'San Gimignano delle belle Torri' is in Tuscany, 56 km south of Florence. It served as an important relay point for pilgrims travelling to or from Rome on the Via Francigena. The patrician families who controlled the town built around 72 tower-houses (some as high as 50 m) as symbols of their wealth and power. Although only 14 have survived, San Gimignano has retained its feudal atmosphere and appearance. The town also has several masterpieces of 14th- and 15th-century Italian art.
San Gimignano bears exceptional testimony to the civilization of the Middle Ages in that it groups together within a small area all the structures typical of urban life: squares and streets, houses and palaces, wells and fountains.
San Gimignano is situated in the Val d'Elsa, 56 km south of Florence. Its walls and fortified houses form an unforgettable skyline, in the heart of the Etruscan landscape. San Gimignano was a relay point on the Via Francigena for pilgrims journeying to and from Rome. Originally under the jurisdiction of the bishops of Volterra, it became independent in 1199 when it acquired its first podestà. The free town, known as San Gimignano delle Belle Torri, entered into a long period of prosperity that lasted until 1353, when it fell under the sway of Florence. In 1262 an enceinte measuring 2,177 m, later to be reinforced with five cylindrical towers, girdled the small town.
The town was controlled by two major rival families - the Ardinghelli, Guelph sympathizers, and the Salvucci, who were Ghibellines - and was the scene of incessant conflicts between the two clans. As symbols of their wealth and power, 72 tower houses were built. Of these, 14 have survived, including the Cugnanesi house on the former Via Francigena (Via San Giovanni); the Pesciolini house on the Via San Matteo, on the Via del Castello, in the town's oldest quarter, the Palazzo Franzesi-Ceccarelli house, whose unsymmetrical facade ingeniously circumvented the law of 1255 which stipulated that no new residence should be wider than 12 arm spans for a linear depth of 24 arm spans.
The town grew around two principal squares, the Piazza della Cisterna and the Piazza del Duomo. The triangular Piazza della Cisterna is ornamented with a lovely well that stands in the centre. The piazza is bordered by tower houses: the twin towers of the Ardinghellis to the west, the tower of the Benuccis, the Casa Rodolfi and the Palazzo Razzi to the south, and the Palazzo dei Cortesi to the north.
The Piazza del Duomo has more a intricate layout that took form in the late 13th century. The majority of public and private monuments are found here. On the west, is the Collegiata of Santa Maria Assunta. On the east is the former palace of thepodestà (1239), which was transformed into an inn, then a theatre, and today is disused; the Torre della Rognosa and the Torre Chigi are also on this side. The Palazzo del Popolo stands on the south along with the Torre Grossa which rises to 54 m and faces the twin towers of the Salvucci on the north.
The historic centre of San Gimignano contains a series of masterpieces of 14th- and 15th-century Italian art in their original architectural settings, including: in the cathedral, the fresco of the Last Judgment, Heaven and Hell by Taddeo di Bartolo (1393), the Martyrdom of S. Sebastian by Benozzo Gozzoli, and above all the magnificent frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio - the cycle of Santa Fina, the Annunciation in the St John baptistry. Other works of the same outstanding beauty include the huge frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting St Sebastian and St Augustine.
The frescoes by Memmo di Filippuccio which the township commissioned in 1303 to decorate the chambers of the podestà in the Palazzo del Popolo are among the most frequently reproduced documents used to illustrates daily life, down to its most domestic details, of the early 14th century.