Dwight Peck's personal Web site

Two weeks in Piemonte and Tuscany

in northwest Italy's worst weather in yonks


You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

We're spending eight days in Lucca, with time built in for sightseeing in the region. So now we've gathered for some . . .

Views of San Gimignano

After a fairly dispiriting drive through the less attractive Tuscan back roads, we're pleased to get up into the hills and fetch up in the carpark at the south end of San Gimignano.

Kristin charges the San Giovanni gate, one of the three imposing main gatehouses through the 13th century city walls.

Through the gate, this is the long north-south thoroughfare of the Via San Giovanni leading up into the centre of town. San Gimignano, the "city of beautiful towers", has been listed as a cultural property by the World Heritage Convention since 1990 -- presently a town of 7,000 residents, it evidently thrives on tourism now, as it did in the Middle Ages when it was a major stopping place for travellers along the Via Francigena pilgrimage route to Rome and the Holy Land from northern Europe.

On 21 November 2014, we're chilly but happily imagining what this street must be like in the summer tourist high season.

The Torre Grossa dominates the street. San Gimignano was built on a hilltop south of Florence, perhaps on the site of an Etruscan settlement, and may date from the 1st century BC. The town's name is vexed by traditional stories: St Geminianus was the 4th century Bishop of Modena who probably died in 397; nevertheless, he was venerated for having saved the city of Modena by heavenly intercession from Attila's marauding Huns in 452 (by hiding the city in an impenetrable fog) -- or perhaps he saved the city similarly from Totila's marauding Ostrogoths in about 550 -- and a cult of Geminianus worship grew up amongst the nervous cities of the region.

A church dedicated to St Geminianus was built on the hilltop here, and by the 6th century a walled village had grown up around it. From 929 onward it was ruled by the tight-fisted bishops of nearby Volterra.

On the right is the façade of the 12th century church of the Knights Hospitaller of St John, built to serve pilgrims en route to Rome or to Bari/Brindisi for transhipment on to the Holy Land.

A look back at the San Giovanni gate. Specializing in popular local products, like saffron and wine, the city traded widely and prospered, and by about 1200 it had set itself up as an independent commune administered by a podestà and had commenced some serious building programmes. In 1262 the main 2km city wall was constructed.

The top of San Giovanni street and the Arco de' Becci gateway into the central piazzas. As in many Italian cities, family clans came to dominate city politics and bred street violence at the drop of a Montague or Capulet hat; in this case, the Ardinghellis (of the Guelph persuasion) and the Salvuccis (Ghibellines), and their client families, kept civic life exciting for years and, amongst them all, they built 72 fortified tower houses from which to stare malevolently at one another's tower houses.

One of the three main piazzas on the hilltop, called the Piazza della Cisterna for the city well built here in about 1273, with the decorative structure on it from 1346 -- the square is ringed round with towers and palazzi from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Torre del Diavolo or Devil's Tower stands behind the cistern.

The Piazza della Cisterna, looking toward the Piazza del Duomo and the Rognosa Tower

Kristin and the Cisterna: where to next?

Looking back down from the Piazza towards the Arco de' Becci and San Giovanni Street

Towards the Piazza Duomo. As in many Italian cities, with the evolution to more orderly civic government in the 16th century or thereabouts (depending upon local conditions), the city administration ordered the demolition or truncating ["lopping"] of private fortified towers, and there are presently only 14 towers remaining in San Gimignano (we counted 11, but a lot depends upon definitions).

Towards the Piazza Duomo, with the Torri Ardinghelli of the Guelph-sympathizing Ardinghelli family. Following the devastation of the Black Death, in which half the city's population went to heaven abruptly, the city was signed up as a Florentine dependent in 1353, and the fortress the "Rocca" was built at the top of the hill to make sure that everything continued to run smoothly.

Towards the Piazza Duomo

Leaving the Piazza della Cisterna

The Collegiate Church in what is called the 'Piazza del Duomo', though San Gimigiano never had its own bishop.

The Palazzo Comunale, or city hall, is on the left, the 'Duomo' on the right, and the arch (topped by a statue of San Geminiano) leads into the Piazza of the Provost, with the cathedral's Loggia of the Baptistry and the 12th century "Prunello Fortress" dominating what were then the pre-13th century city walls.

The Romanesque Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta, or Collegiata, was consecrated by the then-Pope in 1148 on the site of a previous 10th century church. It was dedicated to St Geminianus and claims to have his relics here. The two east-facing doors open onto the side aisles and there is no main door into the nave.

The design of the basilica is of a Latin cross with a nave and two side aisles, with seven Romanesque arcades on either side of alternating black and white marble stripes. Beginning in 1468 the church was extended at the far end, with the addition of a presbytery and two chapels, one on the Immaculate Conception and the other dedicated to Saint Fina (or Serafina), a 15-year-old local girl who died stoically from a long illness in 1253 and subsequently occasioned any number of miraculous cures for everybody else. (Pope Gregory the Great, d.604, also came to visit her in a vision, which was also miraculous.)

