Ask the Architect: San Gimignano Architecture

A few weeks back I got my second question from a reader. (Thank you, Emily!) Sorry to say I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had time to post an answer for you yet, but here it is!


The question:

Hi Connie,
In your opinion, how does San Gimignano’s architecture reflect its rise and fall of wealth and/or economic success and prosperity?

My answer:

Hi Emily,
Thank you for an intriguing question which made me think. Here is my answer for you, hope you find it relevant:

In my opinion San Gimignano´s architecture reflects its rise and fall of wealth in an extremely limited way. During the middle ages the commune of San Gimignano  reached its peak due to the passing merchants and pilgrims, and its vast cultivation of saffron (which was used as currency at the time). In this period all of the characteristic towers on the hill were built, as well as some fine examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and the enclosing city wall.

San Gimignano

Palazzo Comunale (click for origin)

Palazzo Comunale (click for origin)

Later when the decline came it didn’t  influence the solid stone constructions very much. This is one of the obvious benefits of building with stone in unpolluted areas…

It is a fun fact that the towers were built increasingly high due to the rivalry of two wealthy families trying to outdo each other. This went on until about 70 tower houses were built, when the city counsil finally made a law that no tower was to be taller than the Palazzo Comunale.

Today the city is like a living museum with strict building regulations designed specifically to freeze it in its Medieval form. Since the cultivation of saffron died out the economy of the city has been dominated by tourism.

They even built a beautiful ceramic sculpture of the city and put in a vault to show it off to tourists.

However last year the sculpture was taken out of the vault and exposed to the forces of nature. Unlike the original city, which endures this test nicely, this is not a very good idea if the goal is to preserve something vulnerable and precious. If this is in any way relevant to your question it must be as a reflection of decline of some sort…

Photo Øyvind Teig (click for his website)

Photo Øyvind Teig (click for his website)

Photo Øyvind Teig (click for his website)

Photo Øyvind Teig (click for his website)

Genereally speaking; everything is always subject to change and degradation due to the nature of things. From the moment a building is finished an taken into use the decaying process starts. We all can relate to the painstaking first scratch on our brand new wooden floor, but after a while we stop noticing… All we can do to prevent time from taking its toll on our buildings is to compensate, unless the situation is so bad the building must be torn down. When we build with solid langlasting materials the buildings will remain intact much longer, and the need for compensation is far less.


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