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A visit to San Gimignano

Once an ancient Etruscan settlement, San Gimignano's first walls were erected much later, in 998 AD. It became one of Italy's smaller city-statues in the 12th century.

Featured in fictional form in E.M Forster's 1905 novel Where Angels Fear to Tread, this Tuscany town provides the perfect backdrop for a modern visit as well. Situated roughly halfway between Florence and Siena, San Gimignano is the perfect place to stop and see some sights, not least of which are the famed towers.

Many of the medieval towers that dot the landscape throughout this region have been lost to wars, construction projects and other changes. Here, they form the centerpiece of one of Tuscany's most unusual offerings. Fourteen remain from the 72 originally commissioned and each one is a unique work of art.

The Communal Palace is another of San Gimignano's outstanding offerings. Home of the Town Gallery it houses works by Filippino Lippi, Pier Francesco Fiorentino and others. From Dante's Hall it's a short walk to the fresco by Lippo Memmi. Not much further is the Torre del Podestà, a full 54 meters (177 feet) high.

There is a small Archaeological Museum featuring a variety of fascinating objects. Artifacts housed here display the full history of the town from its Etruscan origins through the Roman period and up to the Medieval period that gave the town its current appearance.

The Sacred Art Museum houses art and artifacts from many of the regions's churches and includes paintings, silverware, terracotta and many fine funeral monuments.

There's even a small collection of modern and contemporary art on view at the Gallery Raffaele De Grada. Drawing from recent decades, it houses many of the current art works important to the town. It also organizes art events throughout the year.

From the center of town walkers have easy access to the four main public squares: Piazza delle Erbe, Piazza Pecori, Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza del Duomo where the Collegiata is located. Any direction you care to go, you're sure to see something of interest.

Head to the outskirts and you'll find one of the best views of the many towers. With binoculars it's easy to spot many of the fine details, while from a vantage point on one of the many hills you can take in the breathtaking view. It's no accident that many professional photos of Tuscany are taken from this area.

A little farther out lie some of the area's best wineries. The white Vernaccia di San Gimignano is grown here. At different times of the year, usually in the summer, it's possible to sample some of the excellent vintage.

Though not the most well known location among those seeking a tour of Tuscany, San Gimignano is not only a convenient rest stop, but provides outstanding things to see and do all its own.

Medieval Torture Museum of San Gimignano

Tuscany is filled with both man-made and natural beauty from the Middle Ages. That makes it hard to conceive of some of the more grisly things that were common during the period. The Museo della Tortura in San Gimignano will provide visitors with a look into just what some of those were.

Ironically, housed inside the Torre del Diavolo (The Devil's Tower) located in the Piazza della Cisterna, the museum has over 100 items on display. It opened in 1992 and since then has been making visitors' skins crawl ever since. A brief survey of some of those items makes it easy to see why.

Mask of Infamy

One of the less severe punishments of the time, iron masks sported a pig's snout or other animal appearance. Effects could range from hot and uncomfortable to excruciating (with the addition of inner spikes). An iron ball was often part of the mechanism, which would be forced into the person's mouth to prevent screaming.

The Heretic's Fork

A common part of the Inquisition priest's toolkit, this iron rod had forked tines at both ends. A collar secured the device to the neck and the forks made contact under the chin and on the chest. Since they didn't penetrate vital organs, the severe pain could last for hours.

Cat's Paws

Like their natural counterpart, these iron claws shredded flesh. Prisoners had their hands tied together and were often suspended from ropes. Torturers would then scrape the back, chest, legs and other areas. The pain alone was enough to cause most to faint and death often resulted from bleeding.

The Garotte

Though the modern term refers to a thin wire used to slice neck arteries with a squeeze, the medieval form was cruder and slower. A pole was driven into the ground and a rope tied around the victim's neck. Often a short stick or rod was used to tighten the rope at whatever pace was desired. Asphyxiation was only one possible problem. The spinal cord was often crushed. Pain and death could be slow in coming or over in a moment.

The Saw

A multi-purpose tool, the serrated saw could be used to hack off limbs or merely make cuts. But commonly, the unfortunate object of the torture was hung upside down by the legs and the body sawed in half, starting at the groin. One could only hope the femoral artery was severed quickly, bringing an end to consciousness.

The Iron Maiden

Far from the gentle image the name might suggest, this large sarcophagus tortured in multiple ways. The hapless human was placed inside a full-sized 'mummy' enclosure that just happened to have spikes embedded in the interior. Closing the lid might be thought to bring instant death. But the diabolically clever designers made sure the spikes only penetrated a little way. Victims might die of heat stroke before the pin-cushion effect drew enough blood to end his or her misery.

Not for the squeamish, the euphemistically alternately-named Museum of Medieval Criminology, provides a grim look into the not-so-distant past. Many of the instruments on display were in use as late as the 19th century.