It has always been a fertile valley of lush green vegetation, and in the center of it flows the Elsa River, from south to north, crossing central Tuscany and converging with the Arno River. Etruscans, Romans, Barbarians, religious pilgrims, crusaders and emperors have all crossed this valley, leaving traces which have fused with the natural habitat, strongly demarcated by the works of man, by the industrious temperament of the valley's inhabitants. From the prominence of the hill upon which it is perched, San Gimignano dominates an archipelago of villages and castles, estate farms and vineyards. Originally symbols of the rivalry that existed in ancient times among the ambitious citizenry of the small Republic, the towers of San Gimignano have collectively, for the last 800 years, been the characteristic symbol of the entire region.
The three settlements of Colle Val d'Elsa, a village with a long, narrow castle, of Casole, a small fortress (formerly) in the service of Siena, and of Poggibonsi, a city once crushed by nascent Florentine imperialism, continue to bear witness to the historical conflicts that characterize the history of this land. Poggibonsi, in an attempt to assert independence, challenged Florentine power and allied itself to Siena, only to be subsequently razed to the soil by Dante's city-mates in the year 1270. Here archaeologists have unearthed the ancient Poggio Bonizio, with its walls reconstructed during the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent of the Medici family. It was from the strategic vantage point of the fortress, known as Poggio Imperiale, that the traffic of the entire valley was controlled and regulated. Enchanted in a bucolic world, Casole d'Elsa (which remained ever loyal to Siena) is the ideal meeting point between the Val d'Elsa of today and the Val d'Elsa of the past. It is a rural wonderland retaining traces of beauty from the Etruscan, Gothic and Renaissance eras in a small, well appointed museum.
COLLE VAL D’ELSA
Situated deep within the narrow valley of the green hills, Antica Piticciano formerly functioned as the check-point castle for the area of Val D'Elsa. Today it still maintains the character of a fortified Medieval city. Still surrounded by fortress walls, the castle (castello) is accessible only by way of a stone bridge erected on the exact spot where, centuries ago, a drawbridge was located. Within the city-fortress, there are narrow passageways, a Cathedral, and many ancient towers. The great sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio was born in one of these towers - in the year 1240, it is believed.
The long, narrow district of Saint Catherine is graced by beautiful palaces of the 1500s, and ends with the stupendous Porta Nova, the ancient city gate, built by the great architect Giuliano da Maiano. The lower part encompasses the great Augustian cathedral as well as the crystal museum. Colle Val d'Esla is the Italian capital for objects of lead crystal, the quintessence of transparency, and is responsible for 90% of nation's output.
As did the ancient religious pilgrims who journeyed here by way of Via Francigena, visitors from all directions will find themselves in front of a view that can only make a great impression: 15 towers, immobile for centuries, silhouetted against a background of blue sky and green hills, testimony to the inexorable passage of time that has changed everything – except the towers themselves. In actuality, the skyline of San Gimignano did change over the centuries. At the end of the 10th century, the ancient village, then known by the name of Selva, did not yet have towers when its name was changed to that of the Bishop-Saint of Modena, San Gimignano. From that moment forward, construction activity became ever more daunting and competitive. Powerful families within the independent Commune of San Gimignano attempted to channel strategic conquests of prosperity and importance in terms of progressive height: the taller the tower, the more powerful the family, or so the thinking went.
Construction conventions were challenged. Starting with a quadrilateral base and soaring skyward, scaffolding left marks in tower facades, holes (called "bridge holes") which still today are the marvel millions of visitors. From the ancient city gate of Porta San Giovanni, religious pilgrims climbed up to the city squares (le piazze), to the Square of the Cistern (Cisterna), the Square of the Cathedral (Catedrale), and the Square of the Lawn, three public spaces surrounded by fantastic monuments, such as the stupendous Collegiata, a jewel case adorned by a cycle of pictorial frescoes, the likes of which very few churches can boast, and the Village Hall (Palazzo Comunale), which functions also as an art museum. The masterpieces of Filippino Lippi and Pinturicchio recall the early Renaissance and the frescoes devoted to the sentimental education of Memmo di Filippuccio. They were the first of the painters of the Christian world to address themes related to sex and the pleasure between men and women. Of note also are the Palace of the Podesta (today the Leggieri Theatre), the "twin" towers of the Salvucci, the towers of the Ardinghelli and the Mysterious Devil's Tower.
The tallest tower in San Gimignano is also the only tower that can be climbed. It is called Grossa (best translated as "Humongous") and is 54 meters tall. Until the end of the 1200s, laws did not permit the construction of towers higher than the Rognosa Tower, which measured 52 meters tall. Descending by way of Via San Matteo, we find other towers and Romanesque churches, arriving ultimately at the church of S. Agostino. This church bears fine witness to a wealth of Renaissance art, such as the frescoes by Benozzo Bozzoli and the panelby Piero Pollaiolo. Artists have often felt at home in San Gimignano, and to this day art is well and thriving, right here, where one can visit the first (and perhaps still the only) Western contemporary art gallery to have opened a sister-gallery in Beijing.
San Gimignano was an important center of commerce and craftsmanship during Medieval times and exported its products throughout the world: saffron and Vernaccia, its indigenous white wine which, in 1966, was the first Italian wine to receive D.O.C. d'Italia status.