Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Real Italy: San Gimignano

When you'll arrive in San Gimignano and walk through the ancient gates, you'll think the time had stopped many centuries ago. Inside the town-walls everything had preserved its Medieval shape, with the exception of the hotels where you'll find all the modern comforts and the restaurants where you'll taste the best Tuscan cousine with its very good wine.

Distance from SIENA, nearest big city: 36 km
Altitude: 324 meters above sea level
Nearest airport: FIRENZE
Train connections: easily accessible from SIENA and FIRENZE
Zip code: 53033
Telephone: dial +39.577 before the number you want to call

The town of San Giminiano is probably of Etruscan origin. The first legend about the town can be dated back to the Roman period when Silvio and his followers are said to have settled here leaving Roma after Catilina’s conspiracy. Therefore Silvia, the ancient name of the town, probably came from Silvio. The town was later named San Giminiano after St. Giminiano, bishop of Modena, to thank him for helping its people to fight the Barbarians. After the Roman period the town was ruled by the Longobards and according to tradition King Desiderio stayed in the Pesciolini Tower. In 1227 the town had 7000 inhabitants and it was the most important producer of saffron that was exported to Pisa, Lucca, Genova and also to France and the Low Countries. In the first half of the XIII century the most important buildings of the town were erected and the squares, with their fountains, were also planned.

In the XIV century the town developed in trades and enjoyed a period of great splendour in poetry, art and architecture. The plague of 1348 caused the decadence of the town which decided to submit itself to Firenze in 1353. For this reason, San Giminiano lost most of its ancient autonomy even if many artists continued to work there. In the XVI century the town completely lost its prestige and splendour. Here the plague raged again in 1464 and 1631, starting a period of decadence for the town: the town-walls fell to pieces, the Medieval mansions fell into disrepaire and no one had enough money to stop all this, as the richest and most important families had left the town because of the plague. Consequently, the architectural and artistic heritage remained untouched for four centuries.

The layout of the town preserves its medieval plan with the town-walls and the ancient gateways. The older town-walls were destroyed by Firenze and the ones you see today were erected starting from 1262. They are still very well preserved. Nowadays you can enter the town only on foot. We recommend you start your visit at the ancient gate of San Giovanni:

The Gate of San Giovanni was erected in 1262. This gate, surmounted by a guard-room, is characterized by a peculiar segmental arch, an architectural feature typical of the nearby town of Siena.

Through this gate you enter the town and find yourselves in Via San Giovanni, an important street since ancient times. It used to be followed by travellers in the Middle Ages and still today it is full of shops and beautiful mansions very well preserved. Walking down this street you come across the Church of San Francesco on the right side. Unfortunately, only its Romanesque fa硤e still survives. It has a big arch in the centre and two smallest ones on each side, all supported by columns. The influence of the Romanesque style of Pisa is clear.

In Via San Giovanni you can also see many ancient mansions: on the right-hand side is Palazzo Pratellesi, which now houses the Town Library where some XV century books are kept. The building, which was once a nunnery, is characterized by mullioned-windows made of brickwork outside and by precious wooden ceilings and frescoes inside.
Continuing your walk you come across the tall Cugnanesi Tower and the Becci Tower with the homonimous arch, which was one of the gates of the older town walls. Through this arch you enter Piazza della Cisterna.

Piazza della Cisterna (Cistern Square)

This square together with the nearby “Piazza della Cattedrale” is the hub of the town. It has a particular triangular plan that follows the slope of the ground. Its visual centre is the cistern built here in 1237 and enlarged in 1346. On the west side of the square are the Pellari Tower and Mansion and the Twin Ardinghelli Towers. On the other side are the buildings which once belonged to the powerful Cattani family and the Lupi Tower. On the third side are the Cetti Mansion and the Tortoli Mansion with beautiful mullioned-windows and a 'cropped' Tower, i.e. a tower whose top has been pulled down. In ancient times the square was used for open-air markets and popular feasts. Its fish-boned floor made of brickwork is well preserved. From Piazza della Cisterna you can continue your visit in the adjacent Piazza del Duomo.

Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square)

This square contains the most important public buildings and mansions of San Giminiano, which, like those in Piazza della Cisterna, were erected by the richest and most important local families. On the right-hand side of the church is the Town Hall with a tower and a loggia with three arcades. The Town Hall was erected starting from 1288. The loggia was erected ten years later and the tower in 1311. During the XIV century the Town Hall was enlarged and the loggia was decorated. This loggia was never used and in the XVI century it became a porch. It was again converted into a loggia in 1934. A cistern built in 1360 is in the inner courtyard. From here you can go up to the offices and the Museum. On the opposite side of the Collegiate Church is Palazzo del Podest༯font> with the grand Rognosa Tower. On the ground floor of Palazzo del Podest࠴here is a loggia, under which used to be the doors to the town granary. Near this building, at the beginning of Via San Matteo, stands the Chigi Tower, first called Useppi Tower. However, the most interesting and imposing building in this square is the Cathedral.

The Cathedral

This Romanesque building was erected in the XII century and was later altered. This church, first dedicated to San Giminiano, bishop of Modena, was dedicated to St. Mary in 1575, after it had been enlarged. In the church different styles are mixed, such as the Romanesque, the Gothic and the Neoclassical styles. This is not the oldest parish church in town. The oldest one, dedicated to San Nicole was outside the town walls, where the “Ospedale degli Innocenti” was later built. The church was then moved to the present site, where it faces the most important street of the town. The facade you see today was erected in 1239 by Matteo Brunised. It has two doors: women used to enter through the door on the right, while men through the one on the left, called door of San Giovanni.

The large staircase was made with stone from Castelvecchio by Ranieri da Colle in 1299 and remade in the following centuries. The plan has three naves covered by cross-vaults. The inside was remade in the middle of the XV century by Giuliano da Maiano. It is very rich with works of art, like the chapel dedicated to San Fina, which is an interesting example of the Renaissance art in Tuscany. It was made by Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano in 1468, and wonderfully painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio. In the right nave you can see the paintings by Barna da Siena, representing the New Testament, while those with the Old Testament, painted by Bartolo di Fredi, are in the left nave. Until 1462 the church had a chapel dedicated to a saint for each column.

You can continue your visit of the town by walking down Via San Matteo, the most important street where a lot of Medieval buildings are. On the left-hand side are the twin Salvucci Towers and on the other side is the Pettini Tower. If you walk through the double arch of the Cancelleria, near the homonimous building, you will see the Church of San Bartolo.

Church of San Bartolo

It has a Romanesque brickwork fa硤e, with two orders of arches. It was erected at the end of the XIII century and was originally dedicated to San Matteo. The inside has only one nave without any kind of decoration. If you take the street starting in front of this church, you can go to the Rocca. It was built in the highest part of the town, where the Dominican Convent was, under Florentine rule. The fortification was made of walls 285 metres tall with five big pentagonal towers, in which the guards stayed. The Rocca became a public park in 1978.

Coming back and continuing your walk along Via San Matteo, amongst beautiful and very well preserved Medieval mansions, you’ll get to another town gate, Porta San Matteo, erected in 1262 following the architectural fashion of the nearby Siena. If you don’t walk through the gate but turn right into Via Cellolese instead, you will arrive in Piazza San Agostino, where the homonimous church stands.

Church of San Agostino

It was erected at the end of the XIII century. It has a simple brickwork shape outside and only a big nave with chapels on the same side of the choir inside. The church must have been originally frescoed, but was probably painted after the plague, as this was the custom at that time. The nave is covered by trusses, while the choir and the chapels are covered by vaults. In this church there are some important works of art, such as the altar made by Benedetto da Maiano and some frescoes by Gozzoli. The chapel to the left of the main altar is dedicated to San Bartolo. It is a work by Benedetto da Maiano. Here, under the altar, lie the remains of the saint. The chapel on the right-hand side is dedicated to San Guglielmo. At the beginning of the XIX century the paintings on the two walls of the chapel were brought to light and it was discovered that they had been made by Bartolo di Fredi around 1374. They have great importance in the field of figurative art. On the main altar you can see a great painting by Piero del Pollaiolo, made in 1483, which is considered the best work this great artist ever made. The frescoes of the choir were made by Benozzo Gozzoli with the help of Giusto d’Andrea. They represent 17 stories from the life of Saint Augustine.

In Piazza San Agostino there is also another small church, the Church of San Pietro in Forliano. It is of very ancient origins: it existed already in 1220. It was restored in 1918 when the windows and the rose-window in the fa硤e were opened again and the brick decorations were restored. The inside has one nave covered with a trussed roof. This church is very rarely opened to the public because it belongs to the Diocese of Volterra.

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