By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

The main claim to fame of Colle di Val d’Elsa, 9 miles south-east of San Gimignano, is as the birthplace of architect Arnolfo di Cambio. Born around 1245, Arnolfo built Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, started work on its massive cathedral and had a hand in several other Gothic buildings around Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio, before his death sometime in the early 1300s. 

The town is clearly divided between Colle Alta (“High Colle”) — the original medieval buildings — and newer Colle Bassa (“Low Colle”), strung around the base of Colle Alta’s long-inhabited rocky outcrop. A transparent lift runs between the two, via an ancient tunnel through the rock.

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In the Beginning...

Arnolfo’s (probable) birthplace is still standing. It’s said to be the Torre di Arnolfo, in the oldest part of Colle Alta, the Castello neighbourhood — now a tiny, tight-packed cluster of medieval lanes. The simplest way into Castello crosses the bridge from Borgo Santa Caterina (once a separate village, now joined to Colle Alta) and through a gate built into the Palazzo Campana (1539).

A couple of decades after Arnolfo’s birth, Colle Alta provided refuge for locals during the 1269 Battle of Colle Val d’Elsa. A small Guelph army holed up here defeated Siena’s massed Ghibelline forces, revenge for a catastrophic Florentine/Guelph defeat at Montaperti 9 years earlier.

Colle has a long tradition of craftsmanship, and was nicknamed Città di Cristallo (“city of crystal”) for its many glassworks 

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Also in Colle Alta is Santa Maria in Canonica, an intimate, single-nave church that dates at least to 1184. A golden Gothic panel, complete with intact predella, by Pier Francesco Fiorentino stands on its simple altar.

Colle’s nearby Duomo is a total contrast: light and airy, with tall interior arcades and a high altar Crucifix by Mannerist sculptor Giambologna and his assistant, Pietro Tacca.

The archaeological collection at Colle’s Museo Archeologico Bandinelli is slightly lower-key, but has Etruscan finds from the area, including some of the most significant tomb discoveries in Tuscany.

In 2017, the Museo di San Pietro reopened after a 2-decade closure. Its revamped collection tells the story of the town’s turbulent history, spiritual traditions and artisan heritage.

The architectural highlight of Colle Bassa is an extraordinary red-steel structure by Giovanni Michelucci. This branch of Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank was built over the site of a woollen mill. (Michelucci is probably best known as the architect of Florence’s modernist Santa Maria Novella railway station.)

Out of Town: Certaldo

Certaldo, 14 miles north-west of Colle, is best known as the home (for some of his life) of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75). The “Tuscan Chaucer” is best known for “The Decameron”, a collection of stories still read today as an example of medieval humour, allegorical storytelling and the simple joy of a good yarn. Alongside Dante and Petrarch, Boccaccio completes a trio of great Tuscan early writers.

His former home (probably), the Casa del Boccaccio, is preserved as a museum and study centre dedicated to Boccaccio’s life and writings.

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Colle has a long tradition of craftsmanship. It was nicknamed Città di Cristallo (“city of crystal”) for its many glassworks, and is still a major source of Italian crystal (glass mixed with lead oxide). Installed in an abandoned underground furnace from the 18th century, the Museo del Cristallo recounts Colle’s glassmaking history via a host of close-up and tactile exhibits.

One of Tuscany’s best contemporary ceramics workshops is in Colle Alta: Manufactum. Everything on the shelves — crockery, tiles, condiment pots, jugs, and more — is hand-thrown and crafted on the premises.

Three Excursions from Colle Val d’Elsa

  • Monteriggioni: its perfect ring of medieval walls and towers got a mention in Dante’s “Inferno”, and they’re still standing 
  • San Gimignano: another preserved medieval town, with hidden alleys, Gothic towers and Renaissance frescoes, plus one of Tuscany’s great ice-cream artisans
  • Castellina in Chianti: the unofficial capital of the Sienese Chianti was fortified by Florentines — like Colle — and has a surviving Etruscan burial mound and an underground street you can walk along

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