What to see in San Gimignano
Porta San Giovanni is San Gimignano's most beautiful and impressive gate. It gave access to the city from the south and was the historic access point for those coming from Siena along the stretch of the Via Francigena that passed through the town. Along the main axis Via San Giovanni, on your right you will see the magnificent white façade of Chiesa di San Francesco. Originally the structure was dedicated to Saint John and served also as a shelter for pilgrims and travellers along the Via Francigena. It was transformed into a place of worship dedicated to Saint Francis in 1553, when Franciscan monks moved here after their convent outside of the San Giovanni Gate had been destroyed.
After 150 meters from the Church, on the right there is Campatelli tower-house. It is an 18th century palazzo that encompasses one of the famous towers of San Gimignano. In the early 19th century, the Campatellis, a landowning family of entrepreneurs, acquired the entire building, transforming it into a traditional upper-middle-class house, to which they would come to manage their affairs and the income they received from the lands they owned just outside the town, or to spend their holidays. In 2005, Lydia Campatelli, the last owner of the property, donated the Campatelli Tower-House to FAI on condition that it be opened up to the public, together with the furnishings and the contained within it. The visit begins in the Attic Spaces and the Tower, where you can view the movie A Thousand Years in San Gimignano, which explain you the history of San Gimignano. The visit continues on the piano nobile, which has been remodeled to resemble the way it would have looked in the late 19th century, with original furnishings from the house, to give you the chance to understand the atmosphere of an earlier age.
Going up to the main street you arrive in Piazza della Cisterna, which is the most beautiful and famous piazza in San Gimignano. It is enclosed by a wall of nobility houses and medieval towers, such as Palazzo Razzi, with its splendid two-light mullioned windows; Casa Salvestrini, which at one time was a hospital and is now a hotel; Palazzo Tortoli, Palazzo dei Cortesi and the charming Torre del Diavolo, with the unusual name and its unsettling connection to a mysterious legend.
Along Via del Castello, on you right, just in front of the large building of San Domenico (a former prison), there is the Church of San Lorenzo in Ponte. This Romanesque church was built in 1240. Originally it was next to the drawbridge of the Bishop's castle that gave the name to the church (ponte means bridge).
The church is very simple, both outside and inside. Inside there is a cycle of frescoes depicting scenes of St. Benedict and, on the bottom, a large fresco with Christ in Glory, Virgin and 12 apostles.
Along this street there is also the famous Galleria Continua opened in San Gimignano in 1990 as the result of the initiative of three friends: Mario Cristiani, Lorenzo Fiaschi and Maurizio Rigillo. Occupying a former cinema, Galleria Continua established itself and thrived in an entirely unexpected location, away from the big cities and the ultramodern urban centers, in a town - San Gimignano - steeped in history and timeless. This art gallery was created with the intention of giving continuity to the art strongly embedded on the territory and soon it established itself internationally hosting exhibitions of famous artists coming from all over the world.
From Piazza della Cisterna the passageway leads to the Piazza del Duomo, which is still the heart of San Gimignano, just as it was the centre of political and religious life in the Middle Ages. Many important medieval buildings face one another here: On the left side is the Palazzo Nuovo del Potestà with the Loggia del Comune. Beside it is the massive Torre Grossa. However the most imposing building is the Collegiata; it is at the centre, overpowering the piazza with its bulk as it sits on high atop a stairway. Exactly opposite is the Palazzo Vecchio del Potestà with the Torre Rognosa and the Torre Chigi alongside.
The Collegiata, also know as the Duomo, gives its name to the piazza and has been there since the 11th century. It is considered one of the best examples of the Tuscan Romantic Style. There is a breathtaking view of the addition in the interior. Splendid frescoes also completely cover the walls of the three naves, a concentration of priceless works of art. The decorations depict stories from the Bible and the lives of saints. Artists with work here include: Benozzo Gozzoli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Taddeo di Bartolo, and Jacopo della Quercia, who created the wooden Annunciation. In the right aisle, next to the transept, we find the famous Chapel of St. Fina built in 1468. It is the most precious work of art in the Duomo thanks to its elegant altar by Benedetto da Maiano and to its frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio.
To the right of the Collegiata, the Piazza Pecori opens up as a small peaceful piazza connected to the Piazza del Duomo. Here there is the Museum of sacred Art. This museum has recently been reorganized and includes works of art from convents, the Duomo and from churches of the area. The display exhibits remarkable paintings, sculptures, earthenware, rests of funerary monuments, bas-relieves, textiles and silverware. "The Madonna of the Rose", part of a triptych by Bartolo di Fredi, is particularly loved from the inhabitants of San Gimignano.