The Collegiata is justly famous for a number of complete cycles of frescoes on Judgment Day, Old Testament stories, New Testament stories, and scenes from St Fina's life as well, by such 14th century artists as Lippo Memmi, Bartolo di Fredi, and Taddeo di Bartolo (the gruesome Last Judgment sequence), and 15th century luminaries like Ghirlandaio (St Fina's Chapel) and Gozzoli. There was way too little light for any "no-flash" photos.

The front of the Town Hall from the Baptistry Loggia -- we're turning right through the arch there into the Civic Museum therein.

The Palazzo Comunale or New Town Hall was built in the 1290s, and this internal 'cortile' was added in 1323, giving onto the loggia up the stairs . . .

. . . which leads into the City Museum.

The Council Chamber, or so-called Dante's Hall, has huge frescoes all round, like this one of the Virgin, posed with every other saint on the roster as well as a couple of local donors, by Lippo Memmi.

Every Italian city has a Dante statue (as well a Garibaldi), but in this case the link is stronger: on 8 May 1300, Dante, as an ambassador of the Republic of Florence, addressed the local authorites here (when the building was still unfinished).

Now for the hike up the Torre Grossa or Great Tower, built between 1298 and 1310, formerly 64 metres tall but now only 54 metres since some of it has fallen off. That's not encouraging.

The hatchway up onto the roof. Mind your head.

Okay, we're here.

The Torre Grossa is also a bell tower, we discover; we won't linger any longer than necessary.

A helping hand

The Piazza delle Erbe and (on the right) Piazza del Duomo, 54 metres down

Above the Piazza delle Erbe, looking northward: the Torri Gemelle or Twin Towers, built by the powerful Ghibelline family of the Salvuccis

The Piazza del Duomo, with the 'old town hall', the Vecchio Palazzo del Podestà, from the early 1200s, and its Torre Rognosa standing 51m high -- by a statute of 1255 intended to curb the 'arms race' of fortified towers, no private towers could be taller than this one. The Chigi Tower to the left was built in 1280.

Another view of the Torre Rognosa and, beyond it, the former castle of the Bishops of Volterra, later a Dominican convent and then a prison, once graced by the presence of Girolamo Savonarola when he preached his fiery sermons in the Collegiata here in 1485 and '86. The Piazza delle Cisterna is on the lower right.

The Piazza delle Cisterna, looking east from the Great Tower

The hilltop fortress, La Rocca, to the west, and the cathedral belltower

The northern end of town, with the Church of San Agostino, built between 1280 and 1298

The southern end of town, following the Via San Giovanni

The San Giovanni Gate

San Gimignano street scene

Time to leave, before they crank that thing up again

Downstairs, in the Podestà's Chamber

Scenes of daily life, apparently, from 1303

An affectless Mary Magdalene (showing only Mary Magdalene's half of the picture), by Benozzo Gozzoli (1466), who lived in San Gimignano for four years. (We collect pictures of the Magdalene.)

Baby Jesus getting instruction in blessing people, with his cute booties on

The Vecchio Palazzo del Podestà and Torre Rognosa. Under Florentine dominion after 1353, the golden age of San Gimignano came gradually to a close, as disease epidemics and loss of population brought on a long decline in civic life, with towers being truncated or demolished for building materials or simply falling down on their own, churches and palazzi falling into disrepair.

By the 19th century, we're told, San Gimignano had retreated to the level of a purely local farming village, with few economic resources, and paradoxically, for that very reason perhaps, the town centre was spared the generations of improvements, additions, and ill-advised restorations that have sometimes marred so many other ancient cities.

The twin Torri and Palazzo dei Salvucci across the Duomo steps

The loggia leading back to the Piazza delle Cisterna

The Palazzo Comunale, where the Council held its first meeting in 1298, with the loggia on the left and Torre Grossa and Collegiata steps on the right. The merlons along the crenellations at the top are 19th century additions.

We're leaving the Piazza del Duomo and Piazza delle Erbe and heading for the Rocca.

The street alongside the Duomo on the left leading up to the Rocca or fortress at the top of the hill

The grounds of La Rocca. The fortress was built by the Florentines in 1353, designed so as to repel attacks from inside as well as from outside the city. It was manned by a Florentine garrison at San Gimignano's expense. The belltower of the Collegiate Church looms.

Marching up to the only tower still intact

Kristin and the fortress of La Rocca

We counted 11 towers, but it's said that 13 can be seen from here -- out of a total of 14, or (as some say) 16 in the city. A lot may depend on how flexible you wish to be in your towerness criteria.

These, of course, are real towers (Rognosa, Collegiata belltower, and Torre Grossa of the Town Hall).

The fortress interior. The Rocca was considered no longer necessary and destroyed by Cosimo de' Medici in 1555.

Round the back way down to San Giovanni Street

The Via San Giovanni, walking south

The Porta San Giovanni, as we leave . . .

. . . with a last look back.

The Porta San Giovanni next to our carpark. We're off to Volterra.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 7 January 2015.


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