Monthly Archives: May 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #246: Historic Centre of San Gimignano

Posted by on May 24, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #246: Historic Centre of San Gimignano

UNESCO World Heritage Site #246: Historic Centre of San Gimignano

From the World Heritage inscription:

an Gimignano bears exceptional testimony to the civilization of the Middle Ages in that it groups together within a small area all the structures typical of urban life: squares and streets, houses and palaces, wells and fountains.

San Gimignano is situated in the Val d’Elsa, 56 km south of Florence. Its walls and fortified houses form an unforgettable skyline, in the heart of the Etruscan landscape. San Gimignano was a relay point on the Via Francigena for pilgrims journeying to and from Rome. Originally under the jurisdiction of the bishops of Volterra, it became independent in 1199 when it acquired its first podestà. The free town, known as San Gimignano delle Belle Torri, entered into a long period of prosperity that lasted until 1353, when it fell under the sway of Florence. In 1262 an enceinte measuring 2,177 m, later to be reinforced with five cylindrical towers, girdled the small town.

The town was controlled by two major rival families – the Ardinghelli, Guelph sympathizers, and the Salvucci, who were Ghibellines – and was the scene of incessant conflicts between the two clans. As symbols of their wealth and power, 72 tower houses were built. Of these, 14 have survived, including the Cugnanesi house on the former Via Francigena (Via San Giovanni); the Pesciolini house on the Via San Matteo, on the Via del Castello, in the town’s oldest quarter, the Palazzo Franzesi-Ceccarelli house, whose unsymmetrical facade ingeniously circumvented the law of 1255 which stipulated that no new residence should be wider than 12 arm spans for a linear depth of 24 arm spans.

The town grew around two principal squares, the Piazza della Cisterna and the Piazza del Duomo. The triangular Piazza della Cisterna is ornamented with a lovely well that stands in the centre. The piazza is bordered by tower houses: the twin towers of the Ardinghellis to the west, the tower of the Benuccis, the Casa Rodolfi and the Palazzo Razzi to the south, and the Palazzo dei Cortesi to the north.

San Gimignano is a wonderful little Tuscan town best known for its towers. The towers are very reminiscent of the ones I saw in Regensburg, Germany. The town has much more of a medieval feel than most towns in Italy.

San Gimignano is a tourist town, but it doesn’t get anywhere near the level of visitors that other Tuscan towns like Sienna or Florence get. Most people have never heard of it, so the crowds will be much smaller.

It is also much more difficult to get to via public transportation because the town doesn’t have a train station. The closest train station is in the town of Poggibonsi. From the Poggibonsi station, walk outside and you can take the 130 bus to San Gimignano. You purchase the bus ticket in the cafe in the station, not in the bus. Likewise, the bus back to Poggibonsi is purchased in the tabacci store just inside the city walls.

I visited San Gimignano from Lucca which was long, but doable as a day trip. Florence, Sienna or even Pisa would be easier places to reach it from.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #245: Mantua and Sabbioneta

Posted by on May 23, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #245: Mantua and Sabbioneta

UNESCO World Heritage Site #245: Mantua and Sabbioneta

From the World Heritage inscription:

Mantua originated as an Etruscan settlement and developed in Roman times to a small fortified town. It was situated on the highest point of what was then an island in a marshy area along the river Mincio. Some traces of the walls and main streets can still be found in today’s urban fabric. In 804 AD Mantua was made a bishopric. Thanks to a relic of Christ’s blood the city had become an important religious centre. In the 10th century, new walls and a moat were built and, in 1115, Mantua became a free commune.

Through history water regulations have been very important to Mantua and distinguished hydraulic engineering was carried out on many occasions. In 1190, the system of lakes around the city was created with a dam and a bridge across the river, which raised the water level of the upper lake more than four meters. On the dam, twelve water-mills helped to regulate the water. To the south of the city, a canal (the Rio) was dug in the 13th century. It soon became the limit of the extended city – the second ring of growth. At the eastern end of the canal a protected harbour, Porto Catena, was constructed. In the 13th century several towers and palaces were built in the city and two squares, today’s Broletto and Piazza delle Erbe. In 1272, the Bonacolsi family seized power and carried on the building activities.


Sabbioneta was the capital of one of the smallest states in Italy, created when Mantua was divided into several parts in 1478. These parts were still ruled by different branches of the Gonzaga family. It has been known since Roman times as a locality along the Vitelliana road but, even though it has a long history, it can be considered a new foundation. Sabbioneta is the creation of one man, the ruler of the little state Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna (1531-1591). He had studied the writings and theories of ideal city planning but his aim was to build an impregnable fortress and functioning capital of the state. It is believed that he himself designed the plan and the fortifications with the help of military expertise. The work began sometime between 1554 and 1556.

Between 1588 and 1590, Vincenzo Scamozzi was employed to construct the Teatro all’antica. This is the first properly functioning modern indoor theatre, with specific spaces designed to fulfil the requirements of the theatre. After the death of Vespasiano, Sabbioneta declined. In the 17th century it came under Spanish administration but returned to the Gonzagas of Mantua in 1703. Five years later, however, it was annexed to Guastella and, in 1743, taken over by the Habsburgs.

