Holidays in San Gimignano Siena

direct e-mailGuest bookLinks

Everything in Tuscany carries the sign of our past and reminds of events, people and simple legends. The history of this Locanda has something special which goes beyond any common suggestion.
There are several documents about the origins of this house which also tell of many events related to the people who passed from here and linked their life to this particular place.

Originally this house was a watching tower to protect the town when San Gimignano was a free Commune (twelfth century). In a strategic position a few metres from the Via Francigena, the tower was guarded by a garrison of soldiers. The original structure was later enlarged and converted to a "pellegrinaio" (pilgrims' house), the ancient name for "locanda" (inn) where the Olivetan friars of the near Abbey (Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Minore) gave hospitality to the pilgrims who travelled along the Via Francigena.

The legend tells of some prodigious events happened here since the thirteenth century: after a few-day stay, maybe thanks to the warm climate, to the local delightful wine, to the oil obtained from century-old olive trees, and to the charitable attentions of the friars, the pilgrims continued their journey with renewed vigour, and in many cases they overcame illnesses and infections.
The fame of this place spread among pilgrims and merchants. San Gimignano "pilgrims' house" became a very well known place where people went to recover and recuperate energy and health. There have been particular events, which had inexplicable results and largely increased the myth of the Locanda of San Gimignano. There is actually a story which began in the early seventeenth century and had had its climax and conclusion in recent times...

Among the many famous people who stayed at the house, we know of a young Dutch painter, Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst, later known as Gherardo delle Notti (Gherardo of the Nights) for his night settings illuminated by a sole light source. Grown at Araham Bloemaert's school, he left Utrecht in 1609 to go to Rome and deep his knowledge of the Italian art of the time - and especially the paintings of Michelangelo Merisi, better known as "Caravaggio".
During his stay in Rome he got in touch with several prestigious clients, among them the marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani, a famous Maecenas of the time, who introduced him to the pontifical aristocracy; here he knew Piero Guicciardini, Cosimo II de' Medicis's ambassador, who ordered him a large painting for the chapel of Santa Felicita in Florence, of which the noble family was patron.
In spite of his success, Gherardo was not living a happy life: together with the obsession for the light which could not be animated in his paintings and the grief for the distance which separated him from his family (at that time he was only twenty years old) he also had to live a dreadful experience which would torment his mind and feelings. He met a young woman, a painter (something exceptional in that period when women were only allowed to get married and have children) whose name was Artemisia. She was Orazio Gentileschi's daughter - a famous Tuscan artist who had moved to Rome and who was Caravaggio's friend and boasting mate.
The young girl, with her gift for art and her wild beauty, immediately fascinated Gherardo. He had met her several time and he was actually starting to feel something special for her. But unfortunately, very soon a dramatic event ruined that tender friendship. In 1612 the painter Agostino Tassi, who was painting with Gherardo the Casino delle Muse of Palazzo Rospigliosi-Pallavicini in Rome was accused of the rape of a fifteen-year-old girl, Artemisia.

