Today we rode from our hotel just outside of Florence to Livorno where we caught the ferry to Sardinia. Being Memorial Day, several of us decided to stop at the Florence American Cemetery to pay our respects to those that have fallen defending our freedom. The burial site contains headstones for 4,402 American soldiers, laid out in symmetrical curved rows up the hillside. The headstones represent 39% of the U.S. Fifth Army Battalion burials between Rome and the Alps. Most of the soldiers died in the fighting that followed the capture of Rome in June of 1944. Included are casualties of the heavy fighting in the Apennines Mountains shortly before the end of World War II. On 02 May 1945 the enemy troops in northern Italy surrendered.
From there we rode into the heart of Chianti wine country. One of the largest tourist destinations in the area is San Gimignano, a small medieval walled hill town known as the Town of Towers. Whilst in other cities, such as Florence, most or all of their towers have been destroyed due to wars, catastrophes, or urban renewal; San Gimignano has managed to conserve fourteen of its original seventy-two towers.
In the 3rd century BC a small Etruscan village stood on the site of San Gimignano. Two brothers, Muzio and Silvio, fled Rome and built two castles, Mucchio and Silvia (now San Gimignano). The name of Silvia was changed to San Gimignano in 450 AD after the Saint of Modena as Bishop Geminianus had intervened to spare the castle from destruction by the followers of Attila the Hun. As a result, a church was dedicated to the Saint and in the 6th and 7th centuries a walled village grew up around it, subsequently being called the “Castle of San Gimignano” or Castle of the Forest because of the extensive woodland surrounding it. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance era, the town was a stopping point for Catholic pilgrims on their way to Rome and the Vatican. The trade of agricultural products from the fertile neighbouring hills, in particular saffron, used in both cooking and dyeing cloth and Vernaccia wine, said to inspire both popes and poets, also enhanced the city’s development. In 1199, the city was granted its independent from the bishops of Volterra, established a podestà, and set about enriching itself with churches and public buildings. However, the peace of the town was disturbed for the next two centuries by conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, and family rivalries. This resulted in families building tower houses of increasing height. Towards the end of the medieval period there were a total of 72 towers up to 70 metres (230 feet) tall. The rivalry was finally restrained when it was ordained by the council that no tower was to be taller than that adjacent to the Palazzo Comunale.
The city flourished until 1348, when the Black Death that affected all of Europe struck it and about half the town’s inhabitants died. There was little subsequent development and San Gimignano remained preserved in its medieval state until the 19th century, when its status as a touristic and artistic resort began to be recognized.
A little further down the route was the town of Volterra. Whilst not the tourist mecca that San Gimignano is, Volterra is defiantly worth a visit and walkabout. In the 5th century, Volterra became the diocese of a vast area and a small temple, the first duomo of the city, dedicated to Mary was erected. Giusto was the first bishop and patron of Volterra and is said to have miraculously saved the city in the 6th century. The legend tells of how Giusto encouraged the residents, exhausted by famine, to throw bread over the defensive walls; grateful for the gift or simply convinced that the city was capable of resisting a long siege, the Barbarians withdrew and the city was saved. The 12th century was marked by the violent conflicts between the nobility and the bishop’s rule, which reached a climax in1150 when Galgano dei Pannocchieschi became bishop. The feudal lords and middle classes united against the bishops and the Palazzo dei Priori was constructed as a symbol of the free commune. The newly formed commune purchased rights for the mining of salt (the city’s main form of income), sulfur and alabaster. Volterra was also involved in the factional struggles between the Guelfs and Gibellines hence the feud between the Belforti and Allegretti families contesting for control of the commune. Ottaviano Belforti became the Signoria at the beginning of the 14th century and was succeeded by his son Bocchino who, in a desperate attempt to retain power, began negotiations to sell the city to Pisa. The city revolted and Bochino was decapitated. Upon his death in 1361, the city fell prey to Florentine rule and although independence was formally conceded, government autonomy was strongly limited and Florence extended the new land taxes to Volterra, clearly indicating that Volterra was then subject to Florence rule.
The craft of carving of alabaster was established in Volterra in the 17th century and flourished at the beginning of the 18th century. In 1780 the Grand duchy of Tuscany registered 8 or 9 artisan workshops in Volterra. In 1830 the number had risen to more than 60 thanks to the “traveling craftsmen” who traveled the world selling their wares. Despite a long decline, Volterra has continued to preserve the age-old tradition of the craft. Alabaster may no longer be the main source of the economy for Volterra, but it is still a distinctive feature of its culture and history.