And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 15. september 2013

Travels in Tuscany, part 4 - The City of a Hundred Towers

e quella faccia
di là da lui più che l'altre trapunta
ebbe la Santa Chiesa in le sue braccia:

dal Torso fu, e purga per digiuno
l'anguille di Bolsena e la vernaccia
- Purgatorio (XXIV), Dante Alighieri

and that face
Beyond him, more puckered than the rest,

Is that of a man who had the Church in his arms:
He was from Tours, and now fasts to purge himself
Of the Bolsena eels and the sweet wine.
- Translated by Charles Sisson

San Gimignano, seen from Certaldo

The man to whom Dante refers in this canto is Pope Martin IV, who reigned from 1281 to 1285, and who was infamous for his gluttony and therefore set to purge his body of his favourite delicacies in the company of other gluttons on the Sixth Cornice. The eels for which he had such an appetite in his mortal days were steeped in la vernaccia, a wine native of San Gimignano, a Tuscan city Dante once visited on a diplomatic mission, and which can be seen across the river valleys from the city of Certaldo, as seen in the picture above.

Porta San Giovanni

When I visited Tuscany for the conference in Certaldo this summer, I had left one day open in my itinerary for exploring. Certaldo is situated in close proximity to several historical centres, such as Pisa, Florence and Siena, but I was first of all attracted by the small hill town of San Gimignano, known as the city of a hundred towers, some distance south of Certaldo. In the end I decided to spend my day off here rather than Florence, because I thought to myself I would certainly visit Florence some other time, while I might not have the same opportunity to see San Gimignano for the foreseeable future. However, having visited the city of a hundred towers - or twenty-one, as I've heard is the correct number - I now realise I have to return to that city for a more thorough investigation.

Facade of the Franciscan convent, later Templar mansion and, after 1308, a house of the Maltese Order

Agnus Dei

A splendid torchholder

The city of San Gimignano has an old history reaching back to Etruscan times. According to legend it was founded by two Roman brothers who ran away from Rome in the aftermath of the Catiline conspiracy and named Citadel of Selva after one of them. Later it received its current name from Bishop Geminianus, a 4th-century bishop-saint from Modena who was venerated in the city and, according to legend, was counted as its saviour, though I'm not sure on what grounds. Devotion towards Geminianus became significant in the 12th century following a translation of the bishop-saint's relic in 1106. Towards the end of that same century, San Gimignano received its municipal independence from the bishops of Volterra, to whom it had been assigned by King Hugh in 929, apparently the first document to refer to the city.

Situated on the Via Francigena, the pilgrimage route to Rome from France, San Gimignano grew to a rich and formidable hill-town throughout the 13th century thanks to pilgrims, its export of wine and its varied manufacture (including glass and cloth). Its economic prosperity attracted rich families who in their turn gave rise to the town's characteristic towers, a symbol of power and wealth, and though only 21 of them remain today, it is said that as many as 76 towers once stood in the city. In addition, there grew up convents for Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians, and even the Templars set their mark upon the cityscape.

Torre Rognosa

Torre del Diavolo

Piazza della Cisterna

Like so many other Italian city-states, San Gimignano had a volatile political history, siding variously with the Ghibellines and the Guelphs. It was for this reason Dante visited the city in 1300, acting as an ambassador for the union of Guelph cities in Tuscany. Whether it was during this stay that the Florentine poet learned of Pope Martin's love of vernaccia-marinated eels I don't know, but I assume Dante himself had opportunity enough to acquaint himself with the sweet wine during his stay.

The wealth of San Gimignano resulted in much beautiful architecture and wonderful artistic expressions, and even following the plague's decimation of the populace the 14th century saw many spectacular artistic projects. The walls of San Gimignano's duomo are partcularly rich in this legacy, and the Sienese painter Bartolo di Fredi (c.1330-1410) painted a series of scenes from the Old Testament, which is facing a series of scenes from the New Testament of uncertain provenance. Both these series were completely breathtaking in all their horror and delight, and I could but admire and adore the faith, the talent and the dedication that went into making these frescoes. There is also a beautiful depiction of Saint Sebastian's martyrdom executed by Benozzo Gozzoli (ca.1420-1497) who also painted a frescoe on the same theme in the chiesetta in Certaldo.

The city's medieval architecture is well-preserved and it really would feel like stepping back in time once you enter the Porta San Giovanni, were it not for the ubiquitous and occasionally boisterous tourists who swarm the streets in the summer. However, San Gimignano is so labyrinthine that it is easy to get away from the masses and explore the various arches, tunnels, alleys and walls undisturbed by the vulgar noises. There are also a number of fascinating and interesting sights, from the lowly, intimate churches to the soaring towers, and from the top of the Torre Grossa, reaching 54 meters and constructed in 1311, you have a magnificient view of the Tuscan landscape, and as you stand there and see the distant mountains, the vineyards and the green and luscious valleys it is almost as if you begin to doubt the existence of a world beyond the horizon.

Chiesa di San Bartolo, built in 1173

The Chancery Arch

Chiesa di San Agostino, consecrated in 1298

Courtyard of the late-13th-century town hall

View from Torre Grossa

Piazza del Duomo

With its richness of sights and nooks I didn't have the chance to fully explore San Gimignano the short afternoon I spent there, and I already look forward to revisit the city and see more of its fascinating history.

Piazza della Cisterna dalla Torre Grossa

2 kommentarer:

  1. Thanks for sharing - wonderful pics. Love these places.

    1. Glad you like them. I could have taken so many more had I more time, but it'll have to be until next time.