Monday, July 6, 2009

San Gimignano | The medieval laundromat

Imagine you live in a town of a few thousand people, located on a hilltop, encircled by walls and miles distant from the nearest river. Include in your imaginings that there is neither electricity nor plumbing, your only vehicle is a beast of burden and, if you're lucky, a cart, and that you live in a strange tower hundreds of feet high with an interior space of at most 30 square feet, no windows, no toilets, no running water.

Where would you do your laundry?

That accurately describes life in San Gimignano between the eleventh century, when the home of choice was a tall, narrow tower, to the end of the 14th century when, decimated by the Black Plague, the city was annexed by the Florentines and its independent existence effectively ended.

There was, of course, a solution to the laundry problem, a solution so enchanting that it belongs in a fairytale.

The solution is known as the Fonti Medievale, the medieval springs. To get there you exit the city through the Porta delle Fonti and head downhill.

Here the city built a series of arcaded pools in a cool spring-fed grotto.

In my imagination it is not all that different then from today.

It is a hot summer day; the hills are green. The air smells green. Across from the Fonti is the biggest fig tree I have ever seen, covered with figs still too small to eat, and creating dark bowers of shade. Further down the hill are berry bushes.

The unpaved path from the Fonti leads through gently sloping vineyards and scrub-covered hillsides into a valley between these hills and a the next range. The ranges recede in the humid summer mist like waves on the sea. Distant thunder rumbles occasionally, but there is no other sound outside of the buzz of bees and the soft burbling of water.

Three women, who appear to be French school teachers, come, admire, take pictures, and leave to do the walk around the city walls. The fonti are deserted, except for the golden orange fish that swim there now.

I imagine that in 1330, when the frescoes in the Duomo were being painted, it was a different scene. Women gathered around the Fonti to wash their laundry and, probably, themselves. The may have let the clothes soak in the pools while they sat under the fig tree eating ripe figs and drinking spring water or, perhaps, cool white wine.

They gossip and sing, washing their clothes and rinsing them, wringing them as dry as possible. Then they spread them out on the low bushes or hang them from the outer branches of the trees so that they are dry in less than two hours in the heat of the mid-day sun.

Winter was a different story, but I would venture that a lot more laundry was done in summer than in winter.

When the sun passes into the western sky, casting shadows over the hillside, they would take down the dry laundry and fold it, and load in onto their donkey, or into the sacks they may have tied to their own backs, and trudged back uphill toward the Porta delle Fonti.


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