The medieval Tuscan town of San Gimignano

From a distance it looks like a fairy tale, crowning the Tuscan hill with its gray stone walls and towers —the medieval town of San Gimignano.

On our 10-day trip to Italy, we spent the first five days based at Busini Rossi Carla, an agriturismo or small rural bed and breakfast, where our windows provided a view of San Gimignano on the distant hilltop.

Situated between Sienna and Florence, San Gimignano’s roots go back to the Etruscans, who migrated there from Asia Minor in 900 BC and ruled until the Romans took over following a bloody war in 395 BC. Evidence of the Etruscan society can be seen in many of the small hilltop towns’ walls and sculptures.

San Gimignano is known as the town “of the beautiful towers.” Today 14 of the original 76 towers survive.

In the 13th century feuding noble families ran the towns. They’d periodically battle things out from the protection of their respective family towers. Rich people fortified their homes against feuding neighbors (think Romeo and Juliet), and generally tried to impress friends and relatives, by building these towers.

San Gimignano is one of the best preserved medieval towns largely due to two things: the main pilgrim route from northern Italy to Rome initially ran through San Gimignano then shifted away, and the black death or plague of 1348.

San Gimignano’s population was decimated by the plague and fell from 13,000 to 4,000 people in a period of about six months. Roughly two out of every three people there died. San Gimignano was demoralized and came under Florence’s control. Towers were torn down. Florence redirected the trade away from San Gimignano. The town never recovered.

During the afternoon the steep, narrow and dark streets of San Gimignano are crowded with tourists visiting the restaurants and shops that reside in the lower levels of the stone structures. It is a hustling, bustling, at times over-crowded, tourist attraction.

But at night, after the tourist buses have loaded up and gone away, and sconces illuminate the streets, you can, with a bit of imagination, be transported back through time. If you sit quietly you can imagine the times of prosperity and hear the gaiety of children running through the streets, or see the woman hanging laundry on the line outside an upstairs window.

Or you can travel in your mind to 1348 and the time of great sorrow and where you can smell the pungent odor of death and fear as yet another body is removed from a building for disposal. You imagine a candle burning in a window on an upper floor from a room where someone watches and waits by a bedside. You can smell the terror, hear the wails of sorrow, and feel the anguish, sometimes, at night, with a little imagination, in San Gimignano.

Photos by Christine M. Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

DK Eyewitness travel — Florence & Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2007
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides, Top 10 Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2005
Frommer’s Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, 6th ed., by John Moretti, Wiley Publishing,NJ, 2008
Rick Steves’ Florence & Tuscany 2009

You can read more about the plague here

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