San Gimignano History
This small Etruscan village, named after the Holy Bishop of Modena, St. Gimignano, who, it is said, saved the town from barbarian hordes, increased its wealth and flourished during the Middle Ages due to the town's "Via Francigena", a route taken by traders and pilgrims. It enjoyed a period of great splendor in poetry, art, and architecture until long periods of internal and external strife caused St. Gimignano to lose its prestige and splendor. The peace and thriving success of the little town was to be disrupted for hundreds of years.
Internal power struggles divided its citizens into two factions, the Guelphs, headed by the Ardinghelli family, and the Ghibellines, headed by the Salvucci family, and in 1348 the town population was drastically reduced by the Black Death Plague throwing the city into a serious crisis that eventually led to its submission to Firenze in 1353. It took centuries for San Gimignano to overcome its decline and isolation and to recapture its beauty, cultural importance and agricultural heritage.
Legend has it that the towers of San Gimignano were covered in gold. Very possibly, the "gold" referred to was the spice saffron -- a purple flower with bright orange center parts, used for seasoning or as a food dye. San Gimignano was the major Italian producer of saffron, which was grown along the Val d'Elsa below the town, and the town's exportation of this spice, used in exchanges and trade and as a replacement for money, made the town rich! Attracting people from the surrounding countryside, San Gimignano boasted 7000 inhabitants in 1227, almost the same number of inhabitants today -- commerce flourished and the merchants gave generously to build fountains, pave squares, and erect the churches that remain today.