Tuscan Treasures – II: San Gimignano

This medieval gem is not like anything you’ve ever seen. Some fifteen medieval towers dominate the horizon of this UNESCO World Heritage city, like giant Cyclopes casting their shadows over two elegant piazzas: Piazza della Cisterna (Cistern) and Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral). The obvious attraction here, other than the towers, is the magnificent Palazzo Comunale (Town Hall, 1298), with some fine works by Gozzoli, Lippo Memmi and other Renaissance masters. Having admired the collection, I climbed up the tower (as every tourist is expected to do).

The views from the Torre Grossa (54 meters) are breathtaking! Enjoying the panoramic view of this ‘medieval Manhattan’ as some cheesy guidebooks refer to it, I contemplated the green and blue matrix of distant fields and mountains. Then I turned my attention to Torre Rognosa, right across the piazza. Once the city’s highest tower (till Torre Gross was built in 1311), it stands on top of the old Palazzo del Podestà. Nearby, another palazzo stood with twin towers and an interesting story:
During the XII and XIII centuries, building a tower higher than the neighbour’s became some sort of a ‘national sport’! It was an exhibition of power and wealth, and eventually the small city became packed with over 70 such towers. In 1255, and to bring the frenzy to an end, it was decreed that no tower should be higher than the Torre Rognosa (51 meters), which belonged to one of the city’s most powerful families. Their rivals, however, had to do something about it, and they did. They built the twin towers (side-by-side) that, if placed one on top of the other, would exceed the Torre Rognosa in height!

It was time to visit the Duomo (Collegiata). The dazzling frescoes on the side walls make the basilica more of a ‘bible of the illiterate’: scenes from both the Old and the New Testaments cover the entire walls from side to side, while Memmi, Gozzoli and Ghirlandaio left their own marks clearly visible to the art lovers.
Back to Piaza della Cisterna, one could only join the long queues waiting for their fair share of the world’s best ice-cream at Gelateria Dondoli, where Chestnut, fig, Santa Fina (saffron cream) and other exotic choices never fail to surprise. Waiting for my turn, I had all the time I needed to admire the Piazza, its palaces (like Ridolfi and Pillari) and its towers, specially the mysterious Devil’s Tower, shrouded in myth.

Ice-cream in hand, I lazed in the shade of a tower, and slowly reminded myself of the city’s history: how it was saved from the huns, how it made fortunes thanks to the production of saffron (which is still omnipresent in the city’s cuisine) and to the Via Francigena (the pilgrimage route to Rome), and how it was hit hard by the plague and by coming under the Florentine dominion.

Via Francigena? That’s the next post. Stay tuned and enjoy the photos (you can click any of them to enlarge it).

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