Visible from the bends of the highway, San Gimignano announces itself from above with its famous towers. Truly a little gem, it is so precious that UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site. Walking through the Old City means plunging into the Middle Ages and getting a taste of what the city must have been like more than seven hundred years ago.
The Old City is enclosed with 13th-century walls and is accessed by two main streets that intersect to create two wonderful piazzas. The Towers and House-Towers belonged to the old merchant and financier aristocracy, who competed with one another through their massive buildings rising above all the others. Some of them are perfectly preserved, while others were demolished when one family prevailed over another. The residents of San Gimignano were well known for being passionate.
The high ground on which the city stands, so strategic for controlling the valley and offering defence against its enemies, was already inhabited in ancient times. According to archaeological findings (mostly in tombs), the Etruscans had already settled here by the 3rd century B.C. Later, the Romans arrived and named the city Silvia.
Saint Geminianus, who gave his name to the city, was the holy bishop of Modena. According to the traditional accounts, he freed the small town from the Huns.
The city achieved its greatest prosperity in the Middle Ages. According to legend, Desiderio, the king of the Lombards, lived here, and Charlemagne also stayed in this wondrous place.
San Gimignano was mentioned for the first time in a written document in 929, in a contract relating to the donation of some land to the bishop of Volterra.
The true good fortune of the city was the Via Francigena that passed through it. Sigerico, the Archbishop of Canterbury, walked along this road from 990 to 994 while heading from Rome to England. San Gimignano was the 19th stop on his journey, and in his memoirs he calls it Sce Gemiane, describing it as an intersection on the road between Pisa and Siena. In subsequent centuries, Francigena was the road used by thousands of pilgrims travelling to Rome to visit the tombs of martyrs. Road taverns and shelters sprang up to provide lodging for them, bringing increased wealth and well being to the area.
In 998 San Gimignano became a walled city for the first time, with its boundaries also including the hills where the bishop's residence stood. In 1150 it was a well-known centre, both from the expansionist as well as the commercial point of view.
A few years later, in 1199, the city became a comune (municipality), reaching its maximum prosperity and winning independence from the bishops of Volterra, but it was not immune to the strife between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. Commerce reached a peak thanks to the circulation of precious local products like saffron, sold in Italy and exported abroad. Here, as in other centres around Tuscany, money lending with interest was widespread, so many people grew rich, creating an aristocracy that began to display its power by building towers. In the 14th century, there were well over 72 towers, though today only 14 remain. The accumulated capital was also used to undertake important public works that gave the small city the form it retains to this day.
In 1255 San Gimignano was conquered by the Florentine Guelfs, who ordered the city walls be torn down. In 1261, after the Battle of Montaperti, the Ghibellines regained power, and the walls were again rebuilt. At that time the city was also subdivided into four quarters, one for each gate: Piazza, Castello, San Matteo, and San Giovanni.
Starting in the mid-13th century, religious orders, which at that time were beginning to spread throughout Italy, settled in the city, bringing further affluence.
Among the famous figures who spent time there was Dante Alighieri, who served as ambassador to the Guelf League of Tuscany.
The crisis of the 14th century didn't spare San Gimignano, which was already weakened by internal strife. To make matters worse, the black plague arrived in 1348, together with famine that decimated the population. The terrible consequence was that the city, by now exhausted, voluntarily gave up its autonomy to Florence.
Despite the decline, San Gimignano continued to be visited by artists from Siena and Florence, mostly summoned by the religious orders to decorate and beautify their buildings. Among the most famous were Memmo di Filippuccio, Lippo Memmi, Taddeo di Bartolo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Ghirlandaio (who also worked in the Sistine Chapel), and many others.
Over time the city began to play an increasingly marginal role, and the irreversible decline truly began when it was occupied, together with Siena, by Spain's Charles V and then by Cosimo I de' Medici in 1500. The latter, the lord of Tuscany, forbade any spending that might serve to enlarge or improve the city. The consequences were devastating and without doubt brought suffering. At the same time, however, this moratorium on improvements had the unintended benefit of preventing the destruction of old houses and towers and the conversion of churches into baroque monuments. So it was that San Gimignano's ancient appearance became frozen in time, allowing it to become the amazing glimpse into the Middle Ages that it is today.