Chasing the Middle Ages


Following is a piece that is included in Pastel and Pen: Two Ways of Seeing, a collection of my writing paired with selected pastel drawings by Gregg Simpson.  This piece is accompanied by Gregg Simpson’s pastel entitled San Gimignano shown below. I alternate travel writing about modern San Gimignano with a fanciful journey seven hundred years into the past.


The hill town of San Gimignano is famous worldwide as the city of towers—one of the last examples of what most Italian towns looked like back in the bellicose Middle Ages when neighbor fought neighbor and competed to build the highest towers.

I open a pair of blue shutters to the dawn and walk out onto a tiny balcony. On a hill across the valley, the towers of San Gimignano poke above an early morning mist that blankets the fields and muffles all sound.

I sit demurely atop a donkey as my husband leads me toward my new city. I’ve come all the way from Florence—a long and weary journey. I look forward to the attentions of my maid, perhaps even a warm bath.

I’ve been doing some reading and discovered that the genteel classes didn’t necessarily embrace filth. And of course in my medieval fantasy, I’m a well-born woman with servants and a husband who treats me right. It’s not much fun to imagine the reality.

Ahead, at least seventy towers rise to pierce the morning sky. The bells for matins fill the air and remind me of home. But this small city is my home now. One of those towers will soon be mine. I’ve heard talk about pitched battles between families, of stones crumbling in nighttime attacks, of cobbles red with the blood of kinsmen. I am young but already weary of war. In Florence, I saw my father’s head sliced from his body to land at my feet. It is by the Grace of God I managed to run away, only to be caught by the man who is now my husband. He claimed me as his prize. So far, he has been kind.

I lean my elbows against the railing and count the towers—just thirteen now, but still enough to make San Gimignano unique among Italian hill towns in modern Italy. The October morning is chilly and I withdraw for breakfast. In just a few hours, I’ll enter the ancient gates of the city and be transported back 700 years.

We enter the city through the Porta San Giovanni. This city is much smaller than Florence and very crowded. Merchants line both sides of the narrow street that leads up a gradual slope to the Piazza del Duomo, white and splendid at the top of a long flight of steps. My new home is in a palazzo overlooking the Duomo. I take that as a good sign. The closer I am to God in this new place, the better. My husband leads me through the front door of my house and up a dark flight of steps to the floor containing the public rooms. At street level is my husband’s business. He is a crocus merchant. I am amused to be the wife of a man who traffics in flowers, but of course I do not tell my husband that.

I arrive at the Porto San Giovanni and am immediately engulfed by the contents of several dozen enormous busses all disgorging their charges at the same time. I’m swept through the gate and into a narrow street lined with shop after shop of San Gimignano tourist dreck. As soon as I can, I turn left and pass through a dark and narrow street.

The sunlit street is completely empty except for one boneless cat sprawled across the cobblestones. I shouldn’t be out on my own. My husband will be angry if he discovers that I’ve left the safety of our house, but the spring day is so warm after such a long and bitter winter. I long for time away from his mother. I hear the muted twittering of birds and breathe deeply the smell of hot stone. My hair tumbles down my back in a thick braid twined with a blue ribbon. A small knife made of silver hangs from a soft leather belt around my waist. A swirl of heavy skirts makes climbing the steep street a challenge, but I press on, not sure where I am heading. I want to see the world beyond the towers—green fields and forests. I spend every day indoors, sewing and listening to my mother-in-law talk. In Florence, I was permitted access to my father’s library, but not here. My husband does not read and does not know that I can.

I feel now that I’ve stepped from the 21st century into the 14th. The narrow street leads to another, sunlit and quiet street that runs parallel to the main street. Flowers tumble from window boxes; my feet slip across dusty cobblestones. A cat lies belly up, paws waving softly, its purring the sound of contentment. I breathe deeply the old stone smell and feel the centuries slough away as I begin a long, slow climb. Occasionally, I pass a side street that leads back to the throngs on the main street—the incessant murmur of hundreds of tourists wafts across for a moment and then is gone. I keep climbing.

I will be in grave trouble if I am caught but I cannot stop climbing. The city wall is to my left. If I follow it to the top of San Gimignano’s highest point, I am bound to catch a glimpse of the countryside. I need to know that this city is not the only thing on earth. The street ends at a flight of stone steps. I start up them, gathering my skirts in one hand, steadying myself with the palm of my other hand on the rough stone. I am almost to the top when a soldier appears in front of me. He leers, showing black teeth. His smell makes me gag. I am caught, pinned like a summer fly trapped beneath a goblet. The ground suddenly looks very far below me.

At the top of the street, a narrow flight of stairs leads to a wide open grassy area. I see a few straggly trees, some benches, the odd tourist cooling off in the shade, and that’s about it. I walk across the space to another even narrower flight of stairs that leads to the very top of the city wall. I climb up carefully, surprised there is no railing to prevent tourists from tumbling to a smashed skull death. Finally, I step into a flat space, wide enough to contain a dozen tourists armed with cameras and smiles. I am lucky today. Only two people are with me at the top. They take my picture with my camera; I take their picture with theirs. The backdrop is the towers of San Gimignano—stark against a sky as blue as the lapis lazuli used to color the gowns of the Madonnas in the old paintings. I wish I could pour the blue into a bottle to take home and cheer me up on long, wet, winter days.

The guard descends one step so he is now only an arm’s length from me. His smell almost knocks me off the stairs. I am not a fool. I know what he wants from me. The choice I face is clear—I can jump—and surely break a limb—or I can talk my way out.

“Make way for me, if you please,” I say, making my voice as loud and haughty as I can. I sound like my mother-in-law. “My husband will be angry to hear I have been impeded.”

“Impeded, is it? Who are you to be telling me to stand aside? I’m the guard here.”

“You are familiar, of course, with Messer Sarducci?”

“Sarducci?” His sniffs and wipes the back of his hand across his nose. I hold my breath. If he is allied with a rival family, my time on this stairwell will be very limited. “He is your husband?”

He is not, but I gamble that this oaf won’t know. I nod. “I shall tell him of your behavior.” I turn my back and jam one shoulder against the rough wall. The heavy velvet of my sleeves protects me. At any moment, I expect to feel his hands pull me back.

A cough, loud enough to startle two crows perched on the battlement just above my head, is followed by the sound of retching. I take a chance and run as fast as I can down the stairs, praying my skirts will not tangle my progress. A clot of phlegm—striped red with blood and smelling even viler than the man it came from—lands next to my foot.

Reluctantly, I descend the stone stairs from the viewpoint and walk around the back of the Duomo to emerge into the Piazza. The seething hordes of tourists remind me of the lice that infested the rats and caused the Black Death in 1348. The population of San Gimignano dropped from 13,000 to 7,000 in just six months. I try to imagine the same Piazza filled with dead and dying bodies, and cannot.

I am alarmed to find my husband in bed when I arrive home. He never lies down in the middle of the day. My fear that he will know I’ve been out is quickly replaced by worry. His eyes are red-rimmed and weeping. A large sore blackens one side of his neck.

I sit at the top of the Duomo steps and watch the Piazza empty of people. The setting sun drenches the tops of the towers with gold. How many centuries of souls have sat where I sit and watched the evening descend over the same towers? The voices of the dead mingle with the low murmurs of the living still strolling.

I close my husband’s dead eyes and bow my head. Outside, I hear a city alive with screams and whispers and death. The pestilence has arrived and all we can do now is wait and pray.

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