San Gimignano: Pisstaking Memories of Medieval Manhattan

Deep within the inner cloisters of the Rockafeller Monastery, Don Draper and Roger Sterling furrow their brows and put their brains to work, as they attempt to formulate their order’s position on the Arian heresy. Was Christ entirely divine, entirely human, or somewhere in between? Just around the corner, crowds are gathering in the Madison Square market; Neil Simon and Billy Joel have written a new mystery play about the crucifixion, and it receives its premiere tonight in a production by the Stonemason’s Guild. Podesta Clinton says a short prayer before heading into the Palazzo Pubblico to face the city council; her rival faction have demanded that she walk across twenty yards of glowing hot coals tonight, that the city may find out whether God is on her side. Outside the city walls in the tiny hamlet of Williamsburg, Lena Dunham fretfully waits out the long hours in her convent cell. The mother superior has placed her in solitary confinement for inappropriately touching a new novice sister. Still, she is better off than her friends Marnie, Jessa and Shoshana, who were all married off to cloth merchants, sent away to cope with the biting winters of Antwerp, and died in their mid-teens during childbirth. Such is daily life in San Gimignano, the Medieval Manhattan.

I overstate the case slightly. As much as we idealise the age of Dante and Giotto, medieval Italy was a violent and unstable place whose histories describe literal rivers of blood. The wealthier families would build tower houses as impregnable boltholes, power centres or statements of intent- the kitchen went on the top floor, being the likeliest source of a fire. There are still a few in Ascoli Piceno, as well as the famous twin towers of Bologna. San Gimignano (named after a C4th senator/bishop, said to have persuaded Atilla to spare the town) flourished as a stop on the Via Francigena, the popular pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome (and on to Jerusalem, if you were very hardcore), only falling to Florence when the town, like all of Italy, was engulfed by the fratricidal wars of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, supporters of the Pope/Emperor respectively. For a time it retained strategic importance, as a Florentine hill town on the border with the Republic of Siena, but once Siena was conquered the town fell into irrelevance and obscurity. Because of this, today San Gimignano is a well-preserved medieval town within its old walls; compact enough to be walked end-to-end in around ten minutes, it still contains fourteen of these Weetabix skyscrapers. Its unique situation, its small size, the astounding beauty of its surrounding countryside, and its day-trip friendly proximity from the great cities of Florence and Siena mean that mass tourism has taken over and San Gimignano is a bit of a theme park.

I didn’t want to stay in San Gimignano, but I did want to experience Tuscany beyond its big cities and this seemed to be the only option with adequate transport links (the other candidate, Volterra, has reportedly become equally Disneyland after its pivotal role in the Twilight series). You can find yourself wondering what on earth you are doing here when the afternoon crowds reach their worst and you have to fight your way through packed lanes lined by endless plastic trinkets shops with NO FOTO signs, American pensioners eating €8 ice creams larger than pint glasses, and American teenagers swigging from 5-litre bottles of Chianti. There are, however, benefits to staying in San Gimignano; the honeyed stone takes on a most wonderfully warm colour as the sun begins to dip, and once the last coach trip pulls away after 5pm, the buzz of commerce abates and the entire character of the town is altered; all is dormant, relaxing, and slightly melancholy.

Starting from Pisa, reaching San Gimignano is not excessively taxing, neither is it a doddle. The Florence train takes a while to leave the Pisa environs, but once it does things get pretty after a while. Green hills abound with tiny crenellated towers at their summit, silhouetted by the midday sun, and Tuscany still looks like all those altarpieces in the National Gallery. My expectations are confounded because the Florence train is not very busy at all, whereas when we change onto the Siena train at Empoli we find every carriage entirely rammed, chiefly with teenagers who disembark at Castello Fiorentino or Certaldo. As the boy sitting beside me gets up, I notice he has been reading A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in Italian. We leave the Siena train at the wonderfully-named Poggibonsi and have an hour to kill before our bus, most of which is spent loitering around the station café. Unlike the slick, mercantile, nasty café at Pisa Centrale, this is a good old bric-a-brac station whose kiosks sell all sorts of unlikely junk; the café has an action figure of a singing goat with stand-up microphone called ‘Hellvis’.

