We’ve been there already a few years ago, but it was a very quick visit, so a few weeks ago we took advantage of the unusual good weather that looked more like spring than fall (even if the conditions changed a bit during the day), and we had a nice bike ride back in San Miniato, Tuscany (photos are from this trip and the previous one).
San Miniato is a land of Etruscan and Roman settlements as the excavation of a necropolis of the 3rd century B.C. and those of a Roman Villa have shown and these findings can be seen at the National Archaeological Museum in Florence, and in smaller parts in the local archaeological collection. The original nucleus of the town dates back to the 8th century, when according to the original document of 713, seventeen Longobards built a Church dedicated to the martyr Miniato. Therefore the town has Germanic origins and since the Middle Ages it has been known as San Miniato al Tedesco (San Miniato of German). In the following five centuries San Miniato grew as a medieval defensive wall, since Otto I, Duke of Saxony in 962 made it become one of the centres of the imperial administration.
Subsequently Frederick II, Duke of Swabia in 1218 built his castle in San Miniato and used it for tax collection purposes for central Italy. San Miniato, when the swabian power was in decline, became a free municipality. The town has large monasteries, schools, institution and a hospital. The municipal statues which are stored in the historical archive, testify its independency and luck. By the end of the 14th century San Miniato had to abide by the authority of the new Florentine Signoria. And again a German Lady the Grand Duchess Maria Maddalena of Austria, wife of Cosimo dei Medici, promoted San Miniato, making it become a “See” in 1622.
Thanks to the development of the town in the following century, the diocese enriched it with the St. Crocifisso Sanctuary and the Great Theological College. The cultural life was very active and created study and cultural academies, including Accademia degli Affidati, which later became Accademia degli Euteleti. At the end of the nineteeth century, San Miniato was a well-established town. During the World War II the German army targeted and destroyed the Tower of Frederick II and some of the other middleaged suburbs. In 1957 the tower was rebuilt to symbolize the rebirth of the town.
In the immaculate rustic hinterland, oaks, lime trees and willows host between their roots the finest mushroom that can be found: it is the white truffle of the San Miniato hills . The Tuber Magnatum Pico, this is its scientific name, is always a source of wealth of this lands. For over a century San Miniato trufflers go out during the night with their dogs and walk through hidden paths between the trees, trying to capture the minimum and weakest trace, so they can excavate and collect the precious tuber. In San Miniato, one of the towns which has established the National Association of the Truffle Towns, also the Association of the Trufflers of San Miniato Hills has been created, and works with the protection and development of the areas with truffles, promoting this precious tuber in several field exhibitions both in Italy and worldwide. However, in San Miniato every year in November, the National White Truffle of San Miniato Festival takes place, which is a great showcase/market that attracts thousands of Italian and foreign visitors.
From the Middle Ages Via Francigena has been the pilgrimage path to Rome. It has been walked not only by simple pilgrims, but also by Kings, Popes and Princes. Along its path and during the years, inns hospitals, monasteries, boroughs and castles have been established, therefore the street has become an important channel for cultural and trade exchanges. Even these days Tuscany is maintaining traces of this important street, from the Cisa Pass (where we started out day trip to San Miniato) to the borders with Lazio, in landscape of incomparable natural beauty, characterized by towns full of history and culture. Via Francigena in San Miniato passes through the old town centre, touches the old borough of San Genesio at the foot of the hill, which in ancient times was chosen by Popes, Emperors and Bishops, to host councils and follow diets. The Bishop Sigerico stayed in San Genesio during his journey back to Canterbury.
Palazzo del Seminario (Seminary Palace – below). You can enter the square with the same name, through two gates, from the west through the ancient “Porta Toppariorum” (sec. XVI) and from the east from the old gate of the town. A flight of stairs opposite the building leads to the above Piazza del Duomo. Between the ‘400 and’ 500 in the place where today stands the palace of the seminary were houses and shops set against the old castle walls. In 1650 the area of these houses Bishop Angiolo Pichi erected a small building for daily lessons of 12 clerics. His successor, Bishop Cortigiani, in 1682 bought other houses on the square on the west side, enlarging the seminary and establishing therein a boarding school. At the beginning of ‘700 the municipality gave the green light to the process of unification of the building also incorporating other homes on the east side. The building took its current appearance in 1713, the year of its opening as a permanent seminary. The allegorical figures within the medallions and inscriptions with the judgments of the fathers of the church were painted by the painter Francesco Pietro Chimenti in 1705. In the early years of the eighteenth century started the construction of the stone staircase.
Throught a partial covered flight of stairs, you have access to the Piazza del Duomo….
