Topless towers

Piazza della Cisterna, San Gimignano, Italy

I’d always wanted to visit San Gimignano after reading about it, and then seeing the film Tea with Mussolini (1999). 

I wonder if the towers [torri] of Tuscan hill-towns inspired Christopher Marlowe to give Faustus the line about “the topless towers of Ilium”. 

The fourteen existing medieval skyscrapers in San Gimignano, erected in a race for status between rival families, are astonishing, though there were once seventy-two such towers on the skyline.

On my first short visit in 2018 the only historic site I visited seriously, in the 30°C heat, was the Collegiate Church [Duomo] where in Tea with Mussolini Judi Dench protects the frescoes. 

They form a spectacular sequence, vividly illustrating the Old and New Testaments, the Last Judgement, the Annunciation, St Sebastian (who seems to have a high profile in this part of Tuscany) and the life of St Fina (otherwise St Serafina), whose shrine is in a side chapel with, in a gilded frame, the rough plank on which she lay for the last five years of her life.

The Chiesa di San Lorenzo di Ponte which stands at the end of the Via del Castello, contains precious frescoes that Judi Dench’s character would certainly have respected.

The early medieval images are indeed fine, but the church had been neglected and then shut down by disputes between rival religious orders, and the interior repeatedly suffered what the English translation of the Italian Wikipedia article calls “water infiltrations”.  By the end of the eighteenth century the building was an oil mill and wine cellar.  The church was eventually restored in the early twentieth century and reopened in 1937.  It’s a remarkable survival.

When I returned in 2022, San Gimignano was the raison d’être of the entire holiday, a time to enjoy simply being there, with optional tourism. 

San Gimignano is a place of serious historic significance that’s worth of study, but more than that it’s beautiful and atmospheric.  There’s a golden hour in San Gimignano around 10.00am, after which the tourist buses unload.

I felt no need to keep up with what Philip Larkin called “ruin-bibber[s], randy for antique”.  It’s enough simply to be there.

On my last evening I walked up to the Piazza della Cisterna and sat down at the Ristorante La Cisterna [Ristorante – Hotel Cisterna (], looking past the actual cisterna, or well-head, to the cluster of buildings in front of the Torre Grossa, the biggest tower of all in the town, 177 feet high. 

I had plenty of time to admire the view, which I took as a sign that real cooking was taking place.  My dinner, when it arrived, was delicious.

You don’t have to walk far to eat your way round San Gimignano.

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