San Giovanni Valdarno
Founded between 1296 and 1300, San Giovanni Valdarno is today one of the main towns at the Arezzo end of the Arno Valley. In spite of its ancient industrial traditions, this town, situated halfway between Florence and Arezzo, near the A1 Valdarno motorway exit, is also a miniature "City of Art", with a rich and significant history. Surrounded by the hills and mountains of Pratomagno and the Chianti, the territory of San Giovanni Valdarno is limited to the area on either side of the bed of the Arno, which flows through the town. The town was founded in the late 13th century when Florence decided to build a castle in the Arno valley, halfway between Figline and Montevarchi. The design of San Giovanni itself is attributed to the famous architect Arnolfo di Cambio who laid it out according to a rational and ordered plan, very different from the spontaneous and disorderly architecture to be found in other mediaeval towns in Tuscany. Immediately surrounded by strong protective walls (traces of which can still be seen today), the Castle was built to defend Florentine interests on its southernmost borders. The fortifications had to repel the attacks of the Ubertini, Ubaldini and Pazzi in as early as 1342. Three years later they had to resist the troups of the powerful Tarlati of Arezzo and then, in 1375, after being reinforced, they again acted as a fortress during the war with Pope Sixtus V; two years later the castle also hosted John Hawkwood or Giovanni Acuto, the famous English general of the Florentine Republic.
In 1427 Castel San Giovanni was formed of 1500 inhabitants, most of them farmers, plus the odd craftsman, a hotel and a brothel. Extremely loyal to the Florentine Republic, it resisted until 1431 when it fell under the attacks of the troups of the Visconti of Milan and again in 1478, when it was subdued by the Papal armies at war with Florence. This year was also marked by a terrible outbreak of the plague that decimated the population. Legend tells us that this was also when Monna Tancia, an old lady of 75, managed, thanks to her fervent prayers to the Virgin Mary, to breastfeed her grandson Lorenzo, whose parents had died of the plague. A tabernacle, later to form the first nucleus of the Basilica of San Giovanni Valdarno, was built in 1484 to mark the place where the old lady worshipped a votive image of the Madonna.
San Giovanni, a Vicariate of the Republic from as early as 1340, continued to enlarge its jurisdiction until 1774. In 1800 it separated from the Florentine Republic to become part of the Province of Arezzo in 1848; it was officially annexed to Arezzo in 1862, in spite of the protests of 484 illustrious citizens of the town who petitioned the king to return San Giovanni to Florence. The old town centre is very attractive. It has maintained its mediaeval village structure, with dark and narrow streets (cut through by charactistic "chiassi" or alleys), that open out unexpectedly into the central squares dedicated to Masaccio and Cavour. The Basilica and the Palazzo d'Arnolfo are situated between these two main squares of the old town centre. Destroyed during the second world war, then restored and rebuilt, the Basilica hosts the important Museum of Santa Maria alle Grazie that contains some extremely valuable 15th-17th century Tuscan works of art, among them a splendid Annunciation by Fra Angelico. The interior of the church contains a glazed terracotta by Giovanni della Robbia, various frescoes (school of Perugino and Florentine school) and the main altar on a design by Bernardo Buontalenti. The beautiful Town Hall or Palazzo d'Arnolfo stands right in the centre of the town, and was, according to Giorgio Vasari, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio though it has been often altered and enlarged. The elements used in the construction of this uniquely beautiful palace, like the tower in the centre of the rear wall, the double row of windows and crown of battlements, are unusual for Tuscany. Its fascination is undoubtedly increased by the many coats of arms of the vicariate (250) that stud the main facade (the oldest is dated 1410, the most recent is of 1772. The entrance hall contains the original statue of the Marzocco, that represents the power of Florence, the seated lion holding up the fleur de lis coat of arms in its paw. The walls are decorated with 15th century frescoes and paintedcoats of arms. Palazzaccio or Palazzo Salviati (14th century) and the Church of San Lorenzo, which dates from before the foundation of Castel San Giovanni, also stand in Piazza Masaccio. The church contains a polyptych of the Coronation of the Virgin by Giovanni del Biondo and several frescoes, among them the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Giovanni Cassai Masaccio's brother, known as "lo Scheggia". Several paintngs from San Lorenzo are now preserved in the Museum of the Basilica. The 14th century Church of San Giovanni Battista instead stands in Piazza Cavour, very near the House of Masaccio in Corso Italia (n° 83), where the great 15th century painter was born and now used for art exhibitions; the house of Giovanni di San Giovanni (n° 105) is a little further on. Several other interesting palaces can be found at numbers 14, 20 e 30: Palazzo Feroni, Panciatichi e Torrini. Passing under the arch of Via Giovanni da San Giovanni, we come to the Church of SS. Annunziata, a jewel of late baroque architecture.