The clamour of angry voices for the tragic event, Tassi's refusal to marry the girl and the trial which followed, made Orazio Gentileschi to isolate her daughter and spare her from the scandal. During the trial Artemisia confirmed her accusation even if this meant to confirm the loss of her reputation - to be unmarried and no longer a virgin girl was something that the society of that time largely condemned. Gherardo could not see Artemisia anymore. He was upset and discouraged; his fragile common sense was suffering. He spent vain days and nights tormented by dramatic visions - he told of the apparition of the face of the Madonna dreadfully disfigured with a contemplative silent expression above a pale light, almost a sick one.
To escape from his torments he decided to go to Florence and visit the place where the Guicciardini family wanted to place the work they had ordered him, without actually knowing what he would accomplish later on. While visiting the Chapel of Santa Felicita, he could admire the works by Jacopo Carucci, better known as Pontormo, who had worked there for almost three years with the help of the young Agnolo Bronzino. Coming out of the church he met an old man sitting on the square and gave him a small offering; the old man told him: "every work has its place and every man has his own fate". Gherardo did not understand his words and thought that was an odd sentence which he pronounced as an expression of gratitude. But today we know that those words were to be prophetic.
After a short stay in Florence, on his way back to Rome, Gherardo stopped at the Locanda of San Gimignano. He really hoped in a miracle which should help his tormented soul to find rest and his inspiration to accomplish his work. As in a written plot, the fate started to play its role here: after a few days a coach from Rome arrived to the Locanda.
The Florentine painter Pierantonio Stiattesi and his young wife were on it. They were going to Florence, where they would live; but they had to stop because the woman fell ill during the journey and needed urgent cares. No chronicles tell of Gherardo's feeling when he saw Artemisia getting out of the coach in his husband's arms but we can imagine his wonder and surprise. When he had left Rome to Florence he did not know of her wedding to Stiattesi. It was a marriage of convenience to spare the young woman from any further gossip. It was celebrated on November 29th 1612 (a week after Tassi was found guilty of the rape) in the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia. Bride and groom left Rome after a few days to begin their new life in Florence far from judgments and inferences.
When they stopped at the Locanda her health conditions were very serious; so they had to stop here for a few more days. Artemisia, with her rich store of sorrow and anger, abandoned herself to the loving cares and the particular atmosphere of this place, quite managing to overcome her suffering for the offended dignity; once her health conditions had improved, she came back to life and felt like talking again.
She met Gherardo and told him about the latest happenings; they talked about the sudden marriage she was forced to; the dreadful anxiety for the uncertainty of her future and eventually, she declared something beautiful and terrible as an unreal dream which left an unforgettable sign in Gherardo's soul: she wanted a child son who could look like Gherardo so that she could keep him with her for the rest of her life .

After these days spent at the Locanda, Artemisia and her husband left for Florence where they lived till 1621. She had a daughter, Prudenzia (after her mother who had met an untimely death). She started a new artistic path and expressed her love for life through the light of her paintings, which made her famous as the unique woman compared to Michelangelo Merisi, better known as "Caravaggio". She was quite known in Florence and became the first woman to belong to Accademia del Disegno supported by the Medici family. Her paintings are now part of the rich collection of the Uffizi Gallery. After meeting Artemisia, Gherardo went back to Rome with his heart full of sorrow; he was conscious that the artwork he was going to accomplish would be his last present for Artemisia. Talking to Giulio Mancini, the personal doctor of the Pope - who was also a great art collector and a friend of many painters working in Rome at that time - he told him of his meeting in San Gimignano and of his wish to paint a great Nativity.
His visions were more definite then: the Holy Child was the light itself which illuminated both the setting and the characters surrounding him; the face of the Holy Virgin was no longer disfigured but had a familial expression. One night that face raised her eyes and spoke:
"the vital light you are going to paint one day will be spoilt by a man's hand but it will never fade away, it will be a moral warning and a proof of the double nature of the human beings, a nature which can be destructive and loving at the same time but which can also heal the wounds caused by itself.
He painted his work with firm determination. The different phases are described by Giulio Mancini in his book written about 1620. The famous expert of the time tried to lead us around the mysteries of that work step by step.
" Gherardo (…) adesso conduce una Natività di Nostro Signore che le figure gli piglian il lume da Cristo nato…". (Gherardo is now painting a Natività and his characters are illuminated by the Holy Child). While describing the painting, Mancini lingered on the source of light:
"il bambino deposto sulla paglia illumina la notte in cui sono immersi i personaggi, riflettendosi sui volti dei due angeli e della Madonna che scosta il velo dal Bambino, sul quale si china con affetto e venerazione. E' attraverso lo sguardo adorante della Madonna che offre Gesù alla vista dell'universo, che noi, spettatori della scena, comprendiamo la potenza e la bellezza dell'accaduto" (the child lying on the straw illuminates darkness which surrounds the other characters; it reflects on the face of the two angels and on the Holy Virgin who gently moves the veil from the child while looking at him with love and veneration. The worshipping eyes of the Madonna, who is offering Jesus to the sight of the universe, reveal us the power and beauty of what is happening) Adorazione dei pastori (Shepherd's Adoration) - this was the title of the painting - was Gherardo's last Roman work before his sudden departure to Utrecht, where he was born.
The letters written by Piero Guicciardini in 1620 where he orderd his banker to pay the whole amount for the painting are the last certain element which proves that Gherardo was in Rome.
Antonio Natali in his book " Gherardo delle Notti, lacerti lirici" tried to describe the impressions of those who saw the painting set in the chancel of the Chapel of Santa Felicita in Florence: " Adorazione dei pastori a 'lume di notte', dunque; solo che qui a far 'lumè non è, come nell'invenzione del Pontormo per il "priore" del Galluzzo, la lanterna tenuta in mano da Giuseppe. Qui la luce è quella del Verbo incarnato. La luce cantata nel Prologo del Vangelo di Giovanni. La luce ch'è scesa in mezzo agli uomini: quella che gli uomini non capirono, preferendo rimanere nelle tenebre. Ma i pastori, quantunque umilissimi e ignari, accolsero senza indugio l'invito degli angeli a recarsi sul luogo della natività; e con la sapienza del cuore, che solo la Grazia è capace d'infondere, accolsero la novella d'un re nato nella povertà. Sui loro volti, difatti, nell'Adorazione di Gherardo, si riflette decisa e netta la luce che promanava proprio dal corpicino di Cristo: la Grazia li tocca; e loro, subito, credono. Lo stesso, a maggior ragione, càpita nel quadro a Maria e Giuseppe, che nella solitudine avevano accettato il peso d'un mistero, per entrambi, ancor più ostico.
(in this painting there is the light of the Word - the same as we read in the Prologue of St. John's Gospel. This is the light which men could not understand preferring to remain in the dark. But the humble shepherds welcomed the angel's request to go to the place where Jesus was born, They welcomed and accepted the idea of a king who was born in poverty. On their faces the clear light coming from Jesus body reflects: God's Love touched them and they immediately believed. The same happened to Mary and Josef who in their solitude had accepted the weight of a mystery difficult to understand for both of them.