We pick up the San Gimignano bus for the last few minutes of its route from Siena and from here onwards, the landscape is beautiful to the point of delirium. Wave after wave of gently sloping and descending hills are covered in rows of grapevines and clumps of umbrella pines. At one sharp bend in the road I catch a momentary glimpse of San Gimignano’s stone skyscrapers in the middle distance and I can understand what the fuss is about. The bus stops at the main entrance to the city walls, Porta San Giovanni, and becomes a flurry of French and Japanese all asking one another “Is this San Gimano?”. Our flat is at the opposite end of town, slightly away from the hordes, and we stay on an extra stop.

After checking in we stroll up Via San Matteo to the twin central squares, Piazza Duomo and Piazza della Cisterna (as the name gives away, it centres on an old well). The latter is a place for loitering, food and drink, the former is a steep slope with the Palazzo Communale and the church sitting at right angles on its summit, the town’s largest tower between them; a graphic illustration of the twin seats of medieval power. On a sunny late afternoon these squares are certainly crowded, but less so than the West End of London. The volume of shops selling souvenir tat is slightly incriminating, but the fact that the buskers are all playing things like the harp or the gamelan perhaps implies a more refined version of mass tourism. Our little flat faces onto a private courtyard, which proves to be a sanctuary from the crowds and a perfect spot to while away the last hours of sunlight with a bottle of Vernaccia.

As dusk settles on the town, we feel ready to brave the outside world again only to find that San Gimignano has gone to sleep. It feels spectral to be walking these ancient streets now that they are largely empty. The main café in the piazza is stacking up chairs and closing up for the night before 8pm, which is far more melancholy than if it had stayed open with a solitary bored barman. For dinner, we join other overnight tourists in the carefully-manicured garden of Mandragola (named after a satirical play by Machiavelli, apparently), where I have walnut, fig and truffle pates followed by ricotta ravioli with foie gras. It’s very good, but loses points for the waiter asking if we’d like a cappuccino afterwards, patronising sod.

By the time we manage to get up and out the next morning, San Gimignano has been refilled with visitors, although not all tourists; today is market day and the central piazzas are taken up with stalls selling food, clothes, and homeware. We pick our way through the teatowels and leather bags to buy tickets for the Duomo, whose plain brick facade turns out to conceal a multitude of fantastic frescoes. A lovely Annunciation by the entrance door is just a trailer for the treasures within.

There is so much painting in this place, it’s difficult to know where one should start; I am almost put in mind of Assisi. A Gozzoli St Sebastian takes up the back wall and the arches around it have a striking Last Judgment (Taddeo di Bartolo, 1393) which make clear the impact of the Black Death on man’s mindset. The crowd of angels and saints awaiting the saved look rigid and boring, as if the painter cannot really imagine what heaven is like. Hell? It’s easy to paint because it’s what people knew. Black demons with tusks, horns and drooping breasts pour fire and boiling oil onto the damned. Devils with bird-beak faces force a table of gluttons to carry on eating, one of whom has the tonsured cut of a friar. One plunges a hot poker into the bleeding wound between a woman’s legs whilst the serpentine tail of another tears out her hair. The image of a crouching monster shitting gold coins into the stuffed mouth of a usurer might have been borrowed from Céline.

The two walls of the nave contain mid-C14th cycles of the Old Testament (Bartolo di Freddi) and New Testament (Lippo Memmi). The Old Testament stuff looks earlier, but came 30 years later; perhaps painting retrenched in response to people’s need for certainties after the Black Death. For its resolutely medieval style, it is still crammed with storytelling and delightfully naive incidental detail. We get the stories of Adam, Noah, Joseph, Moses and Job; Moses’ parting of the red sea is an accomplished Guernica of drowing horses, soldiers and floating pieces of armour, yet the eye is drawn to the smug babies behind Noah, and the fishermen who are having a good day at the office. Post-flood, the story of Noah ends with his drunkenness and self-exposure, a reminder of how weird the Old Testament can be.

