Treasures of Tuscany
San Miniato is a town and municipality in the province of Pisa, in Tuscany. The town is situated on top of three hills and dominates the Lower Arno Valley. It is located at the intersection of the streets that join Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Siena and the famous Via Francigena, which was the main connecting route between Northern Europe and Rome in the Middle Ages. The landscape is enchanting with old boroughs, ancient churches, amazing Medici villas, castles and tobacco mills.
Our walking tour starts with Grifoni Palace. This Renaissance Palace was built by Giuliano of Baccio d’Agnolo for Ugolino Grifoni, Secretary of the Grand Duke Cosimo I of the Medici Family, in 1555. The building was destroyed during the Second World War, later it was restored and regained its original splendour. Now it is the headquarters of Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di San Miniato.
We can continue our tour towards Piazza del Popolo with its Church of the Saints Jacopo and Lucia, also called San Domenico’s Church, with its adjacent Cloisters of the Convent. This church dates back to 1330 so it is very old, as we can see from its façade. Inside the church we can admire some works of art such as Giovanni Chellini’s tomb, attributed to Bernardo Rossellino, a fresco depicting “Scenes from San Domenico’s Life” by Antonio Domenico Bamberini, “The Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus and the Saints Cosmas, Damian, John the Evangelist and Thomas” by Domenico di Michelino and “The Deposition” by Francesco Morandini called “Il Poppi” .
Next to the church we can admire the amazing Via Angelica, which is an ancient path that runs along the right wall of the Church of the Saints Jacopo and Lucia. In the past it was the connecting route between the town and the countryside. Along this ancient path there are three chapels decorated with 14th-century frescoes and 18th-century decorations. In one of these chapels, Saint Urban’s Oratory, we can see frescoes depicting “Scenes from the Way of the Cross” and “Saint Urban Pope”.
We next visit the Archconfraternity of Mercy in Roffia Palace, which contains devotional objects connected with the role of this important institution such as a 19th-century horse-drawn ambulance, 18th-century lanterns and some splendid paintings.
Our tour continues towards Piazza del Seminario, where we can admire the Palace of the Seminary. The square has an asymmetric shape. The palace dates back to 1713 and it is characterized by its concave façade decorated with 18th-century frescoes and phrases in Latin. In the Middle Ages there were houses and shops whose wooden doors can still be seen. On the other side of the square we can see the rear façade of the Bishop’s Palace.
We next head for Piazza del Duomo, where we can admire the Cathedral, which is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta and San Genesio.
It was built in the 12th century and has a beautiful Romanesque façade, which also exhibits Gothic and Renaissance architectural elements. The Church has a Latin cross plan with three naves and houses many works of art such as a 17th–century wooden crucifix by Iacopo di Giuliano Sani, Giovanni Battista Sandrini’s baptismal font, four marble busts of famous men from San Miniato: Iacopo Buonaparte, Pietro Bagnoli, Giovacchino Taddei and Francesco Maria Poggi and frescoes by Antonio Domenico Bamberini and Francesco Lanfranchi.
Its Bell Tower, called Matilde Tower, has an asymmetrical clock and dates back to the 12th century. Its name refers to the Countess Matilde of Canossa, who was probably born in San Miniato.
Next to the Cathedral there is the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art housing paintings by famous artists such as Iacopo Chimenti called “L’ Empoli”, Francesco Morandini called “Il Poppi”, Lorenzo Lippi, Giovanni Bilivert, Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, Neri di Bicci, Iacopo di Mino del Pellicciaio and Lorenzo Monaco.
In Piazza del Duomo we can also admire the Bishop’s Palace, which is the residence of the Bishop of San Miniato and features a chapel dedicated to the Assumption and St. John the Baptist, the Imperial Vicars’ Palace, dating back to the 12th-century, and its Tower, which was used as a prison.
Leaving Piazza del Duomo behind us, we head off to the Sanctuary of the Most Holy Crucifix. This Baroque church, which stands between the Fort, the Cathedral and the Town Hall, was built in the 18th century.
While the decoration of the façade is very simple, the walls inside the church are completely painted with “Scenes from Jesus Christ’s Life” by Antonio Domenico Bamberini. On the main altar there is a tabernacle containing the famous “Holy Crucifix”, which is venerated and thought to be miraculous.
