What to do in San Gimignano, the city of medieval towers
San Gimignano is a town in the province of Siena which is located in a beautiful hilly position in the heart of the Val d’Elsa. The city lies a short distance from many other centers of great interest such as Monteriggioni, Certaldo, Colle and Poggibonsi and about 50 kilometers from Florence and 35 from Siena.
San Gimignano is one of the best preserved medieval villages not only in Tuscany but also in Italy. Its urban structure, developed during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, has remained substantially unchanged to the present day. The main axis of the town is made up of a stretch of the Via Francigena which fits into the urban fabric through the San Matteo gate to the north and the San Giovanni gate to the south. In the center of the town there are some squares, such as Piazza del Duomo, Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza delle Erbe, overlooked by many of the towers that have made San Gimignano famous in the world. And in fact the towers and tower houses are the element that more than any other distinguishes this wonderful hamlet. In the heyday, there were 72 towers in San Gimignano, while today there are 14; this large number of towers that rise above the city earned San Gimignano the nickname “Manhattan of the Middle Ages”.
The historic center of San Gimignano is so beautiful and so well preserved that in 1990 the city was declared a world cultural heritage site by UNESCO. It is not at all difficult to define this as one of the most beautiful town in Tuscany and in my opinion it is one of those places that should be visited at least once in a lifetime.
The history of the settlement
The area where San Gimignano stands has been inhabited since the time of the Etruscans and the village was already mentioned in the tenth century between the stages of the Via Francigena itinerary. During the XII century, San Gimignano became a free Ghibelline municipality. During this period, the center set off towards its heyday. In fact, between the XII and XIII centuries, the city experienced a period of strong economic expansion based both on the trade of local products such as saffron and on financial speculation. Such a flourishing context allowed the birth and the affirmation of a rich aristocratic class to whom we owe the construction of the towers that we all know. It is not uncommon for the wealthiest and most powerful families to build towers at this time both for defensive purposes and to assert their status; if you think about it, even today those who have power and money (maybe big multinational companies) do something very similar with skyscrapers. In the 14th century, as a result of internal struggles between the most powerful families, wars, famines and plague, the city started to decline and in 1351 surrendered to Florence.
What to see in San Gimignano
San Gimignano can be considered as an open air museum, here any building is noteworthy. In addition to the already mentioned towers, there are many monuments to see as the Duomo, the Palazzo del Podestà, the Palazzo del Popolo and many museums; we are lucky that there is a cumulative ticket, that lasts 2 days, for the Museo Civico, Pinacoteca, Torre Grossa, Museo Archeologico, Spezieria di Santa Fina, San Lorenzo in Ponte and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea.
What can we see in San Gimignano?
- Torre e casa Campatelli
- Piazza della Cisterna
- Piazza del Duomo
- Duomo di San Gimignano
- Cappella di Santa Fina
- Palazzo del Podestà
- Palazzo Comunale
- Museo Civico di San Gimignano
- Torre Grossa
- Museo San Gimignano 1300
- Rocca di Montestaffoli
- Museo Archeologico
- Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea
- Spezieria di Santa Fina
- Chiesa di Sant’Agostino
- Fonti Medievali
Our tour begins in the southern area of the town, where there are some parking areas (other parking areas are in the north and west areas) and the bus stop that comes from Siena. The walls of San Gimignano immediately appear in front of us and are reinforced here by the imposing Bastione San Francesco. Access to the hamlet is guaranteed by the historic Porta San Giovanni, which for centuries has been crossed by pilgrims and wayfarers who came from Siena via the Via Francigena.
Just beyond the door is the Museo della Tortura (Torture Museum), which you could insert in your itinerary especially if you are with children. Going further, along Via San Giovanni, you will find the first of the famous towers of San Gimignano: the Casa (that host a museum) and Torre Campatelli, Torre dei Cugnanesi and Torre dei Becci, which is located near the arco dei Becci, the passage that leads to Piazza della Cisterna.
Torre e casa Campatelli
Casa Campatelli is located inside an eighteenth-century building that was purchased in the first half of the nineteenth century by the Campatelli family, a Florentine upper-middle-class family. The first floor (noble floor) has been refurbished with original furniture and exhibits everyday objects, ornaments, family photos, paintings, books, some collections (books, stamps, coins).
At full top, in the attics, a digital narration is projected directly onto the walls that traces a thousand years of history of the village of San Gimignano, then hinting at the history of the building, the house and the family who lived there.
