Taking to the Hills

Archaeologists in Italy are uncovering fascinating evidence about the origins of Italy’s medieval hilltop villages to create a new and compelling picture of the circumstances that brought them into being, says Richard Hodges.

San Gimignano, with its forest of pencil-thin Romanesque towers dominating a fortified hilltop, is a famous emblem of Italy’s medieval past, but it is only one of thousands of hilltop villages that extend from the Alps to Sicily. The question often asked is why on earth did medieval Italians choose to live on the top of a hill, however spectacular the view, when the Romans had lived in the valleys?


Over the past twenty-five years the study of medieval archaeology has prospered in Italy as, backed by a campaign led by the journal Archeologia Medievale, numerous towns and regions up and down the peninsula have raised funds to uncover evidence of their medieval past. A planned extension to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki was recently mothballed by the Minister of Culture not for financial reasons but, as he announced in a press release, because it jeopardized important medieval archaeological investigations. The controversy created by the Uffizi decision, however, pales by comparison with the ceaseless stream of conferences and books devoted to pinpointing the origins of Italy’s hilltop villages.


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