In the heart of the Valdelsa area, well connected to the cities of Siena and Firenze, Castelfiorentino is a small city that balances both modernity and tradition, where the numerous traces of the past live alongside the lively activities of the present.
Like many towns in this area, Castelfiorentino developed over the course of the Middle Ages thanks to its position near to where the Via Volterrana and the Francigena meet. In this castle, the remains of which can be found near Pieve dei Santi Ippolito e Biagio and the Collegiata dei Santi Lorenzo e Leonardo (both dating from the XII Century), after the battle of Montaperti in 1260, the peace treaty that ended the conflict between Siena and Florence wasc signed, a historic event which is remembered today with a captivating commemoration.
Outside the city walls we can find the Church of San Francesco, a rare example of Gothic architecture in the Valdelsa area and the Sanctuary of Santa Verdiana, recognisable for its imposing baroque facade and dedicated to the protector of Castelfiorentino, who during the XIII Century lived for more than thirty years in solitude in a tiny cell that can still be seen today in the Church. The original depiction of the Saint was located here, the work of an anonymous artist from Siena of the XIV Century, now conserved in the nearby Museum of Santa Verdiana together with other artworks such as the precious paintings of the Madonna and Child by Cimabue and Taddeo Gaddi.
The monumental frescoes created between 1484 and 1490 by Benozzo Gozzoli can be admired in the Museo BeGo, a museum dedicated to the Florentine painter famous for the colour and elegance of his paintings.
As we leave the city centre for the surrounding countryside, it is impossible not to notice the ordered landscape, partly modelled by the work of the revolutionary agronomist Cosimo Ridolfi, who in 1834, in the Villa di Meleto, founded the first Agricultural Institute in Italy where modern agricultural techniques were taught in an experimental way.
This well-kept land and the courtesy of its inhabitants was remembered in 1819 by the famous writer Stendhal who, passing through Castelfiorentino, appreciated the local story telling traditions so much so as to compare them to his experience at the Scala in Milan. It may be due to this vocation for the arts that in 1867, a theatre was built in Castelfiorentino (Teatro del Popolo), which is still today the fulcrum of this small town.
Certaldo: The town of Boccaccio
Surrounded by the stunning Valdelsa hills, Certaldo is a characteristic medieval town where it seems that time stopped centuries ago.
The first signs of a settlement date back to Etruscan times but it was in the XII Century, under rule of the Conti Alberti family that the castle was built, known as the Palazzo Pretorio and the town was extended to become the seat of the chief magistrate and then of the Valdelsa parsonage.
Like many medieval towns, Certaldo is also located on a hilltop and is enclosed withinwalls, which for the most part have been well conserved, featuring several ancient doors(Porta Alberti, Porta al Sole and Porta al Rivellino). The most convenient and panoramic way to access the castle and to appreciate the medieval town is with the funicular railway which parts regularly from Piazza Boccaccio.
Certaldo is located near to the Via Francigena along which activities of trade and exchange took place. The town boasted a number of important Florentine Families, merchants and bankers as residents including the famous writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), author of theDecameron who lived most of his life here and requested to be buried here.
A visit to the town should include a stop at the House of Boccaccio, today a museum and specialist library and at the tomb of the writer in the Church of Saint Jacob and Saint Philip. Also not to be missed is the Museum of Sacred Art, where the famous wooden crucifix of Christus Triumphans can be found and the unique Nail Museum.
The city of Boccaccio also boasts important food and wine traditions which make the most of the typical products of the territory, such as Chianti wine, extra virgin olive oil, white truffle and the famous Certaldo red onions. Similarly, the town comes to life during the year with events and exhibitions such as the International festival of Mercantia in July and the kermesse dedicated to food and wine, Boccaccesca during the month of October.
