Known as the Town of Fine Towers, San Gimignano sits perched on a hill in the Val d’Elsa region of Tuscany. The site was first populated by the Etruscans in the third century BCE, and in the first century CE, a castle named Silvia was built here by a defecting Roman patrician. Its name was changed after Saint Gimignano, Bishop of Modena, intervened to spare the castle from destruction by the followers of Attila the Hun in 450 CE.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the town was a stopping point for pilgrims going to Rome and the Vatican, sitting as it does on Via Francigena, which runs from Canterbury, in England, all the way to Rome and Apulia, in Italy.
In 1199, the city liberated itself from the rule of the Bishops of Volterra, who had ruled over it since 929, and began building churches and public buildings. The following centuries, however, were rife with rivalry between the families of San Gimignano, resulting in the building of tower houses of increasingly greater heights. Eventually, there were 72 towers, up to 70 meters (230 feet) tall, until the local council ordained that no tower was to be taller than the Palazzo Comunale. Today, only fourteen of them remain.
In 1348, the town was struck by the Black Plague, and about half its population perished. At this time, rule was handed over to Florence, and though at first a few palazzi were constructed, development in the town was soon halted, preserving the medieval look of San Gimignano.