The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and San Genesio became cathedral in 1622 when San Miniato was elevated to a diocese, it is located on the square known as the Cathedral of Prato, the area of the ancient citadel, which is dominated by the fortress and the tower of Frederick II . It is the oldest part of the city, which brings together the Duomo, the Bishop’s Palace and the Palace of the Imperial Vicars. The church was built in the twelfth century , perhaps of an older chapel. Dedicated to Santa Maria, it is mentioned for the first time in 1195 in a bull of Pope Celestine III, stating its dependence of the parish of St. Genesius in Vico Wallari.
When in 1248 was destroyed the village of Lombard foundation that stretched at the foot of San Miniato, Santa Maria acquired the baptismal font and the title of San Genesio . At that time the building was restructured, decorating the facade with ceramic basins, in the best Pisan architecture. In 1274 the sculptor Giroldo Arogno realizes the relief of the Annunciation. When in 1369 San Miniato became part of the Florentine domains, the deep renovation of the area of the fortress included the church that became inaccessible to the faithful. Only in 1489 , with the stabilization of the political situation, the Florentine Vicar returned the church to the local clergy. It was then reopened after an expansion that includes the bell tower , an imposing building with a square plan, known as the Tower of Matilde (legend – later denied – says that Matilde of Canossa was born in the near Palace of the Imperial Vicars). In 1860 the church was heavily restored.
The cathedral is characterized by the outside sloping facade, a masonry brick wall in which are include 26 decorated ceramic bowls (originally 31), mainly from Tunisia and now replaced by copies (the originals are preserved in the Diocese Museum ). They are mostly with bottom of white glaze, decorated with cobalt blue and manganese brown, notable for elegance and originality. At the bottom, three portals from the sixteenth century in sandstone , each of which is topped with a architrave and pilaster strips . Immediately above each of the two side doors is a rose window; a third, just above the main entrance, is just a blinded trace. At the top of the facade, corresponding to the nave, a fourth one.
The interior has an architectural Neo-Renaissance development, primarily the result of the work of nineteenth-century Pietro Bernardini , decorated in baroque style. The plan is a Latin cross, with the space divided into three naves of which the sides are of the same size. The inner face brickwork and original octagonal pillars were covered with new decorations in the XVIII-XIX centuries. The three aisles are separated by two series of arches resting on Ionic columns in fake polychrome marble and covered with a coffering ceiling richly carved and gilded, original from the seventeenth century.
On 22 July 1944 a US artillery shell penetrated the Church through semirose in the southern arm of the transept that exploded in the right aisle, killing 55 people. The church was packed with people who had been gathered in the square by the Germans. Until the opening of the so-called cabinet of shame the massacre was attributed to a German artillery shell and not to one shot from the 337º battalion of field artillery of the US Army directed against a nest of German machine guns. In this episode the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani found inspiration for one of their big successes: The Night of the Shooting Stars.
Rising up through a green path behind the Cathedral and the Bell Tower, you can reach the top of the hill….
with a stunning view over the old square where stands the Cathedral and the surrounding area….
till you are at the feet of the Tower of Frederick II.
Named in honour of the Emperor who ordered it to be built between 1217 and 1223, it stands at the top of the hill and now as in the past represents the most important element of the Rocca of San Miniato. The most ancient sources use the term Rocca to indicate the uppermost part of the town girdled by massive walls since the mid twelfth century when, in view of its strategic position, the Swabians chose San Miniato as the seat of the imperial financial administration for central Italy and Tuscia. Effectively, in addition to the natural defence offered by its hilltop location, the town was also in a position equidistant from the major cities of Tuscany such as Volterra, Pisa, Lucca, and Florence, and close to two of the roads that were most important in mediaeval times: the ancient Roman Via Quintia that linked Pisa with Florence, and the Via Francigena. The complex of the Rocca was made up of two wall circles of trapezoidal form which were separate but linked so as to form what was almost a figure of eight .The first, smaller, ring of walls girdled the summit of the hill and was crowned by the so-called mastio, better known as the Torre Federiciana .From the summit of the tower it was possible to control the entire area of the lower Valdarno as far as the hills of Volterra, the Apennines and the sea. The second larger wall circle branched off the first descending the slopes of the hill towards the south east to encircle the area corresponding to what is now Piazza del Duomo .Belonging to this second wall circle were the Torre delle Cornacchie , destroyed in the nineteenth century, and the Torre di Matilde ,which is now the belltower of the Duomo . Both these towers, and the walls that joined them, were in existence before the constructions ordered by Frederick II, having been part of the older fortifications built around the mid-twelfth century by Frederick I known as Barbarossa. The tower was originally crowned with cylindrical brick columns in the style of the Sicilian pinnacles, the presence of which together with the ogive arches appears to confirm the theory that it may have been constructed by Sicilian workmen brought to Tuscany by Frederick II. Unfortunately it was destroyed in 1944 when the tower was mined by the Germans and razed to the ground. Therefore, what we see today is a complete reconstruction, albeit faithful in the dimension and building techniques to the original thirteenth-century tower, erected in 1958 to restore to the citizens of San Miniato the symbol of their town. The sources tell us that the tower was also often used for the detention of political prisoners, a function that it preserved even after the end of the Swabian domination and up until 1530, when the area was abandoned and was acquired by the papal archiator, or physician, Michele Mercati, who also built his residence there. Among the most celebrated political prisoners was Pier delle Vigne, rendered immortal by Dante’s verses (Inferno, Canto XIII) who was imprisoned with the charge of having plotted against the Emperor Frederick II.