Famous for being the birthplace of Pontormo and also for the splendid façade of the Collegiata di Sant’Andrea (Collegiate Church of Sant’Andrea), it offers the possibility of a visit to see remarkable works of art and monuments on a journey through the streets of the old town centre and the surrounding area. The town’s museums are not to be missed – especially the Museum of the Collegiate Church (Museo della Collegiata), in which there are numerous works of art, including works by Masolino da Panicale, Lorenzo Monaco and Filippo Lippi. The Muve, Empoli Glass Museum, on the other hand, provides evidence of the manufacturing activity that characterized the town. The town centre featuresPiazza Farinata degli Uberti, familiarly called “Piazza dei Leoni” (Square of the Lions) by the inhabitants of Empoli, because of the fountain designed by Luigi Pampaloni. Some of the most symbolic buildings, from a historical and artistic viewpoint, overlook the square: the Collegiate Church, with the adjacent Collegiate Church Museum, a true treasure trove of works of art from the period between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, Palazzo Pretorio and Palazzo Ghibellino, which hosts the Civic Museum of Palaeontology and temporary exhibitions organized by some of the many cultural associations that contribute to the enrichment of the urban fabric.
Not far from here, in via Ridolfi, stands the recently renovated former Salt Warehouse, a milestone along the Via Salaria. The Empoli Glass Museum, which documents the history of glass production in Empoli, is located inside it. From the Collegiate Church Museum, the itinerary continues on to the nearby Church of Santo Stefano degli Agostiniani, which is part of the Augustinian Convent, where the Municipal Libraryis currently located. Also worthy of a visit, are the Civic Museum of Palaeontology, Pontormo’s house and the House where Ferruccio Busoni was born, situated in Piazza della Vittoria.
Within a range of a few square metres, following the so-called “tour of Empoli”, you will find numerous places of cultural interest that are easy to reach on foot, in among the many shops in the town centre. The House where Pontormo was born is an exception, as it is situated in the nearby locality of Pontorme, a short distance from the Church of San Michele, in which two works of the brilliant artist are kept and undoubtedly deserve to be admired.
At the heart of a territory known since ancient times for the presence of its regenerating salt waters, Gambassi Terme is a fundamental stop along the Via Francigena and a place historically well known for its well-being and welcoming characteristics.
Located along the main roads that during Etruscan and Roman times connected the main Tuscan towns, the town of Gambassi and the nearby Pieve di Santa Maria a Chianni in Medieval times were remembered by the Archbishop Sigerico di Canterbury during his pilgrimage towards Rome on the Via Francigena, which today is one of the most evocative “walks” in Europe.
In Medieval times, thanks to the presence of the necessary raw materials, Gambassi earned fame for its production of glassware, which is documented today by a permanent exhibition and by the manufacturing of terracotta, which in the XVII Century, was the chosen material of the sculptor Francesco Gonnelli, known as the Blindman of Gambassi, who immortalised different famous personalities of the time and who became a real celebrity himself.
A short distance from the historic centre which conserves many of the original buildings and alleys from medieval times and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside, the Parco Benestare can be found. Here, hidden behind the plants the Terme della Via Francigena embrace the beneficial properties of the water, offering treatments for the body and spirit, enhancing the genuine flavours of oil andwine which are in abundance in this area.
Immersed within the Valdelsa hills, Montaione is just a short distance from the via Francigena and is the ideal location for an unforgettable holiday.
The historic centre is arranged around the central square. The Palazzo Pretorio and the ancient Pieve di San Regolo (housing a Madonna with Child from the school of Cimabue) remind us of the development of the castle of Montaione during Medieval times, when thanks to the Via Francigena, hundreds of pilgrims passed through the area on their way to Rome and the Holy Land. At the same time the Civic Museum, located near the Palazzo Pretorio, recalls the oldest traces of ancient settlers and houses many artefacts dating from Prehistoric and Medieval times as well as a unique fossilised whale skeleton dating back to the Pliocene period, found in the Montaione countryside.