In front of the Sanctuary there is the Town Hall, which was built at the end of the 13th century. Inside we can admire two beautiful rooms decorated with the 14th and 16th- century amazing frescoes: La Sala delle Sette Virtù and La Sala Consiliare.
The frescoes in La Sala delle Sette Virtù were painted between the 14th and the 16th centuries. The most important fresco is the “Virgin Mary nursing her Child surrounded by the Theological and Cardinal Virtues”, attributed to Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni. In the middle of the painting, you can see the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus. Around her there are some female figures, who are symbols of the Seven Virtues. “Justice” is holding a sword in her right hand and scales in her left hand; “Prudence” is pointing to a mirror with her right hand;“Temperance” is holding a phial of wine mixed up with water in her right hand; “Fortitude” is holding a sword and is wearing a helmet; “Hope” is praying; “Charity” has got a flame in her right hand and a piece of paper in her left hand and “Faith” has a cross on her left shoulder.
La Sala Consiliare is situated next to the “Sala delle Sette Virtù” and contains Francesco Maria Galli Angelini’s famous frescoes depicting the history of San Miniato during the Middle Ages. In one of these frescoes we can see a knight riding a horse and holding a sword in his right hand. On the right there is a parchment and on the left there is the knight’s Coat of Arms. Next to this fresco, we can see a man holding a green book in his left hand and a quill in his right hand. He is wearing a red robe and a red hat.
In the corner there is his family’s Coat of Arms. In another fresco we can see the Virgin Mary talking to San Miniato, San Genesio, Sant’Agostino and San Francesco. The room is decorated with frescoes depicting the Coats of Arms of famous Noble Families from San Miniato and famous leaders such as Franco Sacchetti, Francesco Sforza and Barone de’ Mangiadori .
Don’t miss the visit to the Oratory of Loretino, which was built inside the Town Hall as the governors’ private chapel at the end of the 13th century. It became an important place of worship in the 14th century when the wooden image of the holy crucifix, considered to have miraculous powers, was placed here.
According to a legend, the simulacrum was brought to San Miniato by two mysterious travellers, who were probably two angels. They left it in the house of a poor widow. It was closed up in a case and it emanated an “arcane” light at night. It became a symbol of peace and love.
The veneration of the Holy Crucifix increased between 1629 and 1631 when the Bubonic Plague spread in Italy. A church was built in honour of the Holy Crucifix, which was placed in the Sanctuary of the Most Holy Crucifix.
The Oratory contains decorations by Francesco Lanfranchi called “Spillo”, a magnificent altar attributed to Noferi di Antonio di Noferi and a wooden statue of the “Madonna di Loreto”, which gives the chapel its present name. The walls are decorated with 14th-century frescoes illustrating “Episodes from Jesus Christ’s Life”.
During our walking tour we stop at Retrobottega for lunch. Here you can taste typical Tuscan food created by the famous butcher Sergio Falaschi, his son, Andrea, and their staff by using high-quality local products and enjoy a wonderful view of the countryside. We suggest you have “crostini” and a selection of “salumi” (cold cuts) such as “sopressata”, ham, “rigatino”, “finocchiona”, “spuma di gota”, “mallegato”, pasta with sausage and leek sauce, “pappa al pomodoro”, Florentine steak with grated truffles and “Cantuccini” with “Vin Santo”.
After lunch we head off to the Tower of Frederick II, called the Fort, which is a 37-metre tall tower, built by Frederick II of Swabia in 1217. It was the central core of the Imperial defensive system. It is the landmark of the town.
The tower was destroyed during the Second World War and rebuilt in 1958. From its top you can admire the special ribbon-like layout of the town and stunning landscapes such as the area of the Lower Valdarno, Volterra’s hills, the Apennines and the sea.
Pier delle Vigne, Frederick II’s Chancellor, was imprisoned here for treason until his death, as Dante writes in “Inferno”(13th “Canto”) in his “Divine Comedy”.
Leaving the Fort behind us, we reach the 14th-century Convent and Church of Saint Francis. Saint Francis stayed in San Miniato for a short time and founded this convent. For many centuries it was one of the main Franciscan centres in Tuscany.