I have no idea why these two cities are lumped together. They have little to do with each other and aren’t that close together like Úbeda and Baeza in Spain.

I visited Mantova, which is the more popular of the two locations to visit.

I wasn’t that impressed with the city. There was nothing about it which jumped out at me and I found it to be just another old European city which happened to get world heritage status. The romanesque cathedral and duke’s palace were interesting, but nothing I haven’t seen in many other European and Italian cities.

The one thing that I did find interesting was the Basilica of Sant’Andrea, which is by far the largest building in the city. It is enormous for a city of its size. Way out of proportion for what you would expect to find. Had the basilica alone been listed, it would have made more sense.

Mantova is a 45 minute train ride from Verona, where I stayed.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #244: City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto

Posted by on May 20, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #244: City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto

UNESCO World Heritage Site #244: City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto

From the World Heritage inscription:

Vicenza represents a unique artistic achievement in the many architectural contributions from Andrea Palladio integrated within its historic fabric and creating its overall character. Through its architecture, the city has exerted exceptional influence on architectural and urban design in most European countries and throughout the world.

Vicenza is situated in the Veneto region of northern Italy on the low hills between the mountains of Berici and Lessini, on a natural communication route. The city of Vicenza was founded in the 2nd or 1st century BC by the Veneti and was granted Roman citizenship with the status of municipium in 49 BC. The ancient town plan is still recognizable in that of the modern town, Corso Palladio being the decumanus maximus and Contra Porti the cardo maximus . Among the public buildings erected from the time of Augustus that survive are the remains of the theatre, now incorporated in a more recent structure, and sections of the aqueduct to the north of the city.

The city became the See of a Christian diocese at the end of the 4th century AD. In the 5th century it was on the route of successive barbarian groups, whose ravages were exacerbated by a series of disastrous plagues, which left the region depopulated. It formed part of the Langobardic kingdom and became chief town of one of the 36 duchies. Eventually the pope called on Charlemagne to drive out the Lombards, and Vicenza became a Frankish Countship within the March of Friuli. It was during this period that the first Benedictine communities of San Felice and San Pietro were established. The disintegration of the Carolingian Empire saw fresh invaders, this time the Magyars, whose depredations led to the construction of city walls. The bloody wars between episcopal feudatories and the Ghibelline Counts that disfigured most of the 12th and early 13th centuries raged around Vicenza. The region became divided into a patchwork of small seigneuries, which fought among themselves, only uniting to defy the Holy Roman Emperor. Like most Italian cities of the period, Vicenza evolved its own administration, which in 1208 introduced controls on building within the enceinte of the walls. A new urban perimeter was created by the Della Scala family, enclosing the most important streets within the city.

A movement by the small states in the region towards coalescence was interpreted by Venice as a threat and so in 1404 La Serenissima annexed the entire region. Vicenza remained part of the Venetian Republic until its fall at the end of the 18th century. The feudal aristocracy was stripped of its powers and replaced by a dominant mercantile class. Feudal lands were expropriated and sold to patrician Venetian families, who created great agricultural estates on which they built sumptuous mansions. The city also prospered under Venetian rule, benefiting from its situation on a major natural communication route. The town became polarized around the four main piazzas that still exist. There had been limited expansion to the east and west in the late 14th century but the city retained its basic form throughout the succeeding centuries. The wealth of its leading citizens resulted in the erection of many lavish buildings, strongly influenced by Venetian taste, but it was the advent of Andrea Palladio that gave Vicenza its enduring form.

Andrea Palladio (1508-80) was profoundly influenced by his study of the surviving monuments of classical Rome and of the works of Vitruvius. For Vicenza he created both public (Basilica, Loggia del Capitaniato, Teatro Olimpico) and private buildings. A total of 26 individual buildings or parts of buildings known to have been designed or reconstructed by Palladio or attributed to him make up the World Heritage site – 23 in the city itself and three villas in its immediate environs. The palazzi or town houses were fitted into the urban texture of the medieval city, creating picturesque ensembles and continuous street facades in which the Veneto Gothic style combines with Palladio’s articulated classicism. These urban compositions closely related to theatre design, which link reality and make-believe, are unique to Vicenza. A similar approach to composition is shown by the location of the suburban villa known as La Rotonda, as seen from the Villa Cricoli.

It is easy to categorize Vincenza as another historical European city type of UNESCO site. In fact, it is really an architectural site designed to showcase the work of Andrea Palladio.

The site consists of two parts: the city of Vincenza and many villas located outside the city in the surrounding area. In the city, the primary Palladio buildings are the Basilica and the Teatro Olimpico (shown above). The basilica is actually not a church and contains the Torre Bissara, one of the highest towers in the city. The Teatro Olimpico is a greek style theater created for the city. The villas are harder to reach as they require a significant amount of walking or a car.

Vicenza is an easy day trip from either Verona or Venice, which it lies between. It can be reached by many of the high speed trains which leave from Venice as well as slower (and cheaper) regional trains.