The unique Jerusalem of San Vivaldo shrine, just a few kilometres from Montaione can still be visited today. In this extraordinary place, you get the feeling you are stepping back in time. Here, during the 14th Century, Friar Vivaldo Stricchi of San Gimignano retreated to the life of a hermit choosing to live in the hollow of a chestnut tree. In 1515, Fra Tommaso da Firenze ordered the construction of a series of chapels decorated with multi-coloured terracotta tiles inspired by the life and Passion of Christ. In 1516, he granted indulgence to those who visited this shrine, confirming it as a true place of pilgrimage.
As you follow the secondary roads or stroll along the sign-posted trails, among the hills and forests of Montaione, you come across villages such as Castelfalfi as well as impressive villas with a rich history. You can also sample excellent local bread and other typical products from the various stores and markets.
Famous throughout the world for its production of artistic ceramics, the town of Montelupo Fiorentino is also the perfect base for following an itinerary in the heart of Tuscany.
Montelupo Fiorentino, situated between the river Arno and the fertile Valdelsa hills has been inhabited since Prehistoric times and was colonised in the Etruscan and Roman period. The important Villa Romana del Vergigno and the numerous artefacts in theMuseum of Archaeology bear witness to this.
Despite this, it was the Republic of Florence who were responsible for the building of the castle in 1204 (visible today by the bell tower of the San Lorenzo Priory) as a military outpost in the Arno valley and the successive expansion of the town, which in the mid XIV Century was enclosed within city walls which are partly still visible today.
The close proximity of the city of Florence with its merchants and noblemen was of note during the Renaissance when the production of ceramics began to flourish. In particular the majolica which enabled Montelupo Fiorentino to become one of the main manufacturing centres in Tuscany. Baccio da Montelupo, the famous sculptor and study companion of Michelangelo was born and raised in the town of Montelupo Fiorentino.
The activities widely documented in the Museum of Ceramics, carry on today in many ceramics workshops and are the absolute protagonists of theInternational Ceramics Festival, during which history and traditions live on in a series of performances, exhibitions and artistic demonstrations.
Towards the end of the XVI Century, the Medici family chose the left bank of the river Arno, near to Montelupo Fiorentino, to build the splendidVilla dell’Ambrogiana which today can only be admired from the outside.
The countryside of Montelupo Fiorentino cultivated with vineyards and olive trees provides typical products of high quality such as Chianti wines and extra vergin olive oil which form the basis of numerous local dishes.
Situated on the slopes of the Montalbano and surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, the town of Vinci is undoubtedly linked to the memory of its most famous citizen, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). The castle which for its unusual shape is known as the “castle of the ship”, was owned by the Conti Guidi family in the XII Century but then fell under Florentine rule. The towns characteristic medieval streets and stunning views well justify a visit but the majority of visitors come to follow the footsteps of Leonardo.
The House of Leonardo da Vinci can be found in Anchiano and allows the visitor to discover the personal side of the artist and the deep links he had with the territory in which he grew up. Immersed in the green Tuscan countryside, the House is also an excellent starting point from which to take a walk along the beautiful trails of the Montalbano. In the historic centre of Vinci, the Leonardo Museum presents the works of Leonardo the technologist and engineer through one of the largest and original collections of machines and instruments. The models, which are accompanied by digital animations, give testimony to the extent of Leonardo’s interests: from the studies of flight and movements in water to designs for machines of war, textile machines and experiments on optics.A visit to Vinci continues in the Chiesa di Santa Croce where the baptismal font where Leonardo was baptised can be found, made even more precious by the installations Cecco Bonanotte dedicated to the Storia della Salvezza (History of Deliverance) and to the evocative locations where imposing works of contemporary art re-elaborate the heritage of the Genus: l’Uomo di Vinci (Man of Vinci), sculpture by Mario Ceroli in Piazza del Castello, the bronze Cavallo (Horse) created by Nina Akamu, the Piazza dei Guididesigned by Mimmo Paladino as a dramatic entrance to the museum. Finally there is the Leonardo Library, which houses copies of all the coded manuscripts which today are almost entirely accessible online thanks to the eLeo portal. The library is now a reserach and study centre recognised at International level.