Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

31 August 2009

San Gimignano: Town of Towers

To San Gimignano. Early. I’ve long wanted to go there. We missed a chance in 1995 when our New Zealand contingent (minus us two who stayed at Chiesetta for peace as much as any other reason) went to visit the Rocca del Macie winery in Castellini in Chianti and paid a side trip to the town of towers. When they returned they spoke more of some museum of torture than anything else but I long ago shed any curiosity about man’s inhumanity to man and I shan’t even give it a passing glance.

It takes us just two-and-a-half hours to get there from Barga via the autostrade but although we arrive early enough, at 8.10, the town approaches are already crowded with tourist coaches. The inadequate carparks outside the walls are full. We watch as streams of zombified visitors file through the town gate. Unwilling to join them we decide to turn away and do a tour of the purlieus in the hope that we’ll get a better feel for how the towers make the town. Mauve heat deadens the colours of the distant views as I take photographs across the outlying valleys and over the rows of vines that surround the walls and radiate like dull green corduroy down from the eminence, giving tremendous perspective. Vineyards are everywhere and at the hearts of each are red-tiled factory buildings and houses guarded by cypresses that make the scene so archetypally Tuscan.

There’s a feel of quiet wealth here, an inheritance of history, of landowners no longer subjects of the feudal power that once dominated from the city walls. Away from the roads that lead directly to San Gimignano it’s peaceful and deserted; few people are evident, just the odd Piaggio comes farting along the dusty back roads its driver giving us a disinterested nod at passing.

Having made a circuit we stop for lunch on the main approach to the town at an expensive hotel that lies away from the road. On the almost empty terrace beside a glassy azure pool we sit under a Cypress-green market umbrella, sip iced Campari sodas and nibble on bruschetta while watching the cars and coaches as they contest share of the highway below with tractor drawn trailers loaded with newly harvested grapes. Their drivers ignore impatient visitors. Especially deliberately and, it seems, insolently, they now and then slow down and ease towards the centre of the road instinctively knowing which of the cars and coaches carry a ‘D’ origin on their number plates!

At last we attack the city. It’s a little quieter after lunch and we find a parking space near the Porta San Giovanni, entering by that gate and making our way up the cobbled Via San Giovanni. We peel off to a side road from where we can get some pictures of the towers, emphasizing their height. At the zenith of power, in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were seventy; only thirteen now survive. I’ve read that they were built by antagonistic families during the conflicts of Guelphs and Ghibellines as defensive keeps - some connected by walkways - each one trying to outdo the other with a higher structure; sort of keeping ahead of the Joneses. But I don’t believe it because it would be too easy to add to the structure and in any case, even for show-off Italians, would have been a petty enterprise.

A more sensible suggestion (although it lacks the absolute stamp of history) is that their towers emerged from the time when San Gimignano was famous for its textiles, particularly those dyed by secret processes using the saffron yellow distillations of locally grown crocuses. The most prized fabrics were those whose colours had been fixed while avoiding sunlight and dust, and were the longest strips possible. To achieve this the strips were suspended in the still air inside the windowless towers. The holes that can be seen in the walls were made for trusses to support staircases outside the towers thus leaving maximum internal space for the textiles. Knowing the Italians’ proclivity for turning a lira or euro I’m certain that’s why the towers were built; my contention is supported today by the sheer commercialism of the town which is so attuned to taking tourists’ money that it’s hard to imagine what the character of the real San Gimignano is. I guess a winter here would have its own rewards. In fact, a winter anywhere in Italy would be an eye opener for, as with the hosts of a dinner party, behaviour would be quite different after the guests had departed. Prices would come down for a start!

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’ This book is available from Blurb.com.



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By Don Donovan

About Me

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Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.