This is an excerpt from the book “Florence and Tuscany“
A journey in the province of Florence: the Chianti area.
The Chianti territory with its hilly countryside of incomparable beauty lies in the heart of Tuscany.
Administered by both the Provinces of Florence and Siena, during the Middle Ages it was harshly contested by these two rival cities until 1555 when the Medicis imposed their hegemony on all of Tuscany.
It is difficult to trace its borders since only the mountains of Chianti in the East separate it from Upper Valdarno in a natural and neat way; the remaining territory fades into the hills of the Arbia, Elsa, Greve and Pesa rivers.
Mediaeval villages, castles, churches, abbeys, monasteries, cottages and villas lie one after the other in a fantastic itinerary that exalts the activity and inventiveness of man; centuries of work have modeled the hills of this region and the alternation of the olive groves and the forests creates a harmony unique to the world.
The proposed itineraries follow two principal guide‑lines that cross the Chianti region also suggesting two different ways to “read” the countryside. Along Via Cassia, or alternatively the faster Florence‑Siena Superstrada, one can follow again the paths once taken by pilgrims and wayfarers who, during the Middle Ages, reached Rome from Northern Europe with everything that it had to bear: parish churches, small towns, hospices, abbeys. Via Chiantigiana, on the other hand, is a more rural path that throughout its length crosses the classic wine region.
In any case, the visitor will be offered an unforgettable countryside always varying and harmonious and so diverse in colors and in atmosphere with the changing seasons. There are many ways to get to one of the parish churches, castles or isolated towns, silent witnesses to the historical and artistic richness of the Chianti region.
It does not matter how one gets there: whether by car, motorcycle, bicycle or bus, there are many possibilities for staying and enjoying a few days’ holiday in the relaxing atmosphere of Chianti, tasting the gastronomic specialties of the region accompanied by wines that have made Chianti famous all over the world.
Today’s Via Cassia does not correspond, in the Tuscan section, to the ancient Roman road and not even to Via Francigena, the mediaeval trail that ran along the Valdelsa valley. It was however an important main road that the pilgrims and merchants took to get to Via Francigena at Poggibonsi. Since the XV century it was called “strada regia romana” and represented the main road between Florence and Rome until the construction of the Autosole highway.
Since Via Cassia passes through many urban centers and is at times rather congested with traffic, the hurried tourist may choose to take the Florence‑Siena Autostrada that can be abandoned whenever one wishes to visit one of the proposed locations.
Before reaching Via Cassia, Galluzzo’s Certosa is worth a visit. It rises on the hills of Montaguto to the south of Florence. Founded by Niccolò Acciaiuoli in the XIV century for the purpose of housing young Florentines who wished to learn the liberal arts. It is surrounded by high walls, that together with the majestic Palazzo degli Studi bestow upon it the aspect of a fortress. Preserved inside Certosa, now inhabited by a group of Benedictine Cistercian monks, are some important works of art, among which there are 5 lunettoni (crescent shaped paintings), frescoes of scenes of the Passion by Pontormo painted between 1523 and 1525 during his permanence there while escaping the plague that had hit Florence.
San Casciano Val di Pesa
Property of the Florentine bishops since its foundation, San Casciano was annexed to the Florentine Republic in the XIII century and was subsequently fortified, turning it into a castle of defense against the dangers that originated in the Sienese countryside. Many traces of the boundary walls and the mediaeval towers remain even today. The Museum of Sacred Art set up inside the Church of S. Maria del Gesù holds precious works of art from all over the region. The altar frontal attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo representing San Michele Arcangelo and tales of his legend and the Madonna and Child by A. Lorenzetti are certainly the two most important works. Among the principal monuments are the Collegiata and the Church of Mercy (or S. Maria al Prato) that preserves a rich patrimony of works of art, including a Crucifix by Simone Martini.
The churches in the area are numerous and bear witness to the importance of S. Casciano in the MiddIe Ages, many of which are worth a visit, including the parish churches of S. Cecilia a Decimo a little out of the inhabited centre, S. Giovanni in Sugana in the Cerbaia direction; andS. Stefano a Campoli (dated 903) in the vicinity of Mercatale Val di Pesa.
We also remind you of the many villas around S. Casciano, including Villa i Collazzi and Villa Tattoli near Cerbaia and, in S. Andrea in Percussina, Villa Bossi‑Pucci so‑called Albergaccio,famous for Niccolò Machiavelli’s stay.
