Blame it on Netflix.
Originally, I had planned to spend two full days in Florence—not nearly enough, of course, even for a return trip—but two nevertheless. Yet here I am making a hasty visit to the basilica of Santa Maria Novella before heading out of the city by bus to the tiny hill town of San Gimignano.
I’m always in pursuit of “Italy porn”—films of varying and largely irrelevant quality that feature beautiful Italian landscapes. Il Postino, A Room with a View, Cinema Paradiso, Life is Beautiful, My House in Umbria, and even the mediocre Under the Tuscan Sun and Letters to Juliet, have all made it to the top of my queue.
The movie that inspired this particular side trip was Tea with Mussolini. Released in 1999, it tells the story of a group of elderly English ladies living in Florence who help raise a young boy named Luca, whose experiences are based loosely on the life of director Franco Zeffirelli. After Mussolini declares war on Great Britain, the group is interned in San Gimignano for the duration, where they remain feisty in their protection of orphan children, dogs, and local art, even in the face of the menacing Nazis. It’s quite a sweet movie, and it has me yearning to see the famous towers of San Gimignano for myself.
The bus ride from Florence is cheap and easy, but it does require a change of line with a 35 minute wait in Poggibonsi, where the station is dull and nondescript. The entire journey takes nearly two hours, so by the time I disembark with a crowd of other tourists at 12:30 PM, I’m ready to stretch my legs.
I’m standing just outside of the old city walls, in front of a massive stone gate, charting my position on the map, when I realize how unnecessary it is. Like in Cortona, there seems to be just one major route in San Gimignano—down Via San Giovanni, through Piazza della Cisterna, and then along Via San Matteo to another gate at the north end of town. From here, I can see two of the city’s towers, rising high at the end of the long, narrow street in front of me, but it takes me ages to reach them given the magnetic pull of quaint little shops that line the way, and an enticing lane to the right that leads me out to a cluster of Tuscan farmhouses.
When I walk under the Arco dei Becci at last and into the triangular Piazza della Cisterna, past the Collegiata and the down to the church of San Agostino and back, I find that my neck is growing stiff from the constant looking up. My guidebook says that there were once 72 densely clustered towers in San Gimignano, built by wealthy families for protection during sieges. Given the city’s small size, its skyline must have resembled a medieval Manhattan.
When the town later fell under Florentine rule, most were ordered down. Just 14 towers survive in their original, uncropped state today. Even so, San Gimignano is widely known as La Cittá delle Belle Torri—the City of the Beautiful Towers—and it’s easy to see why. They are rustic, heavy and substantial, and admittedly less elegant and refined than the Torre del Mangia in nearby Siena, but they are undoubtedly beautiful.
In 1875, Gino Capponi, an Italian historian, wrote that: “No other town or castle in Tuscany retains more of the Middle Ages and was less invaded by the ages that followed; in those towers, and in the churches and in the houses of massive stone, is still something that cannot be covered up by the thin plastering of modern times; ancient memories keep their possession of it, the new life has hardly entered in.”
Today, given the complex realities of tourism, I doubt Capponi would still agree, but on a hot summer’s day such as this, it seems as though the pull of “ancient memories” and the push of “new life” from the daily influx of daytrippers has found a peaceful equilibrium.
I stop for lunch on the terrace of La Griglia Ristorante, where the views are as scrumptious as my warm plate of wild mushroom crostini, and my glass of Vernaccia, the local white wine. Afterwards, I tour the Civic Museum in the Palazzo del Popolo and then head up to the top of the attached Torre Grossa, which dates from 1298. At 177 feet, it is the tallest tower in San Gimignano and in every direction there are breathtaking views. I look down upon a sea of red tiled rooftops, and out across the lush green Val d’Elsa to the mountains of the Pistoia and the Apuan Alps.
Intent on capturing the moment, I snap away on my Nikon D5000, pausing only when the second of my 8 GB storage cards runs out of space. As I slip a third into the slot on the side of the camera, I think about the marvels of digital photography. The tiny plastic rectangle in my hand stores nearly a thousand pictures and video clips from Cortona, Arezzo, Orvieto, Florence, and San Gimignano. Later, at the click of a mouse, the things I did and places I saw will be magically reconstructed out of millions of brightly colored pixels. It’s a curious thing—the juxtaposition of ancient and modern. I cast my eyes over the medieval city of San Gimignano and hope that technology will help me to fix it in my memory.
Earlier, when wandering the streets, I overhead a woman talking to her companion about the Collegiata church in Piazza del Duomo—the one, she said, with the “bad frescoes.” Determined to judge for myself, I descend from my lofty perch and head next door. I pay the entrance fee and head for the chapel of Santa Fina, the one featured in the film Tea with Mussolini. Ghirlandaio’s work here is lovely, especially since it seems to soften the saint’s life story. The young Fina fell gravely ill at the age of 10 and spent the next 5 years slowly dying on an oak table, a purposeful choice to increase her suffering in the eyes of God. A brutal historical fact, yes, but it certainly isn’t bad art.
The next candidate is along the back wall—a cycle of frescoes by Taddeo di Bartolo that depict the Last Judgment in gruesome detail. Naturally. This time, instead of academically drawn nudes, many of the writhing bodies are ugly and bloated, held at knife point by an army of winged monsters. It is terrifying indeed, but once again, not exactly bad art.
Still curious, but not at all sure of what she meant, I move finally to Bartolo di Fredi’s frescoes from the Old Testament. Here, the scenes are rather misshapen and out of proportion. These, I am sure, are what she intended when she spoke of “bad frescoes.” But I do think she’s been a bit unfair. The work before me represents the mid-14th century. If she were here, I would say: Have a little patience, their world is on the verge of the Italian Renaissance. Linear perspective is coming soon.
I stroll down to the Rocca di Montestaffoli, a small park made from the ruins of a fortress overlooking the town, and then wander back up through the streets, past a row of modern paintings on display against an old stone wall. Next to a charming Tuscan landscape, there is an eye widened in fear, seen through a dark keyhole. A British woman in a lavender print dress and wide brimmed hat stares at it for moment, then turns to her friend and says: “That one makes me want to avert my eyes, it does.” I can’t help but laugh, because it’s true.
I’ve enjoyed my visit to this tiny town immensely, but when menacing clouds start to gather overhead, I know it’s time to leave. I queue for the 5:40 PM bus back to Florence, with the same connection through Poggibonsi, and am grateful for shelter from the storm, for just as I board the sky erupts into thunder and lightening and sheets of rain.
By the time I arrive back in Florence at the Hotel Davanzati, the storm has passed, but the lingering effect is a welcome one. The heat of the afternoon has given way to a cool night air.
I walk to Piazza della Signoria in search of music, and find people lazing about on the steps of the Loggia dei Lanzi listening to a British singer/songwriter named Ken Mercer. He’s good and I join the crowd for a while. I’m enjoying the moment, but truth be told I had hoped that in revisiting Florence I would see Claudio Spadi again, the street musician I met on the Ponte Vecchio during my first visit in the summer of 2008.
Disappointed, I head north toward Piazza della Repubblica, yet even at a distance the sound I hear is familiar. It seems like serendipity to find him here on my last night in Florence, guitar in hand, singing by the light of the carousal, and I can’t suppress a grin. On a break, he introduces himself and I take a picture, staying long into the night until he ends a set with a rousing version of Buona Notte, into which he inserts the names of the people he has met, including my own.
Sitting here under the stars, crossed legged on the pavement, I am experiencing what can only be described as l’arte di non fare niente. I must remember to tell Fabrizio in the morning. He will be proud.