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San Gimignano, Medieval Manhattan

One of the most famous places in Tuscany, this picturesque village is built on a hill with spectacular views of cypresses stretching to the horizon and its vineyards spread over the valley below. The Vernaccia wine produced here is one of the most valued in all of Tuscany and Italy.

The iconic image of a walled town with highrise towers gives San Gimignano the nickname “medieval Manhattan”. In reality, the skyline of most towns in medieval Italy were spiky with towers, as it was the custom of wealthier people to wall themselves off from their rivals and the dangers of the mob. San Gimignano just happens to have preserved more of its towers. Today there are fourteen, but in its heyday there were over seventy – you can see what the town originally looked like in the SanGimignano1300 museum.

Four squares form the heart of the town, from there it is easy to visit the various churches with their frescoes by Pinturicchio, Filippo Lippi and others. A great thing to do is go up to the top of the Torre del Podestà, an impressive fifty-four meters high, to see the town in its wonderful setting.

The beauty of San Gimignano has inspired artists to visit since the romantic 1800s. Franco Zeffirelli used the town as a backdrop for his movie about St. Francis “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”. Zeffirelli used San Gimignano again for parts of his movie “Tea with Mussolini”.

Winter is a bit blustery but almost any other time of the year is a joy as the land has so many colors. Photographer’s paradise …. Interesting places nearby include Siena and Volterra.

As soon as you step foot in San Gimignano, you will feel the absolute peace and beauty of a place still free of the steel and concrete of modern life. No wonder the world holds San Gimignano to its heart.

A little bit of history

San Gimignano started its life as an Etruscan village. It must have been a small country town in Roman times, but no record remains – probably it was lucky enough to be far removed from the turmoil of Empire. We hear of it again in the 900s, registered as taking its name from the bishop who legend tells defended the town from the Huns in the 400s.

During the early Middle Ages the village flourished, thanks mostly to the natural wealth of the productive countryside all around it. The medieval merchants of San Gimignano wanted to be free to do what they did best, so it was always involved in fractious arguments with its neighbors and local factions, hence all those defensive towers.

The great Black Death in 1348 so reduced the population that San Gimignano fell under the control of Florence, so the rest of its history belongs to that city.

Article © Carl Ottersen | Photograph © Wikipedia Commons