The eternal wealth of flowers, spices and towers

Known all over the world for its skyline dotted with medieval towers, San Gimignano, a key stage on the Via Francigena, owes its fortune both to the trade of a spice and a period of poverty.


Lo zafferano di San Gimignano

It is quite difficult to mention 'San Gimignano' and not immediately think of the thousands of medieval towers that stand high up, whose iconic skyline interrupts the frame of the rolling Tuscan hills. It is one of the best known and most visited places, thanks to the unusual number of vertical structures that have remained stubbornly preserved to this day, but how many of you know its history?

San Gimignano is a fascinating destination for the whole family, but in order to really understand it, the origins of its richness need to be traced back.

San Gimignano is a perfect example of how a flower can change the course of a town's history forever. Its prosperity, which began in the Middle Ages, was linked to the trade of a small flower whose delicate petals and bright red pestles: the crocus sativus, from which the precious saffron is made.

Saffron of high value still today, in the 13th century it was cultivated by numerous families and sold by the weight of gold: the spices were traded along ancient communication routes such as the Via del Sale (Salt Road), which connected San Gimignano to Volterra and the area now known as Saline di Volterra (which can still be travelled today) but also, and above all, outside the territorial borders. Besides supplying Genoa and Europe, San Gimignano saffron also crossed the seas to impose its importance in the Middle East.


Earnings raised by its sale were so high that the families who traded in it were able to build mansions with a tower, an indisputable status of wealth and importance. Thus, in the years of the Late Middle Ages, a tacit competition generated as many as 64 towers ascending towards the sky, in an attempt to be the most beautiful, the tallest, the most prestigious. This competition was ended by the Prior of the time, who in the 14th century gave the order to build the Torre Grossa, imposing a height limit beyond which building was not permitted.

Nowadays Torre Grossa is still the tallest and certainly the best known, towering over the Piazza del Duomo and observing, with the wisdom of its centuries, the impassive passage of time.

The magnificence of the tower is also visible inside, thanks to guided tours organized, while the importance of spices, with their colours and scents, is displayed in the Spezieria di Santa Fina, where ancient apothecary recipes are still preserved.

If the birth of so many towers is linked to trade and fortune, their preservation, on the other hand, was the result of an inauspicious event.

If the birth of so many towers is linked to trade and fortune, their preservation, on the other hand, was the result of an inauspicious event.

The 17th century was a time of poverty and misery, perhaps caused by the second plague wave that hit the area: formerly wealthy families who erected the towers, not being able to afford the luxury of adapting the façade to the new architectural tastes and styles, left the buildings in their original state. This was a posthumous fortune, thanks to which (with no less than 13 authentic towers surviving the centuries and wars) San Gimignano was named a UNESCO site in 1990.

72_tina fasuolo san gimignano torre grossa

Together with the towers, saffron is still a pride of San Gimignano, protected by a Protection Consortium and awarded the PDO denomination as well as the famous Vernaccia, the DOC white wine produced in the surrounding countryside, it is one of the flavours not to be missed.

The richness and history of the hamlet also include the Archaeological Museum where the Ombra of San Gimignano, an Etruscan artifact recalling of the famous Volterra sculpture, is kept, the Spezieria, already mentioned, and the ancient Via Francigena that connects San Gimignano to Monteriggioni and Colle Val d'Elsa, crossing the stunning countryside that has always characterised the Val d'Elsa region.

Learn more:

Consortium for the Protection of Saffron POD of San Gimignano

Vernaccia of San Gimignano wine Consortium

Spezieria di Santa Fina, Archaeological Museum, Torre Grossa

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