Its arbitrary malevolence is on display in the panels dealing with Job as well. His sons and livestock are slaughtered, his buildings collapse and he is left swollen and covered with hideous boils; in the top left corner of each panel, Christ is giving directions to the Devil that visits each misfortune upon him.

As I say, it’s quite a surprise to learn that Memmi’s New Testament was painted first, as these show the influence of Giotto; human dramas where palpable emotions can be read in the faces, a move away from the aloof almond-shaped eyes of Byzantine figures. The even composition supports the weight of the tensions within the Last Supper, Agony in the Garden, and the paying of Judas. There are still a few oddities, like a Crucifixion where the three victims are peripheral to the horses that take centre-stage.

But best of all is something that came a century later; the chapel of Santa Fina, painted by the Florentine Domenico Ghirlandaio. I was only vaguely aware of the name before this trip, now he feels like an old and treasured friend; of which much more when I get to Florence. Santa Fina is the town’s patron saint. Accounts state that she was a sick girl who became confined to a wooden bench and was eaten alive by rats, and that when she died aged 15, violets bloomed from the bench and the blind and lame were cured at her funeral. Ghirlandaio gives us a serene, Vermeerish interior in which St Gregory appears to prophesy her death, and a group scene of her funeral rites to which San Gimignano’s towers provide the panoramic backdrop.

After the Biblical frescoes, Ghirlandaio is such a leap forward that he electrifies. This is why people make a fuss about the Renaissance; it took us from two-dimensional painting to portraits of men that appear as flesh-and-blood. Some appear grave and pious, some look rather louche and detached from the purported solemnity of the funeral. Ghirlandaio put himself, as well as fellow painters and patrons, into many of his paintings and here he appears just behind the priest in the funeral scene. He knew that he was the star of the show, as much as Justinian & Theodora did when their mosaics paid lip service to the primacy of Jesus.

At the side of the Duomo is the C13th Palazzo Comunale, the other chief sight to see in San Gimignano. Before going in we return to the market, find the guy who always turns up at Italian markets with a whole roasted pig and spends all day dispensing pork sandwiches, then follow the signs to a ‘panoramic viewpoint’ and eat our lunch leaning on a wall and simply drinking in Tuscany.

The Palazzo is four stories tall and handsomely forbidding on the outside, lined with crenellated Guelph battlements, a little like the palazzo at Gubbio. The entrance is at the side, via a coat-of-arms-heavy courtyard with a stairway to the first floor.

The first main room was the council chamber, and now gets called the Sala di Dante as the man himself spoke here as an ambassador for Florence during the Guelph-Ghibbeline troubles. One wall is given over to Lippo Memmi (he of the New Testament next door, and brother-in-law of Simone Martini, more of whom later) and a giant Maestà, the theme of which is always the Virgin Mary enthroned as Queen of Heaven and surrounded by a comprehensive cast of saints. It is interesting to see the individual faces within tin halos overlapping each other, and each halo with its own individual pattern.

The rest of the hall contains frescoes that might be less technically accomplished, but are striking for their secular subject matter, which seems mostly to be hunting, jousting, and other Pythonesque pursuits that give an insight onto how medieval man saw himself.

I’m not normally one for climbing up the tower in these places, which seems to be entertainment for people who don’t like art, but the ticket includes a visit to the Torre Grossa so you might as well. I don’t usually suffer from vertigo but I really did in this tower. Instead of a spiral staircase with solid stone steps, the tall square tower is ascended by a free-standing, scaffold-style metal staircase that has substantial gaps between the steps. Dare to look back down and you will get the full Jimmy Stewart experience.

Once up there, it’s fine, apart from having to crouch low to pass under the belfry if you want to move from one side to another. Up there you hold San Gimignano, small as it is, in the palm of your hand and you can see across Tuscany’s groomed rows of cypresses and wooded hills for miles, until the slightly scorched fields dissolve into heathaze around their vanishing point. The ‘twin towers’ pictured offer an insight into why the town fell prey to its neighbours; when the vogue for towers was at its height, a law was passed that no tower could be taller than the mayor’s. This particular family built two side-by-side towers that were a few centimetres shorter than the mayor’s, simply as a “fuck you” to the rest of the town.