From here you have the entrance to the medieval tower around which the building has grown and from the inside and from below you can observe the architectural structure.
Piazza della Cisterna
Now we are in one of the central squares of San Gimignano: Piazza della Cisterna. Beautiful with its triangular shape, its buildings and medieval towers, everyone are impressed by this square and its suggestive glimpses. The name of the square came from the cistern located in the centre. On our right we can see some beautiful buildings as palazzo Razzi and palazzo Tortoli; along the opposite side of the arco dei Becci there are palazzo dei Cortesi and Torre del Diavolo; on our left the Torri degli Ardinghelli.
Piazza del Duomo
Just beyond the torri degli Ardinghelli, an open passage links Piazza della Cisterna with one of the most beautiful squares in Tuscany: Piazza del Duomo.
This square is the heart of di San Gimignano; here there are the higher towers, Torre Grossa and Torre Rognosa, the Duomo and the historic government buildings: Palazzo del Podestà and Palazzo Comunale.
Duomo di San Gimignano
Built in romanesque style between the 12th and the 13th centuries, the Duomo di san Gimignano (Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta) is located atop of a staircase. To a sober facade correspond an interior very fully decorated with frescoes. Along the three naves we can admire many extraordinay frescoes as the Old Testament Cycle by Bartolo di Fredi on the left nave and the Storie del New Testament Cycle, painted by the brothers Lippo and Federico Memmi, right nave. Other magnifique frescoes, as the Taddeo di Bartolo‘s Last Judgment, the Martyrdom of San Sebastian by Benozzo Gozzoli and the Annunciation by Jacopo della Quercia, are behind the facade.
Cappella di Santa Fina
Don’t miss the Cappella di Santa Fina! Created in 1468 from the design by Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano this is a true masterwork of the Renaissance. Situated at the end of the right nave of the cathedral, the chapel is famous for its frescoes, about the life of Santa Fina, made by Ghirlandaio in 1475. Pay also attention to the altar inside the chapel: this piece of art by Benedetto da Maiano is not only an altar, but also the tomb of Santa Fina.
Palazzo del Podestà
Located in front of the Duomo, the Palazzo del Podestà was built in 1249 and enlarged in 1337. One of its main characteristic is the huge entrance called Loggia; inside we can admire a fresco, Madonna col Bambino, angeli e santi, painted in 1513 by Sodoma. San Gimignano is the town of the tower, a medieval New York, and here there is one of the most imposing with its height of 52 metres (170 feet), the Torre Rognosa which is the oldest of the remaining towers (early 13th century). On the left you can see the Torre Chigi, and the Torri Salvucci, the twin towers of San Gimignano. Behind these towers, there is the smaller Torre Pettini.
Located in piazza del Duomo, Palazzo Comunale, or Palazzo del Popolo, is the Town Hall. The building houses the Civic Museum and on its right stands the Torre Grossa. Built in 1288 and enlarged in 1323, the palace became the town hall in 1337. The building is characterized by a faced half in stone and half in bricks with large windows and a battlements added in 19th century. Inside there is a beautiful courtyard with many frescoes by Sodoma; from here, a stair lead us to the Museo Civico.
The Museo Civico is located inside the higher floors of the Palazzo Comunale. In the second floor there is the Sala del Consiglio. On the first floor we find the Sala del Consiglio which is also called the Sala Dante in memory of the visit that the “Supreme Poet” made to San Gimignano as ambassador in 1299. Here we can admire an important cycle of 13th century frescoes attributed to Azzo di Masetto and most of all the Maestà by Lippo Memmi (1317). Another hall full of frescoes is located inside the third floor: the Camera del Podestà; here there is a cycle of frescoes, about love and moral qualities, attributed to Memmo di Filippuccio.
Proceed now with the pinacoteca, still inside the third floor, that exposes art works from tuscan artists, most of all from Florence and Siena, created between 13th and 16th centuries. Amog the most important works there are the wooden Crucifix by Coppo di Marcovaldo, the Madonna and Child with angels and saints by Benozzo Gozzoli, the Angel and the Virgin Annunciated by Filippino Lippi and the Assunta with saints Gregorio and Benedetto painted in 1511 by Pinturicchio.
The museum tour ends with a visit to the Torre Grossa, which can be accessed from the secret meeting room. Also known as Torre del Podestà, with its 54 meters this is the tallest tower in San Gimignano. The climb to the top can be demanding, but the reward will be great: from up there you can enjoy a sensational panorama!
