fell under Florentine control. In short, San Gimignano languished as an economic backwater, by passed by the Renaissance – for which we are eternally grateful.

    The remaining towers are concentrated around the Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Cisterna, which is teeming with tourists all year round. The tall defensive towers dominate the two main squares at the highest point of the town and doubled as status symbols, to flaunt the owners’ wealth and social standing. An additional theory holds that the towers were also linked to the textile trade, which helped make San Gimignano rich. As there was little room at ground level, some towers may have been built to house valuable dyed fabrics. However, the consensus is that these imperious towers began as defensive works but swiftly became status symbols, much like a Manhattanite skyscraper today.

    Address: Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Cisterna, San Gimignano
    Web: www.visitsangimignano.com

  • 2. La Collegiata – a church frescoed to perfection

    Confusingly also known as the Duomo, the Collegiata is the most impressive church in town.  This gorgeous Romanesque church will also detain you longest as every patch of wall space is covered in frescoes. The mysticism of the spot is rivalled by its sense of intimacy, from the Tuscan banded arches to the graceful columns that support them. The north aisle displays Bartolo di Fredi’s dramatic scenes from the Old Testament (1367), while the opposite aisle shows Lippo Memmi’s Life of Christ (1333–41). The nave is devoted to The Last Judgement by Taddeo di ¬Bartolo (1393–6). Contrast these Gothic-style narrative paintings with Ghirlan¬daio’s lyrical Renaissance frescoes (1475) on the life of a local saint, in the chapel of Santa Fina. This beloved saint is remembered every March, with the blossoming of yellow violets, flowers said to symbolise Santa Fina, in the local countryside.

    Address: Piazza del Duomo, San Gimignano
    Web: www.duomosangimignano.it

  • 3. Torre Campatelli –inside a true tower-house

    This intriguing tower-house was home to the last resident of an illustrious Florentine clan. In 2005 Lydia Campatelli left the tower to the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), the respected Italian heritage body. Sandwiched between 18th-century townhouses, this 13th-century tower is the only one in town to have preserved its original layout and hollowed-out interior. Inside, it looks just as its last owner left it. There’s a display of art by Guido Peyron, Lydia Campatelli’s uncle, along with memorabilia linked to this Florentine merchant and landowning family. Apart from the pleasures of exploring an antique-filled tower house, enjoy the feeling of exploring a 19th-century Tuscan home, reflecting the upper-middle class tastes of the day.

    Best of all, lap up the impressive audio-visual presentation, the Thousand Years of San Gimignano, outlining the history of the city (presented in English and Italian). The presentation reveals how the medieval skyscrapers signified the civilising effect of urban living, with the signori (feudal lords) encouraged to relinquish their castles for city life. There are broader historical points made about Tuscan medieval history. The borgo, or fortified city, also became home to landowners and merchants, and became a symbol of safety during the city-state conflicts.

    Address: Via di San Giovanni 15, San Gimignano
    Web: www.fondoambiente.it/luoghi/torre-e-casa-campatelli

  • 4. Torre Grossa – for medieval vertigo

    The Palazzo Comunale (also known as Palazzo del Podesta) is the forbidding fortress at the centre of city life since the days when Dante came on an ambassadorial visit from Florence. Ideally, explore both the frescoed town hall (see below) and climb the tower. But if you’re feeling lazy and it’s a perfect, windless day, then you might just like to focus on the climb to the top. Completed in 1311, the town hall tower, the Torre Grossa, is the tallest in the town (at 54 metres/175 feet) and the only one you can climb. If you take it slowly, the metallic staircase is pretty easy to climb, with only the final part providing any difficulty. The views of the Val d’Elsa from the top are spectacular, as is the bird’s eye view of San Gimignano itself.

    Address: Piazza del Duomo, San Gimignano
    Web: www.sangimignanomusei.it

  • 5. Palazzo Comunale – culture and a climb to the top

    The Palazzo Comunale, known by different local names, has been the seat of local government since medieval times. This imposing, fortified building dominates the square today, as surely as it has always dominated the lives of local citizens. The Tuscan town hall, with accompanying bell-tower, the Torre Grossa (see above) encapsulates a civic ideal. In the past, it promised a degree of democracy to the merchant guilds, the nobility and the people. On the first floor of the Town Hall is the frescoed Sala di Dante (also known as the Sala del Consiglio), recording Dante’s visit in 1299. On display is a gorgeous array of medieval art, notably Lippo Memmi's early-14th-century Maestà: the enthroned Virgin and Child is surrounded by angels, saints and dignitaries, including the kneeling podestà, the town’s leading magistrate of the time. The floor above displays moral lessons on good and bad government, much as in Siena.

