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