Semproniano in Tuscany looks like any other small quiet Tuscan hill town, but it is home to a monster slaying rector, a miracle that saved its people from a cruel death, and pastel coloured cotton candies. Take a walk inside and you'll follow the footsteps of 29 centuries of feet.
It would be easy to drive past Semproniano. Particularly if the reason for you spotting it in the first place is that you are looking for the route down the hill to the more well known and picturesque tiny borgo of Rochette di Fazio and it's Knights Templar church.
From a distance it looks like so many other of Maremma's towns and villages. Perched on a hill top with a church spire or two reaching skywards and what looks like an old wall here or there.
And it is. Like so many others. Lived in. Loved. And ever so quiet. With everyday rural life in Tuscany going in within and around it. Like it has for centuries.
But, just like its counterparts on other hill tops, that little bit of wall has a story to tell. A story that warrants a stop to touch its stones to listen to the tale.
And because there is a street within those ancient walls that is veritable box of cotton candies. The kind that will drive a photographer nuts trying to capture its contents because you just can't get all of them in shot!
Medieval records dating back to the year 1000, tell us that, along with large parcels of the territory around nearby Monte Amiata, Semproniano was in the hands of Maremma's ruling Aldobrandeschi family. It was known then as Casale Simprunianum.
But there is little doubt that before then it was the Roman town of Gens Sempronia.
And, with an Etruscan farm found just 3 kilometres away near Rocchette di Fazio, there is the distinct possibility that beneath its Roman footings lie Etruscan stone.
Walk then into what seems at first glance an otherwise unremarkable Tuscan hill town and you'll be following the footsteps of 29 centuries of other feet!
Stone steps divide the 13th century Pieve dei Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio church from its (equally 13th century) "Canonica Storica". On the right and left, respectively in the above photograph.
The Pieve dei Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio succeeded Semproniano's earlier Christian church of San Giovanni and remained the parish church until 1969. At twenty-three metres tall, its bell tower (although not looking as it did when it was first built) is the highest in the territory.
The "Canonica Storica" was the rectory that accommodated Diocesan bishops and, apparently according to the information plaque (the town is full of them with interesting tit-bits of information), "eminent personalities" for eight centuries. Right up until 1970.
The Pieve side wall, with what was once an arched entrance blocked-up sometime later with stones.
The street of Via degli Aldobrandeschi with a turn up into Vicolo San Vincenzo.
Continue along Via degli Aldobrandeschi and you will find the old cemetery behind the church. The grassy area through the break in the low wall to your right in the photo. It served Semproniano until May 1775.
There is nothing to see, not even a gravestone. But it kind of makes you wonder who was buried, one on top of the another, under the grass you are walking on. And. In those times, who was refused entry to its tiny enclave.
The 12th century Chiesa di Santa Croce in Piazza Tiberio Gracco, with the bell tower of the Pieve dei Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio poking up on the far left.
Recordedin a "Bolla di Clemente III" - a Papal Bull issued by Pope Clement III - of 5 April 1188, as being the property of San Pietro of Sovana. It was Semproniano's first church.
Its masonry confirms its medieval origins. But what is standing today isn't in its entirety its first construction. For it sits slap right bank next to the entrance to Semproniano's castle. And every time the castle was sacked, it followed the same fate. Looted of anything worth taking and smashed.
But it is for what is inside that it is best known. For there are two objects of interest.
The first is a 17th century painting from the Venetian school that depicts the local legend of the slaying of a monster. The Monster of Vignacci that raged these parts. But in this case it wasn't a brave knight on horseback that did the deed, but the the local rector.
And second, a 12th/13th century (restored in the 18th century) medieval wooden crucifix that is only taken-out into the daylight once in every twenty-five years as part of a solemn celebrations in its honour. Because it saved the town from typhus.
In the year 1882, Semproniano was infested with typhus. Hardly a living soul escaped its claws. Dying and desperate, in a last bid to bring a blessing from God, those that still cling to faith took the crucifix down from the walls of the church and paraded it through the town's streets. The day was 3 May in 1882. And, miraculously, the disease was vanquished.
The church door was locked when I visited, so I didn't get to see it nor the church's tell-tale Sienese Neo-Gothic black and white horizontal striped interior from its 1579 restoration.
But I rather liked the iron decoration of the round window above it's 1893 portal.
The view from Piazza Tiberio Gracco over the town's roof tops.
All the streets - narrow and steep ones at that - in town lead up to its castle.
Thats not it! Up some more steps and you are there.
But there's not much left.
Now some of you might think that adding a photo of a wall like this one might be a tad boring, but those of you who know me well from reading other pages in my guide will know that I have a passion for castles. The less lived in or pristine, the better. And love to touch the stones of their walls. Stones that hold the stories of turbulent centuries. The secrets of the men, women and children living within and without them. Their lives played out in the very places that I stand today.
