San Gimignano is an Italian town of 7.743 inhabitants in the province of Siena in Tuscany.
For the characteristic medieval architecture of its historic center it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The San Gimignano site, despite some nineteenth and twentieth century restorations, is mostly intact in the thirteenth and fourteenth century aspect and is one of the best examples in Europe of urban organization of the municipal age.
The medieval town, which today attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world, is therefore almost identical to medieval San Gimignano. Unfortunately, of the 72 towers (one for each wealthy family) built in the Middle Ages, today only 13 remain. Despite this, the effect for those arriving from the Tuscan hill and suddenly seeing the silhouette of the village appear is simply exciting. San Gimignano suffers from mass tourism hit and run, with groups that arrive in the city, cross it quickly and then leave again. San Gimignano, on the other hand, is a small jewel that must be discovered slowly.
In the Middle Ages the city was located on one of the routes of the Via Francigena, which Sigerico, archbishop of Canterbury, traveled between 990 and 994 and which for him represented the XIX stage (Mansio) of his return journey from Rome to England. Sigerico named it Sce Gemiane, signaling the village also as an intersection point with the road between Pisa and Siena.
Let’s start our journey throught the beauties of this gem of Tuscany!
The church of Sant’Agostino
The church of Sant’Agostino is a Catholic place of worship in the historic center of San Gimignano, in the province of Siena, in the Archdiocese of Siena-Colle di Val d’Elsa-Montalcino.
Adjacent to the church stands the Augustinian Convent and a fifteenth-century cloister: in these rooms until 1983 the ornithological collection donated to the municipality of San Gimignano by the Marquise Marianna Panciatichi Ximenes of Aragon Paulucci in 1918 was housed and now exhibited in the church of Quercecchio.
Started in 1280 and probably finished by 1298, entirely made of brick, it is simple and austere, with Gothic windows that mark the sides, crowned at the top by a frame of trefoil arches.
The church has characteristics derived from both Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The main facade is open only by a portal and an eye with a frame decorated in terracotta. Usually you enter the church through the door that opens on the right side.
The church owns many jewels, starting from the Chapel of San Bartolo with the altar by Benedetto da Maiano. The vault of the church was frescoed by Sebastiano Mainardi and depicts the doctors of the Church (Ambrogio, Agostino, Girolamo and Gregorio) while the majolica floor is the work of Andrea della Robbia. The two masterpieces of the church are the Coronation of Maria del Pollaiolo, placed on the main altar.
Located in the middle of the nave is the fresco with San Sebastiano with devotees by Benozzo Gozzoli, completed on July 28, 1464. The saint is represented in an iconography far from tradition, which proposes him as a naked young man, tied to a tree or to a column and pierced by arrows. Benozzo Gozzoli, on the other hand, portrayed him dressed, with a large cloak supported by angels, below which the population gathered in prayer, seeking protection from the plague – caused by the arrows that God the Father, angry, hurls from above.
To intercede for the population there are also the Son and the Virgin, with uncovered breasts. This fresco was followed by a second copy, present on the counter-facade of the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta, in which the martyrdom of the saint is instead proposed according to traditional iconography.
Cathedral of San Gimignano
The collegiate basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, also known as the cathedral of San Gimignano is the main Catholic place of worship in San Gimignano, home of the homonymous parish entrusted to the clergy of the archdiocese of Siena-Colle di Val d’Elsa-Montalcino.
Located in Piazza del Duomo, it is at the top of a wide staircase from which the western side of the square dominates. Perhaps erected in 1056 and certainly consecrated in 1148 it was first restored in 1239 and then enlarged in 1460 on a project by Giuliano da Maiano.
The bare facade is the result of the thirteenth-century arrangement and then it has been transformed several times over the centuries with the opening of the two side doors and circular windows. The interior with three naves divided by columns recalls the style of the Casentino parish churches; the naves were covered by vaults in the 14th century, in the 15th century Giuliano da Maiano planned the extension of the cruise and the presbytery and built the chapels of the Conception and of Santa Fina.
All the walls and vaults are covered with frescoes made by various artists and mainly by Lippo Memmi and Bartolo di Fredi. During the Second World War the church and its frescoes suffered considerable damage, repaired by repeated restoration campaigns.
In December 1932 Pope Pius XI elevated it to the dignity of a minor basilica.