In 1836, two centuries after the work had been set in the chapel of Santa Felicita, the director of the Uffizi Gallery, Ramirez di Montalvo, asked for the Adorazione dei pastori by Gherardo delle Notti to place it at the Uffizi. There are some documents which give evidence of the different steps of the purchase held by the person in charge of the Amministrazione Granducale from the Guicciardini Family.
From the second half of the nineteenth century the large painting became property of the Uffizzi Gallery which paid a large amount of money to purchase it. It remained there till 1993, just opposite the window which opened on Via dei Georgofili, the street where an evil plan of the Mafia brought destruction, pain and despair; the furious wind of an explosion broke over the painting almost destroying it. It was the night of May 27th 1993.
On the following day, in the morning, the painting was laid as a mortal remain and packed. The transparent panel revealed confused figures and traces of colours which were to be restored. The restoration of the painting seemed a moral duty to help keep the memory of those tragic events for the future generations ("the vital light you are going to paint one day will be spoilt by a man's hand but it will never fade away, it will be a moral warning and a proof of the double nature of the human being, which is destructive and loving at the same time, which can heal the wounds caused by itself"
During the following months many restorers of different generations worked together to recuperate the damaged painting. Once they established a restoration was possible, even if a partial one, they unanimously decided that the future location of the painting was to be the original place: the main chapel of Santa Felicita ( "Every work has it place and every man his fate"), where Piero Guicciardini wanted it to be placed, trusting a young Dutch painter who made of his vision a prophetic master piece and a thought of love.

This is one of the many tales which belongs to the myth of the Locanda as it was told to the Viani family on the day they bought this house in 1968. The people who stayed in this house left here a piece of their hearts; at the same time, this place often worked small miracles in the lives of the persons who stayed here. This is the reason why we decided to run the Locanda and continue the long-lasting tradition of this house, which has welcomed and is still welcoming with devotion all the guests who want to spend their holidays in this unspoilt peaceful paradise.

Today the painter Roberto Viani, his wife Paola and his son Cesare make their splendid Locanda available to those people who wish to discover places and traditions of their beloved Tuscany with the help of a good friend on the spot.