Inside the church there are twelve altars dedicated to Franciscan saints and famous families from San Miniato such as the Buonaparte family, 16th and 17th-century paintings and frescoes depicting Saint Francis and other Franciscan saints, Saint Francis’s statue by Luca and Piero Bonicelli and a 16th-century wooden crucifix.
We next head to Piazza Bonaparte, flanked by ancient palaces built by noble families from San Miniato between the 16th and the 18th centuries. In this square we can admire a marble monument dedicated to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopoldo II also called Canapone, Palazzo Bonaparte and the Saints Sebastian and Rocco’s Church, which was the Bonaparte family ’s chapel and houses Saint Rocco’s relics and a Gothic water soup.
Our walking tour continues towards Piazza XX Settembre, where you can visit Santa Caterina’s Church dating back to the 13th century and the Euteleti Academy, which is housed in Palazzo Migliorati and contains Napoleon Bonaparte’s funeral mask and ancient documents.
Leaving this square we head for Piazza Dante Alighieri, also called Il Piazzale, where San Miniato’ s market is held on Tuesday mornings. Here you can see Giosue’ Carducci’s Statue. Giosue’ Carducci was a famous Italian writer, who lived in San Miniato from 1856 to 1857.
We next head off to Palazzo Formichini, seat of “Cassa di Risparmio di San Miniato”. The palace was built in the 16th century and contains works of art by famous artists such as Benedetto Bigordi called “Il Ghirlandaio”, Ludovico Cardi called “Il Cigoli”, Iacopo Chimenti called “L’ Empoli” and Giovanni Bilivert.
Our tour proceeds along via Giosue’ Carducci, where you can visit The Most Holy Annunziata’s Church, containing Saint Augustine’s statue, Saint Dorothea ’s relics and some frescoes .
From here it is easy to reach the Conservatory of Santa Chiara. The Monastery of Santa Chiara was built in the 13th century but the present building dates back to the 14th century. The nuns of Saint Clare’s order stayed there until the end of the 18th century when it was transformed into a Conservatory for girls’ education. Later it became a school premises.
The building is arranged around a cloister with arcades and it has a chapel dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. The Conservatory houses “Noli me Tangere”, a wonderful painting by Ludovico Cardi, on which the appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene is represented. There are also paintings by Jacopo Chimenti and Antonio Domenico Bamberini and a magnificent Medieval cross painted by Deodato Orlandi in 1301.
We leave your enjoy your afternoon at leisure. We suggest you have a walk along the famous Via Francigena, which runs through the town centre and touches small villages in the countryside. The landscape is enchanting with tobacco mills, old boroughs, amazing Medici villas and ancient churches.
If you are interested in ancient history, you can visit San Genesio’s Archaeological Site. The site was considered one of the main stops along the Via Francigena, which was the pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome in the Middle Ages.
We suggest you have dinner at Pizzeria Vecchio Cinema, located in the town centre. Here you can taste “bruschetta”, “salumi” (cold cuts) and ham or chickpea soup, “pappa al pomodoro”, pasta with pesto sauce or spaghetti with tomato sauce, chicken stew with beans with extra-virgin olive oil or pizza.
If you want to taste high-quality meat, you can have dinner at La Bisteccheria, a nice restaurant where you can have a large variety of starters such as “crostini” and a selection of a selection of “salumi” (cold cuts), “tagliata” or Florentine steak with roast potatoes and “Cantuccini” with “Vin Santo”.
After dinner you can stop at Caffè Centrale, where you can listen to music and play board games with friends or at the lovely Chalet, which is a pleasant open-air meeting place. Here you can chat with friends and listen to music, sitting at the tables located in front of the kiosk.
If you love music you can go to Le Piscine, where you can dance at the poolside. The disco opens at about 12.00 p.m. and closes at about 3.00 a.m.
In summer San Miniato attracts lots of young people and tourists as a great variety of events are organized in the town centre in the evening.The main events are La Notte Nera, La Luna è Azzurra, Festa del Teatro, A Castle of Sounds, Francigena Melody Road, Pinocchio in Strada and Meravigliosa Francigena.
Bibliografia: Fondazione San Miniato Promozione, “San Miniato Terra d’Eccellenza”; ”Sistema Museale San Miniato”; G. Nanni, I.Regoli ,“San Miniato. Guida storico–artistica della citta’ e del suo territorio”.
Sitografia: San Miniato, www.wikipedia.org
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