San Gimignano, a UNESCO Heritage site, is known as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages for its many medieval towers. Unlike Manhattan, however, which is large enough to entertain its tourists for weeks, San Gimignano is often crowded with day-trippers. But with limited time, they are likely to miss the hidden corners of this important Tuscan town. The rewards are great, however, for the visitor who gives the city of towers more than just a quick look.
San Gimignano flourished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with an economy based on wool, wine and saffron. Besides being a prime ingredient for a delicious risotto alla Milanese, saffron was also an important dye for cloth. Residents harvested the yellow spice from the Savitus Crocus plant, exporting some and using the rest to dye long bolts of cloth. The towers came in handy for drying the cloth, which were hung either in the central courtyards or from the external windows (historians still debate which). They were also important for defense and became symbols of familial power. The San Gimignano skyline boasted 72 towers in the 1300s; only 14 still stand today.
To get a sense of what San Gimignano was like at its height (pun intended), a good place to start is the San Gimignano 1300 museum, where, with the help of local historians and university professors to ensure historical accuracy, master potters Raffaello and Michelangelo Rubino have painstakingly recreated the piazzas, streets, churches and towers of this medieval city in miniature.
This museum, which opened in 2010, is the dream of the two brothers, originally from Capri, who made their fortune in New York as ceramic artisans. After 15 years in the States, they realized that their business, with 250 stores and commissions from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had outgrown artisan status. Thus they became ‘reverse-expats,' choosing San Gimignano as their destination because they often visited the area to purchase its excellent quality clay.
Moving to the source of their primary ingredients, Raffaello and Michelangelo (with names like these, could they have been anything but artists?) undertook the massive challenge of reproducing the medieval city in terracotta and offering tourists in San Gimignano an added service: fun, hands-on and authentic ways through which to learn more about the city. Soon, visitors will also be able to observe two ceramic artisans making pottery on-site (you can buy the pottery there, too, in addition to other local products in the museum shop). The San Gimignano 1300 museum complex, located on a street that was once scattered with artisan workshops, also features a contemporary art gallery showcasing pieces by local artists working in ceramics and other natural materials.
After re-imagining yourself in the past through this ceramic overview, you're ready to embark on San Gimignano 1300's treasure hunt, which engages visitors in identifying 26 places of interest, from the most famous, such as the Collegiata, to more obscure sites, like the Hospital of Santa Fina.
Armed with a booklet and a map without place names, the treasure hunter sets out to explore every street of the town's four contrade (areas), following enigmatic hints to complete a crossword puzzle that would challenge even the most informed visitor. In fact, this activity is a great learning opportunity for anyone, from young school kids and study abroad university students to adults, says the museum's head of education, Cristiano Bernacchi, who affirms how ‘the clay model really gives visitors a feeling of what life was like here in the Middle Ages; clues that you can spot when you later walk around town.' Customized tours and treasure hunts can be created for any level of student, demonstrating the museum's great dedication to education through experience.
‘With this treasure hunt, people learn so much more about the Middle Ages than they would sitting in a classroom or reading a guidebook. Most importantly, they learn that the Middle Ages were not at all ‘dark,' but instead full of colour, like vthe colour of saffron from San Gimignano,' he quips.
While I won't give away all the answers to this great adventure, I can guarantee that you'll see the following:
Referred to as the Collegiata rather than ‘Duomo' because the town doesn't have a bishop, this Romanesque church (begun in 1056) is fully painted with fourteenth- and fifteenth-century frescoes that show the artistic influences of both the Sienese and Florentine schools. The clear shapes and colours of the Florentine paintings contrast amazingly with the darker images of Hell as imagined by the medieval Sienese mind.
Entrance is free at the Church of Sant'Agostino. Walk to the area behind the high altar to see a charming fresco cycle depicting scenes from the life of Saint Augustine that Benozzo Gozzoli, a student of Fra' Angelico, painted in 1464. An image of the young saint on his first day of school seems almost as if it could have been painted today, minus the fact that kids are using slates rather than iPads.
The towers that contribute so much to the town's identity represent unique moments. I was particularly charmed by the story of the Torre del Diavolo, named after the devil because its owner returned from a long trip to find his building inexplicably taller than when he left. Among the towers open to the public are the Torre Grossa, which is accessed through the Civic Museum, from which the view is magnificent.