Historical overview

last modified Dec 09, 2013 10:03

The origins between history and legend

The establishment of San Gimignano is lost in the mists of time. It is said that the two brothers Muzio and Silvio, young Roman patricians who were fugitives because of the conspiracy of Catiline, in 63 BC, they took shelter in Val d'Elsa and built two castles: the castle of Mucchio and the castle of Silvia. The last one was the first name of San Gimignano.
However, the name could also result from the forest ("silva" for Latin) surrounding these places.
Around the tenth century AD the name of the village became San Gimignano, from the name of a bishop of Modena from in the fifth century AD.
During the raids of the barbarians, the saint saved the city from the threat of Totila miraculously appearing on the walls. Since that day the inhabitants of Silvia decided to change the name of the city in San Gimignano as a sign of gratitude and to ingratiate with the eternal protection of the Saint.

First settlements

Legends truly have some charm, but not as much as the long and complex history of the town.
The San Gimignano area started being inhabited since prehistory, but its only with the Old Etruscan Era that people started to settle permanently here. The sacred area of Pugiano, in the Riguardi creek valley, was established at those times.
Traces of more recent settlements are more frequent, as those referring to the Hellenic Era, as many tombs in the Old Town may suggest.
Whereas in the Old Etruscan Era people used to inhabit the hills, during the Roman colonization they chose the valley, specifically near the rivers, often used for transportation. The Roman Villa of Chiusi, near the Fosci creek is an example.

Early Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages

If in the Etruscan and Roman Eras the territory was characterized by many small villages around the bigger town of Volterra, in the Early Middle Ages (10th century) the older part of the Old Town Centre was founded. In 998 San Gimignano still was a village over the Via Francigena, owned as a feud by the Bishop of Volterra, who used to live in a castle in Poggio della Torre; later transformed in a prison.
San Gimignano became a real town in the Late Middle Ages, when its position became strategic. Enveloped by a first circle of fortified walls and being placed along the Via Francigena, many travellers and pilgrims used to stop off in San Gimignano on their journey from France to Rome.

From independent town to feud of Florence

San Gimignano, now become a town, inn 1199 declared itself an independent governed by Consuls periodically elected; later they were replaced by a Podesta, who, for impartiality reasons, was always a foreigner in charge for only six months. As many other towns and villages in the area, San Gimignano was involved in the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, factions supporting the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, respectively.
The freedom of the San Gimignano ended in 1354, when it became part of the Florence Republic. This led San Gimignano to an era of progressive decay, suffering poverty, pestilences and a dramatic loss of population and economic activities. As a result, in the 1600s San Gimignano was just one of the many rural areas in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The tower, symbol of power

It doesn’t matter which way you’re coming from, you will be able see San Gimignano on the top of its 334meter-high hill and its many towers: 13 survived till today. Some say in the 1300s the town used to have 72 towers, one for each family of San Gimignano rich enough to build it in order to show their wealth.
The first towers were built isolated from the other buildings, with very small rooms inside, a few small windows; on the other hand, their thick walls (about 2 meters thick) made the inside cool in summer and warm in winter. Almost every tower was sided by poor small buildings, made of mud and wood. In Middle Ages towers were a symbol of power because of the costs and hardship that their construction involves: mining construction materials, carrying them to town, and building the tower structure were very expensive activities.
Rooms in those towers were commonly divided as follows:

  • ground floor: workshop
  • first floor: bedrooms
  • second floor: kitchen

The kitchen was commonly placed on higher floors in order to prevent fire spreading in case of accidental blazes.

Towers change shape

The need of space and more windows leads to new construction models involving specifically towers. The reference point between the 12th and the 13th century is Pisa. As a result, not only houses and building, but also towers built in 12th and 13th century feature bigger rooms and windows, with tall and narrow entrance going through the tower from side to side; windows covered two or more floors, and were separated by wooden lofts and wooden galleries for more usable room on the outside of the tower.

From towers to palaces

In late 12th century a similar revolution took place in the construction of lower building that can already be defined as ‘palaces’, also thanks to the introduction of bricks. In the same period the construction of towers also came to a stop.
Starting from 1250 all the most important cities of the area, such as Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Siena, develop their own different styles in architecture. San Gimignano didn’t develop its own style, but rather absorbed elements from all the other ones, giving birth to a one-of-a-kind, ecleptic architecture.

From the Late Middle Ages decline to now

As reported above, after becoming part of the Florence Republic in 1354, San Gimignano became poor and flooded by pestilence, which led to a stop in economic, architectural, and cultural development, not mentioning the huge loss of inhabitants: counting about 13,000 people in the early 14th century, San Gimignano had only 3,000 inhabitants left at the end of 15th century.
In this era of poverty and decay many towers and palaces became ruins, while new building are normally old one rebuilt featuring very little architectural changes, mostly new windows on old buildings covered with plaster.
In recent times San Gimignano was able to recover and protect its Italian art in their original architectural settings, so that Unesco declared the town as “World Heritage Site”.