Divided into three naves, the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta has some masterpieces on the walls. On the upper part of the counter-façade there is the Martyrdom of San Sebastiano di Benozzo Gozzoli while in the central part the extraordinary Universal Judgment of Taddeo di Bartolo. Along the right wall are the Stories of the New Testament, by the pupils of Simone Martini, and on the left Stories of the Old Testament by Bartolo di Fredi. The transept hides two other treasures: the polychrome wooden Crucifix of 1200 and the Chapel of Santa Fina.
The Chapel of Santa Fina in San Gimignano
Santa Fina from San Gimignano did not live an easy life. After the death of his mother he decided to live to death by praying lying on a wooden table. According to legend, St. Gregory the Great announced her death and therefore eternal life on the day of the saint’s feast.
The chapel of Santa Fina is located at the bottom of the right aisle of the collegiate church of San Gimignano and the relics of Santa Fina da San Gimignano are preserved there. Famous work of the Florentine Renaissance, it was designed by Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano in 1468, but is above all famous for Domenico Ghirlandaio’s cycle of frescoes of 1475. The dating is based on the inscription on the sculptural altar, in which it is invited to look the miracles of the saint on the walls: at that date the frescoes must have been already finished or in any case in an advanced state.
The saint is buried under the altar which also acts as a monumental tomb, the work of Benedetto da Maiano of 1475, decorated with reliefs with scenes from the life of the saint. The altar is surmounted by a tabernacle with a fine painting on leather of his portrait, the work of the Sienese Manno di Bandino of the early fourteenth century. The urn above the tabernacle contained the bones of the saint until 1738. The upper lunette is decorated with a Madonna and Child between two angels.
The side walls were frescoed by Domenico Ghirlandaio around 1475, in conjunction with the works of Benedetto da Maiano, so the two artists found themselves having to portray the same subjects each according to their own art, sculptural or pictorial. An inscription on the tomb seems to allude to the stimulating comparison between the two artists: “MIRACULA QUAERIS? / PERLEGE QUAE PARIES VIVAQUE SIGNA DOCET / MCCCCLXXV” (“Ask for miracles? / Observe those that the walls and the lively images illustrate / 1475”).
These frescoes are particularly significant in the painter’s history, because they were his first important commission that has come down to us, where we begin to see a mature autonomous style, at the basis of the artistic success of the following decade. It is a clearly twofold style: intimate, collected and unadorned in the case of the Annunciation of death, grandiose and solemn in the Funeral, as evidenced by the monumental classical apse of the background.
Civic Museums of San Gimignano
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 inspired by cavalry scenes by Azzo di Masetto.
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, inspired both by profane love and by weddings: very, very interesting. Although some areas have suffered the inevitable consequences of the passage of time (the whole room has been frescoed), these scenes are a faithful representation of medieval times, of the customs and customs of the time, and the colors have remained impressively intact.
Then we arrive at 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. Among the best known artists who made some of these panels are Filippino Lippi, Benozzo Gozzoli, Benedetto da Maiano and Pinturicchio. Take your time to appreciate the paintings of San Gimignano and Santa Fina, in which both Saints protect the city of San Gimignano in their arms.
Last but not least, a visit to wonderful Torre Grossa, cannot be missed. Torre Grossa, which with its 54 meters high is the tallest tower in the city. Not being equipped with an elevator, be prepared to climb 218 steps, with all the necessary calm and tranquillity. Currently the tower is equipped with a modern steel staircase, but try to imagine how it was at the time, made with wooden planks and steps – I get dizzy at the thought of it! The view that can be enjoyed from the top of the tower is really worth the whole hard climb.
The fortress of Montestaffoli
The fortress of Montestaffoli is a fortress built in the 14th century in the municipality of San Gimignano.
The hill of Montestaffoli was, in the early Middle Ages, the seat of a fortress owned by the bishop of Volterra, which had political jurisdiction over the settlement. Here a market was established which enjoyed a thriving economy, thanks to exchanges with neighbouring cities (San Gimignano was in fact at the crossroads between via Francigena, on the north-south axis, and the road that connected Pisa with Siena).
If we exclude the news of some buildings attested in the statutes of 1314, we must wait until 1325 to be sure of constructions on the mountain (a house with cloister and gardens purchased by the Dominican friars), probably where, since 1329, a convent was built that in 1332 was already partially finished. The complex was short-lived: dismantled in 1353, it was transferred to the Bishop’s castle to make way for the Florentine fortress, as per the agreement signed at the act of submission of San Gimignano to Florence.
The formwork, finished in 1358, had a pentagonal shape with irregular sides, with towers at the corners and an access door to the village with a wash-bridge; inside there was a cistern for water supply and a three-storey high building where the castle man resided.