Tavernelle Val di Pesa
It owes its name to the “tabernulae”, the stop‑over and rest points along the “via regia” that linked Florence to Siena and then to Rome. This area has numerous interesting churches.
At one extreme of the inhabited area there is the church of S. Lucia al Borghetto (XIII century) an ex‑franciscan convent in Gothic style where a precious Crucifix of thirteenth‑century school and an Annunciation by Neri di Bicci are kept. Just out of Tavamelle, after leaving Via Cassia, one reaches Morrocco where it is possible to visit the church of S. Maria del Carmine, built in the 1400′s and then largely remodelled. Inside, a glazed terracotta of the Annunciation in Andrea della Robbia’s style is preserved, and a series of fresco fragments from the 1400′s. Not far from Morrocco is the old parish church ofS. Pietro in Bossolo. In the presbytery, there is the Museum of Sacred Art where works from the churches of small abandoned towns are preserved. Among some of the most important works we must mention a series of panels executed in 1473 by Neri di Bicci for the church of S. Maria al Morrocco and a pall with the Madonna and Child between S. Martino and S. Sebastiano by the so‑called Maestro di Tavamelle.
In the territory of Tavarnelle San Donato in Poggio is definitely worth a visit. It is a small medieval village that still preserves notable remains of boundary walls, buildings of the 1200‑1300′s, the Renaissance Malaspina Palace, the church of S. Maria della Neve (XV century) in Gothic style and the Ronianesque parish church of San Donato where a beautiful baptismal font in glazed terracotta by G. della Robbia is kept.
From Sambuca along the road to Greve, one comes across the majestic Passignano Abbeyfounded in 1049 by monks from the Vallombrosian order. Immersed in the countryside, surrounded by an intense cultivation of olives, the abbey is striking for its fortress‑like appearance, with its walls and battlement towers. Among the numerous works of art preserved in the abbey one must remember Passignano’s frescoes (1601) in the main chapel and above all the fresco of the Last Supper by Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio (1476‑77) in the refectory of the monastery.
Barberino Val D’Elsa
Founded by the Florentines in a strategic position to resist the expansion of the Semifonte castle, Barberino still preserves its medieval appearance with its fortified walls, tower‑houses, the Pretorio Palace (XIV century), the Pilgrim’s Hospital (XIV century) and the church of S. Bartolomeo.
From Barberino, following the road to Certaldo, one arrives at the remains of the Semifonte castle which was destroyed by the Florentines in 1202 after a long siege. Not long after the end of the 1500′s the chapel of S. Michele Arcangelo was erected, according to a project by Santi di Tito, to commemorate Semifonte.
Continuing on in the direction of Certaldo the romanesque parish church of S. Appiano can. be found, one of the oldest to be found in the Florentine countryside dated around the XI century. The interesting cross‑shaped columns in front of the church bear witness to the existence of an ancient baptistry.
After Barberino Val d’Elsa Via Cassia continues on but leaves the Chianti region. Those who would like to follow it may visit Poggibonsi, Colle Val d’Elsa and Monteriggioni and then Siena. A deviation from Poggibonsi for S. Gimignano is highly recommended.
It has always been and is still an important main road that links Florence and Siena and maintains still today a more markedly rural character than that of Via Cassia. The first part of the itinerary suggested hereafter initially follows the SS 484 from Castelnuovo Berardenga to Radda and Castellina in Chianti. It is only here in Castellina that one enters the SS 222 Chiantigiana to go to Florence. In order to get to many of the suggested points, it wilI be necessary to deviate onto secondary roads.
Impruneta was already inhabited in the Etruscan and Roman era, and during the Middle Ages was tied to the political and economic affairs of nearby Florence. The real propulsory centre of the community of Impruneta was theparish Church of S. Maria, founded in 1060, that became, in a short time, an important sanctuary to the Virgin Mary. The church, originally in Romanesque style, underwent numerous revisions over the centuries, and at present only the original crypt has been preserved, while the church presents a sober Renaissance‑style appearance. Inside, works by important artists are kept, including some by Michelozzo and Luca della Robbia and an miraculous icon of the Madonna is venerated ‑ which tradition says was painted by Luke the Evangelist.
The veneration of the Madonna of Impruneta has encouraged the accumulation of precious gifts and votive offerings over the centuries, which are now kept in the Museum of Sacred Artadjacent to the church together with miniature manuscripts, gold and silver. Thanks to the great tradition of the earthenware and terracotta kilns, the cotto of Impruneta has become a characterizing and distinctive element of the architecture and of the Tuscan countryside, beyond being a famous product exported all over the world.
