Through the pages of Tuscany
Siena's Basilica of San Domenico houses the partial remains and relics of the city's patron saint Catherine. (BBC)
Because Tuscany is a treasure trove of fine art, breathtaking architecture, savoury food and world renowned wine, travellers to the central Italian region often overlook its rich literary history. Yet for any lover of great poetry and prose -- particularly writers like Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante -- Tuscany is also the muse that inspired some of the writers’ greatest works.
Begin in Arezzo, birthplace to Francesco Petrarca (born 1304), the father of the sonnet. In his letter, To Posterity, the Renaissance master (commonly known as Petrarch) calls Arezzo the place where he “first saw the light”. Casa del Petrarca is a small museum built over medieval remnants that are thought to be Petrarch’s birthplace. It is also home to the Accadémia Petrarca di Léttere, Arti e Scienze, a research library of more than 15,000 works dating back to the 14th Century, including Petrarch’s scrolls and manuscripts. Close by is the Passeggio il Prato (Prato Gardens), Arezzo’s oldest and largest park, an idyllic setting for the city’s only monument to Petrarch, a white marble statue created by sculptor Alessandro Lazzerini. The writer stands tall, with Roma's she-wolf feeding Romolo and Remo at his feet, a visual representation of the myth of Rome’s founding and a reminder that Petrarch received his prestigious poet laureate award there in 1341.
Two of Petrarch‘s sonnets, Canzoniere CXLV and CLIX (the former about one’s desire to rest in nature and the latter, a reflection on the beauty of a woman) may have inspired Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Bring both sonnets to read as you visit the Ponte Buriano and Penna nature reserve. The Ponte Buriano bridge along the River Arno is thought to be in the painting’s background.
The charming small town of Certaldo designates itself (despite some scholarly dispute) as the birthplace of Renaissance writer Giovanni Boccaccio (born 1313), author of The Decameron. It is also where Boccaccio spent the last 13 years of his life. The walled area of Certaldo Alto, only reachable by foot or funicular rail, still maintains its medieval character, with terracotta brick buildings, narrow streets and churches dating back to the 11th Century. Start your tour with a walk along Via Boccaccio and visit the Casa del Boccaccio, a museum with a library of nearly 3,500 volumes, including numerous foreign translations of his major and minor works, among them Famous Women and The Decameron. It is the latter -- 100 tales told by 10 Florentines who escaped the city’s bubonic plague and settled in the countryside of Fiesole -- that most consider Boccaccio’s masterpiece.
Pack a copy of Boccaccio’s The Eaten Heart: Unlikely Tales of Love, a slimmed down collection of The Decameron (10 stories as opposed to 100, all with a focus on love’s many incarnations, from the innocent to the raunchy) and read the selection Sowing the Seeds of Love over a delicious Tuscan dinner at Osteria del Vicario. Like the setting of this tale, the restaurant is located in a medieval monastery. It is also adjacent to Boccaccio’s house.
If you travel in the summer, visit Certaldo during Mercantia, a mind blowing Renaissance festival with street performers, visual artists, heart-pumping music, Italian street food and colourful crafts. The town comes alive in a way that truly reflects the vigorous spirit, daring mischief and seductive creativity of the Tuscan people, which Boccaccio captured so well in his work.
The walled town of San Gimignano is best known for its 14 amazingly preserved medieval towers and many churches. Less known, is that it is also the world’s only producer of the white wine Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a drink so enticing and captivating it led Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (nephew to the more famous, painter Michelangelo) to write in 1643 that “it kisses, licks, bites and stings”. Even Dante refers to Vernaccia in his Divine Comedy (Purgatorio XXIV) as attributing to Pope Martin IV’s gluttony. While the Pope enjoyed endless portions of eels marinated in the wine, you can drink yours straight. Have a glass at the Hotel Bel Soggiorno restaurant, which overlooks the region’s rolling vineyards and valleys. British author EM Forester wrote that San Gimignano’s hilltops and towers allow you to see “half of Tuscany steeped in sunlight”. He then set his novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, in a fictionalized version of the town.