Technically speaking, San Gimignano, the city of towers, is not part of the Chianti territory as we know it, since it is situated on the furthest South-West border of the region.
And contrary to the other villages of Chianti, the cultivations of saffron, not that of vineyards, have made the town rich. But it would be impossible to skip San Gimignano, not only for its beauty, but also for its history and for the richness that contributed to the birth of the so called Golden Period. This historic parallel is the only common ground between the villages of Chianti and San Gimignano.
This lovely town looks like frozen in the dantesque age, the golden period which saw its growth and its maximum expansion, culminated with the construction of 72 towers, and an estimated population of 7000 inhabitants!
The towers were raised up every time a family became rich, until 1253, when a decree was introduced, prohibiting the construction of buildings higher than the Municipal Tower. Respect to other medieval towns, Florence included, San Gimignano has preserved an almost original skyline, and the inside of the walls has remained exactly as it was, with the tower-houses, the streets and lanes, and the two squares, one religious and one civil, duly distanced one from the other…
The Frank way, which connected the north with Rome, crosses the town from north to south, from Porta San Matteo to Porta San Giovanni. Being placed exactly on the pilgrims way, San Gimignano was filled up with hospitals and monasteries, something which also favoured the development of the saffron trade and the financial market, the two main propellers which helped the city prosper.
Among the various religious buildings, the Church of San Bartolo (built in 1173) and the Church of San Matteo are worth a visit. The Church of San Bartolo al Tempio was built to be placed side by side to a hospital, which was lately annexed to the monastery of San Girolamo. Also, the Church of San Francesco, dating back to the 13th century, was probably built to host pilgrims.
The economic richness fostered the arrival of many important artists in town, who continued to work there even in the years of the decline. This is the reason why in the sacred buildings it is possible to admire works by Barna da Siena, Bartolo di Fredi, Taddeo di Bartolo and Benozzo Gozzi. Particularly worthy of note is the group of frescos by Benozzo Gozzi, inside the church of Sant’Agostino, and the works by Taddeo di Bartolo in the Collegiata. The Collegiata or Duomo is a very old building (it dates back to the 10th century), readjusted many times over the centuries. The two impressive towers may diminish the importance of the Duomo, but the majestic flight of steps of the 13th century has nothing to envy the towers for. This flight of steps had the purpose to remind the city of the importance of humility during the period of the great economic expansion. Inside the Duomo it is possible to admire a long series of frescos of remarkable importance. But the visitor’s attention is almost completely taken by the Giudizio Universale, by Taddeo di Bartolo: a majestic work in which the hell is attentively and meticulously represented. Another masterpiece of the Tuscan Renaissance is also worth a mention: the Chapel of Santa Fina, by Giuliano and Di Benedetto da Maiano.
As for museums, the most famous is certainly the Torture Museum, advertised everywhere in town and in the surrounding areas. But the most interesting museums are the Civil Museum hosted inside the Town Palace, in which are kept some archaeological finds dating back to the Bronze Age, as well as some medieval art works. After admiring so many beautiful works inside churches and religious buildings, the Sacred Art Museum is definitely worth a visit, while curious and interesting is the Museum of the Spezieria, where it is possible to admire documents, props and equipment of a pharmaceutical laboratory of the 16th century.