National Geographic : 1928 Apr
HOLIDAYS AMONG THE HILL TOWNS Gimignano of the Beautiful Towers, unique among all the towns of Italy (see pages 436 and 438). Entering, one finds a medieval austerity in every street and opening. Beauty passed it by, but stamped it, nevertheless, with a grim and noble distinction. Dante came here ambassador in 1300, and to-day he would be more at home in San Gimignano, for he would find it less changed, than anywhere else he knew. Much has disappeared that once stood here, but, as nothing has been made new, it is only the old that remains. Unlike Carcassonne, it nevertheless, like Carcas sonne, transports one back to its begin ning. The exterior of the museum and of the churches gives no hint that within are some of the finest flames of color that the Ital ian masters translated into story. One visits them and rejoices in them and for gets them. Indeed, of San Gimignano one remembers only its strange, inscrutable towers. Once one spoke of San Gimignano's "forest of towers" that Dante saw. There then were seventy-six of them; but above the pink tiles of this little town of only thirty-three hundred souls now rise only thirteen surviving towers. There are in all, to be sure, some traces of thirty-seven. Perhaps the other towers, those which have disappeared, were beautiful. The remnant is scarcely that. The survivals are square, made of unadorned travertine blocks, though sometimes of brick or of both; but they are without decoration, without those graceful windows which elsewhere pierce the campaniles, every opening an exquisite architectural epi gram, and without even the decorative cornice which so often crowns other tow ers with the delicacy of a diadem. SYMBOLS OF A SULLEN AND FEROCIOUS AGE They do not rise in a conventional cinc ture protecting a girdle of walls. Such walls as San Gimignano may ever have had are gone, and the towers, instead of rising on the line of its circumference, cluster at its center. Their position suggests a sullen and fe rocious age. If they stood at the circum ference of the little city, one could en- vision the townsmen standing shoulder to shoulder to protect themselves, their wives and children and homes, from aggression from without. Standing where they do, each above its own palace, they can but suggest the terri ble period of bloody feuds, family war ring against family, house against house, neighbor against neighbor, destroying each other with murderous engines. A suggestive survival is this obscure and aloof San Gimignano. Not least sug gestive at night, even when the moon rides the sky, for the towers hide its face and blacken the narrow, empty streets with shadows. Then the sound of one's own heel on the cobbles seems a signal to an unseen enemy. One feels the immanence of intrigue and ambuscade and sinister at tacks, as if at the next moment the silence might be broken by the rattle of armor, the clash of steel, the crash of shields and broadswords. THE LAST OF THE HILL TOWNS-CER TALDO, HOME OF BOCCACCIO One leaves San Gimignano with relief, and yet at the crest of the road over the last hill one looks back at the little cluster of towers with regret, to turn away and make of such a picture a mere memory. However, in turning, a fair and laughing picture is below and beyond. It is again the little valley of the River Elsa, and on its other side, on the lower hills, where the Chianti Mountains have begun to dip to ward the plain through which the Arno flows, enthroned by height, sits Certaldo. It is our last hill town and another of those which know few visitors. At its feet run the trains bound for Siena; but it rarely gets the tribute of more than a glance from a car window. Though it is made a little pictorial by its position, archi tecturally it has no boasts. Then why climb to its gates? The answer is Boc caccio. Paris and Florence dispute with Cer taldo as to where Boccaccio was born. This is certain, however, that his family was of Certaldo, that he spent much of his maturity there, that he died there, that he always signed his name Boccaccio da Certaldo, and that in his epitaph he named that town as his birthplace.