And this wall has no less to tell than one that still stands as tall as the day it was built. For it is all that survived invasion after invasion. Siege after siege.
The first fortification was built around the 10th century at the very top of Casale Semproniano.
Ruled for two centuries by the Aldobrandeschi family, by the year 1200 it has passed to the control of the Contea of Santa Fiora.
Invaded by Imperial troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, between the years 1240 and 1251, it subsequently passed under the domain of the city of Orvieto.
In 1274 it was assigned back to the properties of the Count of Santa Fiora. But 17 years later, in 1291, it was divvied up and part went to the Sienese Cacciaconti family.
1331 saw it occupied by Sienese troops under the command of one Guido Riccio of Fogliano. From which time all of it - Maremma's castles had a habit of being part-owned, sometimes with more than two part shares - it became the full property of the Republic of Siena.
The subsequent years see Maremma rife with battles between the Republic and the Orsini Counts of Pitigliano. In 1411, during just one such battle between the two at Semproniano, Sienese troops set fire to the Rocca. And devastated the town. So much so that the Republic, disapproving of the atrocity, set out to put things right. And renovated the Rocca.
The local people then cut all ties with the Orsini family, and threw its remaining followers out once and for all.
But then the worst came.
Spanish mercenaries of King Charles V, on sorties in Sienese territory, ruthlessly sacked it and reduced it to ruin. The year was 1536.
But this part of the wall stood strong. And was left as you see it today. Probably considered as not worthy of further effort. For what could the remaining living souls do with just a few feet of stone to protect them.
Today it embraces a second piazza with a view.
Built as an elliptical structure, nowadays the majority of the remaining part isn't immediately visible as you walk around the exterior of the town.
But it is if you start at the Rocca to get your eye in, and follow the original line around the top of the hill. And then trace each concentric, overlapping, semi-circle within.
For, as Semproniano expanded, houses and buildings were built crammed within its protection until the point where, to continue to do do, they had to incorporate the wall into their structures. Most often choosing to use the wall as their external supporting wall.
And then a further ring of buildings and arched entrances - the "le porte" - were added around them.
Look for the really thick - OK most medieval stone walls are I know - walls along the paved streets that are at an oblique angle. With doorways cut into them.
On the right through the archway under the stairs, is the unimposing Casa del Comune. The Town Hall. Built by the Aldobrandeschi family, it was destroyed in the Republic of Siena siege of 1410. But was rebuilt by victors of another siege in 1474.
In 1526 it was given an arched stone doorway, and continued to be the seat of authority until 1718, when it had to concede its role to that of the much grander Palazzo Piccolomini in Pretoria.
It still has its three doors in and out.
The street leading to the "Casa del Vicario". Believed to be - from the Florentine lily carved in one of its portal stones - the 1565 residence of the Medici family vicar.
The entrance door isn't a grand, main street affair, but is tucked away at the top of the stairs on the right under the arch.
And then something in Semproniano happens. In Via Piana.
It starts subtly with beautiful patina's of weathered colours. And then turns into a veritable bouquet of freshly painted for spring frontages.
Don't you just love the everyday details of life in Italy?
A "new" window.
The archway to the left after the blue palazzo, takes you into Via degli Orti and through its "porta".
Until between the 17th and 18th centuries, there were only two entrances into town. This one, the low arched Porta degli Orti. And Porta Nuova (the "new" - 15th century - entrance) on the other side of town.
Porta degli Orti is the only one to have survived.
You'll find a plaque on the wall, in appropriately named Via Porta Nuova, where Porta Nuova once stood.
But don't miss the opportunity to walk through this "tunnel" to get a sense of what it would have been like arriving at Semproniano for the first time. Entering within its walls through here. Crammed no doubt with traders and eyes watching your approach.
Just around the corner, another way into town under another palazzo.
And another. These were the ones cut through the wall around the 17th and 18th centuries.
In this one it was the two handmade ladders that caught my eye. Chained-up, high under the arch. Handmade from split branches, they are a rare sight these days.
The missing house. Just two chairs stacked where its front door would have been, ready notwithstanding, for a chat and a gossip.
More candy floss.
If you are looking for a place to stay in or near Semproniano then you couldn't be in a better position because it happens to be home to one of the very best hotels in Maremma. Angela and Enrico's Locanda la Pieve hotel, and home.
With a street entrance that belies its roomy, light-filled inside and a welcome and hospitality second to none. You'll try to work out over your first dinner there how it was that fate got you to book there in the first place.
And you'll return, because one stay just isn't enough.
There are many places to visit nearby. And one, a walk away, down a lane that takes you into the Albegna valley, is the borgo of Rocchette di Fazio. It's one not to miss in Maremma.
Especially. Oh, especially if the legends of the Templar Knights have ever caught your imagination. Because they were there.
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