For information on times and tickets for the Town Hall, the Civic Museum and the Torre Grossa, I refer you to the San Gimignano museums website.
Museo San Gimignano 1300
The Museo San Gimignano 1300 displays numerous models illustrating what was the urban layout and life of medieval San Gimignano. Particularly striking is the large ceramic model that reconstructs, in 1:100 scale, the whole city as it appeared in 1300. The museum is located in via Costarella, a road that comes out in Piazza del Duomo passing under the Torre Grossa. It is a very interesting museum which is certainly one of the activities to do in San Gimignano with children.
On the official website you will find all the information on the museum’s timetables, tickets and educational activities.
Rocca di Montestaffoli
Built in 14th century behind the Duomo, the Rocca di Montestaffoli, was a fortress that today has only the perimetral walls and it has been converted into a park. Here you can relax far from the hordes of tourists. Another reason to visit this fort is the very nice panoramic view you can enjoy from its bulwarks!
To resume our itinerary, from Piazza del Duomo, you will have to take via San Martino, passing behind the Torri dei Salvucci, and walk towards via Folgore where the former Conservatorio di Santa Fina is located, which now houses three museums.
Located together with the Spezieria di Santa Fina and the Galleria di Arte moderna e Contemporanea in the former Conservatorio di Santa Fina, the Museo Archeologico displays the finds from the Etruscan, Roman and medieval ages found in the area. The museum itinerary is divided into two sections: one dedicated to classical archeology (VII-I century BC) and the other focused on the artisan production of medieval San Gimignano.
Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea “Raffaele De Grada”
The Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea of San Gimignano is dedicated to the painter Raffaele De Grada. Inside the museum there are many worksmade by Raffaele De Grada and by other artists as Renato Guttuso, Ugo Nespolo and Niccolò Cannicci.
Spezieria di Santa Fina
The spezieria was both a workshop that a laboratory, where were created the medicines used in the Spedale di Santa Fina. Today this place is a museum where we can see how was organized this ancient farmacy, with all its products and its fine ceramic pharmacy jars.
To find out the timetables and the cost of the tickets for the museums located in the former Santa Fina conservatory, I refer you to the San Gimignano Museums website.
Chiesa di Sant’Agostino
In the northern area of the city centre, there is the convent and the church of Sant’Agostino. This romanesque-gothic church preserves many interesting art works. Behind the facade, the Cappella di San Bartolo has an altar made by Benedetto ad Maiano; the vault is a work of Sebastiano Mainardi while the floor is done with majolica tiles by Andrea della Robbia. Along the right side there are some altars with works of Pier Francesco Fiorentino, Bartolo di Fredi, Vincenzo Tamagni and Piero del Pollaiolo. The left side has frescoes by Sebastiano Mainardi, Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Vincenzo Tamagni and the best is yet to come…
On the main altar, there is thePiero del Pollaiolo‘s Coronation of the Virgin, Saints and Angels (1483). Behind there are three chaples: the central one is frescoed with the Stories from the life of sant’Agostino by Benozzo Gozzoli (1464-1465); the right one with Life of the Virgin by Bartolo di Fredi (1374-1375); the left one preserves a Pietà.
For a last “dip” in the medieval San Gimignano, I suggest you to leave the most popular routes by tourists to go to the Fonti Medievali (medieval sources). To reach them you will have to go down to Porta delle Fonti and cross it exiting the city walls. These sources were built during the fourteenth century on the site of a source from the Lombard era that dated back to the ninth century. The structure that served both as a source of water supply and for washing clothes, consists of 10 arches partly in Romanesque style and partly in Gothic style.
Where to go in the surroundings of San Gimignano
The province of Siena and in particular the Val d’Elsa are full of very interesting historic hamlets, the closest to San Gimignano are Certaldo, Poggibonsi, Colle di Val d’Elsa and Monteriggioni; finally, in the northern part of the valley, San Miniato is also worth a visit.
How to get to San Gimignano
By train: the closest train station is in Poggibonsi, from there you have to take a bus
By bus: from Siena line 130 by Siena Mobiità
From Firenze line 131 till Poggibonsi, then line 130 till San Gimignano
By car: from Florence and Siena take the Raccordo Autostradale Firenze-Siena till the exit Poggibonsi Nord then follow for Gimignano (on SR429 and SP127).