Back down the hill, we were again in the old square, this time facing the Palace of the Imperial Vicars, being at the time of Emperor Frederick II the home of his vicars, who administered the city in his name. The palace tower has been totally restored.
In the same square, opposite the Cathedral, there’s the Bishop Palace.
The original structure is traceable to two towers of the thirteenth century, tower Palleoni and the tower of the Captains of the People. Numerous restyling over the centuries were made, in 1489 the building was granted to the canons of the Cathedral of San Miniato and it was built the staircase that separates it from Palazzo dei Vicari (now disappeared). In 1622 it was used as the Clergy See. In 1746 the two towers were torn down, and restored the thirteenth-century stone portal and built the two stairs ramps. In 1977 the last restoration that has finally made the palace as it is today. On the facade can be seen, in pointed arches, the remains of the ancient buildings of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
On the back of the Tower of Matilde, there’s the beautiful Church of the Holy Cross.
The church was built in Baroque Architectural style between 1705 and 1718, designed by Antonio Maria Ferri, to guard a wooden crucifix of the thirteenth century considered miraculous. A Medieval legend says that the “Miracolous Crucifix” was given to a group of pilgrims during a spiritual walk. Onced arrived to San Miniato, the pilgrims gave the crucifix to a local priest who placed it in his church. Apparently, “the crucifix did not liked where it was kept and consequently began to move “itself” this, untill it was placed and preserve up to this day in the Church of the Holy Cross”.
The building have a greek cross shape, with a dome on the loft, and it stands in the space between the fortress, the cathedral and the town hall, where the church is connected through an imposing staircase, with a central statue of The Risen Christ by Francesco Baratta (1636 ).
While the exterior decoration is very sober, the interior walls are completely frescoed with scenes from the life of Christ by Anton Domenico Bamberini . On the main altar, inserted on a picture on wood depicting the risen Christ of Francesco Lanfranchi (1525), there is the tabernacle in which is kept a rare wooden crucifix. In the pillars of the dome, the nineteenth-century statues of the Four Evangelists of Luigi Pampaloni.
Exiting the church, you find yourself facing the City Hall.
This 14th-century building is still San Miniato’s Town Hall from its construction.. Its great hall was decorated by Cenno di Francesco Cenni. It also features a small oratory, containing a 16th-century altarpiece.
Our last visit there was the Church of San Domenico.
Ths church is also known as Church of SS Jacopo and Lucia ad Foris Portam and it was rebuilt on an existing building in 1330 , but the facade was never completed except for the portal, with splays and lintel. The interior has a unique nave with side chapels that were closed in the eighteenth century, except for those of the presbytery. Standing out are some frescos, including Histories of Saint Dominic of Anton Domenico Bamberini assisted by artists of the eighteenth century from Lucca.
On the first altar on the right a Virgin and Child with St. Louis, Bertrand and Rosa, by a Florentine artist of the seventeenth century; on the second altar a Madonna and Saints by Francesco Curradi ; on the the third Madonna and Child with St. Pius V by Ranieri del Pace, near the organ of the seventeenth century. In the presbytery, there are works by Domenico di Michelino, the tomb of Giovanni Chellini , made after 1460 and subsequently modified is in the same century (with the addition of the bottom) and, more deeply, in the eighteenth century; it is attributed to Bernardo Rossellini. In the Chapel of Armaleoni, with San Lorenzo on the outside pillar by Francesco d’Antonio , and Scenes from the life of Mary, frescoes of the late fourteenth century attributed to Niccolò Gerini ; an altar with Madonna and Child, from the school of Botticelli attributed to the Master of San Miniato.
The others chapels present works by the major artists of the time, Galileo Chini, Francesco Morandini called the Poppi, Lippo d’Andrea, Andrea Guidi and a precious Annunciation by Giovanni della Robbia, Lippo d’Andrea.
The Chapel of St. Ursula is located in the basement: here the prisoners sentenced to death row received a final spiritual comfort, among frescoes from the late fourteenth century on the theme of Augustus and the Sibyl. To the right of the church, a cloister open on the road, with two levels, it is now home to the Municipal Library.