San Gimignano, Tuscany – Where an architect has much to learn

San Gimignano, Tuscany, is a medieval village that has been declared “world heritage site” by Unesco and his urban structure goes back to a time lapse between the XI and the XII century. To get to San Gimignano is an engaging experience under different points of view. As all the historical cities, it has developed surrounded by walls but differently from many others it has remained quite the same over the centuries, till today. Known by the world as the city of towers, today we can see way less pinnacles. In the golden age of the city there were 74 towers while today they are 14. The remaining ones anyway still fascinate million of tourists.

But what matters, in this context, is not only the beauty of the typical medieval town, even if it is still attracting a lot of people and it is also an example of one the best preserved places of medieval age. We are interested in the spatial composition of the city, through its empty and full spaces.


With composition is meant the relation among volumes, being them towers or buildings in a line or spaces left empty for the social life of citizens. And it is the social life one of the cardinal points of the medieval town, and it is important also for San Giminiano. Walking in the city, it is easy to understand how important public spaces were and, generally speaking, life in the streets.

These collective dynamics, deriving from the most ancient human civilizations, entail other consequences that Marco Romano was able to explain in his book “La città come opera d’arte”“every single façade became an artwork to show to people passing by, citizens were proud of embellishing their own house in order to show it, even passively, to the others”.

Medieval town are people- oriented. They are cities made to go through them. Life flows in San Gimignano’s arteries and stops in the corners made by buildings, all different one from the other, all differentiated.
From Modern architecture on, architects seem to have forgot this lesson of “urban humanity”. We use this term to define those realities that are nothing different than an extension of the life of a single individual- life that is represented by the social and spatial phenomena, to live well and together we could say. Unfortunately, starting from last centuries to our days, we forgot that man is a social animal and moves, in his more natural dimension, by walking.


What an architect should learn from this ancient cities is, first of all, how to use empty spaces, that are not useless. They are aggregation spaces and they are different from those spaces that today are designed only for urban décor purposes.

A square, that is a place of relation, needs a common point of interest to become a haunt. It is not possible to create a space with any other purpose than the one of aggregation, it doesn’t work- in these cities, the element of attraction was the church, the “arengario” or other institutional buildings.

Another lesson that a contemporary architect should learn from the history of these cities is the differentiation, meaning the dynamism of images, figures and forms, that often jump to the eyes of the metropolitan citizen. We are not suggesting to come back building, with bricks and stones, towers that are 2 meters thick (San Gimiano’s towers have this dimension, at the basement, in order to bear the whole weight of the building). We are just suggesting to remember that order, being serial and functionality are not always the best path to walk through.
There is another word, harmony, that contains a concept hard to achieve for an architect, but it doesn’t have to be put aside for this reason. We should pursue harmony in all the different fields of architecture.


C’è invece un’altra parola, “Armonia”, che racchiude in se un concetto ben difficile da raggiungere per un architetto, ma non per questo dev’essere accantonata. Perseguiamo l’armonia nei vari campi dell’architettura.


All photographs ©Luca Onniboni – (do whatever you want, reminding us)

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