To the left of the Duomo, the Palazzo Comunale rises up in all its majesty, flanked by the Torre Grossa and the Loggia del Comune. It was built at the end of the 13th century and became the headquarters of the comune after it moved there from the Palazzo Vecchio del Podestà. Since 1852 the Palazzo Comunale has housed the splendid Museo Civico and the Pinacoteca, containing very important works by such medieval Florentine and Sienese artists as Benozzo Gozzoli, Filippino Lippi, Pinturicchio, and Sodoma. To the right of the piazza stands the imposing Torre Grossa. At almost 54 meters tall, it is the highest tower in all of San Gimignano. It is worth while going all the way up to the top to admire the city from up high and the rolling hills surrounding it.
On the left side of Piazza Duomo opens up Piazza delle Erbe. The name probably comes from the local produce market which is usually held here, as in the past. Today, the most interesting architectonical features of this Piazza are the simple elegance of its houses and the two "twin" towers, erected by the Ghibelline Salvucci family. This family became rich through usury and commerce. Their massive and powerful appearance is no accident: the towers were meant to show the supremacy of the family to the entire city. When they were built, they were taller than the 51 meters of the Rognosa Tower, but after a regulation in 1255 expressly forbade buildings higher than Rognosa, they were lowered.
From Piazza delle Erbe the path climbs to Rocca di Montestaffoli. This fortress was built by the Florentines in 1353 when the town submitted to Florence to protect it from possible attacks by Siena or from internal riots that may arise inside the town itself. The fortress housed soldiers led by a Florentine commander. The fortress has a pentagonal base with a perimeter of approx. 280m, turrets on each corner and passages that linked it to the city walls. It was protected by a front gate and by a drawbridge. Today only one of the ancient turrets is still safe and open to visitors, and it offers breathtaking views of the historical centre with its unique towers and surrounding countryside.
Walking along the main axis of the town, the Romanesque Church of St. Bartolo is located in Via San Matteo immediately after the Arch and the Palazzo della Cancelleria. The Church is devoted to St. Bartolo, a local saint who died in 1299 whilst attending the lepers at Lazzeretto di Cellole. Via San Matteo was the section of the Francigena that passed through the city from the north to the south. Bit by bit, an entire neighbourhood grew around this road. The buildings alongside it today are almost all from the 13th century, offering tour of houses, palazzos, and medieval towers. Once arrived at the second gate of the town, Porta San Matteo, you can turn right, along Via Cellolese that leads you to Piazza and Church of Sant'Agostino.
The very simple façade of the church still retains the characteristics of its original architectural style. The interior consists of a single great nave with three ogival apses. The roof is supported by a wooden framework. The construction of the Church of St. Agostino, with a single nave in Romanesque style with Gothic elements, began in 1280 and terminated on 31st March 1298 when it was consecrated by Cardinal Matteo D'Acquasparta. We owe to the Prior Fra Domenico Strambi, the building of the Cloister in the second half of the 15th century and the decoration of the Church in Renaissance style.
Extremely interesting to see is the Chapel of the Blessed Bartolo, whose mortal remains are kept in a marble monument sculpted by Benedetto da Maiano in 1495. In 1500 Sebastiano Mainardi frescoed the Chapel's walls and vaults. Its terracotta floor is the work of Andrea della Robbia.
Second to last stage of the tour is the former Conservatorio di Santa Chiara, in Via Folgore da San Gimignano, which host on the first floor the Archeological Museum and the Herbarium of Santa Fina, and on the second floor the Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery "Raffaele De Grada".
The group of ceramics and glass wares, once belonging to the ancient Herb Pharmacy and Herbarium (Spezieria) of the Spedale di Santa Fina, represents one of the most beautiful and interesting collections in San Gimignano.
The display exhibits not just ceramic and glass wares from the 14th century, but it reproduces also the ancient structure of the pharmacy with the "shop", where the medicines were sold, and the "kitchen" where they were prepared. You can even find also some of the ancient substances and drugs found inside the containers.
The Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery "Raffaele De Grada" is the outcome of a long tradition of works of art commissioned by the Town, which has increased its cultural heritage year after year thanks to donations and temporary exhibitions. The current layout shows just part of the numerous works of art belonging to the Comune di San Gimignano. The Gallery also houses paintings by Raffaele De Grada, whose name was given to the Gallery. The gallery is also the town's biggest exhibition place where lot of temporary art exhibitions are hosted.
The Medieval publicFountains are the last stage of our tour. Porta delle Fonti opens into the countryside and leads to the public fountains, where originally local people drew water, and washed their cloths. The fountains, dating back to the fourteenth century, consist of ten Roman and lancet arches that conceal the first Lombard stony fountain dating back to the ninth century.
This gate was part of the second circle of walls, but it was altered during the twentieth century.