As I surveyed the lush, rolling hills, woods and vineyards of the Tuscan landscape from the medieval hill town of San Gimignano, I couldn’t help but wonder why the Romans ever bothered to head off to invade hostile enclaves and dark forests of Northern Europe. Although seemingly benign, the gently rolling hills of Tuscany conceal a complex underlying story, reflecting turbulent power struggles between competing families down through the ages.
In a recent article I looked at how modern development is forever changing the skyline of Milan as old districts are levelled to create new skyscrapers; shining glass and steel edifices celebrating corporate wealth and power. In San Gimignano however, this process is nothing new and has indeed been going on since the Middle Ages. The town’s plethora of stone towers is the work of competing dynasties of wealthy merchants who spent much of their time trying to “keep up with the Joneses” by literally building the tallest and best tower.
Two particular families, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, became involved in a fierce feud to construct the tallest tower house in the town. By the late Medieval period there were 72 such towers in San up to 70 metres in height. Eventually the council intervened in the feud by specifying that no tower was to be taller than that adjacent to the Palazzo Comunale. The town has fortunately managed to preserve 14 of the original towers. Some of these can be accessed and provide superb vantage points of the town and the sweeping Tuscan landscape.
The town prospered until 1348 when the Black Death struck, killing half of San Gimignano’s population. The town never quite recovered from this shock, but today has become a popular visitor spot and World Heritage Site due to its unique Medieval legacy.
The surrounding Tuscan landscape is simply a pleasure to explore and a treasure trove of architectural and cultural artefacts. Fantastic art is to be found in abundance everywhere; in simple houses, churches and, off course, in the landscape itself. In Tuscany there really is something interesting to discover around every corner …