A Day in San Gimigiano by Andrea Granahan

I was staying in a castle in Tuscany. The week’s lodging also included a tiny Fiat so I could explore all the backroads and ancient villages of Tuscany and Umbria. Pietro, the faithful security guard at the castle, saw me to my car inquiring where I was going that day. “San Gimignano,” I told him. “Molte bene, very good,” he smiled. It was a drizzly morning. None of the roads in Italy seemed to have names or numbers, but at every intersection there would be a signpost with lists of all the towns any direction might lead one to. Trying to read all the Italian names and find the one I wanted so I’d know how to turn sometimes led to honking and angry shouts if there was anyone behind me. Italians, polite everywhere else, make up for it by being very rude behind the wheel. Even a moment’s hesitation riled them, so I’d turn in any direction. I spent a lot of time being happily lost.

Today on a narrow back road we were all slowed down by an APE – a three-wheeled motorbike cart. No one was honking this time. Even the most rushed Italian accepted the presence of APEs. They are the only way to get goods up the narrow ancient streets of the walled cities and towns. On the highways, the APE drivers always pull over when they can, but there is seldom a place to do that along the narrow Tuscan roads.

Eventually I crept my way to San Gimignano. I could see it in the distance. It looked like the New York City skyline rising out of the vineyards. San Gimignano dates back to Etruscan days. Tuscany wasn’t always as peaceful as it is now. During Medieval times the people built the city walls and 72 soaring towers for defense. Fourteen of these still remain. In its day, it must have been very threatening because it is still impressive today. I parked in the lot outside the walls and walked into the dramatic little city. The drizzle had lightened somewhat, so I roamed the cobble-stoned, hilly lanes.

I found one shop that sold nothing but game meat. There was a special on boar and pheasant that day.
I came to the Duomo, cathedral, of the town. By this time I was worn out by elaborate Renaissance art. But this duomo was different – it was a simple squarish brick Medieval building. No stained glass windows, no statuary, just elegant lines from a simpler time. I had read the frescoes were worth seeing, so I bought a ticket to enter it.

Because of the frescoes, the building is monitored for humidity so that all the heavy breathing modern humans won’t ruin the work of their ancestors. Because of the damp day, the humidity was higher than usual, and so the line of visitors was moving very slowly. I sat on a bench out of the rain in the courtyard while I awaited my turn.

On a bench across the courtyard a harpist had taken refuge with his instrument. He began playing Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. The liquid notes of the beautiful melody filled the courtyard. Everyone stopped chattering and just listened, rapt. The guard beckoned to me just as the harpist plucked his last notes. I felt sublimely happy. As I stepped through the doorway into the building I had a totally different sort of aesthetic experience. I felt like I had fallen into the Sunday funnies. The walls simply exploded with color.

The frescos were intended to teach the illiterate worshippers their Bible stories. They were executed in pure, bright pigments and arranged in panels from floor to ceiling just like comic strips. The art was the simple, non-perspective drawing of early Medieval times. Three walls depicted scenes from the Old Testament and the fourth wall showed the story of Christ. No photos were allowed. The San Gimignanians are determined to preserve their brilliant treasure and flashes might fade it.

No one rushed me and I could wander at will, taking it all in. I was aware of the others outside who were waiting for their chance. Even so, I must have lost track of time. When I went out at last I found the rain had stopped and the sun was rapidly drying everything.
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I had planned to find a café for lunch, but discovered a quiet, lovely garden on a hilltop behind the duomo. I bought picnic makings and sat up there admiring the beautiful towers. I spent most of the afternoon roaming streets.

I finally set out for the castle where I liked to enjoy a glass of proseca on the marble terrace that offered a spectacular sunset view. As I drove up, Pietro greeted me and asked about my day. “Bene?” I smiled at him my head still full of harps and cartoons, “Si, molte, molte bene, Pietro.”