Back downstairs, there is more to the Palazzo, including a pinacoteca that is small but good quality. Highlights include a Fillipo Lippi Annunciation and a lovely Perugino-style Virgin and Two Saints by Pinturicchio. Further on, there are lots of gilded altarpieces with miniature panels of devils being exorcised and martyrs having their skin flayed.

Finally, the Palazzo contains some frescoes in the Podesta’s bedroom. The Podesta was a well-paid mayor for hire, brought in because outsiders would be impartial, and they had a fairly high turnover; something like a medieval football manager. The frescoes are hardly first-rate but they are on everyone’s checklist for the saucy cycle illustrating the Benefits of Marriage. A redhead brandishes a whip as she sits on a crouching man as if on horseback. Afterwards they share a bath and get into bed together, and the most impressive thing might be that the man keeps his red hat on throughout.

Having crammed in all this art, we reward ourselves with gelato from Dondoli in Piazza della Cisterna, twice captain of victorious Italian squads at the Ice Cream World Cup (I would be interested to know whether anyone other than Italy ever competes in this, let alone wins the thing). It turns out to be thoroughly deserving of the hype, and had I known earlier I’d have gone twice a day. I can endorse their cinammon and champelmo (champagne with pink grapefruit).

The one other place on the artistic itinerary is another church, San Agostino, which is shut until 5pm for the siesta hours. When we go out again at 5pm, everything is bathed in that gentle evening light that brings out the warm honey notes in the stones of the town; it’s perhaps the best time of the day. The church is at our end of town. Even in a place as small as San Gimignano, there are quarters where the locals outnumber the daytrippers and the tour groups don’t bother to cover. The church faces onto a quiet, serene piazza with children patiently stopping their football game to be fussed over by middle-aged ladies.

The church is whitewashed with bits of fresco and the odd marble side altar, but our quarry is behind the main altar where Benozzo Gozzoli, star pupil to Fra Angelico, has left us a fantastic fresco cycle showing the Life of St Augustine (1465). No flash miracles on show; St Augustine was a teacher and a man of letters, and we see him travel from Carthage to Rome, his baptism, on to Milan and back to Tunisia as a bishop. His eyes turn to the heavens as he hunches over a desk, quill in hand, and more often than not he will be occupied with a big book as life carries on around him.

It’s hard to tell what is going on in each panel when the story is less familiar than the usual subject matter, but it’s refreshing too and there is abundant variety in scenes of country panoramas, crowded city streets, public buildings and people at sea; all capitalising on the discovery of perspective, and like all the best frescoes full of charming incidentals such as the antics of dogs and children.

We are so absorbed by the frescoes that we get caught out by three sprightly priests rushing out from the cloister and beginning mass immediately, so we have to do the walk of shame and come back the next morning to see the rest of the church. There is more interesting stuff further back in the nave, best of which is another Gozzoli of St. Sebastian. We almost always see the plague saint wearing little more than a skimpy piece of fabric around the waist, but here he is fully clothed and, like a Virgin, using his cloak to protect the citizens of San Gimignano from the plague arrows sent down by God and his angels. Under his cloak, the men and woman are segregated and look as if they are portraits of Gozzoli’s patrons. Jesus kneels at God’s feet and the Virgin has her breasts out, perhaps in an attempt to kindle some pity in the heart of their trigger-happy boss.

Before dinner, there’s just time to climb one of the towers in the Rocca, remains of a Florentine fortress than have been converted into a small park filled with wispy olive trees, for more views of the countryside and the extraordinary skyline.

In the morning sun, a brief exploration of the outer city walls before the town gets busy, and then out to wait for the bus to Siena. Sleepy San Gimignano was a restful, luxurious place in which to readjust to the dolce far niente of wandering around amusing oneself, and a perfect antipasto to whet our apetites for the main course.

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