After the dismantling order issued by Cosimo I in 1555, in the aftermath of the Sienese capitulation, the fortress became the property of the Marzi Medici (1567), to pass in the early nineteenth century to the Marquis Tempi and, in 1847, to the Marquise Maria Ottavia Vettori.
In 1857, Prince Ferdinando Strozzi bought it to give it to his daughter as a gift for the wedding with Count Francesco Guicciardini, whose family remained until 1978 (the year of expropriation by the Municipality and the establishment of the Rocca public park).
The area and the public park are home to exhibitions and installations of contemporary art, while the Villa Guicciardini, which dominates the brick-paved space in front, houses the Vernaccia di San Gimignano Wine Museum. The space inside the formwork is used as an outdoor cinema for the projection of shows as part of the summer festival.
Piazza della Cisterna
Piazza della Cisterna is one of the most beautiful squares in San Gimignano and the magical atmosphere that you breathe in it really seems to kidnap and take visitors back in time.
Built in the thirteenth century, it maintains its original characteristics as a medieval square according to the disposition of the Ghibelline municipalities. It stood at the intersection of the two main roads of the time, the Via Francigena and the road that went from Pisa to Siena.
Piazza della Cisterna is in the shape of an inverted triangle and is enclosed between noble houses, medieval towers, taverns and shops. Once it had the function of hosting the market, festivals and city tournaments. The current name of the square derives from the octagonal travertine-shaped cistern for public use which was built at its center in 1273. Previously it was called Piazza delle Taverne because of the numerous taverns where travellers stopped to rest. Subsequently, for a large tree that was there, it was called Piazza dell’Olmo.
The square has the shape of an inverted triangle with a slight natural slope and is connected to the nearby Piazza del Duomo by an open passage. The pavement is made of herringbone bricks and on the sides there is an extraordinary curtain of noble houses and medieval towers.
As soon as we arrive in the square our gaze is captured by the well located in its center. The cistern was built in 1273 when a water and road system was built in San Gimignano, and was intended for a safer and faster supply of water by the people. Even today, the furrows left by the ropes with which the jugs were pulled to draw water are visible.
Numerous towers stand on Piazza della Cisterna: Torre dei Becci , Torre dei Cugnanesi, Torre del Diavolo, Palazzo dei Cortesi, Twin Towers of the Ardinghelli and the tower of Palazzo Pellari.
The most important buildings are located closer to the well. Palazzo Razzi, with its splendid mullioned windows and Palazzo Tortoli – Treccani, characterized by a double row of mullioned windows with pointed arches enriched by slender marble columns.
The Museum of Sacred Art
The Museum of Sacred Art of San Gimignano is located in the ancient Dormitory of the Chaplains and collects the works coming from the Collegiate Church and from convents and churches in the area, including paintings, sculptures, terracotta, fabrics and silver.
The Museum of sacred art of San Gimignano is spread over two floors and preserves works of painting, sculpture and minor arts, very valuable, coming from churches and convents in the area, but above all from the Collegiate. It is accessed from the square, to the left of the Basilica. From the entrance, where an oval stone stoup, decorated with rosettes and lozenges, from the monastery of S. Vittore (XV-XVI century) is walled, you enter the Chapel. Above the access door, in the architrave there is the wording “OPA” (Opera del Duomo).
The chapel, a small room implanted with terracotta squares and an altar of squared stones with a travertine canteen, houses few works: a high-relief crucifix of fine workmanship, in polychrome wood, coming from the Collegiate Church, probably a work by the Florentine school dating back to the early years of the fifteenth century and an imposing carved wooden chair (late XIV-early XV century) called “della Balia” because the nurse sat there during the rite of baptism.
The 14th century wooden sculptures of the Annunciation Angel and the Madonna are splendid, as well as the panel by Bartolo di Fredi depicting the Madonna della Rosa, a surviving fragment of a triptych, one of the most refined works of the Sienese painter, who comes from the parish church of San Biagio in Cusona.
In the same room you can admire the large altarpiece by Fra Paolino da Pistoia which depicts the Madonna and Child with the saints.
Also noteworthy is a polychrome wooden statue depicting Sant’Antonio Abate, from the early fifteenth century, by Francesco da Valdambrino, but also the Crucifix with saints, which is a detached fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli.
In the hall of sacred furnishings you can admire a precious enameled cross from the beginning of the 14th century and other very fine examples of orifices, while in the hall of vestments there are preserved frontals, planets and other liturgical vestments of very high craftsmanship of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but also the Frontal of the Golden Doves, a very rare example of the textile art of the fifteenth century.