    The second floor houses the Pinacoteca, the Picture Gallery, which features works dating from the 13th to the 15th century. Among the museum’s many good paintings is a set of early 14th-century frescoes by Memmo di Filippuccio – rare in that they depict secular rather than religious scenes. Known as the Wedding Frescoes, these scenes show a young bride and groom sharing a bath and climbing into their nuptial bed – an intimate glimpse into the private life of medieval Italy.

    Address: Piazza del Duomo, San Gimignano
    Web: www.sangimignanomusei.it

  • 6. Sant’Agostino – for magical frescoes

    Every church in San Gimignano offers some reward but perhaps the best is Sant’Agostino. Set in the northern end of town, close to Porta San Matteo, this church is a tribute to St Augustine. The barnlike church is unadorned on the outside but is anything but on the inside. Designed in Romanesque style with Gothic elements, the church was begun in 1280 and finished in 1298. The highlights are Benozzo Gozzoli’s faded frescoes on the Life of St Augustine (1465) around the chancel. You will find the same love of colour, rich clothing and exact portraiture as in Gozzoli’s other frescoes, notably in The Journey of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. Bring coins to activate the lights to see the frescoes behind the high altar. The church is still an integral part of life in San Gimignano, with both Mass and concerts held here.

    Address: Piazza Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano
    Web: www.sangimignano.com

  • 7. Walk the city walls to a wine-tasting

    Take a short walk along the city walls to la Rocca, the 14th-century fortress, before leaving town. This semi-restored fortress enjoys views over terraced gardens and olive groves winding down to the Vernaccia vineyards. These vineyards produce the celebrated white wine that was even mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Museo Vernaccia (Vernaccia Wine Museum) is the place to sample a range of local wines. Apart from the famous Vernaccia, you can taste or buy San Gimignano DOC wines (Rosso/red, Rosato/rose and sweet Vin Santo dessert wine). If you’re interested in wines from further afield, opt for Chianti DOCG wines, along with Toscana IGT wines. An audio-visual display celebrates the history of wine-making in the area.

    Address: Museo Vernaccia, La Rocca, via della Rocca, San Gimignano
    Web: www.sangimignanomuseovernaccia.com

  • 8. Polo Museale Santa Chiara – eclectic museum complex

    The former convent of Santa Chiara is now home to several museums. These are relatively minor museums, curiosities of sorts, but still worthwhile. The Museo Archeologico (Archaeological Museum) displays Etruscan and Roman finds, including bronze figurines and vivid mosaic tiles. Nearby, the Spezieria di Santa Fina is home to partially reconstructed pharmacy dating from the 15th-century. On display are ceramic-and-glass vessels designed for herbal remedies and healing lotions and potions. Upstairs, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art) features works by Italian artists. One combined ticket allows access to all museums.

    Address: Via di Via Folgore da San Gimignano, San Gimignano
    Web: www.sangimignanomusei.it

  • 9. Piazza della Cisterna – essence of San Gimignano

    The Piazza della Cisterna is a medieval time capsule, best appreciated after the hordes have gone home. This charming triangular square boasts a 13th-century well, which gives the square its name. The piazza is now just moody spot for a photo but once marked the junction between the Via Francigena pilgrimage route and the road leading from Pisa to Siena. This is still the prettiest piazza in town, paved with bricks in a herringbone design and flanked by medieval mansions and tower-houses dating from the 13th century. On one side stands the so-called `devil’s tower’ and the twin towers marking the residence of the Ardinghelli, the main Guelph family in the town.

    Address: Piazza della Cisterna, San Gimignano

  • 10. Museo della Tortura - medieval torture

    If your teenage children are torturing you for more bloodthirsty entertainment, consider the Museo della Tortura (Museum of Torture) just east of the Piazza della Cisterna. After too many churches, this disturbingly gruesome collection of medieval instruments of torture might catch your teenager’s imagination. It is, as is fitting, disturbing and provocative rather than entertaining.

    Address: Via di San Giovanni 125, San Gimignano
    Web: www.torturemuseum.it

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