The Buondelmonti piazza, the traditional market‑place, has been made famous with a drawing by J. Callot in 1620 that represents the Fair of S. Luca in October.
Greve in Chianti
Greve is situated at the intersection of the roads that Iinked Florence and Siena and Upper Valdarno and the Valdelsa. It began to develop as a “market place” for the principal castles of the area in the XIII century. Greve’s main piazza, is characterized by an original formation of irregular triangular shape, defined by beautiful long porticos. Today it is still an important point of exchange, particularly on the occasion of the Mostra Mercato del Chianti Classico (Chianti Classico, Wine Fair) that takes place there every year in September. The Monterioralle castledominates Greve, which still maintains intact the original mediaeval town structure with a narrow ring‑road that follows on to mect the little church of S. Stefano, where an. interesting twelfth‑century Madonna and Child is preserved.
The castles of Uzzano, Verrazzano, Vicchiomaggio and Lamole are also notable. A short distance from Greve, in the Panzano direction, Vignamaggio Villa can be found, where, according to tradition, Mona Lisa ‑ made famous by Leonardo ‑ was born. The Romanesque parish church of Panzano or S. Leolino, dating back to the X century, preserves important works of art, including a precious panel with the Madonna on the throne Saints Peter and Paul and stories of the two saints, attributed to Meliore di Jacopo (XIII century).
Castellina in Chianti
Long‑standing feudal domain of the Trebbio family, Castellina passed over to Florence in the XV century that surrounded it with walls making it one of the most important battlement locations against Siena. The medieval fort dominates the country, but that which bears witness more than anything else to Castellina’s medieval past is surely the Via delle Volte, a walkway set into the walls of the town which offers, limited but exceptional panorama, seen through the arrowslits.
Just outside the inhabited centre lies the Etruscan ipogeo (underground cave) of Montecalvario, a rather imposing grave for dimensions dated to the VII‑VI century B.C. that, together with other tombs identified in various other locations, bears witness to the Etruscan presence in Chianti.
Radda in Chianti
Radda in Chianti is on the boundary of Florentine and Sienese territories and was often involved in troubled historic affairs. It was the headquarters for the Lega of the Chianti region ‑ an autonomous jurisdiction created by the Florentine Republic in 1250 which also included Castellina, Gaiole and Greve.
Apart from the urbanistic structure in an elongated elliptical plan, there remains in medieval style only a few sections of the periphery walls and various towers. The Pretorio Palacehowever, is of interest, built in the 1400′s and adorned with official mayoral stems.
Only a short distance from Radda, in the direction of Lucarelli and Panzano, indications for the Romanesque parish church of S. Maria Novella are found, unique in the Chianti territory for its capitals decorated with animalistic symbols, monstrous figures and floral drawings that bring to mind the Romanesque parish churches of Valdarno and Casentino.
The Volpaia castle is a small mediaeval agglomeration that is certainly worth a visit. Inside the walls is a Iabyrinth of little paved lanes preserved between arches, palazzos and the littleRenaissance church of S. Eufrosino (XV century).
Gaiole in Chianti
During the Middle Ages it was an important market place, developed along the road for Valdarno. The numerous castles and parish churches in the vicinity bear witness to an intense and prosperous agricultural and commercial activity. Among the castles, which were all established in the Middle Ages, of particular interest is Vertine, also Meleto with its two majestic rounded angular towers, Barbischio, and above all Brolio castle. A patrol walkway runs on top of the walIs and bastions that surround the town, from which one can enjoy a beautiful panorama of the Chianti region and the Sienese countryside. The castle, completely destroyed in 1478, was reconstructed in the last century on Bettino Ricasoli’s wish.
At less than 1 km from Gaiole, the beautiful Romanesque parish church of Spaltenna is worth a visit, while on the road to Valdarno, immersed in the green of age‑old fir‑trees, is theAbbey at Coltibuono. A large part of the majestic complex of the abbey that was constructed by the Vallombrosan monks is now private property, the Romanesque church and the massive embattled bell tower.
Castelnuovo Berardenga is a southern offshoot of Chianti. The original town dates back to the IX century when it was a feudal complex called “terra berardinga”, but only a thirteenth‑century tower and a piece of the periphery wall remain of the old arrangement. However, of architectural relevance, overhanging the town is Villa Chigi Saraceni with its large park.
End of the excerpt from the book “Florence and Tuscany“. Get the entire content of the book free from advertising.
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