In the middle of the Tuscan countryside, perched on a hill (as are so many Tuscan villages) is the town of San Gimignano. In the thirteenth century, San Gimignano underwent a spurt of economic growth, leaving the major families in the town with the age-old question of how to outdo the next-door neighbors. In our day this is often solved by having a less fuel-efficient car, but in thirteenth-century Tuscany it came down to who had the biggest tower.

San Gimignano was not the only town to experience this tower-building frenzy − notably, Bologna, which is not all that far to the north, underwent a similar architectural fish-slapping dance of vertical one-upmanship, but San Gimignano is far smaller and whereas Bologna has grown substantially through the ages, the thirteenth century was pretty much the apogee of Gimignanese expansion, meaning that the town hasn’t changed all that much since.

This is a very good thing for tourists, because not only is San Gimignano an almost perfectly preserved example of a medieval Italian town, it is also studded with a bunch of inordinately high towers that serve no purpose whatsoever beyond making the town look something like a hedgehog from afar.

Up close, these towers, and pretty much all of the other buildings in the town, display their antiquity with tired pride; their stone is pitted with the ages, birds and clumps of grass live in the holes. Everything is made stone or very old brick (the Roman kind: tiny bricks whose edges have worn away). All of this is capped by those wonderfully large Tuscan eaves with their sculpted beams holding up red terra cotta tile. The streets that wind through all this are miniscule and irregular and paved with stone; some of them are so small and steep that not only could a car never pass, but neither could the morbidly obese (when does obesity become morbid, and what exactly does that mean, anyway?). The streets have a tendency to wind into one of two major piazze: the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazze del Cisterno. The latter centers on an ancient well. There is a metal cap on the well, beneath a grill of some sort, and the metal cap is covered in coins (why do people throw coins into anything vaguely resembling a fountain? I’m sure I could look this up, but it is one of those questions I just like to ask myself. In this particular case, there’s no chance their coins could actually end up in the water, what with the metal cap, but they pitch them in anyway). The streets are lined with shops and restaurants and the typical kinds of places one sees in towns that live almost exclusively by the tourist trade, but they are relatively classy (for the most part) and a stroll along them in summer will provide an afternoon well spent.

And, of course, towering over it all are those towers. There are…many of them (sorry, I forgot to count) and if you stop to think, it can hardly help but seem silly. Showing off is one thing, but stuffing a relatively small town full of totally useless structures is going a bit far. Their builders couldn’t even use these towers (don’t forget that this was way before elevators) and while one or two towers could perhaps be justified to keep a look out for wandering meanies, turning the whole town into a kind of sea urchin is absurd.

It is also impossible to miss the extremely phallic nature of this architectural fad. One can easily imagine a bunch of medieval Italian men standing around in those ridiculous hats and those stupid curly shoes, bending backwards to check the relative heights of their towers, an expression of concern on their faces as they realize that the new tower being erected by the head of the Siffredi clan is going to be way bigger than theirs. One can hardly help but wonder whether there wasn’t a certain degree of compensation going on (my teenage sons having recently pointed out to me, after seeing the statues in Florence, that renaissance men were apparently better endowed in talent than in the more physical aspects of masculinity), but either way, the whole tower-erecting thing of San Gimignano was undoubtedly an entirely masculine endeavor.

I would therefore assume that San Gimignano is a relatively frustrating place to live if you happen to be a feminist. Imagine: there you are, surrounded by all these monstrous surrogate penises, crawling around like an ant beneath them. It may be for this reason that the woman who wrote the descriptions at the museum of torture felt compelled to react to this whole male domination thing.

The Museum of Torture is near the Piazza del Cisterno. It touts itself as one of the first and most highly respected museums of torture in…well it doesn’t really say, but let’s face it, there are lots of museums of torture. Just about any city in Europe that has something medieval about it has a torture museum, where people flock to see the instruments and explanations of human cruelty and gore for essentially the same reasons that the Romans used to flock to the Arena. Or so I imagine. Anyway, I can’t really judge the relative merits of San Gimignano’s torture museum, as I’ve never been to another, but I was in the town with my sons, who had already put up with a few art museums over the previous few days (this included dogging my heels as I scurried around the Uffizi in ecstasy, explaining the history of every damn Roman emperor (their busts line the walls) and bitching about Commodus and Aurelian being out of order) and I knew they would like the torture museum.

Reactions in my family were, however, mixed, with the male representatives being enthusiastic and the sole female voter being far less thrilled. We were not alone in this, as we saw in the book one can sign upon leaving. Comments included:

• “Spooky”
• “We liked it but mom didn’t”
• “Nice, it was fun”
• “Holy crap”
• “The most horrible thing is the list of prisoners executed in the United States”
• “Oh my”
• “Pooooooo”

As well as a number of ruminations on the evil nature of man.

Note that I say the evil nature of man, and not of mankind, since the little notes describing the various exhibits leave no doubt about which of the sexes was at fault. I attribute this at least partly to the scent of ancient testosterone in the air of the town.

As you read these (most are displayed in four languages) you begin to sense a certain slant to them, with phrases like “…male power thus humiliated throughout the centuries women.” Of course, I know that this is largely quite true, but the prose grows increasingly virulent and one gets the distinct impression that it was written by a woman who was sick of being overshadowed by giant penises all day long. For example, in the description of the “Mask of Infamy” one reads:

“…The overwhelming majority of victims were always women. The phrase cited when using this device on them was ‘Let the women be silent in church’, the ‘church’ here meaning the ruling ecclesiastical and secular and in both cases gynaecophobic hierarchy: the sense was thus ‘let the women be silent in the presence of the male’.”

You go, sister! I didn’t even know that gynaecophobic was a word.

Unsurprisingly, this tack is most evident in the description of the pear; a device that was inserted into a bodily orifice and then forced to expand. This was applied to the anus, the mouth, and of course, the vagina. The writer of descriptions here removes any holds that once barred her way:

“Inasmuch as the soul of torture is male, male organs have always enjoyed the benefit of a sort of immunity…and since the soul of torture is male, and in the tenebrosity of his unilluminable nature the male is terrified by the mysteries of the female’s cycles and fecundity, but above all by her inherent intellectual, emotional and sexual superiority, those organs that define her essence have forever been subjected to his most savage ferocity.”

I have no doubt that the facts are sadly true, but I am by no means sufficiently qualified in psychology to comment on the Freudian analysis that goes with it (as a writer, I am less indulgent with the translator’s neo-logistic tendencies, but I’ll cut her (I assume it was translated by a woman as well) a little slack). Suffice it to say, it scared the shit out of me.

I couldn’t help but ask at the front desk who, exactly, had written all this.

“Oh, that was a long time ago. It was a lady who researched all these things.”

“So it was indeed a woman.”


“I assume she is a feminist?”

Pause. “I don’t think I’d call her a feminist, but she did do the research, and it was pretty disturbing research.”

Of that, I’m sure.

One way or another, the men who erected their towering prick symbols all over San Gimignano probably deserve a bit of post-hoc spiritual emasculation. It must be admitted, though, that the lasting result of their masculine insecurity is a stunningly beautiful and thoroughly fascinating little town.