The city that invented the skyline

There’s probably nothing that hasn’t been said before about San Gimignano and its history, its golden century - its golden age - when it boasted 72 towers; its formidable economic heft and the artistic wealth of its most noble families; and the original great urbanisation drive that raised it on the plan for which we know it today.

Competition seethed between the powerful clans. So deep ran their obsession that an edict was issued, forbidding that privately-owned towers exceed the 54 metres of the Torre Grossa. Guelph fought Ghibelline, like everywhere in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy, but their bitter rivalry also funded more creative public works, such as a new ring of city walls. The great artists of the age found a warm welcome here, and plenty of commissions for the most astonishing artworks they could produce.

This is all common knowledge. Less well known is San Gimignano’s amazing richness of something on which, we read, the little fourteenth-century town built its economy. Money-lending, of course, but – more uniquely – saffron.

Thanks to its long aromatic stamen, Tuscan saffron enjoyed enormous prestige. At one point it was so precious that it replaced coinage as an index for measuring the value of goods. In San Gimignano the trade was so booming that it had to be protected: in 1261 the governor issued an edict regulating the sale of the bulbs.

As we’ve said, the towers of the thirteenth-century city were symbols of the power of the families who built them, their ambition and their desire to flex their creative muscles. They made the first “skyline” in history. Consider this wonder of the medieval world next to the modern urban magnificence of the world’s biggest financial capitals, in which trusts invest head-spinning sums to fill all possible space with huge skyscrapers and make themselves the unmistakable landmarks. San Gimignano, the New York of its day.

O pallid crocus
in a vase of clay,
so lovely, with no love for me,
in lilac petals
you close your stems
of flame.
(Giovanni Pascoli)