San Gimignano is beautiful and enchanting, with its many medieval towers still rising high into the air. You'll fall in love with the charm of San Gimignano as soon as you arrive, but many spend too little time in San Gimignano to discover all of its treasures. One of them is the interior of the Duomo of San Gimignano, also called the Collegiata di San Gimignano.
I have to confess something: it took me a while to discover the Duomo as well. The very first time I went to San Gimignano, I was with a group. It was also raining. These two factors likely contributed to too little time in San Gimignano, although I keep reading and hearing that many just dedicate half a day to it. If you have very limited time, of the few things you do in San Gimignano, just make sure to include a visit to the Duomo.
The books from yesterday
The treasures inside include a fully-frescoed Duomo that have NEVER been "restored" throughout the centuries. The colors you see are the original ones painted in the 1300s and their vividness and brightness is awe-inspiring. While some sections do show signs of wear and tear with missing pieces (San Gimignano was bombed during World War II), others seem to have been painted only recently. Likely this is because the side windows were closed in order to do the frescoes and the reduced amount of light inside limits any damage. The frescoes were only dusted off in 1999, as part of the payment director Franco Zeffirelli paid to use the Duomo in scenes in the movie "Tea with Mussolini" (which I highly recommend, if you haven't seen it yet).
As you enter, on your right, you'll find a fresco cycle dedicated to the stories of the Old Testament while on the facing wall (right wall as you face the altar), stories of the New Testament are portrayed. The frescoes of the Old Testament are by Sienese master Bartolo di Fredi while the New Testament ones are said to be of someone from Simone Martini's workshop. Many believe it could have been Lippo Memmi (Martini's brother in law) or his brother, Federico Memmi, or even Donato Martini, Simone's own brother... in any case, not by Simone Martini himself since he was in France at the time.
As you look at each wall, the scenes start from the far left of each wall and have to be read across the top all the way to the right on each of the 3 levels you see. The Old Testament starts with the Creation of the World, then of Man, showing Adam in the Garden of Eden and then the creation of Eve. The last one at the top shows the eating of the forbidden fruit. You have to go back to the far left to then continue on to the second level, which continues with the banishment from the Garden of Eden, then the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and his Ark, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Job. Whether you're Catholic or not, the scenes will compel and draw you in.
Move on to the back to the interior wall of the façade where you'll see more frescoes, the main one being the "Martyr of St. Sebastian" by Benozzo Gozzoli from 1465. Gozzoli also was the master that frescoed the Chapel of the Magi in Florence's Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, but to see more of his great work in San Gimignano you just need to head to the Church of Sant'Agostino and head behind the main altar, as it's a bit hidden ;-). The two beautiful wooden statues to the sides are by the great Jacopo della Quercia, another Sienese artist.
While you're at this spot, look up to the arches on each side, you'll enjoy admiring, and taking note of what happens in the two opposing possibilities after death: to the left, the "Glory of Paradise" with all those who are blessed go to Heaven (very peaceful) and directly opposite on the right, the "Pains of Hell" where you can view Satan eating up Judas. Both of these are by Taddeo di Bartolo from around 1393-1403. Doubtless to say, the one of Hell took definite inspiration from Dante's own view and shows demons torturing humans for their many sins. Frescoes, as the books of the past, were to teach the citizens to "behave" or else.
Now head on to the next side of the basilica to see the stories continue, as they make the transition from the Old to the New Testament. The very top arches are once again read from the left to the far right, but here's one big exception. The far left on the bottom two levels are dedicated to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, so to continue the cycle before those episodes you start to the right of the Crucifixion, head to the right and then return on the lowest level from the right to the left to end up at the Crucifixion scene. Quite an interesting way to set up the stories, and makes for an interesting time in trying to identify what's happening in each and the sequence.
The Chapel of Santa Fina
The other treasure within the Collegiata is found to the left of these frescoes, in the small chapel dedicated to Santa Fina. Here is a real jewel of the Renaissance that brought together three great Florentines: the architect Giuliano da Maiano, his brother the sculptor Benedetto da Maiano and the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. The remains of Santa Fina, saint and protector of the city of San Gimignano, lie under the main altar.
To the right and left are two frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio, an artist I adore. These were painted with the help of his brother David and brother-in-law Sebastiano Mainardi: on the right, the dying young girl on her wooden bed where yellow violets blossomed as she died and, on the left, the funeral of Santa Fina with all in the towin paying homage, and the town of San Gimignano and its towers itself "photographed" in the background.
More treasures to admire
While the colors remind one of Ghirlandaio, the gorgeous "Annunciation" you admired as you made your way into the Duomo is attributed to Sebastiano Mainardi because of less-sure strokes, but likely using a design by Ghirlandaio himself. You might also have noticed the baptismal font as you entered into the loggia: up until a few decades ago, the arcades has been closed and this area functioned as the city's baptistery.
Our photographs can only show you a hint of the beauty of all of this artwork, you need to visit the Collegiata to see it for yourself!
Entrance into the Duomo does have a cost but it includes a free and easy to use audio guide that will make your visit and viewing of all of the frescoes much more enjoyable. If you're visiting with kids, get them one too as they will enjoy learning about the scenes on their own. You only need to leave an ID while you use the audio guides (the visit lasts about 45 minutes), it is just to make sure you return the audio guides ;-). And don't forget to pick up your ID!!
Don't make the mistake I made and not go inside the Duomo: even if you have only have a few hours in San Gimignano, make sure to visit the Duomo and enjoy the treasures within as it will make your visit to San Gimignano more memorable. It took me a while to discover them, but I've gone back several times to enjoy the beauty within the Duomo di San Gimignano now that I know how spectacular they are!
Museum of Sacred Art
The adjoining Museum of Sacred Art has several treasures from the Collegiata and nearby churches and and convents from the area, including the beautiful wooden panel by Bartolo di Fredi (who frescoed the scenes of the Old Testament inside) of the Madonna of the Rose and a Crucifix by Benedetto di Maiano. It also has many precious reliquaries, fragments of detached frescoes from the Duomo and more. It is quite small but I do recommend you don't miss it by buying the combined ticket for the Duomo and museum.