March 25, 2007: Mediaeval Tuscany: Feast of the Annunciation and the Hill Towns

March 25, 2007:  Mediaeval Tuscany: Feast of the Annunciation and the Hill Towns


Feast of the Annunciation: Florence’s own New Year’s Day

The traditional Florentine New Year, on the feast of the Annunciation, March 25, began today at the Palazzo Vecchio with a morning parade filling the streets. Several corps of marchers in mediaeval dress (with colorfully feathered hats), playing drums, sounding trumpet fanfares and waving flags, march from the Palazzo Vecchio through the Piazza del Duomo and into the Church SS Annunciata.   They receive thanks, a blessing, and march back.  Until 1750, Florence refused to accept the Gregorian calendar year that begins on January 1.  Florence still unofficially observes New Year on the feast of the Annunciation.


Hill Towns

The small cities of mediaeval Tuscany were built on hilltops (the steeper the better) surrounded by stone walls for military defense.  Those that survive unchanged are amazing — park the car outside the walls and walk into the sixteenth century.  It’s Disneyland but it’s really real.  Everything is three-quarter size: doorways, streets, storefronts.  All made of rough-cut stone, often with inset plaques or — for those with fame or pretensions — family crests. 


The towns typically have one or several high stone towers for two sorts of defense — as a viewpoint on the surrounding lands and as a castle-keep in the event of invasion or a hostile local mob.  The countryside is familiar:  just look at the background in the Mona Lisa.  Distinctive rolling hills, not quite mountains but often achieving serious heights, covered in grassland pastures (inhabited by sheep and cattle) alternating with woods, olive orchards, and vineyards.  The land is also home to the local favorite pig: Cinghale Sinese (Sienese Boar with distinctive belted coloring and ample rich fat).  Agriturismo thrives: working farms with foot-thick stone-walled farmhouses have been converted to small country inns. 


Volterra (

A walled city of towers, piazze, grand views over the countryside, a Roman amphitheatre and 800 years of history.  Florentine coats of arms on the town palazzo reflect that it was eventually conquered by Florence.  Inside the palazzo, a room where Dante is reputed to have addressed the city fathers, recruiting them to the Guelph side, its walls now covered with frescoes. 


Pienza (

Hometown (then known as Corsignano) of Pope Pius II in the 15th century.  The pope decided to turn it into a gem of a papal summer residence.  There’s a mini-cathedral commanding views of the countryside.


San Gimignano (

Home of the most prominent Tuscan white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano.  Full on mediaeval Tuscan treatment:  a walled city with fourteen surviving towers, narrow streets bounded by several-story tall buildings, so that the streets remain in shadow most of the day.  The streets feed in to a main square with the 13th century Torre Grosso at the center.   Visitors can walk up to a steep ladder atop the Torre and see what the San Gimignanans of seven hundred years ago saw: no invading army could approach unannounced. 



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