Want to see a darling hill town in Tuscany? Then head for the hills! Get yourself to San Miniato, a very lively and attractive hill town near Pisa, famous for the white truffles found in the surrounding area.
Want to see truffles? The famous tartufo aren’t very pretty, but oh my goodness, do they taste good in Italian cuisine! Here’s a basket full of them:
I visited San Miniato yesterday, 17 November, during the annual truffle sagra held by the town. Fall has definitely arrived in Tuscany and it was cold and overcast. It almost makes me wistful about the heat of last July. Almost. The next 2 pictures capture the weather as well as the beautiful vistas as seen from San Miniato of the beautiful Valdarno.
The truffle festival also features artiginale production of prosciutto, and there were lots of pork products on show, to taste, to purchase, and you could even buy specialized equipment for the home to slice the hams. All shown below:
But the truffles are the raison d’être: The festival San Miniato hosts every November is devoted to the gastronomically precious white truffle found locally. The white truffle is more highly valued than the black truffles found in Umbria and the Marche, and commands very high prices, reflected in the cost of restaurant dishes that incorporate truffles. In 1954 a record-breaking truffle found close to the nearby village of Balconevisi weighed in at 2,520 grams (5.56 lb) and was sent to the United States of America as a gift for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But even if you aren’t a fan of truffles or hams, there is still much to enjoy about this little gem of a town. For example, there is a lovely church with important Quattrocento frescoes:
The ceiling and upper sections of the basilica walls are painted with trompe’oeil marble architecture:
And the town’s Duomo has a simple Tuscan facade which doesn’t prepare you for the opulent interior filled with porphyry marble columns and a gorgeous, gold leafed ceiling:
The Duomo is dedicated to both Sant’ Assunta and Santo Genesio of Rome. It was originally a Romanesque building, but it has been remodelled several times and exhibits Gothic and some Renaissance arcchitectural elements. The façade incorporates a number of colorful majolica bowls. The interior has Latin cross plan with a central nave with two side aisles. The cathedral’s campanile, a fortification annexed in is called the Matilde Tower and features an asymmetrical clock. Very charming.
In medieval times, San Miniato was on the via Francigena, or the main connecting route between northern Europe and Rome. It also sits at the intersection of the Florence-Pisa and the Lucca-Siena roads. Over the centuries San Miniato was therefore exposed to a constant flow of friendly and hostile armies, traders in all manner of goods and services, and other travelers and pilgrims from near and far.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the site of the city and surrounding area has been settled since at least the paleolithic era. It would have been well known to the Etruscans, and certainly to the Romans, for whom it was a military post called “Quarto.”
The first mention in historical documents is of a small village organized around a chapel dedicated to San Miniato built by the Lombards in 783. By the end of the 10th century, San Miniato boasted a sizeable population enclosed behind a moat and protected by a castle built by Otto I.
In 1116, the new imperial vicar for Tuscany, Rabodo, established himself at San Miniato, supplanting Florence as the center of government. The site came to be known as al Tedesco, since the imperial vicars, mostly German, ruled Tuscany from there until the 13th century.
During the late 13th-century and the entire-14th century, San Miniato was drawn into the ongoing conflict between the Ghibelline and Guelph forces. Initially Ghibelline, it had become a Guelph city by 1291, allied with Florence and, in 1307, fought with other members of the Guelph league against the Ghibelline Arezzo.
By 1347 San Miniato was under Florentine control, where it remained, but for a brief period from 1367-1370 when, instigated by Pisa, it rebelled against Florence, and for another brief period between 1777 and 1779 during the Napoleonic conquest. It was still part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany when the Duchy was absorbed into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy in 1860.
The first walls, with defensive towers, were thrown up in the 12th century during the time that Italy was dominated by Frederick Barbarossa. Under his grandson, Frederick II, the town was further fortified with expanded walls and other defensive works, including the Rocca and its tower.
The city is enclosed within a well-preserved medieval precinct. Main landmarks include:
The Tower of Frederick, built by Frederick II in the 13th century on the summit of the hill at an elevation of 192 metres (630 ft), overlooking the entire Valdarno.
I love the frescoes showing all the parts of the Italian peninsula in the corridors of the Vatican. Interestingly enough, the tower and San Miniato is among them:
During World War II the tower was destroyed by the German army to prevent the Allies from using it as a gun sighting tower, but was reconstructed in 1958 by architect Renato Baldi.
The remarkable Seminary, located in the central, unusually shaped Piazza della Repubblica, has a unique and spectacular set of frescos decorating the outside. as you can see in this photo and in my video taken yesterday:
If you can’t get to San Miniato yourself, at least you can enjoy this great Youtube video of the town filmed with the help of a drone.