Even before 1095, pilgrimages to Jerusalem and holy sites in Europe were central phenomena to medieval Christianity. Springing from the intense physicality of medieval religious practice (from whence the cult of relics also arose), a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was the considered one the ultimate expressions of one’s faith – especially since such an undertaking in that time was incredibly costly and dangerous. The possibility of martyrdom along the route was ever-present, especially in lands controlled by Muslim powers, and the rigors of the journey were often viewed as a means of extreme penance for past sins. However, until 1095, only a select few even possessed the means and ability to undergo such a trek and the few who had (and who had returned) were well known all across Christendom – like Duke Robert “the Frisian,” father of First Crusade leader Robert of Flanders and even Robert of Normandy, father of William the Conqueror. With the birth of the Crusades in 1095, the idea of a mass “fighting pilgrimage” came into being that enabled the participation of every class and social rank in Europe.
However, the various crusades often followed those same routes used by individual pilgrims long before. One of the most principal can be found running down from Northern Italy and through the hills of Tuscany on its way to Rome, called the Via Francigena (literally, the “road from France”).
Although no exact date of origin is known, various surviving pilgrim itineraries suggest that the road had been in use from a very early date – like the incredibly detailed account of Sigeric the Serious, who traveled along the route to receive his pallium as the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury from Rome in the late 10th Century. The Via Francigena witnessed an explosion of traffic during the crusading period and relics of the crusades can be found scattered all over the Tuscan countryside if one looks hard enough.
Within the great city of Florence herself, there is not much to be found of the Crusades on the surface. Florence during the crusades was initially not much of a major settlement and it wouldn’t be until the mid-13th Century when that city would experience the cultural and artistic flowering that would culminate into the Italian Renaissance of the 14th and 15th Centuries. However, many scholars have rightly linked many of the great advances in art and architecture seen in Italy to the cultural exchanges with the East afforded by the Crusades. The relics of Classical culture preserved by the Byzantine Empire witnessed by the crusaders and the merchantmen that followed them were perhaps the primary influence on the Italian masters of the early Renaissance. Much of this Eastern influence can readily be seen in the great churches and art galleries of Florence.
|Ceiling mosaic inside the Baptistery of Santa Maria della Fiore ("Il Duomo") exhibiting heavy Byzantine influences.|
|Detail from the Baptistery ceiling portraying two angels wearing distinct Eastern Roman military garb.|
In between Florence and Siena lies the small walled town of San Gimignano. Dating from sometime in the early 11th Century, the settlement constituted one of the major stops along the pilgrims’ road through Tuscany. During the Crusades, it also played host to a considerable presence of the Knights Templar. Founded by returning veterans of the First Crusade, several commanderies and chapels sprang up all over the area, to include the church of San Jacopo and a small commandery within the town itself. Today, all that remains of the Templar commandery within San Gimignano is the façade featuring a Templar cross and other carvings that suggest 12th Century origins at the latest.
|Other than the façade, the rest of the structure was either demolished or repurposed during the early modern era. It is now the site of a wine and cheese shop. The owners knew almost nothing about the history of the structure surprisingly.|
The Templars also maintained a much larger headquarters at the Castello della Maggione in the nearby town of Poggibonsi, now the headquarters of an international lay Catholic apostolate, the Militia Templi, who seek to pay homage to the spirit of the original Templar Order. In 1312 after the papal dissolution of the Templars, most of these facilities were transferred over to the Knights Hospitaller and that Order maintained a considerable presence in the region even into the modern era. Tombs of brother-knights and prominent benefactors of the Hospitallers can be found all over Tuscany, to include in Florence herself.
|Tomb of a "Nicholai Bindi" (d. 1333) in the crypt of the Duomo - the shield may indicate membership in the Hospitallers. However, I couldn't find any sources to confirm this.|
|Hospitaller (Knights of Malta) church in Florence built in the 1600s. Quite fitting, this church is now the chapel for the nearby Italian Army hospital.|
Further south towards Siena is the imposing fortress of Monteriggioni. Although records suggest the presence of fortifications on the site well beforehand, the current structure dates from the late 13th Century and served as a border fortress for Siena against their aggressively expanding Florentine neighbors. Sitting atop its hill, the fortress was unique in its circular design and unusually tall towers.
Apparently, it made such an impression when it was built that Dante even mentioned it in his Inferno, comparing its towers to the giants guarding the edge of the Abyss in Hell:
“As with circling round
Of turrets, Monteriggioni crowns his walls;
E’en thus the shore, encompassing the abyss,
Was turreted with giants, half their length …”
(Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XXXI, 40-45, trans. Henry Francis Cary)
Although the fortress had very little to do with the Crusades, it is a great example of the sort of fortifications that existed along the famous pilgrimage routes of Italy and the Mediterranean that crusading pilgrims would most definitely have encountered. Sadly, the inside is wholly devoted to the modern tourist industry, filled with shops peddling kitschy souvenirs to people whose only knowledge of medieval Italy comes from Dan Brown and the Assassin’s Creed series.
As with all pilgrims passing through, I am on to the Eternal City next. Stay tuned and Deus vult.