San Gimignano history and origins details

The History of San Gimignano

The story behind the founding of San Gimignano has been lost in the mists of time. Legend would attribute it to two young Roman noblemen who were on the run after having been involved in the Catalina conspiracy. In AD 63 the two brothers Muzio and Silvio took refuge in Valdelsa and there built two castles. One was named Mucchio and the other Silvia, that became the first name of the future town of San Gimignano. Round about the 10th century AD, the name of the town changed to San Gimignano that was the name of a Modenese bishop from the 5th century AD.

There is no doubt that the area of San Gimignano was inhabited from pre-historical times. However, from ancient Etruscan times onwards, traces of established settlements are much more consistent. The notable Pugiano scared area, situated in the unspoiled valleys of the River Riguardi dates back to this time. Traces of previous settlements from subsequent periods are more substantial, particularly those from Greek times.

The discovery of tombs in the historic centre would indicate that they probably lived on the same hill as where San Gimignano was located. If the inhabitants lived on the high ground during the Etruscan period, it would seem that with Roman colonisation, they began to show a preference for living on the valley floor, specially near the water’s edge.

It should be remembered that riverbanks were frequently flanked by roads. The Villa Romana di Chiusi is situated near the River Fosci.
From the cluster of little rural villages from the Etruscan and the Roman periods, gathered around the more substantial Volterra, it changed towards the end of High Mediaeval period to become the true heart of what is now the Historic Centre.

In 998, San Gimignano was still a village on the edges of Francigena. This was politically the fief of the bishop of Volterra who resided in a castle situated in Poggio della Torre. This castle now serves as a prison. San Gimignano began to grow in the Low Mediaeval period when it found itself in a geographically strategically important position.

The city that was boundaried by the first ring of defensive walls and the surrounding hills on the Francigena Way was becoming a frequent halt for the many travellers along this road. Francigena, originally opened by the Lombards became, during the High Mediaeval period, the route for pilgrims travelling towards Rome.

This applied particularly to the French. In 1199, the city that had grown considerably by this stage, was declared a free commune and was ruled by Consuls and then by a Magistrate who was replaced every so often. The Magistrate, for reasons of impartiality, was always an outsider and held the position for six months at a time.

The commune of San Gimignano, like many other neighbouring communes, was involved in the conflicts between the Guelfs that had the backing of the Pope and the Ghibellines who were on the side of the Emperor. Although she maintained her independence at great cost, in 1354, San Gimignano accepted the dominion of Florence.

From that moment on, she lived under the shadow of the Tuscan capital. The Black Death wrought havoc upon the city and only added to the period of decline the city was already suffering. The plague had terrible consequences on both the population and the economy. In the 17th century, the city became a part of the Medici realm.

The historic center

No matter which side you approach it from, you can see San Gimignano sitting on the hilltop 334 metres (1095 feet) above sea level, surrounded by numerous towers. There are still thirteen of them today (there were seventy-two). The first towers were scattered here and there and were somewhat isolated; very different from the compact groups we see today. Perhaps even more different was the way in which people lived in the towers. There was little room inside the towers, usually about one metre by two and there were few openings to the outside.

The walls however were about two metres thick and kept the inside warm in winter and cool in summer. Almost all the towers had other buildings made from wood or earth leaning against them. In the Middle Ages, a tower represented power and strength especially considering that building one of them was neither a light undertaking nor inexpensive.

The living quarters did not reach all the way up to the top of the towers. There were stores on the ground floor, rooms on the second and the kitchen was higher yet again. The layout of the rooms follows the most elementary rules for safety. The kitchen was the only room where a fire was usually kept burning and was the highest of the rooms used for living quarters. In the event of a fire, it was easy to escape. During the 12th century new building customs began to improve daily life. The need for more interior space, more openings and thus more light led to new ways of constructing buildings and this had a knock-on effect, especially on towers.

The reference standard for towers built between the mid 12th century mid 13th century were those like the towers in the famous Tuscan maritime city of Pisa. These buildings were well-known for the presence of one or more tall, narrow openings on the lower floors that continued up, going from one side to the other, for the whole height of the tower. The openings that were sometimes two or three floors high were divided on the inside by wooden lofts and on the outside by corresponding wooden balconies. These balconies provided extra width and space beyond the structural limits of the walls.

From the end of the 12th century, apart from towers like the one just described, men were working on lower buildings that could be called “palaces”.
From the mid 12th century, building bricks became more available and they began using them to build entire or large sections of new buildings. By the mid 12th century, no more towers were being built whereas palaces were being erected using the most up-to-date methods and according to the new tastes and styles of the time.

The economic, architectural and cultural growth of San Gimignano ground to a halt in the mid 14th century when the city came under the dominion of Florence. The plague and famine of the late 1300’s and early 1400’s decimated the population. The post-mediaeval San Gimignano was deserted land on its last legs. The state of decay even saw the towers collapse on to the palaces and destroy them. Restorations made to buildings in the 15th century were somewhat rudimentary and windows for example were more or less as before. The buildings tended to be cannibalised from previous dwellings and were frequently all the same colour.


E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle (Dante – Inferno XXXIV, 139)

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[…] e del mio vaneggiar vergogna è ’l frutto, e ’l pentersi, e ’l conoscer chiaramente che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno. (Petrarca – Canzoniere 1, vv. 12-14)

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